Rocker Eddie Van Halen, who has died at 65, never forgot his classical past

Oct 7, 2020

 

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performs at a dress rehearsal at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., in 2012.
Credit Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Eddie Van Halen, who has died from cancer at 65, blazed trails with his band Van Halen as one of the greatest guitarists in rock history. But he never forgot his classical past, and it started with his name and upbringing.

When Van Halen was born in 1955 in the Netherlands, his musically minded parents (father Jan Van Halen was a clarinetist, saxophonist and pianist) named him Edward Lodewijk Van Halen in honor of Ludwig Van Beethoven. (Lodewijk is the Dutch equivalent of the German name Ludwig.) But that was just the start of his classical childhood.

After the family moved to Pasadena, Calif., in the early 1960s — with "$50 and a piano," he said during a talk at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History — his parents enrolled Van Halen in formal lessons for that piano at 6.

But he never learned to read the sheet music, he later explained. Instead, he would mimic the instructor's hand movements and play by ear to realize works by Beethoven and Mozart. During recitals and competitions, he would use memory recall and improvise, earning praise from judges for his stylizations.

While his parents might have wanted a classical career for Van Halen, the lure of rock music turned out to be too strong for him and brother Alex, who also had to take piano lessons. Eventually, they formed the band Van Halen, with Eddie on guitar and Alex on drums, and the rest is rock history.

But Eddie Van Halen's classical sympathies never really went away.

His band's second album included the 1-minute nylon-string guitar solo "Spanish Fly," providing a dazzling display of Van Halen's incredible musicianship and technical wizardry.

In a ranking of Van Halen's 20 greatest solos, Rolling Stone said:

 

An inspired piece of music, "Spanish Fly" was also a warning shot fired to remind the legions of hard-rock guitarists who were beginning to imitate his playing style that he could transcend the genre at will. Future Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde, for one, got the message. "The first time I heard 'Spanish Fly,' I remember thinking, 'How can anybody get that … good?'" he says in Abel Sanchez' Van Halen 101. "It was beyond insane."

 

On the band's 1986 tour, Van Halen offered a rock version of his namesake composer's Für Elise — with his trademark flourishes, of course:

Another classical connection hit closer to home. When Van Halen and then-wife Valerie Bertinelli had a son in 1991, they named him Wolfgang in honor of another great composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Rest in peace, Eddie Van Halen — the heart of a rock legend, the soul of a classical great.