Systema Lessons from Edward Van Halen

Edward Van Halen, who rightfully earned the title of guitar virtuoso, died this week and garnered universal respect from the music world.

One of my fondest childhood memories was hanging out in my grandmother’s basement listening to 8-track tapes of bands like REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Van Halen’s eponymous debut album.

Whether or not you like rock music, or the guitar, there is no doubt that EVH was one of the greatest guitar players of all-time.

HIs song Jamie’s Cryin’ was sampled by rapper Tone Loc for his hit, Wild Thing, he played the guitar solo for Michael Jackson’s hit, Beat It,  and country music star Kenny Chesney call him the greatest guitarist who ever lived.

But what was behind his eminent reputation?


Single-minded obsession.

Single-minded obsession to be the best he could be.

Single-minded obsession to be the best he could be, given numerous limitations.

He was born to a musical family and, as a child, he started with piano lessons and trying out the drums before settling on the guitar.

Once he decided, he went for it.

His brother Alex said the he was always practicing, that Alex would leave the house and Edward would be playing his guitar and when he came home from the night out, Edward would still be in his room playing his guitar.

That’s obsession.

Systema Lessons

#1: Start Young

Nothing beats having the advantage of starting young and growing with your skills. When you start young you have the time to learn the “boring stuff”, the essential base skills and techniques that you will need to achieve mastery that people would rather skip.

If you can’t start young, then start at the youngest you’ll ever be again, Right Now (Van Halen hit song).

#2: You Have to Put Your Time In

Van Halen once said something to the effect of,”it’s not how many years you’ve been playing that matters, it’s how many hours you’ve practiced.”

Systema is based on natural movement, which some take to mean it’s automatic, like you get skill for just being born Russian, and that you don’t have to earn your skill through lots of training.

The natural fallacy is further reinforced by teachers, who have decades of experience, telling beginners how easy Systema is.

Everything is easy once you can do it and telling students who are just learning Systema how easy it is only frustrates and discourages students when they cannot perform as quickly and easily as a seasoned teacher who has many years of training time on them.

#3: Tinker

“I destroyed a lot of guitars trying to get them to do what I wanted, but I learned something from every guitar I tore apart, and discovered even more things.”  – EVH

Van Halen didn’t simply accept the available equipment and try to mold his skills around it, rather, he took everything apart and reconfigured his equipment to suit his needs, one result being his iconic “Frankenstrat” guitar.

He tells stories about not having the money for all the fancy equipment, which forced him to innovate, to figure out how he could get all the sounds he wanted out fo the sparse equipment he had access to, culminating in the biggest game-changing guitar solo of all time, Eruption.

Systema is a creative, generative martial art, not a memorized art, which goes a long way toward keeping students from just copying their teacher but there is still a danger, the danger of only practicing what you’re already good at.

You need to constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone to see what more you can do, and you will always see more you can learn and do.

Pick skills and topics you suck at and make them better and don’t worry about looking less-than-lethal, eventually you will be lethal.

#4: Make It Your Own

Singer David Lee Roth loved playing show tunes and cover songs, even though he had a guitar virtuoso who could write songs that were just as memorable.

That helped open up a creative rift that would lead to Roth’s departure.

Van Halen made this great point about the situation, “I’d rather bomb playing my own songs than be successful playing someone else’s music.”

You must make Systema your own, we all must.

Yes, at first you will copy your teachers, but only at first, to learn the basics and understand the big principles.

As you continue to train, you must do all you can to internalize the art and make it personal to yourself, to develop your own style or you will be a slave to another’s system.

You have to engage with the principles and shape them into something all your own, you need to make your own training drills to shore up your weaknesses, improve your strengths and develop a style that perfectly suits your body and brain.

Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest cover band?

“You’ve only got 12 notes and however you mix them up is your thing.” — EVH

#5: Do It Because you Love it, Not for the Adulation

Van Halen railed against being a Rock Star, referring to himself as a musician,”when kids ask me how it feels to be a rock star, I say leave me alone, I’m not a rock star. I’m not in it for the fame, I’m in it because I like to play.”

You have to love the Doing of Systema for its own sake and not get caught up in the martial arts master ego trip; even in the absence of a belt hierarchy the human ego still rears its head.

You have to devote yourself to the art, and to artistry, not for the fawning applause if you really want to excel.

“Like I’ve always said, if you like what you’re doing, you’re halfway there; if someone else likes it, that’s even better. If they don’t like it, at least you like it. Not to be selfish, but you kind of have to be.” –– EVH

Or, in the words of old Zen masters,”seek not to follow the masters, seek what they sought.”

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