What Eddie Van Halen Taught Me About Breaking The Rules

It was starting to get uncomfortable.

“Jimmy Page. Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton.”

The moderator was calling out the names of rock music’s most famous guitarists. A veritable “who’s who” of the instrument.

Across from her was sitting a contemplative Eddie Van Halen. A man whose name rightfully sits among those guitar legends.

Eddie was shaking his head.

“No, not really,” was his simple and honest reply.

It was in the middle of an hour long conversation when the moderator, a very cheery woman who didn’t seem to know that much about music, asked Eddie about his influences.

But as Eddie denied even listening to those artists much, let alone being influenced by them, he seemingly came to a massive self realization.

“I just kind of figured it all out on my own.”

Mention to a rock guitar nerd that Van Halen is the greatest guitarist in the history of the genre and something very interesting happens. He won’t be everyone’s first choice, but no one will tell you that you are wrong. That’s how big a shadow he creates over the instrument.

How EVH gained that status is as unlikely as any story that revolves around the American Dream. Having immigrated from Holland at 8 years old with his Dutch father and Indonesian mother, Eddie was sent to an all black school in Southern California (this is when schools were still segregated in Los Angeles) because his lack of command of the language and immigrant status deemed him a poor candidate for the mainstream white schools.

He quickly became a classical piano prodigy even though he lacked the capability to read music (he fooled his teacher by watching his hands during demonstrations and then pretending to read the pages when it was his turn to play).

Not having enough money for guitar pedals, Eddie built his own guitar out of various scrap guitar parts so he could achieve the sounds he had in his head. He pulled pickups apart, dipped their magnets in wax and put them together again in order to get high output sound without feedback.

On top of playing mad scientist when it came to building his own guitars, Eddie’s playing technique was just as innovative. Rather than strumming the guitar, he would tap the fretboard in order to ring out extra notes and play much faster than one could with a pick. When the second song on Van Halen’s debut album (a solo guitar instrumental called “Eruption”) featured this technique, mind’s were absolutely blown. How could someone come along in the late 1970’s and completely change the way the instrument was made, played and sounded?

Eddie Van Halen became a legend by breaking the rules. By using his classical music background rather than rooting his music in the blues like everyone before him. A philosophical shift that ultimately resonated so strongly that it dominated heavy metal music from the early 80’s forward.

When it comes to training (or anything for that matter) standing on the shoulders of giants makes A LOT of sense most of the time. Following the steps that have worked time and time again – whether that be with exercise selection, marketing strategies, chord progressions or parenting skills – is a sure fire way to be successful in the shortest amount of time. It will quickly get you 87% of the way there.

The other 13% is reserved for those brave enough to make their own way. People who are willing to figure out a new system, to go to a spot where no one else is, to see and try things differently — that is what makes them legends.

Eddie Van Halen passed away from cancer last week. And while we’ve endured the untimely deaths of Prince and Tom Petty and music legends like Chuck Berry and Little Richard in recent years, I’ve never seen the outpouring of emotion and tributes and sadness as with the passing of Eddie.

If it’s true that legends never die then Eddie will be around with us forever. That’s what happens when you change your piece of the world forever.