Eddie Van Halen was the kind of outsize musician the term “guitar god” was invented to describe. With his exuberant, virtuosic playing, his lightning-speed solos, and his seemingly effortless “tapping” (a badass-sounding technique in which both hands are used in finger-tapping on the fretboard), the late rocker redefined the sound of the electric guitar and helped shape the course of ’80s rock and glam-metal.
Van Halen was also a hero and occasional mentor to guitarists as wide-ranging as Dimebag Darrell, Tom Morello, Mike McCready, and countless others. From his iconic “Beat It” solo to his wildly unique patented guitar innovations, the guitarist’s influence on pop culture stretched well beyond rock-radio staples like “Jump.”
The guitarist’s death this week, following a lengthy cancer battle, prompted countless fans, fellow rockers, and imitators to pay tribute to his influence and share their favorite Eddie Van Halen stories. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the most legendary and unforgettable EVH stories from a lifetime of rock.
The Time He Recorded the “Beat It” Solo for Free in Half an Hour
It’s one of the most deservedly legendary guitar solos in pop history, and you’ll recognize it whether or not you know the difference between David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. But Eddie Van Halen took less than an hour to record the electrifying solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and he wasn’t even paid for it. According to a 2012 CNN interview, he did it purely as a favor to producer Quincy Jones, thinking the song — which would spend weeks at the top of the Billboard chart — would barely be heard: “I said to myself, ‘Who is going to know that I played on this kid’s record, right? Nobody’s going to find out.’”
Some accounts claim that Van Halen was compensated with a case of beer:
Oh, and He Rearranged “Beat It” Without MJ’s Permission
Nearly as impressive as the solo itself is the fact that Van Halen rearranged and improved “Beat It” in a matter of minutes while Michael Jackson was out of the room. As Van Halen recalled in that same CNN piece, “I listened to the song, and I immediately go, ‘Can I change some parts?’ I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘Okay, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.’” Thank God, Jackson approved.
The Time He Threw a Bowl of Guacamole at David Lee Roth
Except the guac landed on someone who was definitely not David Lee Roth:
Yes, this story is true, according to Runnin’ With the Devil, a 2017 memoir by Van Halen’s former manager, Noel Monk.
When He Became the First Guitar God to Hold a U.S. Patent
Eddie’s approach to soloing was so wildly original, he got a U.S. patent to prove it. The story is that in 1985, Van Halen patented a folding prop device (or a “musical instrument support,” as he called it) that would place the guitar perpendicular to his torso and free up his hands for tapping on the strings. The accompanying diagram is sufficiently excellent:
Van Halen later received patents for two more guitar devices.
“Eruption” Was Only Supposed to Be a Warm-up
Track two on Van Halen’s self-titled debut, “Eruption” is a brief, face-melting blast of guitar tapping that helped redefine how guitar solos would sound for the subsequent decade. Like countless other legendary tracks, it was never meant to be on the album. In a 1996 issue of Guitar Player, Eddie revealed that he was just in the studio practicing his guitar solo for an upcoming gig. “Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, ‘What’s that? Let’s put it on tape!’” Van Halen recalled. “So I took one pass at it, and they put it on the record. I didn’t even play it right. There’s a mistake at the top end of it. To this day, whenever I hear it I always think, ‘Man, I could’ve played it better.’”
He Buried His Original “Bumblebee” Guitar With Dimebag Darrell
The late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell idolized Van Halen and reportedly listened to their music before every show. Darrell even got to meet Eddie Van Halen for the first time in 2004, hanging out with the legend during sound check at a Van Halen show in Texas.
Just months later, on December 8, 2004, Darrell was murdered by a crazed fan while performing with his band Damageplan. Shortly before his death, he’d expressed interest in buying one of a limited-run series of Eddie’s signature “tape-striped” guitars; Van Halen told him to wait and he’d tape-stripe a guitar for Darrell the next time they met.
That day never arrived. But when Darrell’s body was being prepared for burial in a Kiss Kasket (donated by members of Kiss), Eddie placed his original black-and-yellow “Bumblebee” guitar, pictured on the back cover of Van Halen II, right in the casket with him.
He Once Scored a Porno
Van Halen’s lyrics were always sexually charged; God knows how many shaggy-haired ’80s teens put Diver Down or 1984 on the turntable while screwing. In 2006, Eddie Van Halen cut straight to the chase and recorded two songs for the soundtrack of a porn film called Sacred Sin, directed by his friend, adult-video director Michael Ninn. “Michael Ninn is like a Spielberg to me: the imagery, the way he makes things look, just … sensual,” the guitarist explained at the time.
He Had a Cameo in a Frank Sinatra Music Video
Did you know Frank Sinatra made music videos? He did! Or at least he did in the mid-’80s, when he was dabbling with synthesizers and trying to woo the burgeoning MTV audience. In 1984, when Van Halen’s “Jump”-fueled crossover fame was at its peak, Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth appeared as themselves at the beginning of the video for Sinatra’s “L.A. Is My Lady,” the title track of Sinatra’s final solo album:
He Turned a Car Horn Into a Musical Instrument
Eddie Van Halen’s gear rig was legendary, but so was his affinity for creating musical effects out of ordinary objects. In 1978, he created the eerie, slow-motion squealing at the beginning of “Runnin’ With the Devil” with the help of actual car horns. “We took the horns out of all our cars — my brother’s Opel, my old Volvo, ripped a couple out of a Mercedes and a Volkswagen — and mounted them in a box and hooked two car batteries to it and added a foot switch,” Van Halen explained in a 1980 interview. “We just used them as noisemakers before we got signed. Ted [the producer] put it on tape, slowed it down, and then we came in with the bass.”
He Also Used the Casing of a World War II–Era Practice Bomb As a Gear Rack
In that same interview, Van Halen described how he captured the growl effect at the end of “Eruption”: “That’s a $50 Univox EC-80 echo box, a real cheap thing that works off a cartridge. It’s like a miniaturized 8-track cartridge … I mounted it in an old World War II practice bomb that I picked up in a junkyard.” (Gear nuts can view photos of Van Halen’s 1978 rig here.)
The Time He Took a Photo of a Random Tool Fan Who Didn’t Know Who He Was
This isn’t really a significant career moment, but it’s a funny story, so bear with us. In 2019, Van Halen accompanied his son, Wolfgang, to a Tool concert, as one does. While there, an excited-looking Tool fan asked the elder Van Halen to take a photo of him in front of the stage, apparently having no idea whom he had just handed his iPhone to. Thankfully, Wolfgang captured the amusing moment:
The Cosmic Link Between Eddie Van Halen and Bill & Ted
Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, heroes of the Bill & Ted franchise, worship a lot of rockers, but no rock idol is as triumphant to them as Van Halen. Just minutes into the first film, Bill muses that their amateur band, Wyld Stallyns, “will never be a superband until we have Eddie Van Halen on guitar”:
Van Halen’s influence is also apparent in the air-shredding sound effects made famous in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Ted wears a Van Halen T-shirt throughout that film. As it turns out, Van Halen himself was offered the role of Rufus — the wizened time-traveling guide, played by George Carlin — but turned it down. After hearing of the guitarist’s death, screenwriter-producer Ed Solomon expressed his condolences on Twitter and revealed that they had tried to somehow involve Van Halen in 2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music, but the rocker had been unavailable.
The Time Van Halen Destroyed the Seventh Floor of the Sheraton Inn
In the liner notes of 1979’s Van Halen II, the band thanks “the Sheraton Inn (seventh floor).” This dedication stems from some old-fashioned debauchery when the band stayed at the Sheraton Inn in Madison, Wisconsin, during their 1978 tour with Journey. “We destroyed the entire seventh floor of the Sheraton Inn,” Van Halen recalled in a later interview. “We threw TVs out to the snow from the seventh floor.”
At one point, Van Halen entered his hotel room and realized that bandmate David Lee Roth had thrown his table and chairs out the window, into the snow. In a 1996 interview with Billy Corgan, he described how he got revenge: “I went down to the desk and said, ‘My name is David Lee Roth, can I have the key to my room?’ I went into his room, grabbed the table and chair and put them in mine. When the cops came, they looked in my room and said, ‘Hey, there’s no screen here but here’s a table and chair.’ Then they looked in Roth’s room and said, ‘Hey, there’s no table and chair here, but the screen is intact.’ They couldn’t figure it out.”
He Once Became an SNL Musical Guest Because He Just Happened to Be in the Building
In 1987, Eddie Van Halen was present in the Saturday Night Live studio because his then-wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, happened to be hosting that evening. Right then and there, SNL musical director G.E. Smith convinced Van Halen to join the house band and jam with them on a song they composed on the spot. “It was ridiculous how good it was,” Smith later recalled. “He’s a master, he really is.”
As a Kid, He Fooled His Music Teacher Into Thinking He Could Read Music
Van Halen’s roots were in classical piano — he took lessons as a kid, and performed Bach and Mozart pieces in recitals. His ear was so good that he never bothered learning how to read music. “I fooled my teacher for six years,” he said in a Rolling Stone interview. “He never knew I couldn’t read. I’d watch his fingers, and I’d play it.”
He Featured His Clarinet-Playing Dad on the Diver Down Album
That’s Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s father, Dutch swing musician Jan Van Halen, handling the clarinet solo on “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).” In a 1980 interview, Van Halen expressed lots of affection for his musical dad. “My dad was one of the baddest clarinet players of his time. He was so hot — unbelievable,” he raved. “My dad cries when he sees us play because he loves it. You know he’s so happy. It really is like his dream come true: The family music tradition is continuing, and it’s also his name.”
He Once Helped John Frusciante Score an Urgently Needed Wah-Wah Pedal
Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante loves using Ibanez WH-10 wah-wah pedals, but constantly breaks them during shows. “The WH-10s were always a problem,” RHCP guitar tech Dave Lee once explained to a Frusciante fan site. “I had just about every gearhead in SoCal on the lookout for them.”
During one such situation, Lee received a call from Van Halen’s guitar tech saying that he could pick up a wah-wah pedal from Eddie Van Halen’s house. And it was Eddie himself who saved the day:
He Used His Lamborghini As an Instrument on “Panama”
If you listen closely on Van Halen’s 1984 hit “Panama,” you can hear Eddie Van Halen’s actual vehicle. As one Van Halen fan site reports, about midway through the track, “you can hear Eddie revving his Lamborghini in the background, which was backed up to the studio. Microphones were then attached to the exhaust pipes. The band then recorded the sound of the engine revving.”
He Helped Doctors Perform His Own Hip Replacement Surgery
Sammy Hagar’s memoir, Red, is full of rather depressing stories about Eddie Van Halen, since Hagar’s years in the band coincided with Van Halen’s grueling struggles with alcoholism. But here’s a (slightly) less bummer-sounding tale from Hagar’s book. When Eddie had a hip replacement, “he stayed awake through the operation and helped the doctors drill the hole,” Hagar claimed. “What a fruitcake.”
No Brown M&M’s Allowed
During their ’80s heyday, Van Halen’s tour rider included a famously eccentric clause: Every venue was required to provide a bowl of M&M’s backstage, but “absolutely no brown ones.” (Yes, really.) Decades later, in 2012, David Lee Roth explained that the stipulation wasn’t just arbitrary rock-star excess. It was a litmus test to see if venues could be trusted to handle the band’s demanding performances. As Roth told NPR: “If I came backstage, having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I saw brown M&M’s on the catering table, then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious line check.”