Eddie Van Halen, acclaimed guitarist, songwriter, inventor, virtuoso, rock & roll legend, and esteemed PCC alumnus died on Tuesday at the age of 65 following a long battle with throat cancer.
Van Halen was the founder and main songwriter for the American rock band Van Halen, which was formed in Pasadena and included his brother Alex, bassist Michael Anthony, and frontman David Lee Roth, all of whom are PCC alumni. Roth was later replaced by Sammy Hagar in 1985 and then by Gary Cherone in 1996.
After its formation in 1974, the band went on to revolutionize the world of hard rock music with its energetic stage performances, its anthemic lyrics, and Van Halen’s galvanizing and memorable guitar riffs and frenetic two-handed tapping technique, for which he invented a device that would allow him to free up both hands in order to “tap” the strings. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and until his death, Van Halen remained the cornerstone upon which the band’s success was built.
In a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone, Van Halen said, “I don’t want to be seen as the fastest guitar in town, ready and willing to gun down the competition. All I know is that rock & roll guitar, like blues guitar, should be melody, speed, and taste, but more important, it should have emotion. I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something.”
However, no musician or band finds their success without first having the passion to create great music, and it was precisely this passion that Van Halen cultivated during his time at PCC.
“I attended PCC for three semesters,” he said in a 2015 interview with PCC student Kristen Luna for Spotlight Magazine.
Though, as he explained, his and his band’s education was cut short because their schedule for playing in clubs had become “too time-consuming.”
“Our experience at PCC was rather odd in the respect that we would stumble into class very tired from having played clubs the night before,” he said. “Other students would make fun of us, calling us musical prostitutes because we were not, in their mind, being true to whatever it meant to be a musician according to their principles. We were just trying to make a living and PCC helped in a lot of aspects, such as learning from [our music teacher] Truman Fisher and, at the same time, the social part of having met Dave.”
Eddie and Alex Van Halen met David Lee Roth, an Indiana native who sang in a local group, while attending the College in 1974. During that time, Eddie and Alex had formed a band called “Mammoth,” and as a way of repaying Roth for letting them borrow his sound system, they decided to let him join the band as their lead vocalist. In combination with Michael Anthony, the band’s bassist, they renamed the band “Van Halen” and produced their self-titled debut record, which reached No. 19 on the Billboard pop music charts just four years later.
“My first encounter with Dave was in Truman Fisher’s Scoring and Arranging class,” explained Van Halen. “Dave and I got along from the get-go, but from the outside looking in, it might have appeared to be a very odd pairing, as I am just a jeans and tee-shirt guy and Dave was dressed to the ‘T’ like David Bowie—from the hair cut all the way down to the platform shoes.”
“We started playing with Dave almost [by] default,” Van Halen added, “because when you’re at that age, you’re either serious about pursuing a music career or it just becomes a hobby. Dave, Alex, and I were very serious when it came to music being our profession.”
Born in the Netherlands, Eddie and his brother Alex moved to the United States when they were just eight and nine years old, respectively. Their family settled in Pasadena and the two brothers began training as classical pianists. But it was pop music that eventually caught their interest.
As the brothers explained, when they were kids it was Alex who played the guitar and Eddie who played the drums. However, while Eddie was out delivering newspapers, Alex would practice on the drums and soon he superseded his brother’s ability. Not to be outdone, Eddie decided to switch to guitar and, of course, the rest is history.
After high school, Van Halen and his brother played in various cover bands before going on to form their first band “Mammoth” along with David Lee Roth, holding their first concert in PCC’s Sexson Auditorium. Then, in early 1976, the band realized they shared billing with a group called “Snake,” whose bass player and singer happened to be Michael Anthony. The brothers asked Anthony to join their band and that was when the quartet decided to rename the band “Van Halen.”
In those early days, Van Halen was one of the most popular bands on the Pasadena rock circuit. They got gigs at strip clubs, hole-in-the-wall bars, and backyard parties for which they were sometimes shut down by local police due to their enormous crowds. It was in 1976 when Gene Simmons of KISS caught the band playing at a small club and offered to produce demos of them, for they had no record deal at the time. Soon after, a Warner Brothers executive convinced his label to sign them.
The change Van Halen ushered into the music scene in the latter part of the 20th century was monumental. With their debut record Van Halen, they set the standard for which a new generation of hard-rocking bands would strive. That effort was followed by Van Halen II, Women and Children First, and Fair Warning. They scored their first No. 1 single with the synth rocker “Jump” in 1984.
Of course, it goes without saying that if it hadn’t been for PCC, the band might never have existed. It wasn’t until Eddie and his brother enrolled at PCC back in the early 1970s that the potential for Van Halen was born. Without the College, the Van Halen brothers never would have met Roth and Anthony, they never would have benefitted from the Scoring and Arranging class, and they never would have had the opportunity to test their sound on a live audience in Sexson Auditorium.
And while it is true that both talent and luck played a major role in the band’s early success, having access to academic and artistic institutions like PCC, which foster creativity and success in the community, is worth noting.
“When you graduate high school and can’t afford to go to a university, you go to your local junior college, which happened to be PCC,” Van Halen told Kristen Luna in 2015. “All I took were music courses; my most memorable was Truman Fisher’s class. He was a wonderful teacher.”
Ever since the mid-1970s, Van Halen has been a model for modern guitarists, regardless of their tastes and preferences. His talent and skill are unquestioned, and he has dazzled the world with rapid arpeggios, unmatched tapping technique, and extended solos filled with intricate fret work.
In the days following his death, Eddie Van Halen’s pioneering career as a musician, inventor, and pop culture icon stands as a monument in the world of music. To this day, the band carries with it a particular power, not only musically but culturally. It has forever changed the way we understand and receive rock & roll; it has permanently added itself to the soundscape of a generation. And no single band member was more important than Eddie—passionate, immensely talented, and fearless.