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Steve Lukather pays tribute to Eddie Van Halen: ”The worst thing that could have happened to Eddie would have been guitar lessons”

Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns)

I first met Eddie at the CaliFFornia World Music Festival in 1979. Van Halen was headlining one night after their first album. Toto’s first album was out and we had a hit with Hold the Line. I loved him from the moment we met. It was like I’d known the guy my whole life. 

I was close with Ed for 40-plus years. And he was more than my guitar buddy. Of course, we played each other whatever we were working on, just showing off our shit and going, “Look what I’m doing!” But we didn’t speak about guitars a whole lot.

With Ed, he always showed me love, and I had the deepest respect for him. And there’s no doubt he was one of the greatest of all fucking time. Who could ever dispute that – how he changed everything?

We spent a lot of life together. He would drop by my house and we’d sit and talk for hours. Wolfie’s doing this, my kid’s doing that… We were both proud parents

But he was just a humble little guy who just loved to mess with shit and do things different. Like, the worst thing that could have happened to Eddie Van Halen would have been guitar lessons. When it came down to details about equipment and how he liked to do things, he always had an “adventure” mentality. He knew what he wanted. And he wanted really weird shit.

We co-wrote a song for my first solo record [Twist the Knife, from 1989’s Lukather]. He said, “Yeah… I have this riff, I want you to learn it.” So I got to get inside his head for a minute. And what he did was he gave me a guitar and he said, “Tune it up a whole step and take an A bass string and tune it to B.” And I go, “What? The neck’s gonna bend in half. What the fuck?” He goes, “Trust me.” I did it and I got a good take out of it, and that’s the record.

We did a few things together. I sang some background vocals on a couple Van Halen tunes, and Ed and I got to do that crazy Michael Jackson record that was fluke-ishly put together.

I was working on the album [1982’s Thriller] already. Long story short, they did a version of Beat It, and they sent it to Eddie to do the solo. But he cut the tape because he wanted to play over a different section. So Quincy [Jones, Thriller producer] called me and [Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro and said, “I need you guys to fix this record for me because Eddie cut the tape!”

Ed, he didn’t give a fuck. It’s like, “We’re in my studio, we do things my way.” He didn’t do sessions. He said to me later, “I didn’t get paid…”

I said, “You didn’t go to the union and pick up your check, Ed. It’s probably still there – your thousand bucks for the session.” He goes, “I never thought about that!” Ed fucking changed the world.

You have to look at things pre-Van Halen and post-Van Halen when it comes to guitar

I remember him telling me, “Look, man, I never meant to turn [tapping] into this parlor trick thing – it’s just the way I play.” It’s playing rhythm and lead at the same time, you know? He found a new way to fill out the sound. He created a whole orchestra on the instrument. You have to look at things pre-Van Halen and post-Van Halen when it comes to guitar.

I’m really upset. What do you say? Somebody you spent 40-odd years with. The good, the bad, the ugly. Marriage, divorce, kids. We spent a lot of life together. He would drop by my house and we’d sit and talk for hours. Wolfie’s doing this, my kid’s doing that… We were both proud parents. And he was the same cat I met in 1978, all the way up to the end.

Steve Lukather was speaking to Richard Bienstock.