Eddie Van Halen knows what he’s talking about when comes to living the American dream — and last night (Thursday) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. he captivated an auditorium full of fans for over an hour with his and his immigrant family’s story, punctuating it by demonstrating some of the guitar innovations and inventions he’s famous for.

Van Halen was participating in a program called What It Means to Be American, part of a three-year collaborative initiative between the museum and the Los Angeles-based Zocalo Public Square. The specific theme for last night was “Is rock n’ roll all about reinvention?”

Eddie began by recounting how he and his brother, Van Halen drummer Alex — sons of a Dutch classical musician and his Indonesian wife — came to America when they were seven and eight years old, respectively. He told how their dad put the family on a ship with 50 dollars and the family piano and started all over in Pasadena, California, working as a dishwasher and janitor, while his mother became a maid.

Eddie went on to describe:

  • how he and Alex competed in classical piano competitions as kids
  • how they heard The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five and decided they wanted to play rock n’roll
  • how Eddie started or drums and Alex guitar, but switched after realizing that each was better on the other’s instrument.

He also explained the hows and whys of his most important guitar inventions and how he pioneered the “tapping” style of two-hands on the fretboard guitar playing. He explained his motivation for what he did by saying he was always looking to do more, because “more is always better.”

He called Eric Clapton his favorite guitarist, and said he rarely listens to music and that the last record he actually bought was Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So. He told how Van Halen had struggled to get a record deal, because they were out of step with the times. “Don’t forget, when we came out it was all disco and punk — they laughed at us.”

Van Halen’s wife and son, current Van Halen bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, were on hand, as was brother Alex and his family. He revealed that Wolfgang has just started recording a solo album. “This isn’t just pop talk, it’s real talk,” Eddie said about what Wolfie’s done on his own so far without his help, “It blew my mind.”

After about an hour of the moderated discussion, Eddie spoke about living the American dream, pointing out that his family had come her with $50 and a piano and he was now being honored at the Smithsonian: “If that’s not the American dream, what is? Only in America is it still possible. You put your nose and tail to it and make it happen.”

Eddie then answered a few audience questions, before taking part in a meet-and-greet in which he took photos with dozens of fans.

In a ceremony held in the museum’s Presidential Reception Room prior to the program, Van Halen presented three guitars and an EVH amplifier to the museum, signing a “deed of gift” that effectively handed the equipment over to the Smithsonian.

Last night’s entire program will be posted on WhatItMeansToBeAmerican.com sometime today.