Eddie Van Halen has died following a battle with cancer. The legendary guitarist and Van Halen co-founder was 65.
His son Wolfgang Van Halen confirmed the news on Twitter, writing: “He was the best father I could ever ask for. Every moment I’ve shared with him on and off stage was a gift. My heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss.”
Eddie Van Halen was born in Amsterdam, the son of a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother. When he was a child, his family moved to Pasadena, California. Eddie and his brother Alex both started studying classical piano as children, but they soon switched to new instruments — Eddie to drums, Alex to guitar. Before long, they traded instruments and formed their first band, the Broken Combs.
The two brothers formed Van Halen in 1972. Initially, they were called Genesis, but the band name and the lineup — Eddie and Alex Van Halen, along with singer David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony — both solidified in 1974. For years, Van Halen played the club circuit in the Los Angeles area and developed an explosive live show. Kiss’ Gene Simmons produced a demo for them in 1976, and they signed with Warner Bros. soon afterward.
The importance of Van Halen’s 1978 debut album can’t be overstated. The LP sold over 10 million copies in the US, and it introduced a brash and flamboyant take on hard rock that proved to be hugely influential. David Lee Roth was the group’s resident showman, and his outsized silliness was a huge part of the appeal. But Eddie Van Halen’s explosive, technically baffling shredding established a whole new vocabulary for rock guitar. His playing, especially on the instrumental solo track “Eruption,” essentially set off an arms race in the genre.
Van Halen remained hugely popular for years, and they cranked out a steady stream of huge-selling albums. There was always internal tension within the band, and Eddie wanted to push them in more of a pop direction. Eventually, the band came to transcend even their own arena-rock context. Eddie famously played the volcanic guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s 1982 smash “Beat It,” and then he pushed his band toward MTV-style gloss on their 1984 album 1984. Eddie played keyboard and guitar on “Jump,” the band’s only #1 hit, and the album went on to sell as much as the group’s debut.
In 1984, Van Halen jettisoned David Lee Roth and brought in new frontman Sammy Hagar. Even after losing their original singer, Van Halen remained hugely popular. 1986’s 5150, their first album with Hagar, sold six million copies. Over the next decade, they recorded four albums with Hagar, and none went less than triple platinum. But the internal tensions remained, and Hagar left the band in 1996. They replaced him with Extreme’s Gary Cherone, who recorded one unsuccessful 1998 album with the group before departing.
Van Halen went silent for a few years, with Eddie keeping himself busy with side projects. Eddie was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2000, and he had part of his tongue cut out. Van Halen were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony in 2007, but only Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony showed up to the ceremony. Eventually, Van Halen played massively successful reunion tours — first with Hagar, then with Roth. Along with Roth, they also recorded the critically respected 2012 album A Different Kind Of Truth. (It wasn’t a full classic-lineup reunion. By that point, Van Halen had replaced Michael Anthony with Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass.)
Van Halen played their last show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015. There were rumors of a 2019 stadium tour, but they never materialized. Instead, Eddie Van Halen has become a figure of some fascination for on-and-off feuds with ex-bandmates and for a series of bizarre stories — like the one that he once held a gun to Fred Durst’s head, or the one that he never, ever listened to music. Last year, news came out that Eddie had been fighting throat cancer for five years but that he’d kept it out of public knowledge.
Van Halen’s death is a true shock, and he’ll go down as one of the two or three most successful and influential rock guitarists of all time. Watch some of his work below.