By Ben Rodgers
GREEN BAY – Sometime in 1981, Eddie Van Halen walked into the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and was looking for Jimmy Crimmins.
The two struck up a friendship helped by the access to the latest and greatest technology Guitar Center offered at the time.
“We got things from manufacturers, like hot off the press, before anybody did,” Crimmins said. “A lot of people, like Eddie and other musicians, would come in to see what we had. What was the coolest and the latest thing they could use to embellish their music.”
Crimmins knew Guitar Center just purchased a relatively new guitar brand called Kramer.
“One of the owners of Guitar Center – it wasn’t big at that time, we might have had five stores maybe 10 – the owner wanted my input for the direction of this guitar company, because I was dealing with celebrities,” Crimmins said. “So I told him the style of playing, the style of the guitar and pickups, the neck profiles. I said ‘I can’t guarantee you this, but if one comes off the assembly line, the prototype, I can get it in Eddie Van Halen’s hands.’ And we got Eddie the endorsement. He loved the guitar.”
Kramer made more than a dozen special models for Van Halen with the red body and black and white strips that would go on to become synonymous with hits like “Jump,” “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher,” and a slew of others.
Van Halen, the band, at that point had released four studio albums, and each would go on to reach Platinum status or greater.
But Crimmins would be the first to say a great guitar doesn’t make a great player, and Van Halen was relentless with his practicing.
“He taught me things about how to practice, how to approach scales, the high tolerance for repetition that it takes, that most people will never experience because they give up too quickly,” he said. “Eddie said it’s all about having a tolerance for repetition.”
While rumor has it Robert Johnson pioneered the blues in a woodshed somewhere in Mississippi, Crimmins said Van Halen practiced his licks with him in the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard after business hours.
“He would call me and we’d hang out after hours and he’d show me things that he was working on, guitar things he was going to put on his next song and he wanted my input on it,” Crimmins said. “We’d hang out for hours. He’d do different things I’d never heard guitar players playing, and he just needed to show somebody. It was just mind-blowing.”
Crimmins said Van Halen dropped off a cassette at the store one day, with the solo to a collaboration he was working on with Michael Jackson for a song called “Beat It.”
The solo would expose a new audience to Van Halen’s virtuosity on the guitar, and he never took a dime from it.
“I think it’s one of his greatest guitar solos ever, and it was all improvisation,” he said.
People were flocking to Crimmins at the Guitar Center, wanting to know what type of strings and the gauge Van Halen played with, the brand of pickups and how the rest of his guitar was set up.
One kid who was hanging around the store was Van Halen fan Chris Spelling, nephew to Aaron Spelling.
“One day Chris brought in his guitar, he was having problems with it and I was trying to fix it for him and Eddie came in,” Crimmins said. “I introduced Chris, and just said ‘Eddie this is Chris and he’s having trouble with his guitar,’ and Eddie dropped everything he was doing and didn’t even remember why he came in there. He must have spent an hour on this thing to make it right, that was Eddie Van Halen, he was such a cool guy.”
For those not around in Van Halen’s heyday, Crimmins said his status as an all-time guitar great is cemented in history.
“In the ’50s there was Chuck Berry, in the ’60s there was Eric Clapton, the ’70s wasn’t necessarily the greatest towards the end of the decade for guitar, it was starting to die so to speak, but there was the Allman Brothers and ZZ Top,” Crimmins said. “So Eddie Van Halen single-handedly took charge of this and created a whole new sound and a whole new vibe and everybody wanted to be like him, play like him, have a band sort of like him. Everything took off from Eddie Van Halen from the ‘80s, now the ‘90s is completely different, but Eddie Van Halen, he is rock and roll.”
Crimmins stayed in touch with Van Halen and even was there for a private soundcheck prior to a show at the Resch Center in 2004.
About seven weeks ago, Crimmins got a phone call in the middle of the night from Van Halen’s old touring manager looking to get ahold of Eddie.
Crimmins said he knew something probably took a turn for the worse with Eddie’s health, and he had been battling cancer since 2002.
But, he said he prefers to look back on the legacy Van Halen left for young guitar players across the world, and not his death.
“Look what he accomplished in 65 years compared to most people,” Crimmins said. “The fact he made it look so easy. Like a lot of people who are masters at their craft, people don’t understand that he just wasn’t born with a guitar in his hands. This guy was obsessed with becoming one of the best and he did.”