Of all the players to come out of the Age of Technique, Edward Van Halen is the unquestioned vanguard. That's because he's about more than lighting fast tapping, hot solos and intricate rhythmic sensibilities; Van Halen's got soul to go with his chops, and a songwriter's sense of deploying his licks with more than just gratuitous flash. As the century turns, of course, he and Van Halen are in flux, having canned their third lead singer, Gary Cherone, after the disappointing showing of Van Halen III. Rumors about bringing back David Lee Roth are on the front burner again, though Edward himself is mum as he recovers from long-mandated hip replacement surgery. Rest assured, however, that when he and bandmates Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony do make their next move, a legion of cradle-rockin' fans will be ready to run with these devils again.
Guitar.com: What is the most marked change you've made over the course of the '90s?
Eddie Van Halen: My attitude, man. The way I look at it, rock 'n' roll is music. It's not groupies and partying. If people think you have to be a junkie or a drunk or be with a different chick every night to be rock 'n' roll, I think they're wrong.
Guitar.com: You are at this point the only hard rocker on record who needed to have his hip replaced.
Van Halen: That's what happens when you party a lot of years. Not necessarily that; it's also the gig. Doctors say your skeletal system can only take three major problems before something's gotta give, and I've done some crazy shit in my day -- running, jumping, getting my foot stuck in my speaker and breaking a neck out of my guitar; running and sliding on my knees. My left ankle, that should be killing me more than anything 'cause the cartilage is gone. It's almost bone to bone.
Guitar.com: How did getting sober impact on your playing?
Van Halen: Oh, man, tons. I just wasn't clear and aware of a lot of things that were going on. I feel like I'm some kind of born-again guy. I don't mean to sound like Devadip and like Santana when he went Yogi or whatever. I'm not preaching the gospel. I'm just saying where ideas come from. They're given. I'm just lucky enough and blessed that I was chosen to do this, and I know that the clearer you can keep yourself, the easier those ideas will come through.
Guitar.com: Were you surprised at how profoundly you changed when you sobered up?
Van Halen: Yeah. I had no idea. But my therapist knew; she told me "Once you get clear, you wait and see." And, boy, was she right.
Guitar.com: Do you think you're a better musician now?
Van Halen: I do, but, see, it's not just a matter of better. It's change. I mean, I think we're better songwriters, but on a technical aspect of playing, how fast do you want to play? To the point where you can't hear it? So just technically, I think I'm no better now than I was back then. It's just my choice of notes and the way I play has changed. I still play just as fast, it's just different. I didn't realize it, really, until I had to learn "I'm the One" again for the last tour; there's a lick in there that I do in the intro of the record, and I'm going "God, I can't play it." It's just a weird picking thing that's odd to me now because I haven't played that lick in so long. I had to practice for a week to get it down.
Guitar.com: A lot of people don't realize you did not start your musical life as a guitarist.
Van Halen: It was actually my third instrument. I started playing guitar through default; it wasn't my choice. I was playing piano at [age] six, and at 12 I bought myself a drum set, and Alex was taking flamenco guitar lessons and he was playing my drums and he got better. So I said, "Okay, play my damn drums. I'll play your damn guitar!" So, piano is actually still my main instrument; I play it every day. And I'm totally into cello now.
Van Halen: Oh, yeah. I love playing cello. I've been tinkering with it for awhile. For one of my birthdays, all the guys up here bought me a really nice one.
Guitar.com: Are you one of those people who can pick up any instrument and play it?
Van Halen: Oh, yeah. I'm blessed with good ears. I just listen to stuff and play. I play a little bit of clarinet. I play so much different stuff. It's not a matter of, "Hey, look what I can do"; it's whatever fits the song, not squeeze something in because I can play it.
Guitar.com: Is your son Wolfgang showing the same tendencies?
Van Halen: He plinks on the piano. He's got a miniature Wolfgang guitar, the guitar I named after him that I designed. I tune it on a chord, and he's got great rhythm. He's got my wife's pipes and he's got great pitch.
Guitar.com: There's kind of an image from the late '70s that people still seem to hold you up against, isn't there?
Van Halen: Yeah, but they can't. They try. I mean, for how many years have we been pigeonholed as America's party band, and people still ask me, "So what's it like now, being married and having a kid?" I've been married for, like, 19 years. What kind of question is that? It's been this way for more than it's not. I only did two tours without a wife, and 20 years later they're asking me, "So what's like being married and having a kid?" I mean, really, that's all I know.
Guitar.com: Over the years, Van Halen has weathered all sorts of competition -- from punk to alternative to rap-rock to even other hard rockers such as Guns N' Roses. Do you ever worry that one day Van Halen won't be able to hold its own?
Van Halen: Well, come on -- there's plenty of room for everybody. Music is not a competitive thing. It's not like running a race. It's impossible to compete with another band; the only way you can compete with another musician is if he's your twin. Slash plays a lot differently than I do, so can I compete with a guy who doesn't even play like I do?
Guitar.com: How important is it to remain popular?
Van Halen: Man, all I can do is make music and put it out, and if people like it, they like it, and if they don't, they will sooner or later. Or they never will, and that's neither here nor there to me. As long as it touches somebody, whether it's 10 people or 10 million; if it moves one person, then mission accomplished.
Guitar.com: How hard have the singer changes been on the group over the years?
Van Halen: You know, all I really do remember is the good times. We had some great times together with all of them. But we just move on. To me, it's seamless. We just move on.
Guitar.com: Since he left, there's always been a clamor for the band to somehow reunite with Roth. Could it happen?
Van Halen: I guess a lot of people either don't get it or are just holding on to the past. They still want Roth in the band. It's like, I'm sorry; some things are better left to memory. I'm into moving forward, not moving back. I welcome change with open arms. I look at the band as this oak tree. The seed got planted in the early '70s and started to sprout with our first record in '78, and 20-plus years later we're still branching out and growing. Once you stop branching out and growing, the tree dies, y'know? At least that's the way I look at it.
Guitar.com: Any contact with Sammy Hagar these days?
Van Halen: No. I don't understand either one of these guys. They quit and have nothing good to say about me, yet they want to be in the band. I'm not psychologist, but I wouldn't want to work with people I don't like. They don't like me, but they want to work with me.
Guitar.com: Do Dave and Sammy still suffer from symptoms of what you've called LSD -- Lead Singer's Disease?
Van Halen: I hate that term. I regret it. I said it once years ago. I tried to describe the tone that I'm after and I called it "The Brown Sound," an earthy, warm tone, and I just said it once and everybody just takes it and runs with it. So it was always "How's the brown sound?" Now it's, "[Do those guys have] LSD?" It actually wasn't even my term; I think it was a friend of mine who pegged it that. It's just, I guess, the nature of a lot of lead singers to think that they are it and the planet revolves around them, whereas when you're in a band, there's no such thing as a leader or whatever. It's a collective group effort. Once you start thinking you're responsible, forget it.
Guitar.com: Were you unhappy with the poor critical and commercial reception Van Halen III received?
Van Halen: It reminded me very much of when Fair Warning was released. It basically stiffed, at least compared to the previous records. But then people went back and bought Fair Warning, and now it's one of their favorite records, along with the first one and 1984. I think people will come around to understand Van Halen III, too.
Guitar.com: What have you been working on since Van Halen III?
Van Halen: Oh God, we've got so many songs. For Van Halen III, we were prepared to release a double album, but the powers that be said, "No." It's hard to say what [the additional songs] sound like 'cause they're so across the board. There's some stuff that's reminiscent of old Van Halen. There's some "Dark Side of the Moon Stuff," all kinds of things. And it has depth, stuff that makes you think, stuff that gives people hope instead of all this negative bullshit. See, music to me, besides it being my life, it has the power to heal. It is the universal language. It can make or break a scene in a movie. And so many parents have written us letters saying, "Our son was in a coma. We played Van Halen for him and he came out of it" -- although whether it was to tell them to turn it off, I don't know (laughs).
Guitar.com: Do you spend much time thinking about what you're going to do next with your music?
Van Halen: Not really. Whatever we do, people always ask, "Was this conscious?" Nothing we do is really planned. I personally don't know where music comes from. We start jamming and playing until we say, "Hey, that's kind of neat." We work on the neat stuff and dump the rest. To me, that's what rock 'n' roll has always been about. It's free-form music. I've never conformed to anything, and I'm not about to now just because Hanson and the Spice Girls are happening. That's not gonna change what I do. Van Halen has always been a band that's not followed trends or been a trend or anything. We just are what we are, and we take it straight to the people.