In November 2011, as Rolling Stone prepped a list of the greatest guitarists of all time, Eddie Van Halen called us up for a loose chat. In the interview, Van Halen, who died of cancer on October 6th, 2020, went through his personal list of guitar heroes (Eric Clapton was his Number One), the origins of his own style, and much more. Here is that full conversation for the first time.
You’re up early.
I’m always up early. I wake up between 5 and 7 every morning and work out. I’ve been that way for quite a while.
So you filled out a ballot last night.
Yeah, well, you know, I attempted to. Because I never quite understood… what is this based on? Because I personally have never rated myself as a guitarist, or anyone else. To me it’s not the Olympics or a competition, you know what I mean?
Let me put it this way. Back in the days of Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin, how could you rate them? They were all good at what they did, and you couldn’t put them in any order.
I hear you man, I hear you.
So I never understood any of these polls, or who’s most important and this or that. But if you do want to take that approach, from my perspective anyway, I would have to start with the people who gave us the electric guitar, which is Les Paul and Leo Fender. Because without them we wouldn’t have a guitar to play. Les Paul, being a player and an innovator, I would say would be at Number One. Leo Fender wasn’t necessarily a player, he surrounded himself with players, and created an electric guitar. And then came Eric Clapton, who is at the top of my list. What attracted me to his playing and style and vibe was the basic simplicity in his approach and his tone, his sound.
He just basically took a Gibson guitar and plugged it straight into a Marshall and that was it. The basics. The blues. So, you know, then what I ended up personally doing… I didn’t like a Les Paul or a Fender. So I cross-pollinated the two — I took the best parts of each one and made my own guitar. And basically Clapton is the only one that’s influenced me. In the Cream days. By the time Cream broke up, I pretty much kind of took the ball and ran my own way with what I had learned.
Do you remember when you had first encountered Clapton’s music? Had you heard any of the pre-Cream stuff at that point?
Actually after Cream I dug back a little bit to the Bluesbreakers stuff, but my favorite stuff was when he was in Cream. Which was only a couple, three years. It wasn’t a very long run, but what I really liked was their live stuff, like Wheels of Fire and Goodbye, Cream and stuff like that, because then you could really hear the three guys playing in their live element.
And you would literally slow down those records and learn every lick.
Yeah, I’d take the turntable and do that. Bottom line, it’s all blues-based… You’ve got three chords that are most pleasing to the ear, and you’ve got 12 notes to work with. It’s very basic. At the time of Clapton, of course you had Jimmy Page, [Jimi] Hendrix, [Jeff] Beck, and Townshend and all these guys… Pete Townshend was an influence as a rhythm guitarist. I never really got into Hendrix. I don’t think I ever even bought a record of his. He was more abstract in his approach.
I remember you saying that as a kid, you felt like you didn’t know how to reproduce what Hendrix was doing with wah-wah and other pedals.
Yeah, exactly. For one, I couldn’t afford the shit. So Clapton was mainly it for me.
Some people say they don’t hear it in your playing. They can’t tell that you’re influenced by Clapton.
Well, after Cream he changed, you know? When he started doing “I Shot the Sheriff” and this and that, and when he hooked up with Delaney & Bonnie, his whole style changed. Or at least his sound. I think the major factor was, if you listen to the live stuff — like, say, “I’m So Glad” on Goodbye, Cream — you listen to the three guys go, and it was Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker that actually made Clapton sound really good. Because they were a couple of jazz guys pushing him. I think I actually read somewhere a long time ago that Clapton said, “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” He was just trying to keep up with the other two guys.
But it’s funny, though, because when I did dig back to the John Mayall Bluesbreakers days, I found Peter Green, who’s actually more Clapton than Clapton himself. He was a little smoother and more tasty, you know? I don’t know what ever happened to him….
He had some mental health issues.
That’s what I hear. But I think we’re all a little bit crazy from even playing electric guitar. Anyway, I’m having a hard time filling out this list.
Pete Townshend, as a rhythm player, was it the triads and the use of pedal tones that you picked up?
It was just the power and intensity, and again, simplicity. You know, nothing was very complicated. Like, listen to “My Generation” [sings the main riff]. Even the later stuff on Who’s Next, it’s all very power-chord based.
How about Tony Iommi?
He was the father of heavy metal in my mind.
Did he inspire you to tune down?
Well, that was more because it was easier on the singer. And on top of that, if you listen to our first batch of records, I never tuned to anything. I never tuned to a piano or a tuning machine, so I always would just pick up my guitar and the bass player would tune to me. So we were always in the cracks [between piano keys]. I’ve found that most of the things that I’ve stumbled onto were all accidents, you know?
There’s a ton of Van Halen songs where the solos are as important as the vocal melody — or at least where you can’t imagine anything else in their place on the record. There’s plenty of your solos that I could hum to you right now.
Well, I’d like to think so. It adds another melodic element of the song. With us, everything always starts out with the music first. Some people start with lyrics, the way Elton John takes Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and writes music to them, which I’ve never really done, because lyrics don’t really speak music to me. We always start with the music first. [Sings Beethoven’s Fifth.] You know, what kind of lyric would you put over that?
Let’s talk about some other players you like. I know you’re a fan of Steve Lukather.
He’s a studio guy. He started out playing on so many people’s records that he could play any style you wanted. He just amazes me at what a chameleon he can be. He can throw himself in any situation and shine. It’s almost hard to tell who’s really him. I guess it’s probably all of them, everything he’s ever been exposed to is who he is. He’s kind of a player’s player, a musician’s musician. I’m more of a straightforward rock & roll guitarist, blessed to be in a kick-ass rock band.
Whose vibrato do you like?
There’s something about Angus Young. It’s funny, I read something with him recently where he said that he doesn’t rate himself as a guitarist, and neither do I. How do you rate yourself as a guitarist? You just do your own thing, and you’re just a part of a bigger picture.
I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it’s almost like AC/DC have one song — but it’s a great song! It’s brilliantly done. Again, it’s that simplicity that makes you bang your head.
Maybe you could talk a bit more about Tony Iommi and other heavier influences?
With Tony, it’s the riffs, and the power of the music. And you’ve got people like Ritchie Blackmore [and] Leslie West. Leslie West has this incredible tone in Mountain. And Ritchie Blackmore I liked because of his vibrato bar use on [1970’s] Deep Purple in Rock. Also, they come out with great riffs. I mean, come on, “Smoke on the Water” is one for the history books.
Do you think that the electric guitar has been pushed beyond you?
I’ll put it this way. When I grew up, come on, you had Cream, you had Zeppelin, you had Hendrix, you had the Who, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. You had so many bands that were all very, very different. It just doesn’t seem to be that way nowadays. Everybody, to me, kind of sounds the same. I don’t want to sound like my father, like a parent, but the music nowadays isn’t as unique to me.
Has your son introduced you to anything cool?
I don’t really listen to what he listens to, but what he brings to the band is a very youthful energy.
Jimmy Page, you dug, right?
Yeah, I liked him for the songs. The only guy solo-wise was Clapton to me.
You have said that Jimmy Page’s pull-offs on “Heartbreaker” made you think of two-handed tapping.
Oh, yeah. Right, well, that’s what made me think of doing hammer-ons, or whatever they call it. I didn’t call it anything when I was doing it, it just became a part of my playing. Now they call them hammer-ons, pull-offs, I don’t know what’s what. But that’s what made me think of making my right index finger like a sixth finger on my left hand.
But that’s the limit of your influence from Jimmy Page. You went off in your own corner.
Yeah, because the way I play is nothing like Clapton, Beck, Page, or Hendrix.
Did you listen to a lot of Jeff Beck?
I didn’t get into him until [1975’s jazz-fusion album] Blow By Blow. Just the instrumentalness of it. And [1976’s] Wired. Interesting stuff in there. I guess it was just the experimentation in there that I liked. Jeff Beck is definitely a standalone. You never know what the hell he’s gonna do. My brother and I were in France 20 years ago, and Jeff Beck was playing, and he was doing a rockabilly thing. And we were like, “What the hell is this?” You never know what to expect with him.
Are you still psyched about guitars in general?
Oh yeah, I’m always fussing with mine. I always look at things and go, “I like this, I don’t like that,” so I change them, out of necessity, out of what I want a guitar to do. The volume knob and the tone knob on my guitar are different. Usually they’re both the same on the guitar. On my guitar, the volume knob is very easy to turn, it’s a very low-resistance volume knob. Whereas the tone knob is very difficult to turn, so wherever you set it, it stays, so you don’t accidentally bump it.
You’re still trying to perfect your tone.
I’m always messing around with pick-ups, trying to get a warmer, smoother, sustain-ier sound.
Are we going to hear from you soon?
Of course, it’s what we do. We make music for a living. But that’s a whole other interview.