This week, we're checking out the gear of one of the most influential and revered guitarists of all time - Mr. Edward Van Halen.
VH's "brown sound" is legendary - powerful, heavy, but rich, rather than harsh - tone chasers have been attempting to emulate it for the better part of 40 years. Hopefully, this week's edition will shine some light on VH's amazing tone for all you Eddie disciples out there.
EVH has used a lot of gear over the years, and there was a bit of back and forth in deciding what exactly to focus on. Ultimately, we decided to go old-school and new-school, spotlighting the guitar and amp that defined his sound in the band's early days, as well as some of the excellent signature gear that Eddie's been using on recent Van Halen tours.
Eddie Van Halen's "Frankenstrat" guitar is an icon; a mad science creation of a man in search of the perfect tone. Early in his career, EVH used mostly off-the-shelf instruments. Strats, ES-335s and an Ibanez Destroyer were amongst his early axes. But, the guitarist wanted something that combined the sound of a classic era Gibson with the physical attributes of a Fender. In the late 1970s, there was nothing on the market that catered to his needs. So, he decided to build it himself.
In its original iteration, the Frankenstrat rocked a Boogie Body ash body and Boogie Body Strat-style maple neck, bought for $130 from Wayne Charvel (fun fact - Boogie Body eventually spun into Warmoth, a company that the guitar builders amongst you will no doubt be familiar with). As there was a knot in the wood of the body, Van Halen bought it for a discount price of $50.
VH pulled the tremolo system from his 1958 Fender Strat (later swapped out to a Floyd Rose) and fitted what a PAF from his Gibson ES-335, which he wax potted to reduce microphonic feedback (a technique learned from Wayne Charvel, according to Charvel's official website). The PAF was fitted in the bridge position, slightly sideways to compensate for the string spacing between the pick-up and the Fender bridge. Eddie wasn't exactly an electronics wiz, so removed both tone control potentiometers and wired the pickup in a simple circuit. The pick guard was initially carved out of a vinyl record, though it was eventually replaced by a real one.
Finally, the guitarist painted the instrument black, placing strips of masking tape over the body and then spraying it white once the first coat was dry. The final, black-and-white striped guitar was the one that appeared on the first Van Halen album cover.
Eddie temporarily retired the instrument from public performance, switching to a black-and-yellow Bumblebee Charvel Hybrid VH2 guitar for 1979's "Van Halen II." However, he didn't get on with the guitar and switched back to the Fankenstrat soon after, albeit with a number of new modifications. He added a Floyd Rose in place of the Strat bridge, using a 1971 quarter to keep the Floyd Rose flush with the body, he also re-painted the body, adding red Schwinn bicycle paint into the striped design. Truck reflectors were also added for decoration, along with large screw eyes in place of strap buttons as a primitive, but effective, set of strap locks.
Eagle-eyed Van Halen fans will have noticed that the Frankenstrat was later fitted with a single coil red pick-up in the neck and a three-way switch in the middle position. These were purely decorative, added by Eddie to mislead companies that were manufacturing Frankenstrats in the wake of Van Halen's popularity.
A poignant side note - shortly before his death, Dimebag Darrell had asked Eddie for a replica of the Bumblebee, but Van Halen hadn't gotten around to building it before his passing. When Eddie learned of his tragic death, he called up Dime's girlfriend, Rita Haney and asked if there was anything he could do. Haney asked if he could build the Bumblebee for Darrell to be buried with. Instead, Eddie brought the original VH2 that had appeared on the album, telling Haney, "Dime was an original and only an original deserves the original."
EVH Wolfgang Stealth
Eddie Van Halen has rocked a number of signature instruments in his time. Perhaps the most famous is the Wolfgang - an instrument designed by Eddie and named after his son. Wolfgang originally went into production under Peavey in 1996 and were, in many respects, a continuation of the Music Man EVH that Ernie Ball had made in the years prior.
Van Halen's Peavey Wolfgang models featured a basswood body with maple cap (which according to master luthier John Suhr, is the "holy grail of tone.") The necks were maple and with dual graphite reinforcement rods, as well as Schaller Mini M6 tuners. They were also fitted with a Floyd Rose and a "D tuna" (a patented Eddie Van Halen invention, allowing the player to instantly drop into D tuning).
Eddie split with Peavey in 2004 (reportedly after a dispute at that year's NAMM show). In 2007, he began working with Fender, who produced a limited edition run of official Frankenstrat replicas (more on those in next week's buyer's guide!). In 2008, he unveiled a new version of the Wolfgang, released under his own EVH brand (in partnership with Fender). Since then, the EVH Wolfgang has become his onstage instrument of choice.
On Van Halen's 2012 tour, his instrument of choice was a EVH Wolfgang Stealth (so named because of its graphite-colored finish). While sharing many characteristics with the Peavey Wolfgang, it has a number of distinct features. The basswood body of the original remains, as do the Floyd Rose and the D tuna. However, the fretboard is now ebony, rather than maple, the pick-ups are EVH Wolfgang signatures and the Schaller Mini M6's have been replaced with 14-1 Gotohs. Eddie's road axe also features a large red kill switch, which he makes use of on the "You Really Got Me" solo. In what feels like a very Van Halen-esque, DIY mod, the bottom of bridge pick-up is surrounded with black duct tape to stop the high E string from catching under it.
For the band's 2015 shows, Eddie switched out the Stealth for a relic'd Wolfgang in white, featuring a slightly thicker neck and a custom made, noise free volume pot.
Mid-1960s Marshall Super Lead 100 Watt Head
In the early Van Halen days, Eddie used a classic Marshall Super Lead as his amp of choice. There have been many rumors about the extent to which the amp was modified to achieve Van Halen's signature "brown sound," some of which were spread by the guitarist himself. In truth, the head used by Eddie was pretty much stock. As Legendary Tones note, the guitarist was adamant about getting his tone through the power tubes of the amp, setting all volume and tone controls to 10. He controlled the overall volume output of the amp in two ways.
Firstly, he used an Ohmite Variac variable transformer to lower the voltage going into the amplifier. Eddie had his set to 90 volts, reducing the amount of input voltage going into the amp and allowing it to run more reliably. He also used a dummy load box after the Marshall head, effectively making the Marshall a pre-amp for his entire system. The output of the load box ran through his effects and was then sent to the input stage of a power amplifier (usually a H&H V800 MOS-FET). The speaker output of the Marshall was set at and the dummy load box resistance was set to 20 ohms to help ease the strain of the amplifier being run at full volume. This configuration also benefited the sound of time-based effects like flangers and delays, as he wasn't running them directly in front of the cranked Marshall.
EVH 5150 IIIS Head
As with his guitars, Eddie's current amp is an EVH branded product. As Guitar World recently reported, his brown sound these days comes from a single EVH 5150 IIIS head, which is 100 percent stock. Says the man himself of the amp:
"The beauty of the production version of the IIIS is that the sound doesn't change once you turn it on. It sounds the same at the beginning of the set as it does at the end of the show. On this [the 2015] tour our front of house guy told me that the sound doesn't change at all, so he never had to make any EQ adjustments to compensate. I blew a tube one night on my main head, but since then I've used the same set of tubes for the whole tour."
He runs the head through a set of British made 2x12 cabinets, stocked with Celestion G12 EVH 20-watt 12-inch speakers.
It's fair to say that a lot of Eddie Van Halen's coveted brown sound came from amp and guitar combinations. He didn't use a distortion or overdrive pedal in front of his amp, preferring to let the maxed-out amp tubes do a lot of the work. That said, a number of pedals were used to embellish his already mighty sound, and remain crucial parts of his live rig to this day. We've listed three of his MVPs below.
MXR Phase 90As PMT notes, Eddie wanted to make his solos stand out without the use of a signal booster. An MXR Phase 90 was his solution, adding a subtle flavor to his lead lines (for someone with such a massive tone, it's important to note that EVH is quite sparing with his pedals, understanding that less can often equal more) that gave them a unique edge.
MXR 117 FlangerAgain, another unit that Eddie uses with a fair amount of restraint, the MXR 117 most notably makes an appearance on the studio recording of "Unchained" from "Fair Warning." The first pedal in his signal chain, EVH is careful to fine-tune the speed of the flanger to match the tempo of the song, creating a full sound without drawing too much attention to the effect.
Maestro EchoplexRounding out Eddie's classic early '80s rig was a Maestro Echoplex. Once again employed on guitar solos, EVH used the unit to add a short tape echo for sound fattening purposes. As with the phaser and the flanger, subtle application was the key here.
Well, that's it for this week's edition. Don't forget to check back next time, when we'll be running down the best Van Halen-style gear on the market today for those with money to burn and those on a shoestring budget.
By Alec Plowman