Wolfgang Van Halen looks back on his mammoth year: “I’m not a guitarist of the year – I’m just a dude”

Wolfgang Van Halen
(Image credit: Andraia Allsop)

Following a remarkable run with the release of his debut solo album, Mammoth WVH, Wolfgang Van Halen is back in the studio with producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette. Their plan is to finish the new Mammoth album in January and mix it in February, wrapping up in time for Van Halen and his band to begin a U.S. tour with Alter Bridge in March.

“We have some fun things planned throughout the year that are still in their infancy,” he says. “It’s looking like we’re not slowing down. The machine is waking up again.”

Van Halen and Baskette were in the early stages of tracking when he learned he was one of GW’s Guitarists of the Year. During a quick break from recording sessions, he connected with GW to discuss this and more.

Congratulations on being chosen as one of the Guitarists of the Year. Is “unexpected” an accurate word to describe your reaction when you heard the news? 

“Are you kidding me? What an honor, seriously! Thank you. I’m not a guitarist of the year. I’m just a dude. What an insane honor.”

Was it a little bit of a Field of Dreams moment? Beautiful yet bittersweet?

“Absolutely. I know Dad would be super-stoked. I don’t know how many times Dad was on the cover, maybe more than anyone else. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were actually true. So it’s a trip to be recognized by that same magazine – as myself.”

Who is your choice as Guitarist of the Year? Is this a given, or no?

“It’s a funny thing. When people ask me who my number ones are in any respective thing, I don’t even think about Dad or Al [Alex Van Halen] in guitar or drums because it’s such a given. They’re beyond rating numbers of who’s my favorite, because they’re a part of me. They would be the easy answer, and I think that would be doing a disservice to the many amazing people who are out there now writing incredible music.

“I’d like to point out one of my favorite guitar players currently. His name is Aaron Marshall and he has a band called Intervals. Their most recent album is called Circadian, and came out in 2020. He is one of my favorite guitar players. On top of that, he’s a wonderful man, a very kind dude. I feel like I have become a better guitar player because I’ve tried to learn all the songs on that album.

“He has such a wonderful melodic sensibility that is so different from people in his genre of the heavier, progressive, metal-y rock sort of thing. It really separates him from everyone else. I can’t speak enough of how wonderful a guitar player and songwriter he is.”

Who were you when you began working on the first Mammoth album and who are you now?

“I’m a very different person. The person who made the album started working on it way back in 2015, and that Wolfie has been through a lot of shit to become the Wolfie I am today, especially in the last three years. The things I experienced have certainly changed the way I look at life and the way I operate, and I’m sure in many ways that I don’t even realize.

“It’s weird to be in my 30s. I’ve been through all kinds of stuff since the start of that record and now, so it feels exciting, bittersweet, and all kinds of emotions at once as I get ready to record this next album.”

What are your goals for the new album?

“It sucks to know that Dad isn’t going to be popping in every now and then like he did the first time. So it’s going to be different, but the goal overall is the same, which is to make music I would like to hear and that I enjoy. That’s how I follow my writing process. 

“The main goal is to widen the breadth of what the output can be. I like to view it as this sort of cone, if you will, where the left side is the softer songs, the right side is the heavier songs, and everything in between is scaled properly. Songs on the left would be like Distance and Think It Over, and on the right would be something like Stone, You’re to Blame and Don’t Back Down. The desire I have with this new album is to go further and beyond on both sides.”

You’ve navigated the peaks and valleys of being a public figure since you were a teen. With that comes the pressure of upholding the family name, which you do with talent and class, bullying from internet trolls, whom you handle with grace, and grieving publicly in a world that is not always kind to the bereaved. First, how is your mental health in all of this? Second, do you have words for readers who are dealing with similar situations and may find comfort through your shared experiences?

“I won’t lie. I don’t think my emotional and mental wellbeing have been any lower. It’s a thing that is incredibly tough to fight. In the absence of Dad, and everything that has happened, it’s very difficult.

“The lucky thing is I have a wonderful support system surrounding me. I have my mother, my uncle Patrick, my fiancée Andraia, so many wonderful people I can lean toward, because I certainly don’t have the emotional strength. There’s many times when I don’t have the strength to do anything, and more than not, that seems to be the case.

I work through a lot through music, and I have a lot to work through this time around. I’m cautiously optimistic and also dreading it at the same time

“But you’ve got to find the things that give you life. For me, that’s music and being able to wake up every day and think about how I’m going to create this second album. It’s stressful, but it’s also very exciting, and it’s what I put all my thinking into. 

“When it comes to dickheads on the internet, that’s always there. Everyone deals with it. Sure, it hurts a lot when it’s directed toward you, but you’ve got to realize the place it’s coming from. I like to pick my battles. I like to find the right time to chirp and say something funny, but sometimes you do feel that need to be like, 'Fuck off.' And you can do that every now and then. But all in all, it says so much more about them than it does about you that they go out of their way. You can point them out, too, because you’ll see their profile and you can almost always predict what’s going to be filling their timeline. 

“When it comes to people who feel the same way I do, dealing with depression and anxiety, you never really are alone. Unfortunately, it’s like we’re all alone together, because so many of us feel this way. 

“I work through a lot of it through music, and I have a lot to work through this time around. I’m cautiously optimistic and also dreading it at the same time, because I have to go to a lot of places emotionally and mentally to get to the other side of this album and have a finished, complete thing. But I think it will be good for me because that’s the same thing that happened with the first album. It was a very therapeutic, cathartic experience.”

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Alison Richter is a seasoned journalist who interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals, and covers mental health issues for GuitarWorld.com. Writing credits include a wide range of publications, including GuitarWorld.com, MusicRadar.com, Bass Player, TNAG Connoisseur, Reverb, Music Industry News, Acoustic, Drummer, Guitar.com, Gearphoria, She Shreds, Guitar Girl, and Collectible Guitar.