“I’ve always been a tinkerer,” he begins, and explains how his father, a jazz musician, cut off his finger and had to modify a clarinet with saxophone keys so he could play. (It just gets better from there.)
A device he invented for holding up his guitar so he could tap double-handed turned into one of the greatest illustrations ever filed for a patent:
For another great look at Van Halen’s tinkering spirit, check out this 1998 MTV interview at 5051 Studios, which he had built (and passed off to city inspectors as a racquetball court to avoid zoning issues) so he could record at home:
The interview touches on many of my favorite subjects: home recording, architecture, design, constraint, fatherhood, etc.
I love what he says about being self-taught:
It’s music theory, not fact. Like lawyers and doctors: “Still practicing.” They ain’t got it down yet. It’s music theory, not fact. There are no rules. I never learned how to read music. Maybe that’s why I’m so twisted and unorthodox. But if I’d have taken guitar lessons, I wouldn’t do all the silly stuff that I do!
And this story about his son, Wolfgang, being in music class at school:
He’s in first grade… so he’s got a music class once a week. And Wolfy asks me, “When you’re doing that high stuff on the guitar… I really like it when you do that.” I said, “That’s called ‘improvising’ — when you stray off the melody.” […] It was Halloween, and they’re singing songs [in music class] and he’s improvising! Straying off the melody a little bit! And the teacher gave him a time out. And Wolfy got pissed off. So he picked up a pumpkin and threw it at the teacher! […] So I get a call from the principal, and I had to go down there. And I said, “There are no rules. I don’t want my son learning that way. His life is surrounded by music all the time, and I don’t want him taught by a book.”