Eddie Van Halen Opens Up in his First Guitar World Interview From 1981, Part 1
"I never imagined that we would get to where we are this quick," Eddie reflects. Eddie Van Halen is not the arrogant, brash, or angry young man I had imagined. In fact he wears the kind of smile that could sell soft drinks on television. And he wears it well. Because Eddie Van Halen is one happy fella. The explanation is easy.
"Everything I did is because I wanted to do it," he says without arrogance. "If I weren't playing this arena, if I were playing a club, I'd still be doing it because that's what I want to do. I love playing the guitar."
More than just playing guitars, Van Halen builds them. In fact, when we met for this interview, he was surrounded by guitar parts, preparing to put together the instruments for a performance only two hours away. As the pickups, bridges, necks and strings found their way together, I began to see the picture of a young guitarist whose success in high voltage rock has left his spirit intact and his feet remarkably on the ground.
In essence, Eddie Van Halen travels in overdrive while the visions in his rearview mirror remain clear. "I'm not a rock star. Sure I am, to a certain extent because of the situation, but when kids ask me how it feels to be a rock star, I say leave me alone, I'm not a rock star. I'm not in it for the fame, I'm in it because I like to play."
GUITAR WORLD: Were you as good a piano player as you are a guitarist?
I won first prize four years in a row at Long Beach City College for my category. The piano is a universal instrument. If you start there, learn your theory and how to read, you can go on to any other instrument.
Sounds like you had a solid foundation in the basics.
Well, I'm not a good reader. I would read and remember. The one thing I do have is good ears. I don't mean perfect pitch, but ears for picking things up. I developed my ear through piano theory, but I never had a guitar lesson in my life, except from Eric Clapton off of records.
Do you have the ability to think something and play it immediately?
Not automatically or perfectly, but that's the thing I don't think when I play. It's spontaneous, it's feeling. It's not calculated or figured out ahead of time. That's why you might say I playoff the wall. When I was in junior college at Pasadena City, I took scoring and arranging class with a Dr. Fischer. Frank Zappa had also been his student. Dr. Fischer was very avant-garde and the one thing he taught me was fuck the rules. If it sounds good, it is good.
I take it you took to the guitar fairly easily?
Not to sound-ego-out, but I was a natural. My father has been a professional musician all his life, and he said, 'Kid you've got it,' Some people have got it and some people don't, Even people who don't have it can practice long enough to get it down to a point. But there's always a difference between a person who has the feel and those who don't. The difference is in the amount of emotion expressed in your playing. I listened to Debussy by two different pianists and it was like day and night. One guy had it and every note was beautiful. The other guy had lead fingers.
Did you go through a period of imitation before your own days of invention?
Definitely, and Clapton was it. I knew every note he played. That's what I was known for around home. Me, Alex and another bass player called ourselves Mammoth and we were the junior Cream. [Shortly before going on stage, Eddie played Clapton's "Crossroads" solo for me, calling it "one of the best live recorded songs ever."] It's funny; when I do interviews and tell people Clapton was my main influence, they go "Who?" Because they're thinking about Clapton doing "Lay Down Sallv," not the Bluesbreakers or Cream.