It’s weird when someone you love passes away. Yes, it’s also sad, traumatic, devastating, grief-laden, painful, agonizing, mind-numbing, and just all-around horrible. But when someone who has taken up a particular space in your life — your entire life — just POOF, disappears virtually overnight… Well, the world suddenly feels incredibly strange. It’s a little like waking from a nightmare — everything is slightly off.
The death of Eddie Van Halen has set everything askew for me. At a time when things seem generally terrible, the world feels just that much more out of sorts now that he’s gone.
As a kid, you grow up with these heroes and assume they’ll be around forever. It’s an immature but sweet thought. And we hold onto these ideas, these childish notions, well into adulthood. But regardless of someone’s age, health issues, or just the fundamental understanding that humanity is fragile and limited, we’re never ready to lose. And yet here we are, mourning yet another fallen hero.
Not to be hyperbolic, but losing Eddie Van Halen feels akin to that of losing my own mother, just a mere six years ago. My mom’s influence on me, like Eddie’s, is ever-present. I don’t know if I would’ve played guitar or started Fall Out Boy without either of them. My mom’s support, and Eddie’s influence, partially drove me to where I am today — and I am eternally grateful for that.
My mom bought me my first Stratocaster, a vague wisp of the Frankencaster. I tried to learn how to play like Eddie but found it easier (or lazier) to carve my own niche as a guitarist. But even those who can emulate him, seemingly to a tee, can’t play like him. No one can. Eddie had his own niche — one that redefined the world of guitar.
Eddie Van Halen’s playing was immediately recognizable and all his own. That tone, the “brown sound,” it was all in his hands. That metallic chink, it came from how he picked, holding the plectrum between his thumb and middle finger (which also allowed him to tap without shifting the pick itself). You can hum his riffs, and his solos are memorable. It’s the utmost honor when people hear you play and say, “Hey, I know that guy!” That’s the sign of a truly unique artist and player.
Now, keep in mind that while his playing was complicated as all hell, Eddie made sure that every lick was nice and catchy — hooks abound. So, on top of having an identifiable sound, and being one of the most technically gifted players to have ever walked the earth, EVH knew how to make every measure count. He knew how to craft an ear-worm, one that you welcomed to burrow into your mind for eternity. His combination of skill, identity, and a knack for melody — it was like he had the Gold Codes at his disposal, the ultimate weapon.
And Eddie used this weapon wisely. Not only did he attract EVERY guitarist — aspiring and otherwise — to his pulpit, but even those who had zero interest in the instrument took notice. I can’t begin to count the number of friends and family with zero musical ability whatsoever, that fell in love with the guitar because of Eddie Van Halen’s playing. He made the guitar cool; and sophisticated. With a name like Edward Van Halen, and the chops of a veritable music God, referring to him was like referring to a great classical prodigy of the 18th century. It’s no wonder he named his über-talented son Wolfgang. Eddie wasn’t clueless; he knew his worth, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In the pantheon of popular music, it’s a shame the guitar has taken a big-time back seat to more artificial musical leanings. I love the instrument; I’ve spent my whole life obsessed with it. So, yeah, it makes me sad to see it fading away, out of public interest. But I get it, we’re in a digital age, and the guitar is a bit too analog. Plus, I think too many people misrepresented the guitar as a corny extension of a hackneyed rocker’s prick, a dishonor to the instrument’s gorgeously expressive and supremely emotive nature. Eddie Van Halen knew how to make the guitar sing in a way that transformed the tool into a cultural touchstone. We need more EVH’s in this world to reintroduce the guitar to the people, as it was meant to be, not the shell of what it has become.
In the meantime, we have to celebrate the life of Eddie Van Halen. We have to celebrate his work. We have to honor the one-of-a-kind contributions he has made to, not just music, but to the craft of playing guitar. Those of you who have yet to dip a toe into Van Halen’s catalog, I urge to put on “1984” and not fall in love with the legitimately cool and masterfully crafted songs.
And from there, I hope you fall in love, as I had, with Eddie’s playing, which can transport you away from your problems, into a state of pure, unadulterated joy. I think we all need a little bit of that right now. And for the rest of you, raise a glass to the formidable, irreplaceable Edward Lodewijk Van Halen — God amongst men. May he rest in peace and live on through humanity in power.
Joe Trohman is the lead guitarist in Fall Out Boy and The Damned Things. He taught himself to play at age 15.