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Rock Legend Eddie Van Halen Dies After A Long Battle With Cancer

NOEL KING, HOST:

This is what guitar sounded like when played by Eddie Van Halen.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN SONG, "JUMP")

KING: The leader of the band that bore his name died yesterday at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There's an almost unintentionally funny 2015 interview with Eddie Van Halen. It took place at the Smithsonian with an educational group called Zocalo Public Square. Van Halen is talking about growing up, learning music - all that stuff. And then he gets up, grabs a guitar...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDDIE VAN HALEN: Like, right now, if I go like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: And he starts slowly guiding the audience through some of his signature techniques, like tapping on the strings with two hands. Or at least it's slow for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN HALEN: OK, so if I'm playing an A...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR SOLO)

LIMBONG: In the interview, he said that his style is so jammed with technicality and speed...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN HALEN: 'Cause I couldn't afford the pedals, you know? I couldn't afford a wah-wah pedal. I couldn't afford a fuzz box and all the toys that everybody else had. So I did everything I could to get sounds out of the guitar with my fingers.

LIMBONG: Edward Van Halen was born in 1955 in Amsterdam. His dad was a musician. And even though Eddie couldn't read music, he excelled at classical piano. Then he picked up a guitar, started listening to a bunch of Eric Clapton, and by 1974, Eddie and his brother, drummer Alex, joined up with bassist Michael Anthony and singer David Lee Roth, and the band Van Halen arrived.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN SONG, "JAMIE'S CRYIN'")

LIMBONG: Katherine Turman was in junior high living in West LA as the band was playing clubs and putting out their first record.

KATHERINE TURMAN: As a, you know, hormonal teenage girl, songs like "Jamie's Cryin'" were, like, really decadent and exciting and - like, oh, my gosh, there's this whole rock world and one-night stands and girls are getting their hearts broken.

LIMBONG: Turman's now a music journalist and co-author of the book "Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal." And she's talked to a lot of guitarists.

TURMAN: I always tend to ask questions - you know, how did you start playing guitar? Nine out of 10 guys say, when I heard "Eruption" on "Van Halen" I - that was it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN SONG, "ERUPTION")

LIMBONG: The band got even more popular when it released the landmark album "1984," a record that contained such hits as "Hot For Teacher," "Panama" and "Jump." It was also around this time that another little song with Eddie Van Halen on guitar was on the radio...

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JACKSON SONG, "BEAT IT")

LIMBONG: ...Michael Jackson's "Beat It."

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JACKSON SONG, "BEAT IT")

LIMBONG: By then, Eddie Van Halen's reputation as a guitar god was firmly enshrined, and MTV asked him in a 1988 interview what it was like to have that label.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN HALEN: It's nice, but sometimes it's like, come on, you know? I'm just a punk kid who plays guitar.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Well, he did a little more than that. He kept the band going through the sort of turmoil rock docs are made for - singer David Lee Roth left, Sammy Hagar joined, then he left, both eventually would come back. But among his peers, Eddie Van Halen's virtuosity and drive made him a great musician. And to every kid who's ever tried tapping their way through "Eruption," he was, well, a god.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN SONG, "ERUPTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.