Eddie Van Halen Told No One About His ‘Beat It’ Guitar Solo
Groundbreaking musician Eddie Van Halen’s death on Oct. 6 from throat cancer shocked his fans around the world.
Van Halen left an indelible mark on music; in particular, millions got to know him through Michael Jackson’s Grammy Award-winning song, “Beat It.” Next to Jackson himself, Van Halen’s guitar solo was the star of the song.
Yet Van Halen, after performing on the track, told no one about his role on it. Here’s why.
Eddie Van Halen contributed his guitar solo to ‘Beat It’ in 1983
In a 2012 conversation with CNN, Van Halen recalled the recording of what would become one of Michael Jackson’s greatest records. He was given the freedom to do as he wanted on the song, so he did.
“Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was E.T. or something,” he said. “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 ten minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.”
Van Halen wasn’t sure what Michael Jackson would think of his work on ‘Beat It’
Not only did Eddie Van Halen record the guitar solo for “Beat It,” but he changed and moved things around a bit on the song. He felt it sounded great, but worried that the Thriller singer would be furious.
“I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in,” he recalled. “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.'”
“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.'”
After recording his solo, Van Halen told no one about it
Agreeing to take part in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” to Eddie Van Halen’s point of view, was a simple favor he was doing for the record’s producer Quincy Jones and for his friend Steve Lukather who was a principal guitarist on the song. And so, when Van Halen was done with his part, he never mentioned it to anyone and received no royalties on it. It wasn’t that big a deal to him.
In Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography, author Kevin Dodds noted that “no one knew the impact Ed’s solo, all of 30 seconds, would have on the music world at large at the time it was cut. For the meantime, though, Ed’s stepping out would remain in the closet for about a year. He told no one about his participation. At the time, Eddie claimed he simply thought nothing of it.”
That simple song would go on to win a Grammy Award in 1984 for Record of the Year and to sell 7 million copies worldwide. Not bad for 30 seconds of Eddie Van Halen’s time.