It was 1977 when producer Ted Templeman walked into the Starwood, West Hollywood, where Van Halen were performing. They were struggling – nobody would sign them, they weren’t clicking with any producers and they were so tight for money Eddie was using guitar wire to keep his car door shut. Things weren’t looking good, until Templeman spotted them.
“You’ve got to see this guy”, Templeman told Donn Landee over the phone, a recording engineer he knew well. He was watching Eddie, the guitarist who seemed to have the most mind-bending technique he’d ever seen.
Eddie spoke little English. Born in Amsterdam, he and his older brother Alex (drummer and co-founder of Van Halen) moved to California in 1962 where they went to school. Communicating was hard, and school was tough. By the time Templeman signed the group, Eddie was still getting to grips with basic English.
“Even when recording, I’d say ‘Hi.’ And he’d say ‘Yeah.’ He didn’t quite know ‘Hi’ yet. But he could express himself once he started talking. So people gave him a rough time at school”, Templeman told Rolling Stone earlier this week.
During the first six albums that Templeman produced, Eddie remained humble and shy. ‘Eruption’ was discovered as Eddie was warming up, thinking no one would take notice. He was innovative with his technique – he’d perform solos live in session with tapping thrown into the middle, some technical masterpieces that managed to remain melodic. He perfected precise harmonics, created a mix of feedback and distortion and rigged his own pedals and amps. Nobody was doing that – not even Clapton or Page.
On the day ‘Eruption’ was recorded, Templeman was heading out when he overheard Eddie fiddling around:
“It sounded like something you could only play on an organ, like a Bach fugue. I couldn’t believe it was coming from a guitar. I was like, ‘What is that?’ He was like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Just something I warm up with before a show.’”
Recording was easy – his sound was so brilliant it barely needed a little EQ to help the balance. And, what’s more, the band were a great song-writing team – David Lee Roth worked on lyrics whilst Eddie was on changes.
“He had his foot pedals stuck together with Band-Aids and tape, and he had all these little tricks that he’d turn on and off”, Templeman remembers. “He’d build all his own stuff. He had his own way of making his amp sound more powerful than other ones by delivering more AC to it than you should.”
But, at 65, Eddie Van Halen died of cancer, announced by his son on Instagram. He stayed close friends with Templeman until the end, and many more have shared their tributes since including Joe Satriani, Brian May, Dave Mustaine and Billy Duffy. And, to many more, he will remain one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
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