On Eddie Van Halen’s birthday I reflect upon the enormous influence he had on my life. I play guitar because of him.
A Middle School Keyboard Acolyte
I was a 13 year old kid resisting practicing the scales and classical pieces my piano teacher lined up for me. Rock and pop music on MTV beckoned me to the Casio electronic keyboard. Why spend my time on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” when there’s Van Halen’s “Jump” to master? After all, when I played that opening riff in the electronics department at Macy’s I could draw a crowd!
Plot Twist for a High School Musician
Fast forward 2 years. I won my high school talent show’s special acts category with an original instrumental I composed and played on my synthesizer. The prize: A gift certificate to Alwilk Records. With that gift certificate I bought “5150,” Van Halen’s new album, their first with Sammy Hagar. I loved those keyboards on “Why Can’t This Be Love.” I thought of Eddie as a keyboardist mostly. I played that album over and over. When a radio ad announced Van Halen was coming to New Jersey Meadowlands I was all in. I went to the concert with my dad & my friend. My first real introduction to Eddie Van Halen as a guitar wizard was in-person. It made a huge impression on me.
After the concert I retrieved my rarely-touched electric guitar out of the closet and bought a Guitar magazine, which had sheet music for various songs each month. I bought the copy with Van Halen’s cover of “You Really Got Me” transcribed in it. I got to work learning to be a guitarist under the master’s influence.
My friends and I formed a garage band called “Lost and Found.” We covered three of Van Halen’s big hits from “5150:” “Dreams,” “Love Walks In” and “Why Can’t This Be Love?” We also began writing our own songs.
Evolution of a Guitarist
I’d eventually develop to where I could play a crude rendition of “Eruption” while accommodating many other influences into my playing – David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, BB King, and Eric Clapton. I’d come to rely more on melody and expression than dazzling speed and wild sonic innovation, as much as I loved all that.
It was years later when I formed a rock band for kids and families, Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam, when I felt comfortable enough deliberately giving a real nod to Eddie’s playing style on my solo for “Jungle Gym Jamming,” an upbeat punk rock fueled romp. This video is cued up right to the guitar solo at 2:20.
On my current solo album, “Salt and Sand: Rock Songs to Heal the Mind” I took another opportunity to salute Eddie – this time after he had passed on. The song “Run With My Troubles” serves as a declaration that when I’m feeling stress I can exercise to deal with it. I wanted the solo to clearly reflect Eddie’s influence on me. The second phrase (3:06) contains a finger tapping run. The right hand plays a pedal tone while the fingers left hand form a melody against it. This echoes a moment in Eddie’s masterful guitar solo on “Van Halen: Live Without a Net”.
This video clip is cued up to the solo at 2:57
Van Halen: The Next Generation
As if Eddie’s influence wasn’t enough, a second generation of Van Halen came along and inspired me in a new way. His son Wolfgang had just launched his long-anticipated project Mammoth WVH. In the studio, Wolfgang writes, plays and sings absolutely everything you hear. Then he takes a band on the road – ace musicians who replicate perfectly everything he had recorded.
This struck me during this period of pandemic where I was physically cut off from my Jungle Gym Jam bandmates. My drummer Ross had left his drum kit in the house. Drums remained the one instrument I’d never learned to play. On previous full solo albums I pre-programmed drum beats, dragging notes onto a grid one-at-a time.
Hearing Wolfgang’s first few tracks moved me to try learning the drums with some YouTube tutorials. After all, I’ve had drumbeats in my head most of my life – I just lacked the physicality of playing. I learned basic drumming competence pretty quickly, though I’ll be the first to admit, my drummer friends who have their 10 thousand hours at the kit, can play far more imaginatively and with more precision and stamina than me. I have so much respect for drummers who are devoted to their craft.
So, if Eddie made me a guitarist, Wolfgang made me a true multi-instrumentalist, urging me on to learn the drums and play a full solo record, playing all the parts.
May His Memory Be a Blessing
Seeing Eddie play his guitar onstage with such ferocity and joy left a lasting impression on me and altered the course of my development as a musician and as a person. As a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, I welcome a diverse array of musical influences into my artistry: Van Halen, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Otis Redding and Elvis Costello, to name a few.
My life is better for Eddie’s presence in it. May his memory remain ever a blessing. May it bring out the best in those of us who love music. His birthday marks a good day for this thought.