Like Father, Like Son: Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen Discuss the New Face of Van Halen
This feature is from the April 2008 issue of Guitar World magazine.
Eddie Van Halen put the fire in the group that bears his name. It took his son, Wolfgang, to rekindle the passion and get the group on the road for one of the most anticipated reunion tours in rock history. In this world exclusive interview, the father-and-son duo talks about working and performing together in Van Halen.
Is musical talent genetically inherited? If your test sample is the Van Halen family, the answer undoubtedly would be yes and the proof would be the current Van Halen tour, which features the Van Halen brothers—Alex and Ed—on drums and guitar respectively, as well as Ed’s 16-year-old son Wolfgang on bass. Although Wolfgang picked up the bass less than two years ago, his comfort on arena stages in front of crowds of 20,000 fans suggests that it was always in his DNA to be a performer.
Wolfgang’s membership in the band may now seem like fate, but Ed was careful from the beginning to let Wolfgang’s musical interests and talents develop naturally, even though Ed often hinted that he hoped his kid would follow in his footsteps. “I’m going to let Wolfgang be whatever he wants to be,” he stated in 1995 when Wolfgang was only four. “I don’t see how he won’t somehow be into music, being exposed to it all the time. But I’m not going to force him to play piano or take music lessons like my parents did to me.”
Wolfgang’s guest appearances on guitar during Van Halen’s 2004 tour showed that Ed’s kid had not only taken an interest in music but he had also quickly developed true talent as a musician. Even so, devoted fans were taken by complete surprise when Ed revealed in late 2006 that Wolfgang was Van Halen’s new bass player. A few months later when news leaked that David Lee Roth was returning as the band’s vocalist and a tour was in the works, critics wondered if Wolfgang was truly qualified. Playing one of the most anticipated tours of the past 20 years is a hell of a first job for anyone, let alone someone who was just 16 years old and never played in any other bands before.
What seemed like a risky move on paper proved instead to be an overwhelming success as Wolfgang breathed new life into the band with the right balance of youthful enthusiasm and devoted reverence to the band’s classic songs, all of which were recorded years before Wolfgang was even born. While the tour gives Van Halen fans an opportunity to see the band with David Lee Roth again, the presence of Wolfgang onstage opens the door to a new chapter in the band’s history. What lies ahead in the future is anyone’s guess, but with Wolfgang joining the band its foundation is now stronger than ever as is its potential to grow in new directions.
Talking with Ed and Wolfgang, several unusual qualities become evident. There’s no generation gap between the two, but more importantly they reveal an undeniable mutual respect and admiration for each other that even Wolfgang’s occasional rebelliousness and Ed’s playful displays of parental authority can’t hide. The two are truly in awe of each other’s talents. One gets the feeling that Wolfgang would be a huge Van Halen fan even if his dad wasn’t in the band and that Ed would want to make music with Wolfgang even if Wolfgang wasn’t his son.
With rave reviews coming in for the band’s current tour and a lifetime of possibilities lying ahead to explore, the future for Van Halen as a band looks very bright thanks to the addition of a new family member. As the saying goes, the family that plays together stays together, and this family positively jams.
In the new April 2012 issue of Guitar World, we count down the 50 best Van Halen songs of all time. That issue is available now at the Guitar World Online Store.
GUITAR WORLD How did Wolfgang join the band? Did you ask him to join?
WOLFGANG VAN HALEN I didn’t ask to join.
ED VAN HALEN I asked him. We were in the studio one day. Al was in the drum room. The drum room is in the back of the studio so we couldn’t see Al and Al couldn’t see us.
WOLFGANG We were standing behind the console in the control room. That's where we stand when we rehearse.
ED That way I can engineer and it’s so much easier to monitor all the instruments. It’s really fuckin’ loud and crystal clear. It’s like making a record, because I have the ability to mix while we’re playing. So Wolfgang picked up a bass, and I put the bass in Al’s headphones.
WOLFGANG It was in the summer of ’06. My dad had said, “Hey, do you want to jam?” and I said, “Sure.”
ED We were just jamming on some stuff. I’ll never forget it. You played the blonde five-string bass with four strings on it.
WOLFGANG Oh yeah!
ED Al had no idea that it was you. I put you in his headphones. It was the first time in 30 years that Al’s had bass in his headphones. Al said, “Hey! How are you playing bass and guitar at the same time?” I got on the talkback and said, “Say hi, Wolfie!” and you went [in high voice], “Hi, Uncle Al!” Your voice was a lot higher then. Al went, “Who’s playing bass?” I told him it was Wolfie, and it blew Al’s mind.
WOLFGANG After that, Al asked if I wanted to jam again. I said, “Yeah!”
ED That’s when I asked him if he’d like to be the bass player in Van Halen. He said, “Yeah, as long as I don’t have to do a certain thing,” which I won’t mention. [laughs deviously]
WOLFGANG I can say that: I said, “Sure. I just don’t want to do a bass solo.”
ED Even though you do have a couple of solo spots that shows everyone that you are a world-class player.
WOLFGANG Yeah, whatever. Then we just made it a religious thing on every Wednesday and Saturday to play. We just kept playing relentlessly and eventually we thought, Hey, we’re pretty damn good!
GW So in the beginning everything happened organically.
WOLFGANG We didn’t lay out a plan or anything. It just fell together. We played together a good four months without any vocals, and we just looked at each other and knew it was awesome.
ED It’s like Dave says, “Three parts original, one part inevitable.” And it was inevitable.
GW Wolfgang, you play several instruments—guitar, drums, keyboards. What drove you toward the bass?
WOLFGANG Well, it was the only open spot. [everyone laughs] And the people filling the other spots—drums and guitar—are the two greatest players of those instruments in the frickin’ world. I find the bass safe. You don’t have to go out on the line.
ED I remember another thing you said at the very beginning: “Can I just groove?”
WOLFGANG I just like to be there to groove and keep the song going.
GW Your dad always says he wishes he was the bass player.
WOLFGANG I love being a bass player. It’s just me and Al—a groove section. Just boom, boom, boom, and we’re good.
ED He is so on. Hey Wolf, wanna switch gigs?
GW There are huge expectations on you, Ed.
WOLFGANG But you’ve got to admit that there were huge expectations on me before the first show.
ED Before we went on tour a lot of people were saying that Wolfgang got the gig just because he’s my son. But after that first gig, forget it. It’s just hands down, hands up, hands sideways: he’s a musician and a Van Halen.
GW Was the time in between when the tour was announced and when you played the first show difficult?
WOLFGANG I just wanted to get it over with. I wanted to be where we are now. There was so much weight on my shoulders to fill the shoes and prove that I could do it. I knew I could do it, but I wanted to say, “Everybody, hey, I can do it!”
ED We rehearsed probably six months before Dave showed up. We were almost over-rehearsed. We got to the point where we were goofing around.
WOLFGANG That’s when we started playing “Little Dreamer” in double time.
ED When Dave walked in it blew his freakin’ mind.
WOLFGANG That night was magical. That was the first time I heard vocals with everything.
ED Dave couldn’t believe how good you are.
GW Wolf you’ve gone directly from rehearsing with your dad and uncle to playing some of the biggest venues in the world. Was it difficult for you to make that transition?
WOLFGANG Because we rehearsed so frickin’ much, from spending six months in 5150, then at Center Staging and then for a few weeks at the L.A. Forum, I felt that we had done enough preparation for me to feel safe. Plus when you’re on the stage, you’re far enough away from people that you feel comfortable. Sometimes I can just close my eyes and feel like we’re in that room at 5150 again.
ED It’s a lot different than rehearsing in the studio. It’s probably more comfortable than being in the control room with a bunch of people staring at you.
WOLFGANG When there are only 10 people around, I get nervous. But when there are so many other people, I feel more comfortable. Then it’s just the four of us doing our thing.
GW How did your dad help you prepare for the tour?
WOLFGANG He didn’t really help me prepare. He just told me what not to do.
ED I taught him what my dad taught me, which is you can learn from everyone what to do and what not to do.
WOLFGANG That, and practice.
ED Actually, he helped me more than I helped him.
WOLFGANG Yeah, I had to teach him how to play the songs again.
ED Because I couldn’t remember the damn songs, and I don’t know how to work a fuckin’ iPod. He had one with all the songs on it. We hooked it up in the control room, and he’d go, “No dad, it goes like this!”
GW Did you teach yourself how to play the songs?
WOLFGANG Yeah, I did. The night before we started practicing, I sat down in my music room and I listened to every single song and just played to them. I didn’t do exactly everything that’s on the recordings. I put my own spin on I kept it as close as possible but added just a little…spice. A little WVH flair. [laughs]
GW Ed, What’s it like to be onstage with your son as a band member, not just a special guest like he was on the previous tour?
ED It’s an amazing feeling. I’m just so truly blessed. I have pictures of me sitting in the racquetball court in my pajamas with an acoustic guitar and Wolfgang is probably just two-and-a-half-feet tall. I’ll never forget the day I saw his foot tapping along in beat! I knew then, I couldn’t wait for the day I’d be able to make music with my son. I don’t know what more I could ask for.
GW Even after playing about 40 shows together, do you still have moments?
ED Oh yeah. Every night. Sometimes we actually talk while we’re playing. I’ll go, “Hey! Are you all right?” because sometimes he’ll look at me funny. When I give him a kiss or a high five or a low five, it’s from the heart. It ain’t bullshit. It’s just pure love.
WOLFGANG That doesn’t happen to me every night, but sometimes when I’m playing I’ll forget to sing or play a certain note I’ll look up and go, Whoa, this is crazy! That feeling is always there, but I don’t always have time to think about it because I have a job to do.
ED I trip. You blow my mind. To be playing together is something I’ve always dreamed of. Believe it or not, I didn’t know you’d be this good. He scares the shit out of me. He plays drums like a pro, too. The first thing he does in the house is start playing “And the Cradle Will Rock” on the piano. Once Janie, my girlfriend, walked by and said, “Oh! I thought that was you.” But it was Wolfie. Drums, guitar, bass, keyboards…shit! And singing!
GW What’s it like to be in a band with your dad and uncle?
WOLFGANG It feels right.
ED That’s the perfect way to put it. It just feels right.
WOLFGANG I don’t ever go, “This is weird. I’m with a bunch of older people.” I feel like we’re all the same age. It’s just what we do.
ED I was going to say the same thing. Every now and then when we’re onstage playing, I’ll look at him and go, God, that’s my son! He’s only 16, but he’s not “16.” He’s an equal. Age doesn’t matter.
WOLFGANG There’s nobody else my age on the tour, but I feel like I’m an equal. I hope that everybody thinks of me the same way.
ED I believe they do, but you wouldn’t believe the legalities we had to go through to have him be the bass player in Van Halen.
WOLFGANG I still have school.
GW Watching the band play, it’s like Wolfgang has been a member for a long time. Why do you think you get along so well together?
WOLFGANG We’re blood.
ED It’s innate. The way Wolfgang plays bass is very similar to the way I play guitar. It’s very unorthodox. His style is interesting. When other bands come by, like Green Day, I’ll go, “Close your eyes and listen to him.” People freak out. [Poison guitarist] C.C. DeVille left me a message and he didn’t compliment me at all. He did say I was on top of my game, but my son really impressed him. Do you know how proud that makes me? I couldn’t ask for more. Not only has he proven himself but he also takes this stuff further. He does all the wicked shit on the bass that I do on guitar. It’s fucking amazing.
WOLFGANG It’s like a genetic metronome. When we end songs, we don’t even look at each other. We all feel it. It’s good music and I love playing it.
GW How are your friends reacting to your first job?
WOLFGANG My friends just see me as me. I'm Wolfie, doing my thing.
ED But they must trip.
WOLFGANG They do. But they all really support me.
ED I’m sure they’re proud of you.
GW What music do you listen to?
WOLFGANG Mainly rock stuff. Nothing too out of the ordinary. I really like Tool, which is one of my favorite bands, and I love Primus and Sevendust, too.
ED You were totally into AC/DC for a while.
WOLFGANG AC/DC is in all of our hearts because they rule.
ED You listen to us, too.
WOLFGANG Not any more. I haven’t listened to us for a while.
ED That’s because you’re playing it now. I remember when I picked you up from school one day and there were boxes of records sitting in the shop at the studio. You looked at them and went, “Is this all you dad?”
WOLFGANG Oh yeah. I probably was like five.
ED No, I think you were 10.
ED It blew my mind that I totally forgot to turn him on to all the music that I’ve written. All he knew was what he heard on the radio.
WOLFGANG Like “Jump,” and that was it.
ED I’ll never forget when we were coming home from Castle Park [a family entertainment center]. “Hot for Teacher” came on the radio and Wolf was going, “Who is that singing?” I said, “That’s Dave.”
GW When did you start listening to your dad’s recordings with David Lee Roth? What do you like about them?
WOLFGANG I’m not sure when I started.
ED You had to listen to them to learn them.
WOLFGANG Yeah, but I’m not sure when I started. I love it for the same reason everybody else loves it. It’s awesome. It’s just good music. It lasts. It was made a while ago, and it still lives today.
GW Van Halen music has never lost its adolescent appeal. For example, “Panama” was featured in the movie Superbad, and it fit perfectly even though the movie is set in the present day.
WOLFGANG I love that movie.
GW What is it about Van Halen music that makes it so timeless?
WOLFGANG It rocks.
ED It just lives and breathes. It’s real. It’s not contrived, premeditated or anything. It’s just whatever comes out. If you try to write a song to please people and they don’t like it, you’re fucked because you’re not pleasing yourself, for one. And if they don’t like it, you’re double fucked.
GW You write a lot of material. Do you have a gauge in your head that lets you know when something is ready to serve up to the table?
ED There’s a lot of stuff I like that the rest of the guys don’t. It’s like that with “Panama.” I rarely start on the one, and Al hears what I’m playing backward. I’ll never forget when I wrote “Little Dreamer,” which is one of the few where I do start on the one and he played backward to that, too. Onstage when we’re playing…
WOLFGANG …Oh God, I have to watch you! At the end of “Unchained” we have to go eight or nine times before we freakin’ end! Sometimes it’s three. Sometimes it’s five. It’s always an odd number.
ED I can’t count for some reason. It’s always threes or fives for some reason. I only go by feel.
WOLFGANG And sometimes that feeling is wrong! [laughs] But we always somehow manage to pull it together for the ending.
ED We fall down the stairs and land on our feet together. Onstage, I look at Wolfie because he can count!
GW Has it always been that way, even before Wolfgang?
ED Yeah! But now I’ve got two people to help me, because both Al and Wolfie can count.
GW How do you approach your solo section every night?
ED There are certain things that I feel the fans really want to hear me play. “Eruption.” “Cathedral.”
WOLFGANG “Spanish Fly.” The “Little Guitars” intro.
ED I noodle a bit. About the only complaint I get is that my solo is too long. Half the time I’m looking over at Matt Bruck and going, Shit! Where do I go from here? Sometimes I don’t know where to go because I forget all of the stuff that I’ve done. It’s like what you asked me about why Van Halen’s music has held up. It’s because it’s spontaneous and real. I’m not saying there’s no thought behind it. Obviously it has to have some kind of structure. But spontaneity is the main ingredient.
GW Now that you’ve thoroughly road tested the EVH 5150 III amps, how do you feel they’ve improved or changed your tone?
ED It’s just a natural progression. It’s an extension of me, just like the guitar, which I named after my son even before he was in the band. The tattoo on my arm [“Wolfgang”] says it all.
GW You still use an old-school setup with a guitar cable and wedge monitors, and you control your own effects from an onstage pedal board. Why?
ED Because that’s what I like. I don’t like digital shit. My pedal board is homemade. It’s all about sound. It’s that simple. Wireless is wireless, and it’s digital. Hopefully somewhere along the line somebody will add more ones to the zeros. When digital first started, I swear I could hear the gap between the ones and the zeros.
GW The wah-wah pedal is the newest addition to your rig.
ED It might appear that way to you, but I’ve used a wah since the early Nineties. I dig it, too. I use it more now than I ever have. I couldn’t afford one back when we were starting out, but I always wanted one. The reason why I never used any kind of fuzz or distortion box is because I couldn’t afford them.
GW What kind of wah are you using?
ED It’s my own model made to my own specs by Dunlop. I just go by my ear and tell people this is how I want it to sound. A lot of people don’t quite understand. Matt Bruck and I bust our asses to get people to understand what tone means. We’re tone chasers, and until we get there we don’t stop. That’s what keeps us going.
GW You’ve brought a lot of different Wolfgang guitars on this tour, but you usually play one particular one at a show. However, at another show you may play another entirely different Wolfgang guitar that night. How do you choose which one you want to play that night?
ED The Wolfgang guitars I have are prototypes. I generally play the latest prototype. Hopefully it sounds better than the previous one, and if it does, I end up playing it. I like the white one I’m playing better than the sunburst one, which I like better than the black ones.
GW Wolfgang, how did you choose your bass rig?
WOLFGANG Matt Bruck helped me a lot with the Sound City amps. When we were practicing Matt told me that he had these really cool amps, and we hooked them up. They rule.
ED Nobody gets a bass sound like he does. He uses EVH Brand 5150-III 4x12s. The same cabinets with EVH Celestion 12-inch speakers that I use.
WOLFGANG They’re really out of the ordinary, but it works.
ED Everything starts here. [Ed holds up Wolfgang’s fingers.]
WOLFGANG I split the signal between the amp and a DI, and I have a preamp as well. But the amp is the meat and potatoes of the sound.
GW What basses are you playing?
WOLFGANG I’m playing a Franken-bass, if you want to call it that. It’s based on my dad’s Frankenstein guitar…
ED Except it has four strings instead of six.
WOLFGANG I got the red one for Christmas last year. Chip Ellis built it, and he told me he was going to make a backup, so I asked him to paint it blue. Ever since I was little I wanted my own stripes. Blue is my favorite color, so we tried it and I think it looks pretty cool.
GW Do you eventually see yourself having a solo segment onstage?
WOLFGANG I don’t. I like having my own moment for five seconds, like the “So This Is Love?” intro and the tapping part in “Romeo Delight.” That’s enough for me. I’m more than fulfilled being a team player.
GW What was your best personal moment so far on this tour?
WOLFGANG When we did the rehearsal show for friends and family in L.A., it was just the beginning and I didn’t feel I had ripened. When we came back to L.A. and did the first Staples Center show, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was much a better player. I felt like a member of the band.
ED For me it’s the fact that I get to play with my son, my brother and Dave. Every night is special. Doing an interview with my son right now is special. It’s all special.