Eddie Van Halen was the kind of musician for whom the term “guitar god” was pretty much invented. He was a guitar virtuoso. Anyone who heard Van Halen’s music could instantly recognize his lightning-speed solos, his effortless “tapping,” and his overall signature sound. The late rocker (who passed on October 6, 2020, at the age of 65) essentially redefined the electric guitar sound and ushered in a new era of ’80s rock and glam-metal.
The guitarist’s death followed a long battle with cancer and sent a whole generation of rock fans into a state of mourning. That said, it’s about time we looked back at the man’s life, from the beginning to the end, to give you a glimpse of what it was really like to become rock ‘n’ roll’s guitar god. Whether it’s because of – or despite – his upbringing, Eddie wasn’t just a professional guitarist. He was also a pro at self-loathing.
In the early ‘80s – 1983, to be exact – Eddie Van Halen built his home studio in the Hollywood hills. On the wall of the kitchen, he hung up a photo of a dumpy old apartment building that sat in a city over 5,000 miles away. Whenever he would head to grab a beer from the fridge during his all-nighter recording sessions, he would look up at that photo.
That dumpy apartment, at 59 Rozemarijnstraat in the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands (near the German border), was where he spent his formative years. It was where he spent most of the first seven years of his life. The man we know as the all-American guitar mastermind – the star guitarist of the distinctly Southern Californian band Van Halen – was actually a biracial immigrant who hardly spoke a word of English until he was seven years old.
His parents, who were Dutch and Indonesian, moved the family to the U.S. in the early ‘60s, settling in Pasadena, California. Eddie and his older brother Alex learned to play the piano before they ever made it to the States. Their parents wanted the boys to become classical pianists, just like their father, Jan, a Dutch jazz pianist, clarinetist, and saxophonist.
But Eddie was never taught to read music. Rather, he watched recitals of Bach or Mozart and learned to improvise. Even though he won first place in the annual piano competitions at Long Beach City College in the mid-‘60s, Eddie drifted away from classical music, preferring rock instead. Then, when his brother began playing the guitar, Eddie naturally gravitated toward the drums, buying his own drum kit.
Once he heard Alex’s performance of the Surfaris’ drum solo in Wipe Out, he gladly gave him the drums and picked up the electric guitar. It didn’t take long for the boys to come up with the idea to form their own band. Eddie and Alex formed their first group, with three other boys, and called themselves The Broken Combs.
They performed during lunchtime at Hamilton Elementary School when Eddie was in the fourth grade. This performance was what inspired him to become a professional musician. And Eric Clapton was his “main influence.” He learned Eric Clapton’s solos from Cream “note for note.”
When Eddie spoke at an event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 2015, he discussed his life and how he got to live the quintessential American Dream. “We came here with approximately $50 and a piano, and we didn’t speak the language,” he stated. “Now, look where we are. If that’s not the American dream, what is?”
Even though Eddie and his brother became naturalized American citizens since they were raised in the U.S., they were still fluent Dutch speakers. And during Van Halen’s early days, when Eddie and Alex got into occasional – and typical – sibling fights, the two would naturally lapse into Dutch, using swear words and all in their mother tongue.
“It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen,” Noel Monk, their onetime manager, recalled of those moments. “These two ordinarily placid rockers, who usually spoke in a sort of pothead-surf [jargon], suddenly nose to nose, spitting and snarling and growling at each other in a foreign language, as if they had become possessed.”
At his core, Eddie was a sweet, boyish prodigy. When he was on stage, he thoroughly enjoyed his guitar-in-hand performances. But there were also darker currents flowing in his personal life that he couldn’t always express in words, even to those closest to him.
Eddie avoided the roller coaster social life of the high school, and even school itself, by secluding himself in his bedroom with his guitar and a six-pack of beer. He would spend a good part of his life in that realm of pure flow, retreating into endless, meditative, booze-fueled jams, whether in hotel rooms or in his studio.
“It’s the universal vibration,” he said once. “It heals.” His ex-wife, Valerie Bertinelli, recalled that when Eddie played, “he disappeared into a world that was his.” But while it was the place he felt most comfortable in, it was his own personal world and became something she found seductive to something that “angered and frustrated” her “to no end.”
Eddie tended to avoid confrontation, which only let his frustrations build. For example, he never protested when frontman David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman used a riff Eddie wanted to use for an original song to anchor the band’s 1982 Dancing in the Street instead.
He kept the bitterness to himself by complaining about it for decades. Those with a good ear – or his mother – can hear Eddie’s pain in his guitar playing. It might be most evident on the band’s heaviest album, 1981’s Fair Warning. From early on, his mother heard all of his high notes as “crying.”
His mother used to push classical piano studies so much onto her sons that Eddie, for one, would casually compare his upbringing to the movie Shine (a film about how strict parental pressure drove a musical prodigy headfirst into a mental breakdown). Eddie once told Guitar World that when he was growing up, his mom “used to call me a ‘nothing nut — just like your father.’”
He explained that “When you grow up that way, it’s not conducive to self-esteem.” But there were positive aspects of his parents’ zealous parenting. In the biography Van Halen Rising, the Van Halen parents were described as supportive enough to find a way to buy Eddie a Gibson Les Paul and Alex a drum kit in 1969.
Fans of Eddie Van Halen don’t necessarily know that he lived with his parents until the age of 25, after having already made multiple platinum albums. Even at that point in his obviously successful career, his mom was still convinced that it wouldn’t last and that he would be forced to go back to school.
During the days of his early success, with the single Jump all over MTV, Eddie admitted to fearing that he was “stupid.” That same year, he called himself “selfish” and a “sick f**k” in interviews. His ex wrote in her memoirs: “Ed – you are a good man. Believe it. When you do, you’ll be free.”
Like many creative geniuses before him, Eddie was plagued by insecurity even at the peak of his fame. When he was widely acclaimed as the most exciting guitar player alive, he was terribly vulnerable. He had what could very well be a case of imposter syndrome. Eddie described (in 1996) how every time he walked into the studio, “it seems like the first time.”
“It’s like I’ve never written a song before. I am just as scared,” he stated. Eddie would self-medicate with alcohol (and sometimes cocaine) to overcome his anxiety. Like his father and brother, Eddie went down the familiar path of alcoholism.
During the first decade of Van Halen’s success, Eddie didn’t experience a single sober day. After years of washing his anxiety down with booze, he finally achieved lasting sobriety in 2008. “I’m actually a shy, nervous person,” he admitted in 1998. “I used to be easily intimidated. That’s why I used to drink.”
It can be seen as ironic that he was intimidated, considering his insane talent on the instrument. Van Halen basically changed the way other electric guitarists played. Not only that, their signature sound was the kind others strove for. Eddie single-handedly added an extra decade – at least – of cultural prominence to the electric guitar.
Remembering his classical roots, there were periods when Eddie would abandon guitar altogether for as long as a year, writing only on piano and synthesizers. In the middle of his life, he even took up the cello, and pretty seriously, too.
He played along to Yo Yo Ma records for hours late at night. According to his friend, he had the tendency to randomly pick up unexpected instruments — a saxophone, a harmonica — and start playing them at a seemingly professional level. His brother Alex was a musical prodigy of his own, who played saxophone as well as the drums.
The brothers had an uncanny musical bond. You would think they were twins by the way they would follow each other’s rhythmic twists, almost as if they were sharing one musical intelligence. “We were probably the only rhythm section in rock & roll that was guitar and drums, not bass and drums,” Eddie said.
Eddie lived and breathed the guitar. Early in his marriage to Bertinelli, he told her he wanted to have enough kids to form a full band (can you just imagine a Van Halen version of The Osmonds or the Jacksons?)
When Bertinelli got pregnant with their only child, Wolfgang, Eddie often played guitar while he was in utero. It looks like the pre-birth guitar lessons did the trick seeing as how his son turned out to be a gifted multi-instrumentalist himself, and from an early age, too.
At 15, Wolfgang joined his dad’s band on bass, displacing bassist Michael Anthony along the way. Eddie was a proud father. “I pick him up from school every day,” he said with pride, “and we make music. The kid kicks ass.”
Unlike most bands that fall apart at the hands of frontmen and their massive egos, Van Halen wasn’t the kind of band that Eddie or Alex ever wanted to leave (despite some threats here and there by Eddie during the original Roth years). After all, it was their band, their name. And the name meant a lot.
His father, Jan, was a hard-drinking, classically trained musician who fought in the Dutch resistance during WWII. After the war, he traveled to Indonesia during its last stretch as a Dutch colony and met and married Eugenia van Beers. When they returned to the Netherlands, Eddie’s mother “became a second-class citizen,” as he explained, and the family faced overt racism.
With very little cash and only a piano to their name, his parents, who were already in their 40s, took the boys on a nine-day boat journey to America. Their father paid his way by playing in the boat’s band. Even the boys joined in the performances. Eddie remembered that their performance earned them a spot at the captain’s table for dinner.
The boat finally arrived in New York, and the family embarked on a cross-country train trip to Pasadena. Their beginnings in America were humble and, at that point, far from the American dream. Eugenia cleaned houses while Jan walked six miles every way to wash dishes at a hospital.
Meanwhile, Eddie was the new immigrant kid in school, and he was bullied as a result. Well, by the white kids. He later explained that since he wasn’t able to speak English and got beat up because he was a minority, all his friends were Black, “and they stuck up for me.”
When Eddie and his brother weren’t taking piano lessons from an elderly Russian musician who slapped their hands with a ruler, they would build model cars and blow them up with cherry bombs and lighter fluid. Eddie and Alex’s first band was the Trojan Rubber Company.
Around 1971, they formed a trio named Genesis, adding a kid named Mark Stone on bass. Eddie was both on the guitar and the mic. His harmonies with Michael Anthony became the spine of Van Halen’s sound. And while he could pull off the guitar and singing together, the vocals were really just an afterthought.
Eddie spent most of the ‘70s playing with Alex in a popular cover band in California. Eddie was able to absorb the style of every hard-rock and metal guitar player, from Pete Townshend to Jimmy Page to Joe Perry.
Eddie had become a local legend by the time he was 15. He was this kid who was already outplaying the greatest rock guitarists, with a drummer who would follow him anywhere. By 1972, Genesis morphed into Mammoth, only because they learned that the name Genesis was already taken.
Mammoth was a rowdy but talented band that fit in well in Pasadena’s backyard party scene, where hundreds of sunburnt teenagers hung around the pools of any house where the owners were vacationing and foolish enough to leave it in the custody of their teenaged sons and daughters.
Soon enough, a conceited but charismatic local kid named David Roth set his sights on the band. He suggested he become their new frontman. They considered it, but then they realized that he couldn’t really sing. But Roth wasn’t deterred by the nay-sayers.
He went off and started his own party band, working hard to improve his vocals. Eventually, he made his way back to Mammoth, partly because the band was already renting the PA system his dad had bought for him. Mammoth started practicing in Roth’s large basement – the kind that belongs to successful eye surgeons in California.
While Roth set his sights on the Hollywood clubs and a more pop-ish sound, the Van Halen brothers were musical purists who aimed to impress with perfect covers of album sides. The way Eddie saw it, a lead singer was always just a “throat,” a necessary evil. For Eddie, Roth “was no opera singer.” But Roth brought a showmanship and sex appeal that managed to take the band out of the backyard and into the mainstream. In fact, it was Roth’s idea to change the name of the band to Van Halen.
By 1974, they had a new bassist named Michael Anthony, whose background vocals, in harmony with Eddie’s, created a new sound for Van Halen – one that would become their signature. And that sound was pretty daring at the time. Van Halen brought a little hint of sunshine pop that most hard-rock or metal bands of the era hadn’t dared to try.
Eddie was just 12 years old when his dad gave him his first taste of alcohol and a drag of a cigarette. It was in a misguided effort to calm his son’s nerves (the story has it that the young Eddie was either upset after an attack by a dog or nervous before a musical performance, depending on who you ask).
By the mid – ‘70s, Eddie’s drinking increased, and he was already using cocaine. By 1977, the drug became as much a part of the band as the instruments themselves. They even gave it a nickname, calling it “krell.” One day in 1972, Eddie did a line of PCP, mistakenly thinking it was “krell,” which resulted in a near-fatal overdose and a trip to the hospital.
Slowly but surely, Van Halen started including original songs into their set and moving up in the club world. After a false start with Gene Simmons of Kiss, they signed with Warner Bros. in early 1977. Templeman became their producer and served them well thanks to his commercial instincts and appreciation for Eddie’s musicianship.
1977 was also the year Eddie transformed his already spectacular playing. He put together a Stratocaster copy by gutting it, sticking it in a humbucking pickup, and dousing it in spray paint — first black, then red. The Frankenstrat ended up becoming one of the most famous instruments in the history of rock.
The guitar looked the way Van Halen sounded: “barely controlled chaos,” as Eddie put it. Now that he was armed with the Frankenstrat, he began innovating sounds using the note-warping whammy bar, creating what sounded like a guitar laughing (at least it wasn’t crying this time).
Post-Hendrix guitarists typically avoided the whammy bar as it sent guitars out of tune. But Eddie was more of a fan of Ritchie Blackmore, who used the bar on 1970’s Deep Purple in Rock. Eddie’s inclusion of two-hand tapping was another innovation of 1977. He got the idea from watching Jimmy Page do one-handed pull-offs on Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker.
It’s now May 1978, and Eddie is sitting in a hotel room in Paris, crying. He is exhausted. Van Halen had a debut album, just finished playing their first European headlining concerts, and were about to embark on a tour with Black Sabbath. But all Eddie wanted to do was go back to L.A.
He told his then-tour manager, Noel Monk, “I don’t want to be a rock star. I hate this bulls**t!” All Monk had to tell Eddie to put him at ease was that if the success continued, he would be able to buy his parents a house. And just like that: Crisis averted.
In the last half of the ‘70s, Van Halen produced so much material they released one album per year, five years in a row, and they came under increasing commercial pressure from Warner Bros. So, yeah, no wonder Eddie was burnt out. The band was touring so much, they hardly step foot in the studio anymore.
By 1981, with the album Fair Warning, Eddie stayed up all night with engineer Donn Landee, creating overdubs and unique solos. For Eddie, it was a way of pulling the album away from both Roth and Templeman without having to create conflict. After all, according to Eddie, Templeman, and Roth were starting to fear that he was “out of control.”
Bertinelli recalled that Eddie worked until he ran out of “booze, coke, energy, or inspiration, or all of the above.” She explained that Eddie felt endless pressure to come up with “something better, something catchier… something the record company liked.”
He later revealed that it was around this time that he grew so frustrated with Roth that he actually considered quitting the band. Eddie had a rule: He wrote the riffs and instrumental tracks, rather than finished songs, and he needed his singer to write the vocal melodies and lyrics. Roth wasn’t doing what he wanted.
A few weeks before the release of Fair Warning, on April 11, 1981, Eddie married Valerie Bertinelli. She was a 20-year-old TV actress whom he had met just eight months earlier. The others in the band weren’t so gung-ho about it, especially Roth, who was already extremely jealous of the attention Eddie was getting.
According to Bertinelli, Eddie claimed that he overheard Roth saying, “That f***ing little pr**k, not only is he winning all the guitar awards, he’s also the first to marry a movie star.” Eddie fell in love with his “movie star” in the last place one typically begins a monogamous relationship…
The two fell in love on the road, while the band supported 1980’s Women and Children First. It was Roth and Alex who made the closest contact with their fans. The only band member who avoided hookups on the road altogether was the already long-married Michael Anthony. As for Eddie and his new belle, well, they were “punch-drunk in love,” as Bertinelli wrote.
They were also “plain punch-drunk,” she recalled. “We drank Southern Comfort and vodka tonics.” After the tour, the lovebirds moved in together and started planning their wedding. The two, high on krell, filled out forms for the priest – a type of foreshadowing for their soon-to-be un-ideal wedding. Unsurprisingly, Eddie got so wasted that he threw up even before the ceremony began.
At the time, there was a lot of destructive friction in Van Halen. Eddie grew to hate doing cover songs (like Pretty Woman). Roth despised any guitar instrumentals that he wasn’t a part of (“F**k the guitar-hero shit,” Roth would say. “We’re a band!”).
Roth was a narcissist who irritated almost everyone except his fans. Eddie was a quiet genius who drank too much and did too much coke. And Alex was drinking so much that he would eventually start complaining of hallucinations. But Eddie was the talk of the town and made his way into a Michael Jackson song.
In the summer of 1982, Eddie got a call from Quincy Jones, who was working on MJ’s album Thriller at the time. They were working on a new track called Beat It, with a riff that needed a guitar solo to match. With a shrug, Eddie said sure. He laid down a 30-second solo that would become the most popular piece of music he would ever make.
But he didn’t tell his bandmates about the work he did that day. In fact, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, he didn’t even accept any payment or royalties for his contribution to Beat It. According to Roth, it was a choice Eddie would end up paying for.
Roth only found out about the collaboration a year later. By then, Eddie had also recorded instrumentals for one of Bertinelli’s TV movies. It became clear to Roth that Eddie had other interests and side projects – and Van Halen wasn’t his only way to bring the bread home, so to speak. Roth recalled that “It was at that point I said maybe I’ll do something on the side as well.”
Van Halen’s era of Roth was slowly coming to an end. By the mid-‘80s, Eddie had a secret weapon. He was starting to break ground on his property off Coldwater Canyon, building what the city zoning commission was told would be a racquetball court.
It was actually the first incarnation of his 5150 Studios – the one with the photo of his first house on the wall. It would become the place he would record all night for days upon days while maintaining complete control. During one night session, Eddie and Alex busted out a basic track called Jump.
Ted Templeman compared the riff to an organ in a baseball stadium. Roth took the tape into his 1951 Mercury convertible, blasted the demo over and over while writing lyrics and coming up with a melody. Within an hour, Van Halen had officially written their biggest-ever song.
In 1984, during the final leg of their tour, Roth informed the band that he had recorded a solo cover of California Girls. The band wasn’t thrilled, and things only got worse when Roth started to take over MTV with his solo “hits.” Roth even started writing a script for a movie he planned to be the star of, assuming that Van Halen would do the score (the movie never materialized).
Eddie found the whole thing insulting. By the time Van Halen started recording their next album, the chemistry was gone. In the end, Roth quit. It may seem inevitable to us, but for Eddie, it was shocking. “He really hurt me,” Eddie said in 1986. “At the height of our career, when you work at something that long, and someone just pulls the plug on you? That’s, y’know, kind of cruel.”
The second incarnation of Van Halen began with rock singer Sammy Hagar. The band considered other possibilities, including a female singer, Patty Smyth. Van Halen managed to survive a lead-singer transplant, and it was Eddie’s talent that made it possible.
Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen performing together
By the end of 1986, with the reformed band fresh off their first tour together, Eddie and Alex’s father died. In his final days, he asked his sons to stop drinking. Alex, who was a heavier drinker than Eddie, got sober the following spring. Eddie, on the other hand, wasn’t ready yet.
The next fall, Bertinelli left Eddie … for the first time. They were separated for three weeks. When she returned and organized an intervention for Eddie, he agreed to head to the Betty Ford Center for his first attempt at rehab. But you can probably guess – it didn’t hold up.
“After I got out of Betty Ford, I immediately went on a drinking binge, and I got a f***ing drunk-driving ticket on my motorcycle,” Eddie confessed in 1998. On the night the ‘80s came to a close, Eddie was in Malibu with Bertinelli’s family. He was drunk and belligerent. He wanted to drive home, prompting a fight over the car keys.
Bertinelli’s dad, a former boxer, punched Eddie in the face, breaking his cheekbone. Eddie found himself in rehab again, this time for 28 days. By June, Bertinelli was pregnant, and by March 1991, Wolfgang was born.
Eddie had cut down on his drinking at the beginning of the pregnancy, but by the third album with Hagar, he had fallen off the wagon. When Wolfgang was six months old, Eddie visited Bertinelli on the set of her TV show. After a drunken rampage, he smashed the window of a rental car in front of Bertinelli’s mother.
The Van Halen brothers grew sick of Hagar by their fifth album together, 1995’s Balance. “Lead singers are hell,” Eddie said that year. It was also the year Eddie took his most serious attempt at sobriety. He said: “When your kid knows, it’s time to give it up.”
Eddie stayed sober long enough to discover that his self-medicating had been hiding severe pain in his hip. He could be seen hobbling through his shows on painkillers. He was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a condition aggravated by alcoholism. He was in need of a full hip replacement.
Meanwhile, Alex was wearing a neck brace for their entire tour after damaging his spine. The Van Halens were in rough shape. Hagar was out of the band by 1996 after a ridiculous fight that revolved around lyrics and logistics of the soundtrack work for the 1996 movie Twister.
Believe it or not, after 12 years, Roth came back. Kind of. They asked him to record two new songs for a greatest-hits package while they were exploring other lead singer potentials. They then made one of the most self-destructive PR moves in show business. The band agreed to appear with Roth at the 1996 Video Music Awards.
The world naturally assumed the band was making a reunion with Roth when the four guys walked onstage to present an award for Best Male Video (Beck won). The crowd went into a prolonged standing ovation, while Eddie’s expression of nausea was all over his face.
Roth basked in the joy of the moment and tap-danced his way across the stage. Backstage, he and Roth found themselves in a screaming match, and the reunion imploded. Soon after that fiasco, the band announced their third singer: Gary Cherone (of the ‘90s hard-rock band Extreme). Unlike Hagar and Roth – who were at least equals to the rest of the band – Cherone started living in Eddie’s guest house.
Eddie was in another temporary period of sobriety and told journalists that his therapist finally managed to help him learn how to write songs without getting drunk first. Eddie was now convinced that alcohol was thwarting “the light” of his talent. Eddie seized control of the band when it came to making their next album, Van Halen III.
Unfortunately, Van Halen III was a critical and commercial flop. By 1999, Cherone was out of the band. Eddie never talked about it openly and directly, but facing the rejection of the only songs he ever wrote sober must have been truly agonizing. It’s something that would drive most addicts to relapse.
For Van Halen, there was only one way to go: back to Roth. They gave it another try, but due to legal issues between Roth and the band, the reunion fizzled out yet again. At the beginning of 2000, the bump Eddie had been feeling on his tongue was indeed cancer.
He went through the conventional form of therapy, including chemo. If you had asked him then, he would have told you that cancer stemmed from electromagnetic radiation after years of holding a metal guitar pick in his mouth. His doctors, however, insisted that it was a gigantic intake of cigarettes. After having one-third of his tongue removed, they told him, “Ed, you are never to smoke again.”
After 33 years of chain smoking, Eddie finally quit… for a month. He then started hiding his cigarettes but eventually started smoking in front of his family. After 20 years of marriage, what could only be seen as suicidal behavior for her, Bertinelli – who suffered through his years of alcoholism and infidelities – had had enough.
A few weeks later, when she discovered that Eddie brought cocaine with him on a plane while traveling with their 10-year-old son, Bertinelli officially threw in the towel. The couple separated and divorced six years later.
Over the next six years, Eddie spiraled out of control and into the worst years of his life. He was drinking wine out of the bottle, became scary thin, and wore torn clothes and boots covered with tape. One day he would be jamming with Limp Bizkit, and another day he would, supposedly, be threatening Fred Durst with a gun.
During the last tour in 2004, reuniting with his brother again, everyone around him “feared for his life.” He was so out of it that his personality changed. He was now angry and violent. There was one point where he smashed a wine bottle against the window of a private jet.
In the end, Eddie found his way out of the darkness. And it was partly thanks to his son, who at 15 started started playing with the band. It basically brought his father back to life. Wolfgang ended up replacing Michael Anthony, and the three Van Halens started jamming daily in Eddie’s 5150 studio.
After yet another attempt at a reunion with Roth, which obviously failed, Alex and Wolfgang urged Eddie to go back to rehab, which he did. In 2007, Roth showed up again, and they did their first show together since 1984. But Eddie wasn’t in the clear yet. While he was off cocaine and alcohol, he was now addicted to the Klonopin his doctors gave him at rehab.
After one last stop in rehab, his sobriety stuck. In 2008, Eddie married his second wife, Janie Liszewski, a stuntwoman-turned-publicist. Eddie and Roth never became friends, but they got through two more tours. By 2012, Eddie was facing his second bout of cancer; it had spread to his throat.
Van Halen played their final tour in 2015. As the decade progressed, so did cancer; it had spread into his lungs. In his final months, Eddie heard from friends and foes alike. He died on October 6, 2020, with his family around him. “I’m so grateful Wolfie, and I were able to hold you in your last moments,” Bertinelli wrote.