Eddie Van Halen Donates Guitars to Smithsonian

Iconic guitar hero Eddie Van Halen will appear at the Smithsonian Institute on Thursday for a sold out event benefiting its National Museum of American History. In addition to discussing his musical career and approach to designing guitar and amplifier technology, Van Halen will also donate several instruments to be displayed at the museum. To commemorate the occasion, Van Halen sat down for an interview with Brett Zongker of the Associated Press. In the interview, Eddie discusses growing up as an immigrant, his interest in music, and his numerous innovations in guitar and amplifier design. Check out some choice tidbits from the interview below.

AP: Did you feel like an outsider as a new immigrant?

Van Halen: Oh yeah. Believe it or not, the very first school I went to was still segregated where people of color were on a certain side of the playground and white kids were on the other side. Since I was also considered a second-class citizen at the time, I was lumped with the black people. It was rough, but music was a common thread in our family that saved us.

AP: What sparked your interest in pursuing music more seriously?

Van Halen: It was definitely just being in a house that was full of music. My earliest memories of music were banging pots and pans together, marching to John Philip Sousa marches. And hearing my dad. He had his music going downstairs, practicing.

AP: I understand you never learned to read music. How did you learn to play?

Van Halen: I was just blessed with good ears, to the disappointment of my piano teacher. … I had to see what my fingers were doing. Believe it or not, I’m not very good at playing in pitch dark on guitar either. I need to see where I’m at.

AP: How did you work to keep the Van Halen sound current over the decades?

Van Halen: I think being true to ourselves and not trying to follow trends. We never did. We actually got signed to Warner Brothers in 1977 in the midst of punk and disco. We were the odd man out, so to speak. Of course when we started playing clubs, we had to play Top 40 songs, and for the life of me, I could never make anything sound the way it was supposed to sound. I could never emulate other people’s playing — a blessing in disguise.

AP: What was the most important thing you’ve done to innovate with your equipment?

Van Halen: I’d say combining a Gibson (guitar) with a Fender. After that, every company on the planet made a guitar like that. Before that, there was no Fender or a Stratocaster-style guitar with a humbucker in it. (He also modified his amplifier by attaching a light dimmer to regulate the voltage.) A lot of people had no idea what I was doing. … And I didn’t bother telling anyone because it was kind of my little secret.

AP: What does it mean to you now to be donating some of your guitars to the Smithsonian?

Van Halen: What more could you ask for to be recognized as being part of having contributed to change, you know? … All I can say is only in America.

*To read more about the Smithsonian’s homage to the electric guitar, Click Here.