In Memoriam: guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, 65

Eddie Van Halen performing at the New Haven Coliseum. Photo by Carl Lender, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

NEW YORK (AP) — Eddie Van Halen, the guitar virtuoso whose blinding speed, control and innovation propelled his band Van Halen into one of hard rock’s biggest groups, fueled the unmistakable fiery solo in Michael Jackson’s hit “Beat It” and became elevated to the status of rock god, has died. He was 65.

A person close to Van Halen’s family confirmed the rocker died Tuesday due to cancer. The person was not authorized to publicly release details in advance of an official announcement.

With his distinct solos, Eddie Van Halen fueled the ultimate California party band and helped knock disco off the charts starting in the late 1970s with his band’s self-titled debut album and then with the blockbuster record “1984,” which contains the classics “Jump,” “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.”

Born in Amsterdam, Edward Lodewijk van Halen was the son of Jan van Halen and Eugenia van Halen (née van Beers). Jan was a Dutch clarinetist, saxophonist, and pianist. Eugenia was an Indo (Eurasian) from Rangkasbitung on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. The family eventually resettled in Nijmegen [Netherlands].

In February 1962, the Van Halen family moved from the Netherlands to the United States, settling in Pasadena, California. Both Eddie and his older brother, Alex Van Halen, naturalized as U.S. citizens. The brothers learned to play the piano as children starting at the age of six. They commuted from Pasadena to San Pedro to study with an elderly piano teacher, Stasys Kalvaitis.

Van Halen revealed in an interview that he had never been able to read music. Instead, he learned from watching and listening. During recitals of Bach or Mozart, he would improvise. From 1964 through 1967, he won first place in the annual piano competition held at Long Beach City College. Afterward, the judges would comment that he had an interesting interpretation of the classical piece. Van Halen’s view was, “What? I thought I was playing it correctly!” However, according to one interview, playing the piano did not prove to be challenging or interesting to him. Consequently, while Alex began playing the guitar, Eddie bought a drum kit and began practicing for hours every day.

After Eddie heard Alex’s performance of The Surfaris’ drum solo in the song “Wipe Out,” he decided to switch instruments and began learning how to play the electric guitar. According to Eddie, as a teen he would often practice while walking around at home with his guitar strapped on or sitting in his room for hours with the door locked.

Eddie and Alex formed their first band with three other boys, calling themselves The Broken Combs, performing at lunchtime at Hamilton Elementary School in Pasadena, where Eddie was in the fourth grade. Eddie would later say that this was when he first felt the desire to become a professional musician.

Eddie described supergroup Cream’s “I’m So Glad” on Goodbye Cream to be “mind-blowing.” He once claimed that he had learned almost all of Eric Clapton’s solos in the band Cream “note for note. … I’ve always said Eric Clapton was my main influence,” Van Halen said, “but Jimmy Page was actually more the way I am, in a reckless-abandon kind of way.”

Eddie and Alex Van Halen formed a band in 1972. In 1974, the band changed its name to Van Halen and became a staple of the Los Angeles music scene during the mid-1970s, playing at well-known clubs like the Whisky a Go Go. In 1977, Warner Bros. Records offered the band a recording contract.

Van Halen is among the top 20 best-selling artists of all time. In 2007, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine put Eddie Van Halen at No. 8 in its list of the 100 greatest guitarists.

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Auction Central News International contributed to this report.