Eddie Van Halen, legendary guitarist, dies of cancer at 65

Patrick Ryan

Eddie Van Halen, legendary guitarist and co-founder of rock band Van Halen, died of cancer at 65.

His son, Wolfgang Van Halen, confirmed the news on Twitter on Tuesday

"I can't believe I'm having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning," he said. "He was the best father I could ever ask for. Every moment I've shared with him on and off stage was a gift.

"My heart is broken and I don't think I'll ever fully recover from his loss. I love you so much, Pop." 

Eddie was something of a musical contradiction. He was an autodidact who could play almost any instrument, but he couldn’t read music. He was a classically trained pianist who also created some of the most distinctive guitar riffs in rock history. 

Born in Amsterdam, Van Halen moved to Pasadena, California, with his family in 1962. He and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, took piano lessons and started making music together when they were 6. As they got older, they played gigs together around Los Angeles and eventually formed a band in the early 1970s. 

As rock band Van Halen with singer David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony, they released their self-titled debut album in 1978. The album opened with a blistering “Runnin’ With the Devil” and showed off Eddie's astonishing skills in the next song, “Eruption,” a furious 1:42-minute guitar solo that swoops and soars like a deranged bird. The album also contained a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.”

Eddie Van Halen dies from cancer at 65: Sammy Hagar, Billy Idol, Mark Hamill and more mourn

Van Halen released albums on a yearly timetable – “Van Halen II” (1979), “Women and Children First” (1980), “Fair Warning” (1981) and “Diver Down” (1982) – until the monumental “1984,” which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album charts (only behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”). Rolling Stone ranked “1984” No. 81 on its list of the 100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s. 

In all, the band released 12 studio albums, most recently "A Different Kind of Truth" in 2012. 

Eddie created his own guitars because of the demands of his playing, which included dive-bomb tremolo blasts, finger-tapped arpeggios and a snare-drum-snappy tone. 

"In the past, guitars with my name on them weren't as good as my own," he told USA TODAY in 2009. 

Van Halen topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart once in 1984 with signature song "Jump." They scored other hits throughout the '80s and early '90s, including "Hot for Teacher," "Panama," "Why Can't This Be Love," and "Finish What Ya Started."

Eddie's philosophy on music stayed largely the same throughout his career: Don't chase hits. 

"That's the worst thing that can happen to you, chasing after a No. 1 hit," he said in 1994. "So many bands go, `We need a song like this. This is hot now.' We've never worked like that. We just do what we want to."

Eddie struggled with cancer on and off for two decades. In 2000, he started treatment for tongue cancer, and had part of his tongue removed the next year. He was declared cancer-free in 2002. Last fall, it was reported his cancer had returned, and he had been receiving treatment for the disease for at least five years. 

"I'm not in remission; the cancer is gone," he told Guitar World in 2004. "There is nothing that can keep me down."

In 1981, Eddie married "One Day at a Time" actress Valerie Bertinelli, whom he met backstage at a Van Halen concert a year earlier. The couple divorced in 2007, and have a son, Wolfgang Van Halen. Wolfgang, 29, replaced the band's former bassist Michael Anthony and began touring with Van Halen in 2007. 

In 2009, Eddie married stuntwoman-turned-publicist Janie Liszewski.

Outside of his work with Van Halen, Eddie memorably recorded the guitar solo in Michael Jackson's "Beat It," from the pop icon's 1982 album "Thriller." 

"I did it as a favor," Eddie told Rolling Stone in 1984. "I didn't want anything. Maybe Michael will give me dance lessons someday. I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everybody else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing. I don't do something unless I want to do it."

Strains between Roth and the band erupted after their 1984 world tour and Roth left. The group then recruited Sammy Hagar as lead singer — some critics called the new formulation “Van Hagar” — and the band went on to score its first No. 1 album with “5150.” More studio albums followed, including “OU812,” “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” and “Balance.” 

Hagar was ousted in 1996 and former Extreme singer Gary Cherone stepped in for the album “Van Halen III,” a stumble that didn’t lead to another album and the quick departure of Cherone. Roth would eventually return in 2007 and team up with the Van Halen brothers and Wolfgang Van Halen for a tour, the album “A Different Kind of Truth” and the 2015 live album “Tokyo Dome Live in Concert.”

Van Halen is among the top 20 best-selling artists of all time and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Rolling Stone magazine put Eddie at No. 8 in its list of the 100 greatest guitarists.

The band was nominated for three Grammy Awards and won once in 1995, for best hard rock performance with vocal for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge." 

Contributing: Associated Press, Gannett News Service, Marco della Cava, Edna Gundersen, Andrea Mandell