When I was a kid taking guitar lessons, I loved Eddie Van Halen for all the obvious reasons: his playing was awesome and fast, his solos were amazing, his band was great. He was exactly the sort of guitarist I wanted to be as a 14-year-old, including the fact that he was skinny and muscular. He was the person I fantasized about being.
So, in pursuit of that, when I was in 9th grade I asked my guitar teacher to help me learn some of his solos. He warned me that it would be difficult—but not for the reason I expected. “Eddie Van Halen has a feel for time that can be hard to match,” he said. “The way he plays on the beat, or not on the beat, is weird and cool, regardless of how fast he’s going.” I had never noticed that. I knew there was a wild quality to his playing, but I thought it was just an attitude thing. I didn’t know it went so far as having a different sense of time.
That kind of information is why I loved taking guitar lessons. I’d thought that the reason Eddie Van Halen was hard to imitate was because he was fast and he practiced a lot (he was, and he did). But there was a deeper issue here, according to my guitar teacher: Eddie Van Halen had a unique sense of rhythm, which was not something I had ever thought about. It had nothing to do with being a shredder, or even being a rock musician, it was just this other little fact about him, hiding back there. It made me wonder if he was thinking different stuff than what I would think, if I were him, when I played guitar, which would be some version of “OK let’s really kill them this time.” I wondered if the biggest difference between me and Eddie Van Halen was that he wasn’t trying to do anything, or be anything—he was just playing what he heard in his head.
From that day forward, I assumed anything Van Halen did had hidden depths. I treated all the songs as the work of someone who was operating on more levels than the ones I was aware of. It made me want to learn more about music, so that I could recognize whatever else he was doing. Over the years, that’s basically what happened as I got better as a musician: I came to appreciate what he did as a backup singer, how cool it was that he embraced keyboards and synthesizers, the way he would use all these little chords that sounded right but were actually surprising and weird if you figured them out, and so on.
Most of all, I discovered over and over again how comfortable he was with being a contradiction. Here was a guy who played aggressive, face-melting guitar solos with a beaming smile on his face. He wrote a bunch of major-key pop songs with titles like “Running with the Devil.” The thing that fascinated me the most was that in the early 80s, he started performing in a T-shirt with an X over the face of Bozo the Clown. That was my personal favorite of the many secret levels of Eddie Van Halen: he was completely serious. As a band, Van Halen had always been fun, and funny, but they were also 100% absolutely serious. The sense of humor, the grinning smiles in the music videos, the beautiful Saturday-night feeling on their records, all of it was real, but all of it was coming from a place of total, hardcore seriousness. They meant what they were doing. And Eddie Van Halen, in particular, was pulling it from some place deeper inside himself. As he said in a 1996 interview with Billy Corgan, for Guitar World: “When I used the stuff I invented, I was telling a story, while I felt that the people who were imitating me were telling a joke.”
Through it all, the crucial thing seemed to be that he found a way to play what he heard in his head. The alterations he made to his guitars and amps, the techniques he assimilated from other players or developed on his own, his unusual sense of time and the many other secrets of his style, all of that was the result of a single larger commitment he had, which had nothing to do with being a guitar hero or showing off. He was trying to get closer to playing music the way he heard it.
When I was 14 years old, I didn’t really consider that my goal. I would have been happy to imitate Eddie Van Halen and accomplish nothing else, but doing that was still so hard that I ended up trying the other things out of exasperation—the seriousness, the contradictions, and the playing what’s in your head. I decided to let that become the imitation, and as a result I never outgrew Van Halen. I only grew into a bigger and bigger fan.