• Bill Petrie

Lessons from Eddie Van Halen

4 ways to immediately stand out from the competition

Just over a year ago, Eddie Van Halen passed away at the age of 65. Outside of Paul McCartney, he was the artist that influenced my taste in music the most. At the time of his passing, I wrote what he meant to me – which you can read here if you’re moved to do so. You may wonder why I’m writing about him again, which is a very fair question. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Van Halen on YouTube: music videos, live shows, and even some interviews I hadn’t seen in years.

What struck me most wasn’t his mastery of the guitar – although that always moves me. No, it was how Eddie’s approach to music that truly touched me. These aspects of his life serve as lessons for musicians AND those of us who ply our trade in more traditional forms of work and business. His mindset embodied a specific approach necessary for any individual or enterprise to achieve the highest levels. In other words, he taught us to be better at what we do.

“I’d rather bomb with my own songs than have a hit with someone else’s.” – Eddie Van Halen

While their first hit was a cover version of the Kinks classic, “You Really Got Me,” Eddie always preferred to succeed or fail with his music. This became an enormous source of friction between the guitar player and the duo of David Lee Roth (Van Halen lead singer) and Ted Templeman (producer) – one that was fought on each of the band’s first six albums. While he lost a few of those battles, as witnessed on covers of “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison and “You’re No Good” by Linda Ronstadt, more often than not, he was victorious. He brushed aside Templeman’s assertion that the band was “halfway to a hit” by covering a song that led to his growth as a musician. Businesses that succeed take the same approach in that they don’t try to copy what others are doing; instead, they become the best version of themselves and, in the process, become originals others try to emulate.

“I started doing all kinds of weird stuff on the guitar, which became part of my playing. I started doing harmonics and tapping on the guitar and pulling off strings and doing all this weird stuff that no one had ever done before.” – Eddie Van Halen

Eddie taught himself to play guitar, which meant the conventional approach to the instrument never applied to him. Instead, he continually searched for different ways to create unique sounds from his chosen instrument beginning in his early years. He built his famous “Frankenstein” guitar because he couldn’t get the sound he heard in his head by using a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster – so he combined the two. While he destroyed a few guitars in the process, the final result was a sound that was uniquely Eddie Van Halen. His restlessness drove innovation throughout his entire career and serves as an excellent lesson for us in the business world. The best – and most successful – individuals and organizations are the ones that constantly experiment, don’t fear failure, and reject accepted norms. True differentiation will be achieved by shunning complacency and pushing for innovation – even if we destroy a few proverbial guitars along the way.

“I’m not a rock star. I’m not in it for the fame. I’m in it because I like to play.” – Eddie Van Halen

There are thousands of stories on the internet about how Eddie would eschew the usual afterparty and simply sit in his hotel room after a concert and play guitar. If he hadn’t become the lead guitarist for his namesake band, he would still have spent his life playing guitar. Ask any guitar player, and they will tell you that it was Eddie’s love of the instrument that allowed him to achieve legendary status. When you love what you do – and derive your value in a skill or talent – it’s almost impossible not to succeed. If your passion is sales, it truly doesn’t matter what you’re selling as long as you are selling. The same goes for marketing, accounting, and operations. By channeling your focus and energy into what you love to do, you will squeeze every drop of natural ability you have and reach higher levels of success – perhaps even fame – in the process.

“To hell with the rules. If it sounds right, then it is.” – Eddie Van Halen

Of all the things Eddie Van Halen said, this is my favorite. Throughout his entire career, he realized that the rules of music didn’t apply to him. As noted earlier, he never took formal classes, which meant he learned everything by ear, teaching him the most valuable lesson of all: if it sounds right, it is. It didn’t matter what the music press thought or, frankly, what Van Halen fans thought of his music. This disdain for what others thought his music should be didn’t come from a place of self-importance; it came from a place of confidence that by playing what HE wanted to hear, the audience would likely share his love of the music that filled the grooves of every record. Unfortunately, too many businesses (and business people) become indistinguishable from competitors solely because they follow the conventional rules of what is “supposed” to be. So channel your inner Eddie Van Halen and say, “to hell with the rules.” If you crave success – if you want to be YOU – make your own rules and trust yourself to know when what you do is right.

Eddie Van Halen’s unconventional approach to playing the guitar is what made him, well, Eddie Van Halen. His ability to make a guitar sound different than everyone else – and to play it in ways it had not been played before – has inspired a legion of musicians to be better, unique, and trust themselves. The same lessons he shared with musicians can be applied to any business: be yourself, continually practice and innovate, love what you do, and eschew conventional rules. By doing so, you’ll channel your inner rock star and have clients clamoring for an encore.

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