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Eddie Van Halen Was ‘The Greatest of Our Generation’: Joe Satriani Pays Tribute

The first time I heard Eddie’s guitar playing, it was coming through the radio in my little studio apartment and I actually had my guitar on. I was practicing and listening to the radio and all of a sudden, “Eruption” [from Van Halen’s 1978 self-titled debut album] comes on and fills my apartment and not only was my breath taken away and my heart pumping out of control, but I was so happy that someone had arrived who was going to really do it.

I guess I felt like being on the road with a disco band and going through the punk scene, that the guitar was a little bit under siege and all of a sudden this savior comes and he’s got the right hand of doom and incredible musicianship, but it’s all with a smile and a swagger. It’s all rock and roll. It was just so good. My faith in music was renewed once again just from hearing him play. Every time I hear his guitar playing, I feel the same way. It always takes my breath away.

We never shared a stage. I got to see him play here in Northern California. I think it was the Cow Palace. Just a great, crazy set of rock and roll shows. The first version of Van Halen with David Lee Roth, and they were just remarkable on every level. They were just so much fun, but the guitar player in me knew that what he was doing was untouchable because of his impeccable sense of timing. The little technical things that guitar players can talk about for hours, they get picked up by a million people in a second. Everybody can copy the technical bits, but nobody could put the heart and soul and personality into each little bit like he could and no one delivered it like he did. He wrote great songs that were fun. He got to the point really fast. It was always exciting. It was always a great ride.

To know him well must have been really amazing. I only got to hang out with him for about a half-hour when I was doing The Extremist album back in 1992 at Record One in Los Angeles. He stopped by to say hi and see what I was up to and say hi to my producer Andy Johns. I have to admit, I was starstruck. He was going a million miles an hour and he was full-on Eddie Van Halen and I wish I could have stopped him and said how amazing I thought he was, but all I could do was watch.

As a songwriter, he wrote really catchy, solid, melodic songs that made sense. They were more intricate than meets the ear. He had that gift where he would put in complicated and unusual rhythmic structures but they somehow came off sounding so natural and inviting to listen to. It was really a gift and a testament to his compositional abilities. Little twists and turns. He could take a song like “Dance the Night Away” and put in some innovation that would make your head spin, but it never stopped you from singing the song. They had a great band. The four of them all contributed just enough to complete Eddie’s compositional approach. Really, really fantastic how they worked together.

I asked him every single time for G3 [Satriani’s ongoing concert tour featuring him and two other rock guitar virtuosos]. I had a number and later on an email. I don’t know where it went [laughs], but I had it on good authority that he received these messages and that he smiled and was appreciative to be invited. I never really thought he was going to say yes, but I was his biggest fan. I know it and I knew that like everybody else in the audience we would do anything just to have him show up and play his guitar. We didn’t need Van Halen and the big stage. There was no question of the fact that he was the king. It seemed like an easy thing, but at the same time I knew he’d never say yes, because he didn’t need to.

[The lead single, “Nineteen Eighty,” from Satriani’s April release, Shapeshifting, is an homage to Eddie Van Halen.]

One day, I’m in my studio and I just have to write a song to represent how I felt at the time [Satriani’s early band] The Squares  had started and what was happening right at 1980. It had to do with what I felt about Eddie’s playing and how I wanted to bring it to the band, but was getting a lot of resistance from the people I was hanging around with and the band who weren’t really into that kind of thing. At the time I couldn’t believe it because I thought what Eddie was doing was amazing. I thought I should write a song about what I wanted to do in 1980, but what I didn’t do. Just by coincidence, on the floor in the studio was a signature Eddie Van Halen phaser pedal. I kid you not. I just thought I’m going to plug it in and record myself playing this song and just reflect that joy that I had just knowing that Eddie was in the world playing guitar like that.

I hope he gets remembered as the greatest of the generation.

–As told to Melinda Newman

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