Eddie Van Halen Talks Immigrant Roots, Innovation In Music

For Eddie Van Halen, making music is all about having good ears and a talent for experimenting with guitars and amps to create just the right sound.

Photo: Invision / AP
Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.

Now 60, Van Halen told The Associated Press he’s ready to get back on the road. His band recorded a live album – its first with founding singer David Lee Roth – in 2013, and it’s waiting for a release date.

On Thursday, Eddie Van Halen is visiting the Smithsonian for a sold-out event to donate some instruments to the National Museum of American History and to discuss making music and his innovative guitar and amp designs. He even holds patents on some inventions.

Van Halen, it turns out, is a Dutch immigrant born in Amsterdam who came to the U.S. when he was 7. Many people just think he was born a rock star, he says. It wasn’t so easy, though, for him and his brother and bandmate Alex. Their family immigrated to California in 1962, drawn by the “land of opportunity.” Their father was a musician who also worked as a janitor, while their Indonesian-born mother was a maid. The Van Halens shared a house with three other families.

“We showed up here with the equivalent of $50 and a piano,” Van Halen said. “We came halfway around the world without money, without a set job, no place to live and couldn’t even speak the language.

“What saved us was my father being a musician and slowly meeting other musicians and gigging on weekends, everything from weddings to you name it to make money.”

Van Halen went on to help lead one of the most popular rock bands of the 1980s, known for hits including “Jump” and “Why Can’t This Be Love.” He discussed his immigrant roots and his penchant for experimentation.

AP: Did you feel like an outsider as a new immigrant?

Van Halen: Oh yeah. Believe it or not, the very first school I went to was still segregated where people of color were on a certain side of the playground and white kids were on the other side. Since I was also considered a second-class citizen at the time, I was lumped with the black people. It was rough, but music was a common thread in our family that saved us.

What sparked your interest in pursuing music more seriously?

It was definitely just being in a house that was full of music. My earliest memories of music were banging pots and pans together, marching to John Philip Sousa marches. And hearing my dad. He had his music going downstairs, practicing.

I understand you never learned to read music. How did you learn to play?

I was just blessed with good ears, to the disappointment of my piano teacher. … I had to see what my fingers were doing. Believe it or not, I’m not very good at playing in pitch dark on guitar either. I need to see where I’m at.

How did you work to keep the Van Halen sound current over the decades?

I think being true to ourselves and not trying to follow trends. We never did. We actually got signed to Warner Brothers in 1977 in the midst of punk and disco. We were the odd man out, so to speak. Of course when we started playing clubs, we had to play Top 40 songs, and for the life of me, I could never make anything sound the way it was supposed to sound. I could never emulate other people’s playing – a blessing in disguise.

What was the most important thing you’ve done to innovate with your equipment?

Van Halen: I’d say combining a Gibson (guitar) with a Fender. After that, every company on the planet made a guitar like that. Before that, there was no Fender or a Stratocaster-style guitar with a humbucker in it. (He also modified his amplifier by attaching a light dimmer to regulate the voltage.) A lot of people had no idea what I was doing. … And I didn’t bother telling anyone because it was kind of my little secret.

What does it mean to you now to be donating some of your guitars to the Smithsonian?

What more could you ask for to be recognized as being part of having contributed to change, you know? … All I can say is only in America.