Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Edward Lodewijk van Halen is the son of Jan van Halen and Eugenia van Halen (née van Beers). Jan van Halen was a Dutch clarinetist, saxophonist, and pianist, and Eugenia van Halen was an Indo (Eurasian) from Rangkasbitung on the island of Java in Indonesia.
In February 1962, the Van Halen family moved from the Netherlands to the United States, settling in Pasadena, California. Both Eddie and his older brother, Alex van Halen, are naturalized U.S. citizens. The brothers learned to play the piano as children starting at the age of six. They commuted from Pasadena to San Pedro to study with an elderly piano teacher, Stasys "Stanley" Kalvaitis.
Van Halen revealed in an interview that he has never been able to read music. Instead, he learned from watching and listening. During recitals of Bach or Mozart, he would improvise. From 1964 through 1967, he won first place in the annual piano competition held at Long Beach City College. Afterward, the judges would comment that he had an interesting interpretation of the classical piece. Van Halen's view was, "What? I thought I was playing it correctly!" However, according to one interview, playing the piano did not prove to be challenging or interesting to him. Consequently, while Alex began playing the guitar, Eddie bought a drum kit and began practicing for hours every day.
After Eddie heard Alex's performance of The Surfaris' drum solo in the song Wipe Out, he decided to switch instruments and began learning how to play the electric guitar. According to Eddie, as a teen, he would often practice while walking around at home with his guitar strapped on or sitting in his room for hours with the door locked.
Eddie and Alex formed their first band with three other boys, calling themselves The Broken Combs, performing at lunchtime at Hamilton Elementary School in Pasadena, where Eddie was in the fourth grade. Eddie would later say that this was when he first felt the desire to become a professional musician.
Eddie has described supergroup Cream's "I'm So Glad" on Goodbye Cream to be "mind-blowing". He once claimed that he had learned almost all of Eric Clapton's solos in the band Cream "...note for note." "I've always said Eric Clapton was my main influence," Van Halen said, "but Jimmy Page was actually more the way I am, in a reckless-abandon kind of way."