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Steve Vai: “I could never play like him… Only an idiot competes with Eddie Van Halen”

Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Olly Curtis/Future / Ross Marino/Getty)

Following Eddie Van Halen’s tragic passing at the age of 65, stars including John MayerJoe SatrianiJimmy Page and Pete Townshend have paid tribute, and now Steve Vai – who played in Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth’s solo band – has offered his own memories of the departed guitar legend.

The two guitarists met backstage at an Allan Holdsworth gig in Los Angeles, during which time Vai was working with Frank Zappa.

“He was a Zappa fan, so I gave him my number and said, ‘If you ever want to meet Frank, let me know,’” Vai told Rolling Stone.

“And oddly enough, the next day, my roommate said, ‘Ed Van Halen called.’ I gave him Frank’s number. Then the phone rings, and it’s Frank. And he says to me: ‘Hey, sport, Edward Van Halen is here, come on up.’ And I went up to the house and the three of us sat there all day and listened to music and jammed.

“He was amazing back then. He picked up this one guitar, and the nut was a little too shallow, so the string was buzzing. He found this huge screwdriver and [stuck it] underneath the nut. The screwdriver was sticking out like a foot and a half, and we were jamming like that, and he made it work.”

After Vai left David Lee Roth’s band in 1989, he got a call from Eddie, and the two met regularly for the next six months.

“I saw his studio,” Vai continues. “He played me all these tapes. He was constantly writing and playing. He played me stuff that was never released, but it was so Edward. I said, ‘Why don’t you make a solo record?’ and he always felt that the Van Halen records were his solo records. But this stuff he was playing me was really quite nice. It was all the things we loved about the way he played.

Vai also recalls another occasion where Van Halen delivered demonstrable proof that tone is in the fingers.

He takes my guitar and he starts playing and I realized instantly that it was Edward Van Halen. It didn’t sound anything like me. It had that ‘brown sound’

“I was at my house in Hollywood, and in my studio, I was using my guitar, my rig, my pedals, my amps,” Vai says. “And Edward came in. We were just hanging out and talking, and he says to me, ‘Let me show you this one thing I was working on.’

“And he takes my guitar and he starts playing and I realized instantly that it was Edward Van Halen. It didn’t sound anything like me. It had that ‘brown sound’. It was everything we love about Ed’s tone. He was playing my exact gear, and it sounded like him.

Among the Van Halen tracks he played live with Roth, Vai highlights Unchained, (Oh) Pretty Woman, Panama and Hot For Teacher as his favorites – but admitted he never sought to imitate Eddie’s playing style.

“I could never play like him,” Vai admits. “I never tried. Only an idiot competes with Eddie Van Halen. But I knew that going into it. But when you’re playing that stuff and you’re a guitar player, you see the infrastructure of it. It’s just so beautiful.

“I remember making [David Lee Roth album] Eat ‘Em and Smile and we were working with Ted Templeman and he played me just the naked tracks of Edward’s guitars, and even just one track, one microphone of Edward’s guitar just sounded like an orchestra. Perfectly packaged in this powerfully dynamic expression.

“I feel the shock and the loss of the entire guitar community. I just want to say let’s focus on all that he gave us, because it truly was a gift. And he was brilliant.”