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Edward Van Halen, who passed away last week at the age of 65, was an incomparable guitar hero who singlehandedly redefined what’s possible with a guitar, launched a new aesthetic of playing rock music and created a new kind of guitar in the process. He was the ultimate disrupter. A rock musician and pioneer of epic proportions who challenged the “norms” and left them tattered and torn under his tapping fingers and bombastic solos.
After his namesake band, Van Halen, burst on the scene with their self titled debut album in 1978 the line in the sand had forever been moved. There was simply pre Eddie guitar playing and then post Eddie guitar playing. Nothing more. He inspired wave after wave of musicians...all trying to tap, dive bomb and shred their way into the rock star stratosphere that he created but there was only one Eddie.
I started playing guitar because of John Lennon…I kept playing because of Eddie. I first heard Van Halen during Mr Schaller’s art class, my 8th grade year, when someone brought a cassette of “Van Halen 1” to class. And, when the track “Eruption” came on, with all it’s guitar pyrotechnics and mind numbing sonics, I immediately dropped whatever project I was working on and crowded around the small jam box on the ledge next to the window in an attempt to suss out what kind of wonderful sound was blasting out of the speakers. It was electric. Melodic. Mesmerizing. So full of life and joy. I had never heard anything like it. It filled me with such happiness that I wanted to run home and see if I could make my guitar sound like that. (I couldn’t) I wanted to see if I could play like Eddie. (I couldn’t/still can’t) I wanted more. I wanted to live in the soundscapes that Eddie created with his music. That was the kind of effect Eddie’s playing had me. It was life changing. And, judging by legions of fans that Eddie has had for decades, I’m not the only one that felt that way.
So reflecting on Eddie’s passing and his music got me thinking. What does it take to be an innovator? A change agent? A disrupter? How does one get to the be in the rarified air of individuals who move the needle and are considered to be one of the best in their chosen profession? Is it strictly talent? Work ethic? Luck? Drive? Determination? A wicked concoction of all of these sprinkled with some magic and a dose of divine providence? Yes? No? Maybe?
And while I don’t have all the answers, I do enjoy lifting the hood, snooping around and examining the lives of people who have achieved greatly. And, when you look at Eddie’s 40+ career, I see several patterns that can be used to not only inform us about his work but can also be applied in context to our own work as well. Let’s start with concept 1.
Passion for the work.
“It was always about the music, never about anything else.” ~ Eddie Van Halen
I think one of the main threads throughout all of Eddie’s career is his overarching dedication and commitment to the act of being a musician. Whether you had the great fortune to watch him play live, or just listening to his music through your earbuds, the joy and happiness he has for his music oozes and drips out of every note, solo or riff he plays. His music doesn’t appear to just be a thing to him, or a means to a rockstar end, it appears to be his only thing. Everything in his career seemed to serve the single purpose of making and performing music.
Having something, like what music was for Eddie, that is a deep seated passion in your own life can allow you to execute your craft and calling in a very profound, focused and impactful way as well. It’s that burning desire in your gut that tells you the way forward. It’s a source of strength that can sustain you in both good times and in bad. It allows you to practice harder, work longer and commit deeper to your vision. It’s a powerful tool to have in your toolbox and I’m inclined to believe that most significant change makers and disrupters have an intense passion towards the work they are called to do.
Commitment to the vision.
“I’d rather bomb with my music than be the world’s biggest cover band.” ~ Eddie Van Halen
Over the years Van Halen the band has covered other people’s songs numerous times. 3 out of their first 5 albums contained covers and one such cover, Roy Orbison’s - (Oh) Pretty Woman, even reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1982.
And while Van Halen could’ve probably continued that strategy, and had more top singles as a result as they were a very good cover band, Eddie wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to write and record his music. He wanted to live and die, metaphorically, with his own work. Having hit singles was a fine and noble goal, and obviously something to shoot for if you are a popular musician, but it seems to me that Eddie wanted his success and/or failure to come about as a result of his own ideas and talents. He was committed to what he had to offer the world with his own music and was willing to put in the work to achieve those creative goals.
Eddie’s commitment to his vision, and belief in himself as a musician - not just a guitar player, actually allowed the band to score their biggest hit song, the keyboard heavy song “Jump”. It took Eddie years to convince lead singer David Lee Roth that folks would be interested in hearing him play something besides a guitar. Turns out he was right as the track, where Eddie played both keyboards and guitar, reached #1 on the Billboard top 100 singles chart (Van Halen’s first #1) and propelled the band to even greater heights of popularity and success after its release.
Commitment and belief in what you have to offer is what separates those who just do from those whose dare to accomplish greatly (Nod to the incomparable Brene’ Brown’s work here). Anyone with enough practice can play a cover of (Oh) Pretty Woman but not just anyone can have an idea and commit to bringing said idea to life through their work.
Courage to listen and act on that crazy voice in your head.
“To hell with rules. If it sounds right, then it is.” ~ Eddie Van Halen
Eddie used to say that because he never had guitar lessons he was never taught the “proper” way to play. (Eddie and his brother Alex did have piano lessons at a very early age but no guitar) Consequently there weren’t any rules and/or limitations applied to him early on. He was liberated from the normal thoughts and theory that a “typical” teacher might have presented to him. He was free to explore and experiment. He was free to chase that crazy sound and tone only he could hear in his head without any static and input on the “correct” way to do things. Even later in his life Eddie said that he still couldn’t read traditional sheet music.
Obviously it takes a person with a great natural talent, and an immense internal drive and work ethic, to devote the time and attention needed to develop a skill set and become highly proficient at the technical nature of any endeavor without any instruction or guidance. (See..”Passion” above). But, aside from that, it’s also takes a large amount of courage to truly trust what your gut is telling you and use all the tools and techniques at your disposal as a means to work through the process and advance your vision.
For Eddie that also included hacking his guitar so it would better serve him and, in a stroke of inspired genius, he actually built his own customized guitar by combining two of the most popular models of the 1970s era into one very specific guitar that allowed him to play in the way that made sense to him.
This new guitar eventually launched a thousand imitators and was sold by many brands all over the world. Eddie’s specific guitar also became an icon onto itself. It’s a red, black and white striped thing of beauty called the Frankenstrat. It has hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is worthy of a post all unto itself but that is another story for another time.
So, to me, looking back with hindsight on some of the decisions Eddie made, and all the successes that happened as a result, it all looks so fundamentally easy. From where I’m at in 2020 it’s all so glaringly apparent that doing all of those things would produce those kind of successes and the correct outcomes. But, at the time, with success not guaranteed, it took an amazing amount of courage and belief to just act and not succumb to the fear of failure or any other success roadblocks that we humans throw up on ourselves. Especially as monetary success and fame starts to happen. The stakes get higher. The price for failure is more costly yet Eddie stayed true to his vision and kept executing towards it. It’s truly a remarkable thing to me.
Even in later interviews in his life Eddie still refers to himself as a “tone chaser” and, through his own brand of guitars and amplifiers, he was still pushing and refining his tools and techniques, while making them available to others, to get closer to the sound he was still chasing in his head. (As a side note...this tone is lovingly referred to today as the “brown tone.”) That is why he is an icon and a thousand other successful musicians from that era are just that....successful musicians.
Everything Eddie did was in service to his vision. Disrupting the status quo and moving the needle requires persistence and dedication to not only your vision but also an absolute belief in your chosen path and the courage to follow your muse and execute towards it. Today the marketing world calls it “acting on brand” and has thousands of algorithms to back that up but, back in Eddie’s day, I’m pretty sure that Eddie said that he was just being himself and that right there is the ultimate act in the art of disruption.
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