Former Van Halen bandmate Gary Cherone and other admirers pay tribute to a guitar god

Eddie Van Halen plays guitar as lead singer Gary Cherone is projected on a giant video screen behind the band during a 1998 Van Halen concert at the FleetCenter.
Eddie Van Halen plays guitar as lead singer Gary Cherone is projected on a giant video screen behind the band during a 1998 Van Halen concert at the FleetCenter.JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

For a few years in the 1990s, Gary Cherone served as the lead singer in Van Halen.

“That run was awesome,” says Cherone, for whom Van Halen had always been one of his favorite bands. “Truly, I could relate to the fans.”

In recent years he remained friendly with Eddie Van Halen, who died Tuesday at age 65. Upon hearing the news, Cherone’s first thought was for all the guitar players who came after Van Halen and were inevitably inspired by him.

“My heart went out to the Gary Hoeys, the Nunos, knowing what he meant to those players,” says Cherone, who formed his own successful rock band, Extreme, in Malden in the mid-1980s with guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. “This is a man who changed the landscape,” Cherone says. “No one who picked up a guitar after him wasn’t influenced by him.”


Gary Hoey, a masterful guitarist in his own right, says he was obsessed with the late Van Halen’s playing from the first time he heard “Eruption,” the perfectly titled, one-minute, 42-second instrumental track from Van Halen’s 1978 debut album.

He was standing on a sidewalk in Lowell, his hometown, when his buddy Dave pulled up in his black Camaro, blaring “Eruption.” “I leaned in his window and said, ‘Your tape deck is broken. Nobody can play electric guitar that fast on this earth,’ ” Hoey recalls. “I’d never heard anything like it in my life.”

Hoey has gone on to enjoy a productive career, scoring a big hit with his 1993 cover of the instrumental “Hocus Pocus” and more recently charting high with his blues albums. Like many of his peers and followers, he is grateful for the lessons he learned from listening to Van Halen.

“He made the impossible seem possible,” he says. “He seemed like the biggest rock star in the world, but he also seemed like the guy next door. He had an infectious smile that really got me.”


Van Halen was famous for playing his “Frankenstrat,” a custom instrument that combined attributes of Gibson and Fender guitars. “He was super intelligent about sound and equipment,” says Hoey, “and he was so happy to explain it. He was one of the first guys to play humbucking pickup in a Stratocaster. He ripped off all the controls except volume — ‘Who needs anything other than volume?’ ”

“Sometimes happy accidents are how you find what becomes you,” Hoey says. “He instilled that in me.”

In 1981, the satirical Boston band the Fools were invited to open for Van Halen for a long stretch of their North American tour in support of their fourth album, “Fair Warning.” The Fools had previously toured with the Knack, in the midst of that band’s brief encounter with fan mania. At first frontman Mike Girard was worried that his band’s parodies and sendups would not be a great fit with Van Halen.

“I remember feeling a little intimidated — they were so unlike us musically,” says Girard, who wrote about the tour in his book “Psycho Chicken & Other Foolish Tales.” “But once the show started, we were a very good combination of bands. It was sort of like we would start the mayhem off.”

Guitarists playing solos usually look like they’re in pain, Girard points out: “With Eddie, there was just this look of delight on his face, like he couldn’t believe what he was playing, either.”


Though Van Halen is often called a “virtuoso,” Girard says, “that doesn’t seem like a strong-enough word. It’s like calling Einstein a ‘genius.’ That’s not good enough.”

The Neighborhoods’ David Minehan, who toured with the Replacements and once subbed for Brad Whitford in Aerosmith, remembers his own first impression of Van Halen.

“Every self-respecting guitar player was thrown back against the wall when he first appeared,” he writes in a text. Minehan recalls riding the Green Line one night with “all the hardcore kids and punks” heading to the then-Boston Garden for a Van Halen show. He made a “mental note,” he writes, “to regard this as a Neutron Bomb kind of success.”

At Berklee College of Music, students and faculty members alike are reeling from the news of Van Halen’s death, says Joe Musella. He’s an active Boston musician who teaches a popular course on the music of Led Zeppelin. Before the pandemic arrived, he proposed a new class on Van Halen’s techniques.

“The rock guitar players always ask: Can you play ‘Eruption’?” he says of his students.

A fan since he convinced his mother to buy him Van Halen’s debut album at a Kmart in 1978, Musella saw the group in concert at least eight times over the years. His seats for the band’s Worcester Centrum date on the “1984” tour were close enough to the stage that he caught one of Eddie’s discarded picks.


“The thing that made the biggest impression on me was the ease with which he played,” he says. “The stuff he did was so technically challenging, but it was also the syncopation and finesse he did it with.”

Van Halen’s famous finger-tapping on the fretboard “of course sounds the most fancy or flashy,” Musella says, “but it was really his rhythmic sense. People miss how nuanced that was.”

Billy Squier, the Wellesley native who became an arena-level rock star in the early 1980s, says he and Van Halen once discussed their mutual admiration for Eric Clapton.

“I’ve always said that Eddie was the last great rock guitar player,” says Squier, whose heyday (“The Stroke,” “Everybody Wants You”) aligned closely with Van Halen’s. “He started a whole style of playing that was . . .  ‘emulated,’ would be the kind word, or ‘copied’ would be acceptable. Nobody ever did it better.”

“Listen to the ‘Beat It’ solo,” Van Halen’s contribution to Michael Jackson’s blockbuster 1982 hit, Squier says. “That’s absolutely the template for a hard-rock solo in a pop format.”

Gary Cherone (left) and Eddie Van Halen answer questions from the audience at Boston's Hard Rock Cafe in 1998.
Gary Cherone (left) and Eddie Van Halen answer questions from the audience at Boston's Hard Rock Cafe in 1998.BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

When Cherone joined Van Halen in 1996, he made it clear he was eager to do any of the band’s songs from the early years with singer David Lee Roth — songs they hadn’t played after Sammy Hagar succeeded Roth as the frontman.

“I didn’t care about any of our songs,” says Cherone, who recorded one album with the band, “Van Halen III.” He knew revisiting the early albums would help put him in good graces with the fans. More than that, though, he just wanted to sing them.


For years, he and his bandmates in Extreme had referred to themselves as the “bastard sons of Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Queen.” When Cherone was asked to join Van Halen, Bettencourt joked, “I can’t believe you’re in our favorite band.”

As it turned out, Cherone was just happy to call Eddie Van Halen a friend.

“In the studio, he was almost like an absent-minded professor,” Cherone says. “He’d play a lead and look at me like, ‘What do you think?’ ”

“And I’d be like, ‘You’re asking me?’ ”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.