As the tributes keep pouring in as we learn of the tragic death of one of the all-time great guitar players, Eddie Van Halen, I wanted to highlight an incredible anecdote about Eddie’s contributions to Michael Jackson’s smash hit “Beat It.”
The Van Halen founding guitarist famously played the guitar solo on the track for free, and it took him all of half an hour to record the 20-second solo. But it was his other contributions to the song that are what’s the interesting part of the anecdote.
Eddie was interviewed in 2012 by CNN and while reminiscing about the song, he offered this great memory about the experience:
Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes, “Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”
I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.
I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”
Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”
What a great story. A Van Halen fan site found this great anecdote Eddie told about hearing the track in a record store a few months later: “The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, ‘Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.’ I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘That is me!’ That was hilarious.”
RIP Eddie, your music will live on forever.
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