Earlier this year, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett got word that one of his favorite guitarists was not well, and “if you wanted to say goodbye to Eddie Van Halen, now’s the time.”
“Unfortunately I was in Europe somewhere, and then the whole Covid thing hit,” the guitarist said in a phone interview, fighting back tears just hours after the news broke on Tuesday of Van Halen’s death, at 65. “I never had that opportunity.”
Hammett said he first heard Van Halen on the radio in 1978 — the band’s adrenalized cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” — and was instantly fascinated. Counting the ways in which Van Halen influenced him and changed the sound of rock guitar, he marveled at Eddie’s “spirit of invention.”
“To me, he was like Tesla or Louis Pasteur or Ray Kurzweil,” he added. “He might not have been working with circuits or engines or whatnot. He was working with musical notes and guitar strings and bridges and amplifiers.”
Metallica began in the realm of thrash metal, in the early 1980s. But by then the influence of Van Halen’s guitar was inescapable — permeating not only hard rock but also the pop charts with his solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” — and Hammett describes his innovations as helping establish the “modern guitar lexicon.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What do you think was Eddie’s greatest contribution to the art of rock guitar?
It’s kind of mind-boggling. That first Van Halen album blew open everyone’s minds to the potential of electric guitar. My friend John Marshall, who ended up being my guitar tech in Metallica, we went out and bought that album and we could not figure out what we were hearing. Like, it wasn’t real.
His right-hand technique, the way he hammered on strings, with super-wide intervals that a person could not humanly stretch. It was an incredible sound. And he was using it so effectively.
I had a habit of muting my guitar strings when I first started playing, ’cause I was just super shy about people listening to me. But when I heard “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” I knew instantly what he was doing on the guitar: He was muting the strings. And when we listened closer, we discovered that he had a whole muting technique that was based around chords and muting selective strings. This very subtle thing that was amazing to me. And I started muting chords and muting riffs. It became a thing that I still do to this day to make riffs heavier or more percussive. That was one thing that Eddie Van Halen just handed to me right away.
About six months later, I saw Van Halen at Day on the Green in Oakland. This was the bill: AC/DC, opening the show. Then Van Halen, Pat Travers, Foreigner and Aerosmith. There was so much anticipation because it was the first time that Van Halen had ever played the Bay Area. We could not believe what we were seeing. All this stuff that looked so fast and so ridiculously hard, he made it look so simple and effortless. And he did it with a smile. He seemed to be laughing to himself while he was doing it.
Eddie started this momentum of just getting sounds out his guitar that no one got. I mean no one. The first four or five Van Halen albums, he was inventing techniques that we all use now. My guitar-playing friends, we’d get the new Van Halen album and shake our heads. “What’s Eddie doing now?”
I have to say that Sammy Hagar and Van Halen were very big proponents for getting us on that bill. My attention would always go to Eddie. Every time I saw Eddie at the show, he had his red guitar and he had a cigarette in his mouth or pinned in his headstock. And he was always playing, whether he was plugged in or not. Always playing. The only time I didn’t see him play was when we would run into him at the hotel.
Occasionally he’d say, “Hey, come up to my room.” And I would go thinking we’re going to jam. But he would sit me down and we would just talk about music.
The things that he came up with became the modern guitar lexicon. And he was just totally committed to his cause. You don’t sound like that by saying, “OK, I’m going to play guitar for an hour a day.” You get to that point embracing the guitar and music as a complete lifestyle.
Do you have a favorite Eddie Van Halen solo?
That’s a hard one, man. Just off the top of my head, “I’m the One.” I remember first hearing that when I was like 16 or 17 years old and not having a first idea of what he was doing. It might as well as have been advanced trigonometry to me, you know? “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” — oh my God. The solo on “You’re No Good,” you know, the Linda Ronstadt thing.
“Hot for Teacher.” You know why that’s so important? That’s a big hit, was it not? How many hit songs out there started with double bass drums and a raging guitar solo? That’s what I love about “Hot for Teacher.” It starts with the most raging guitar solo — it’s so killer. And everyone can sing every single note.