Remembering Eddie Van Halen: His 20 greatest performances

Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen onstage in 1998.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A technical virtuoso with a rock star’s natural flair, Eddie Van Halen played instantly identifiable electric guitar — so identifiable, in fact, that his namesake band spent decades cycling through styles and lead singers without ever sounding any less like itself.

Van Halen, who died Tuesday at 65, arguably made his instrument the most important voice in Van Halen, which he formed in Pasadena with his older brother, drummer Alex, along with bassist Michael Anthony and frontman David Lee Roth. (Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone later sang with the band.)

Eddie Van Halen, legendary lead guitarist for rock band Van Halen, has died of cancer at 65.

Oct. 6, 2020

For all its instrumental dexterity though, Van Halen behaved — and sold records — like a fun-loving pop group; it never showcased the often-shirtless guitarist’s chops at the expense of providing a good time. Here, in chronological order, are 20 of Eddie’s most memorable moments:


‘You Really Got Me’ (1978)

Van Halen’s first chart hit wasn’t a densely composed original but a cover of the Kinks’ stupid-brilliant power-chord classic. Yet Eddie’s squealing lead lines undeniably announced the arrival of a new kind of guitar hero. (Mikael Wood)

‘Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love’ (1978)

Van Halen performs ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’ at the US Festival.

Less a love song than a creep show scored by Eddie and his guitar, the hardest jam on Van Halen’s self-titled debut focuses on a “semi-good lookin’” woman with a disease and a narrating dude who offers something he thinks she needs — and he ain’t talkin’ ’bout love. Centered, as usual, on Eddie’s recurrent melodic licks, the song takes flight when the rhythm section joins in. The final third is a thrillingly repetitive chorus of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” (Randall Roberts)


‘Eruption’ (1978)

It’s a rite of passage for aspiring teenage guitar gods: holing up in your bedroom and trying, failing and maybe someday nailing the solo to “Eruption.” Sure, sometimes you’d hear several attempts at once piling up in the lobby of the West Hollywood Guitar Center, but it’s still one of the most shock-and-awe instrumental openers in all of rock music. It’s completely showoff-y but remains a high-water mark for lead guitar spectacle that hasn’t been surpassed in 40 years. Were that we all 15 again, trying to get the finger-tapping runs and dive-bomb tremolo work just right. (August Brown)

‘Jamie’s Cryin’’ (1978)

By the tender age of 22, Eddie was serving a master class in guitar theatrics. In “Jamie’s Cryin’” — David Lee Roth’s portrait of a remorseful woman who turns down a one-night stand — Eddie teases an array of emotions across the span of six strings, ranging from weepy lament to shrugging indifference. (Suzy Exposito)


‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ (1978)

Van Halen made its first pass at this track with Gene Simmons of KISS in the producer’s chair, but the version that ended up on its 1978 debut is one of the hookiest singles in hard rock, about a young band getting a taste of road life and its peaks and perils. It helped set a new template for glossy, explosive and pop-friendly metal that would come to dominate the early days of MTV. (AB)

‘Spanish Fly’ (1979)

It’s just a minute-long instrumental, but “Spanish Fly” is the classic-rock equivalent of a career-ending diss track: a reminder to the legions of new Sunset Strip imitators that Eddie’s musicianship went far beyond rock and into wickedly complicated classical runs as well. Stripped of anything other than a nylon-string guitar, it’s the quietest track in Van Halen’s catalog but maybe Eddie’s loudest a mic-drop moment. (AB)


‘Dance the Night Away’ (1979)

“Dance the Night Away” video by Van Halen

Eddie’s penchant for ridiculous solo runs often eclipsed his skill at arranging a few choice riffs just so and harnessing them in service of Brill Building-structured pop songs. “Dance the Night Away” is like “Dancing in the Streets” or “The Loco-Motion” but driven by a yowler, two rhythm jocks and a guitarist good enough to hold back when he needed to. Specifically, Eddie’s solo is little more than gentle harmonic string taps, backed by bells, wood-block percussion and open space. (RR)

‘And the Cradle Will Rock’ (1980)

Van Halen, “And the Cradle Will Rock” video

Better known as the “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” song, the first track on the band’s “Women and Children First” album celebrates the young and disruptive. The cover of the album finds the handsome quartet posing like some eight-legged leotarded beast, with Eddie in the middle of the scrum, his arm strangling the neck of his guitar. Designed for cruising and boozing in a just-waxed Trans Am, the song’s main riff isn’t actually an electric guitar. Rather, Eddie ran a Fender Rhodes electric piano through a flanger and fed it all into a Marshall amp. (RR)


‘Unchained’ (1981)

Van Halen, “Unchained”

A typically Lee Roth-ian exploration of a woman he lyrically describes as a “blue-eyed murder in a size 5 dress,” the fourth song on “Fair Warning” finds Eddie pulling out his flanger again to make the central riff sound even trippier than it already is. “Unchained” also highlights his skill as a vocal harmonizer, no small feat given Roth’s overwhelming cords. For the bridge, Eddie dots out distorted notes as if searching for the nastiest tone before launching into a song-concluding bit of tangled guitar wailing. (RR)

‘Ice Cream Man’ (1982)

Born of Roth’s love of old-school blues, this take on John Brim’s lewd come-on starts out as a sepia-toned acoustic throwback but soon explodes into full power-boogie color at Eddie’s hand. (MW)


‘Beat It’ (1982)

Some rockers might’ve played it cool in a guest spot with the world’s biggest pop star. Not Eddie: His solo in Michael Jackson’s chart-topping “Beat It” — set to a memorable knife fight in the song’s iconic music video — is among his most gloriously showy. (MW)

‘Jump’ (1983)

The robot-aerobics synth lick is what endures (and what instantly conjures “Jump’s” early-’80s era). But Eddie’s meaty arpeggios in the song’s prechorus provide a crucial counterweight to all the Space Age filigree. (MW)


‘Panama’ (1984)

Eddie’s trickster steez shines through in the labyrinthine guitar work of Van Halen’s “1984” romp “Panama.” His playful riffs dizzy themselves into a brooding lull, cut short by a crafty interjection from a hairdryer. (SE)

‘Hot for Teacher’ (1984)

If there was a land speed record for guitar solos, Eddie would have topped it with the frenetic blaze of “Hot for Teacher.” Still, his madman licks were nearly lost amid the moral panic surrounding the music video, which showcased Miss Canada runner-up Donna Rupert and Playboy model Lillian Müller modeling skimpy bikinis in a classroom full of children. (SE)


‘Why Can’t This Be Love’ (1986)

Van Halen’s first single with Sammy Hagar as lead singer struck some hardcore fans as a sign of impending power-ballad doom. Nonsense: Eddie’s crunchy synth riff rocks as hard as anything from the band’s first decade. (MW)

‘When It’s Love’ (1988)

The centerpiece of 1988’s eclectic “OU812” leans hard into its synths and Hagar’s earnest wails. But Eddie’s solo three minutes in takes it up the mountain of ’80s power-ballad triumph. Prom was never the same afterward. (AB)


‘Poundcake’ (1991)

After two decades of cranking out legendary solos with his self-modified “Frankenstrat” guitar, Eddie tapped into his inner mad scientist while writing 1991’s “Poundcake.” He returned with two 12-string guitars and a Makita 6012HD power drill — and kicked off the track with a penetrating mechanical shriek, from his mangled fretboard to your ears. (SE)

‘Right Now’ (1991)

Nobody ever looked to Van Halen for deep social commentary, which didn’t stop the band from recording this earnest state-of-the-world jam in the hopes of maintaining its fame into the alt-rock ’90s. Fortunately, Eddie didn’t downplay his old hot-dog tendencies for “Right Now’s” nuclear-blues solo. (MW)


‘Top of the World’ (1991)

Despite its cringey title, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” marked the band’s reunion with producer Ted Templeman, who helmed its career-making early LPs, and “Top of the World” was indeed an ascendant return to pop-metal mastery. It’s a midcareer Van Halen peak and remained a live favorite ever after. (AB)

‘China Town’ (2012)

Van Halen’s long-hoped-for reunion with Roth was legendarily fraught, with a world tour the band bailed on only months after the release of 2012’s “A Different Kind of Truth.” Yet this hurtling double-time highlight showed Eddie could still bring it when he wanted to. (MW)