Guitar Hero Eddie Van Halen Dies at 65

Versatile and influential guitarist Eddie Van Halen was more than a one-band man.

Eddie Van Halen
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images

Rock legend Eddie Van Halen, lead guitarist of the group Van Halen, died of cancer at the age of 65, according to Variety.

“I can’t believe I’m having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning” his son, Wolf Van Halen, announced on Twitter. “He was the best father I could ever ask for. Every moment I’ve shared with him on and off stage was a gift.”

The band Van Halen often appeared to be an unstable unit. Original lead vocalist David Lee Roth gave way to Sammy Hagar before reuniting with the band. But Eddie Van Halen and his drummer brother, Alex, were always there, from the beginning and through their 12 studio albums. They formed the band in 1972, and by 1974, its classic lineup, Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony was in place. They were putting out hits like “Dance the Night Away” by 1979. The only thing that kept their sixth album, 1984, off the top of the album charts was Michael Jackson’s 1984 album Thriller, and Van Halen played lead guitar on one of its biggest hits, “Beat It.” Van Halen’s song “Jump,” from 1984, did hit number 1. Van Halen co-wrote every original song the band recorded.

Eddie Van Halen, whose full name was Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, was born Jan. 26, 1955. He and his brother, Alex, were born in the Netherlands. Their father, Jan Van Halen, was a classically trained clarinetist, saxophonist and pianist.  They moved to Pasadena, California, in 1962. The Van Halen brothers both took piano lessons and won contests. The brothers began performing rock and roll while they were still in their teens. Eddie was deeply inspired by Eric Clapton, but went far afield from the blues purity the slowhand guitarist explored. Van Halen’s solos were varied and yet distinctive. From the high-powered arpeggios which anchored “Panama,” through the classical runs of the acoustic “Spanish Fly,” to the master string- tapping of the instrumental “Eruption.” Van Halen said the inspiration for the tapping came from watching Jimmy Page’s solo on “Heartbreaker’ during a 1971 concert at the Los Angeles Forum.

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In 1981, Eddie Van Halen married actress Valerie Bertinelli from the family sitcom One Day at a Time, The couple had one son, Wolfgang, who was born in 1991. He has been a consistently vocal fan of his son, who joined Van Halen in 2006. Eddie married his second wife, Janie Liszewski, in 2009.

Lee Roth left the band in 1985 for a solo career. Hagar, who was the singer for the band Montrose, became the frontman. The band’s next four albums, 1986’s 5150, 1988’s OU812, 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and 1995’s Balance, all went to number 1 on the album charts. Van Halen co-wrote the hits “When It’s Love,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” and “Finish What Ya Started” with Hagar. Gary Cherone, from the band Extreme, replaced Hagar, who left citing creative differences, in 1996. The band released their 1998 album Van Halen III. They took a break the next year.

Van Halen was treated for tongue cancer during the hiatus. He battled an assortment of health issues, along with rumors of illnesses and other issues. He had hip-replacement surgery in 1999, and surgery for diverticulitis in 2012. Doctors removed a third of his tongue in 2000, and Van Halen was declared cancer free two years later. But there were recent reports saying he was getting specialized treatments in Germany. Van Halen cited the metal picks, made of brass and copper, which he held in his mouth, as contributory factors. Although he also admitted cigarettes and drugs probably played a part. He went into rehab in 2007. He and Bertinelli separated during the band’s hiatus and divorced in 2007.

The band reunited with Hagar for their 2004 tour. They reunited with David Lee Roth for their 2007 tour with Eddie’s son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony on bass. Van Halen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Hagar and Anthony accepted the honor. Van Halen also won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal in 1992. Eddie is consistently listed as the number one guitar player in Guitar World.

Eddie also performed on solo albums by Hagar, Queen’s Brian May, Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters, and LL Cool J and David Garfield. Van Halen, with Roth on vocals, released A Different Kind of Truth in 2012. It was their first studio album of new material since 1998. The band toured in 2012 and 2013, and 2015.

Eddie and his brother’s first band was called the Broken Combs. They formed it in elementary school to make up for their lack of English skills. John Lennon once bragged that, although he wasn’t the best guitarist, he could still “make it speak.” Eddie Van Halen made it scream. He also made it purr, growl, and sing operatically. His fingers had a distinct voice as easily understood as any lyric.