It’s been well established here on this blog that I’m a music fan—a metalhead, first and foremost. But I am just as comfortable listening to Elvis Presley or Grace VanderWaal or Willie Nelson as I am in cranking up albums from Iron Maiden or Metallica or Megadeth.
It is my belief that music is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us humans. And I’m not just talking about gospel music either. All good music comes from the soul—be it gospel, country, classical, pop, or, yes, even metal. Music is the communicating of feelings. Songs are so often linked to times and places from our past. Certain songs can bring back a loved one we’ve lost years ago. My father visits my memories whenever I play the music of Bob Seger. An old girlfriend is sitting right beside me again during certain Led Zeppelin songs.
Music tells stories. It expresses love and hate and anger and frustration and lust and contentment—often within the very same rhythm. It becomes what the listener needs it to be in any given moment.
On October 6, 2020, the world lost one of the most gifted musicians to ever play guitar. Of course, I’m talking about Edward Van Halen. His is a particularly difficult loss to fathom for those of us old enough to recall the release of that first Van Halen album. 1978 became that timeline between what came before and what followed. Van Halen changed everything—and that’s not hyperbole.
There were plenty of creative and extraordinary guitarists before the world ever heard of Edward Van Halen. Jimi Hendrix changed ideas of what a guitar could be within the confines of rock music. Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Richie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, and Robin Trower—these are just a few of the genius players whose fingerprints are all over the rock music landscape. But everything changed upon the arrival of Van Halen’s debut album on February 10, 1978.
Since my earliest memories, music has always been a huge part of my life. Originally it was the music of my parents that lured me in, showed me this incredible notion of sound that makes a body want to—need to—move. My father introduced my ears to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Bob Seger. My mother brought along Loretta Lynn and Bobby Bare and Tanya Tucker. Both parents are responsible for my love of 1950s rock and roll—Elvis, Buddy Holly, Dion, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. And I cannot forget my babysitters who shared the whole Motown experience with me.
By the mid-1970s, I began to lean toward the harder rocking stuff—the Beatles and the Stones and the Who produced the first albums I bought with my own allowance. Then came Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and Aerosmith. Throw in some Queen and KISS, and all is good. And it was actually KISS that afforded me a copy of that first Van Halen album. I traded the KISS Destroyer album for Van Halen.
The first Van Halen album wasn’t just a collection of songs by a new rock band. It was a whole new sound. It represented change, a major shift. Most of the bands that followed owe a thousand debts to Van Halen. That the album itself still sounds fresh and exciting forty-two years later says more than mere words could ever convey.
Edward Van Halen influenced a whole generation of guitar players in the same way Hendrix had done years earlier. A self-taught player, Van Halen learned from practice and experimentation. He was a tone chaser—he modified, designed, and/or built most of his own equipment, including his guitars and amps. He understood the instrument in ways that many guitarists—even the great ones—never fully conceive. His guitar became an extension of his own body. A cliché, sure—but nonetheless true.
Van Halen changed the musical landscape in an instant—the way the Beatles had in 1964 or Nirvana in 1991. Suddenly, nobody wanted to be the next Eric Clapton anymore. Clapton wasn’t tapping or doing hammer-ons and pull-offs. Neither did he play those thick and meaty riffs that populated the Van Halen sound. And that’s not a disrespect to the legend of Clapton, either.
This isn’t an article about the history of Van Halen. Most people already know the stories of drug and alcohol excess, of in-fighting that tore the band apart, of seeing the departure and return of members over the decades. This is simply an acknowledgment of the man who left a huge mark on the music world and the lives of those who became fans of the band. That he should be gone at the young age of 65 is wrong on so many levels. In the end, cancer took down this giant. Decades of cigarettes, alcohol, and the rock and roll lifestyle finally caught up with him. This one remains particularly difficult for me to fathom. And for the record, Edward Van Halen isn’t even my favorite guitarist. That honor belongs to the late Randy Rhoads. But Van Halen represents the beginning of my love of heavy metal. It started with “Eruption” from that first album and continues to this very day. I am truly thankful to have been alive during his entire run.
Will there ever be another game-changer like Van Halen? I think so. It’s a continuing cycle. Most likely there is some boy or girl out there, honing his or her skills, finding their own sound and style in the various influences available. We’ll hear from them in due time. But for the moment, we mourn the irreplaceable.
Rest in peace, Edward Van Halen. Thank you for your incredible contributions to the lives of so many. Godspeed.