Eddie Van Halen, Virtuoso of the Rock Guitar, Dies at 65

His outpouring of riffs, runs and solos was hyperactive and athletic, making deeper or darker emotions feel irrelevant. The band he led was one of the most popular of all time.

Eddie Van Halen brought a joyous virtuosity to the electric guitar and was widely revered by his peers.
Eddie Van Halen brought a joyous virtuosity to the electric guitar and was widely revered by his peers.Credit...Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Eddie Van Halen, whose razzle-dazzle guitar-playing — combining complex harmonics, innovative fingerings and ingenious devices he patented for his instrument — made him the most influential guitarist of his generation and his band, Van Halen, one of the most popular rock acts of all time, died on Tuesday. He was 65.

Mr. Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, said in a statement that his father had “lost his long and arduous battle with cancer.” The statement did not say where he died.

Mr. Van Halen structured his solos the way Macy’s choreographs its Independence Day fireworks shows: shooting off rockets of sound that seemed to explode in a shower of light and color. His outpouring of riffs, runs and solos was hyperactive and athletic, joyous and wry, making deeper or darker emotions feel irrelevant.

“Eddie put the smile back in rock guitar at a time when it was all getting a bit broody,” his fellow guitar ace Joe Satriani told Billboard magazine in 2015. “He also scared the hell out of a million guitarists because he was so damn good.”

Mr. Van Halen was most widely revered by his peers for perfecting the technique of two-handed tapping on the guitar neck. That approach allowed him to add new textures, and percussive possibilities, to his instrument, while also making its six strings sound as expressive as a piano’s 88 keys or as changeable as a synthesizer. He received patents for three guitar devices he had created. In 2012, Guitar World Magazine ranked him No. 1 on its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

ImageDavid Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen in performance in 1983. 
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen in performance in 1983. Credit...Associated Press

“I’m always pushing things past where they’re supposed to be,” Mr. Van Halen told the educational website Zocalo Public Square in 2015. “When ‘Spinal Tap’ was going to 11, I was going to 15,” he said — a reference to that film’s famous joke about a guitarist who dubiously claims that his amplifier can exceed its highest decibel level.

The zest in Mr. Van Halen’s playing paired perfectly with the hedonistic songs and persona of his hard-rocking band, Van Halen, whose original lineup featured his brother Alex on pummeling drums, Michael Anthony on thunderous bass and the singer David Lee Roth, who presented a scene-stealing mix of Lothario, peacock and clown.

Formed in 1972, Van Halen went on to sell more than 56 million albums in the United States alone. Ten of the band’s studio albums (some of which were cut with Sammy Hagar as lead singer during a long split with Mr. Roth) went multiplatinum. One sold more than six million copies (“5150” in 1986, featuring Mr. Hagar); another sold five million (“Van Halen II” in 1979); and two passed the 10 million mark to achieve “diamond” status (the band’s debut, “Van Halen,” in 1978, and “1984,” issued the year in the title).

Eleven of the band’s studio albums reached the Top Five, and four snagged the top spot on Billboard’s Top 200. Van Halen amassed eight Billboard Top 20 singles, including its cover of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” which reached No. 12 in 1982, and “Jump,” which seized the No. 1 spot in 1984 and held it for five weeks. In 2007, the band — including both Mr. Roth and Mr. Hagar — was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Credit...Associated Press

Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born on Jan. 26, 1955, in Amsterdam to Jan and Eugenia (Beers) Van Halen. His father, a struggling Dutch classical musician who played clarinet, saxophone and piano, met his Indonesian-born wife while on tour in Indonesia.

In 1962, when Mr. Van Halen was 7, his family relocated to the United States, driven away by prejudice against his mother and unfavorable work opportunities in the Netherlands. They settled in Pasadena, Calif. His mother worked as a maid, his father as a janitor while seeking work as a musician.

In a new country, with a new language to learn, the Van Halen sons, Eddie and his older brother, Alex, turned to music as their lingua franca. Eddie first studied classical piano, which he excelled at despite a serious limitation.

“I never learned how to read music,” he told Rolling Stone in 1995. “I fooled my teacher for six years. He never knew. I’d watch his fingers, and I’d play it.”

Inspired by the British group the Dave Clark Five, Mr. Van Halen and his brother began playing rock ’n’ roll, with Eddie on drums and Alex on guitar. They switched instruments once Eddie discovered that his brother had a better feel for percussion.

The siblings formed their first band in 1964, the Broken Combs, which became the Trojan Rubber Company. In 1972 they formed a new group, calling themselves Genesis, even though there was already a British band by that name. They rented a sound system from Mr. Roth, whom they eventually hired as their singer — but only, Mr. Van Halen later said, to save the rental money. Two years later, they recruited Michael Anthony on bass and changed their name first to Mammoth and then to Van Halen.

Michael Anthony, Mr. Roth and Mr. Van Halen, three-fourths of the original lineup of Van Halen, in London in 1978.Credit... Gus Stewart/Redferns, via Getty Images

The foursome developed a loyal following at clubs in Pasadena and Hollywood and were introduced to Gene Simmons of Kiss. Impressed by their cockiness as well as their talent, he produced their first demo and took it to his band’s manager to sign them — to no avail.

Regardless, Van Halen’s ballooning reputation in the Los Angeles clubs soon drew the attention of Mo Ostin of Warner Bros. Records, who went with the producer and A&R man Ted Templeman to see the band at the Starwood club. Mr. Ostin offered them a contract that night.

Van Halen recorded its debut album for the label in just three weeks, employing few overdubs, the better to capture its in-concert brio. Released in early 1978, the album broke the Billboard Top 20 and, in the process, reasserted the power of hard rock at a time when disco, punk and new wave dominated.

Just as important, the album alerted the world to a new kind of guitar hero, one who ignored the blues-rock roots of the previous generation of guitar gods, like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, to grow what sounded like roots of its own. In the studio as onstage, Mr. Van Halen could make the guitar sound like a divebombing plane one moment and a pack of wild hyenas the next.

His showstopping solo piece from the album, “Eruption,” showcased his finger-tapping technique, which set a new bar for guitar pyrotechnics. While other guitarists — notably Allan Holdsworth, a major influence — had used this approach before, Mr. Van Halen had noticed that “nobody was going more than just one stretch and one note, real quick,” he said in a 1979 interview that was published 20 years later in Classic Rock magazine. “I hadn’t really seen anyone get into it as far as they could.”

Mr. Van Halen with Michael Jackson in 1984. Mr. Van Halen not only played a memorable solo on Mr. Jackson’s megahit “Beat It,” he also rearranged the song.Credit...Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

To ground his solo flights, and to attract the masses, the band’s material, though it leaned toward heavy metal, employed catchy melodies and pop hooks. Songwriting credits were split among the four members, but Mr. Van Halen wrote the central riffs.

By expanding its mix of mania and melody on “Van Halen 2,” the band broke into the Billboard’s Top 10, a feat repeated by its next three releases. Those works set the template for what became a major trend of the ’80s: so-called hair-metal bands, all of them fronted by colorful singers, like Mr. Roth, who blared sexually charged lyrics in songs that balanced sweet hooks with the flashiest possible guitar work, heavily influenced by Mr. Van Halen.

But by the band’s “1984” album, it had pulled a switch, augmenting its sound with keyboards played by Mr. Van Halen. That slicker approach helped make “1984” the band’s top-selling album and turned “Jump” into its sole chart-topping song.

Mr. Van Halen raised his own profile with a guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s 1983 megahit “Beat It,” for which he not only contributed a star turn of a solo but also rearranged the song. And that new presence in the spotlight only further fanned long-smoldering personal and creative conflicts with Mr. Roth, causing the singer to leave the band that year for a solo career.

Mr. Van Halen with Sammy Hagar in 1986. Mr. Hagar replaced Mr. Roth as Van Halen’s lead singer in 1985 but left in 1996.Credit...John Atashian/Getty Images

His replacement, Mr. Hagar, had released a string of successful solo albums. While hard-core fans missed the original lineup, Van Halen’s debut release with Mr. Hagar, “5150,” gave the group its first No. 1 Billboard album, and its single, “Why Can’t This Be Love,” reached No. 3. The band’s next three albums, all fronted by Mr. Hagar, also topped the charts, while the concert set “Live: Right Here, Right Now” climbed to No. 5.

Still, tensions developed between Mr. Van Halen and Mr. Hagar, causing the singer to leave the band in 1996. A subsequent proposed reunion with Mr. Roth fell apart over the usual arguments. “I don’t think the guy was ever real,” Mr. Van Halen said of Mr. Roth to Rolling Stone. “I never felt any connection.”

For the band’s third frontman, Van Halen hired Gary Cherone, formerly of the metal band Extreme. And while the lone album with him, “Van Halen III,” broke the Top Five in 1998, it didn’t sell as well as earlier efforts and received withering reviews.

A dark period followed for Mr. Van Halen, during which, as he later admitted, his drinking and drug use increased. He separated from his wife, the actress Valerie Bertinelli, whom he had married in 1981 (they divorced in 2007), and the band lost its contract with Warner Bros. He also had to have hip replacement surgery in 1999 and, the next year, underwent treatment for tongue cancer. In 2002, he was declared cancer-free after having had one third of his tongue removed.

Mr. Roth and Mr. Van Halen, with Alex Van Halen on drums, in 2012. After a long absence, Mr. Roth rejoined Van Halen for a tour in 2007 and a hit album a few years later.Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

Two years later, the band reunited with Mr. Hagar for a successful compilation album and tour, though Mr. Van Halen’s drinking again spiked, causing problems that led Mr. Hagar to leave the band for a second time. After much speculation, Van Halen finally reunited with Mr. Roth for a tour in 2007, by which time the band had fired Mr. Anthony, whose talents Mr. Van Halen had long questioned. His replacement on bass was Mr. Van Halen’s 17-year-old son, Wolfgang.

The comeback tour was a huge success, though Mr. Van Halen continued to drink. He finally entered rehab and announced in 2008 that he was sober.

Four years later, Van Halen released its first new album in 14 years, “A Different Kind of Truth,” which was also the band’s first with Mr. Roth in 28 years and their only one to feature Wolfgang Van Halen. The album reached No. 2 in Billboard, and several highly successful tours followed.

In 2019, reports surfaced that Mr. Van Halen was being treated for throat cancer. The next year, Mr. Roth told Rolling Stone, “I think the band is finished.”

In addition to his son and his brother, Mr. Van Halen is survived by his wife, Janie (Liszewski) Van Halen, whom he married in 2009.

In his 1979 interview, Mr. Van Halen clarified his guiding principle for the band. “All we’re trying to do is put excitement back into rock ’n' roll,” he said. “A lot of people seem like they forgot what rock ’n' roll is about. We’re very energetic. We get up there and blaze.”