Eddie Van Halen, the virtuoso guitarist whose innovative and blistering solos helped propel the band named after him into one of rock’s biggest acts in the 1980s, has died of cancer. He was 65.
Van Halen’s son Wolfgang, who became the band’s bassist when it reunited in 2007, announced the news on Twitter on Tuesday.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.”
He added: “I love you so much, Pop.”
Van Halen, born in 1955 in Amsterdam and raised in Pasadena, California, formed the band along with his brother Alex, bassist Michael Anthony and singer David Lee Roth in 1974, after the group met while attending Pasadena City College.
The band cut their teeth playing in West Hollywood clubs before bursting on the rock scene in 1978 with their self-titled debut album, which ultimately sold over 10 million copies as part of a hard rock wave that pushed disco off the top of the charts.
The group, one of the 20 bestselling artists of all time, then went on a tear, releasing multi-platinum albums in five consecutive years: Van Halen II (1979), Women and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981), Diver Down (1982) and finally their biggest hit, 1984.
The album included the hits Jump, Panama and Hot for Teacher. Separate from the band, Eddie Van Halen also contributed the signature guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s smash 1982 hit Beat It.
Starting with a blazing solo on Eruption from their debut album, Eddie Van Halen’s distinctive, acrobatic guitar playing powered the band’s appeal, earning him a reputation as one of rock’s all-time greats.
Van Halen, who grew idolizing Eric Clapton, pioneered his own dynamic style – often playing with both hands on the neck of the guitar – modeled by a generation of guitarists. “I do whatever I want,” he said in an interview with Guitar Player, in 1978. “I don’t really think about it too much … Everything is pretty spontaneous.”
Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready told Rolling Stone that Van Halen’s playing “sounded like it came from another planet … [I]t was glorious, like hearing Mozart for the first time.” In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him the eighth best guitar player of all time, between Chuck Berry and Duane Allman.
Van Halen, an autodidact who could play many instruments but was unable to read music, also battled numerous health issues over the band’s decades-long run.
Plagued by joint pain exacerbated by antics on stage, he underwent a hip replacement in 1999 and the partial removal of his tongue from cancer in 2000. Struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism contributed to his divorce from the TV star Valerie Bertinelli in 2007, the same year he began a rehab stay, and reunited with Van Halen, with Wolfgang, 16 at the time, on bass.
He is survived by his second wife, Janie Liszewski, the band’s former publicist, whom he married in 2009, and Wolfgang.
Artists paying tribute include Gene Simmons, who said: “My heart is broken. Eddie was not only a Guitar God, but a genuinely beautiful soul”, while Simmons’s Kiss bandmate Paul Stanley said he was “a trailblazer and someone who always gave everything to his music. A good soul.”
Lenny Kravitz said “heaven will be electric tonight”, while John Mayer described Van Halen as “a stunningly good musician and composer. Looking up to him as a young kid was one of the driving forces in my needing to pick up a guitar. I was so blown away watching him exert such control and expression over his instrument.”
Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx also compared him to Mozart, and added: “You changed our world”. Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath said Van Halen was “one of the nicest, down to Earth men I have ever met and toured with. A true gent and true genius.”