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Eddie Van Halen discusses his early influences and groundbreaking technique in his first Guitar World interview from 1981

Eddie Van Halen made his first Guitar World cover appearance with the January 1981 issue. The cover asked readers if the young EVH was the world's greatest guitarist, while the original headline dubbed him The New King of Heavy Metal Guitar.

Below is the original cover feature in its entirety.

"Just give me some of that rock 'n' roll music,
Any old way you choose it,
It's got a back beat, you can't lose it,
Any old time you use it,
Gotta be rock 'n' roll music,
If you want to dance with me."

Chuck Berry wrote those words over 20 years ago. Edward Van Halen, guitarist for the group sporting his last name, couldn't agree more. At 24, you might just say he's respecting his elders. 

Along with brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and lead vocalist David Lee Roth, the group Van Halen pumps out hard-rockin' music that was born in the basement, fused in the bars, and explodes on stage.

Describing himself as a kid "living his rock-and-roll dreams," Eddie Van Halen has been heading there since the fourth grade. He was born in Amsterdam, Holland, where his father, a professional musician, got both brothers to the piano at an early age. 

His musical knowhow was born in the classics, but his spirit was in rock-and-roll. "Who wants to sit at the piano!" he exclaimed. "I want to go crazy. Everybody turned me on. I grew up on a lot of early Beatles, DC5, Cream, Clapton, Page, Beck and Hendrix."

Eddie Van Halen

(Image credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

He was 10 when the family moved to Los Angeles, "land of opportunity." After the high school dances and diploma, he graduated to the bars and the start of the band that bears his name.

"We were all in various bands in the L.A. area, and when we got to the college age everyone started flaking off; wanting to be doctors. We got stuck with each other. There was nobody left that was into it." 

They played all the bars and all the oldies, including a version of the Kinks' You Really Got Me, which Eddie calls "a hot tune we turned into a jet plane." The crowds got bigger and Van Halen were able to draw 3,000 people to a gig they threw themselves. 

Kiss's Gene Simmons paid for their original demo sessions, and Mo Ostin, chairman of the board at Warner, and Ted Templemen, V.P. of A&R, caught their act at the Starwood Club. They were signed the next day. 

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

Three years ago they played the bar scene, today they headline arenas. "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."

Eddie Van Halen

(Image credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images)

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. 

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

"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 Sally, not the Bluesbreakers or Cream."

Your current trio and a singer format is not much different than Cream. Have you ever thought of working with another guitarist?

"I've never played with another guitarist because I make enough sound on my own. What I loved about Cream is that everybody had to put out It was three people making all this noise and you could hear each person. 

"The Allman Brothers' feel is something I never got into. Duane was an excellent slide guitarist, but I never cared for Dickie Betts. I found their music too cluttered for my taste."

This will sound real funny to you, but we tour for eight weeks and then take eight days off. When I'm home on a break, I lock myself in my room and play guitar

In your Clapton days, I'm sure you did some intense studying on the instrument. Do you still work as hard to improve your playing?

"Yes, but I don't call it practice. This will sound real funny to you, but we tour for eight weeks and then take eight days off. When I'm home on a break, I lock myself in my room and play guitar. 

"After two or three hours, I start getting into this total meditation. It's a feeling few people experience, and that's usually when I come up with weird stuff. It Just flows. I can't force myself. I don't sit down and say I've got to practice."

Can you be specific about how you play better today than, say, when the first album was released?

"I don't consider myself a better player. I consider myself different. With the technical ability I have, I can play just about as fast as I'd like to play. Any faster at the volume I play, and I'd have distortion. So technically there's no reason to get any faster."

But do you still reach any new plateaus?

"Sure I do."

Can you point some out on your records?

"The solo on Cradle Will Rock is different. One guitar player who I respect and think is the baddest, is Allan Holdsworth. I do one short lick on Cradle which is very spontaneous. That came out because I've been listening to this guy. On the second album I expanded a little more on harmonics."

You're talking about hitting false harmonics by using your right hand to hit the fretboard?

"Yes. First I just used my first finger on the right hand to hit a note (Heard on Eruption from the first Van Halen album). Then I discovered the harmonic by hitting the fret an octave above where the left hand is positioned. Now I'm expanding on that, by using all the harmonics in between the octave. 

"I also use the slap technique, which I got from black bass players. Jimi Hendrix influenced me on how to hold the pick when I do the harmonics. I saw the Hendrix movie and discovered where the pick goes when it disappears. He holds it between the joints of his middle finger. I pick weird too. I use the thumb and the middle finger."

One thing that strikes me about your playing is that of all the high-energy players, you don't take long guitar solos.

"I haven't heard anyone do a long interesting guitar solo outside of early Clapton. I do a guitar solo in the live show which is long, and some people may think boring, but I have fun. Clapton was my favorite. 

"With his feel he'd hit one note where someone else would hit twenty, and his one would do something to you, whereas the other person's twenty would leave you flat."

I'm going to turn that against you, pointing out your own note-y-ness.

"I'm not Eric Clapton. I might play fast, but there's a lot of people who play fast with no feel at all. I think I'm high-energy, but I think I combine a little more feel and some different techniques than other high-energy players."

Have you ever thought that you may now be part of the guitar heritage you once studied? Thinking of players like Beck, Page, Clapton and Hendrix, you may be next in line for guitar hero.

"It's very hard to say. That's like me telling you I'm the best. I can't say that. I'm not. I can't say I'm going to influence people, but I know a lot of people are using their right hand on the fingerboard now that never did it before."

(Image credit: Future)

Would you like to be thought of as a great player?

"I'd Just like people to like what I play. I don't want people to say, 'You're Number One.' It's a matter of taste. To me Allan Holdsworth is Number One. Other kids might listen to him and not even understand what he's doing. Older people might think I suck."

Hard rock is usually associated with a younger crowd. I think it's something you grow through more than with. When I want to rock out, I put on the albums that were happening when I was 15. Does that make sense to you?

"Yes. It might be that's what you remember as the good times. It could be because you don't like what's on now. Rock 'n' roll is for 12- to 21-year-olds. When you get past that age, people have more responsibilities. They don't buy records anymore, they stop going to concerts, they have jobs, and a lot more troubles."

Eddie Van Halen

(Image credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

What about your quieter side? Beck, Page and Leslie West all put out acoustic guitar pieces that contrasted with their normal styles.

"There's a lot you haven't heard yet. I had more of an acoustic intro to In A Simple Rhyme, but the reason we didn't do it is because everyone would immediately go, 'He's pulling a Zeppelin.' We did Could This Be Magic?, but it's a joke."

Have you started thinking about the fourth album?

"I've got a load of ideas, but we don't know what we're going to do until we walk into that studio. What we do is tour for ten months, come home, go to the basement and make songs out of the ideas. 

"We invite Ted [Templeman, producer] down and he picks what he likes. We argue a bit, compromise, and we usually have a final say on what material goes on. We spend a week rehearsing in the basement and go straight in the studio."

There are mistakes, but I'm happy with everything that's on our records. That's not to say when we do them live we might do it differently

Sounds like you like to work quickly.

"For Women and Children First, it took four days for the music and six days for the singing. Dance The Night Away (on Van Halen II) was written on the spot, in the studio. I never played slide guitar before Could This Be Magic? I had something totally different in mind for the song, and Ted says, 'Try playing slide?' I did it right there on the spot and that was it. 

"Cradle Will Rock was first take. A bunch of songs were first takes. We don't go for perfection, we just go for spirit. There are mistakes, but I'm happy with everything that's on our records. That's not to say when we do them live we might do it differently."

Do you have a preference between live work and recording?

"Performing, of course! I play for self-satisfaction, but it makes it even better when other people enjoy it."