It’s been 21 years since Total Guitar last caught up with Eddie Van Halen. So, after an exclusive invitation to visit the man himself at his 5150 Studios, MusicRadar’s sister magazine pulled up a chair to speak to one of the electric guitar’s greatest legends…
Every instrument has its pioneers – game-changing mavericks who push things forward – and if Jimi Hendrix kicked the electric guitar door down, Eddie Van Halen ran through it, picked up what was left, covered it in tape and built a stairway to the next level.
What do you ask Eddie Van Halen when you have a once-in-a-lifetime hour with him? You ask everything
Just like Hendrix, Clapton, Page et al, the idea of Eddie Van Halen doesn’t seem real. These people are heroes, otherworldly beings who exist solely on posters, album covers, stages and the imaginations of thousands of guitar players across the globe. Except Eddie Van Halen is real. We know this, because he’s sat next to us in 5150 Studios, playing the tapped part from Eruption.
Eddie built the facility adjacent to his house in the early 80s and it has become the creative headquarters for every Van Halen album since, and the walls are lined with the guitars that bear his name. It’s lunchtime on a hot California day, the door is wide open and we have just been introduced to Matt Bruck, Eddie’s right-hand man for all things EVH brand.
Eddie and his wife (and publicist) Janie enter the room accompanied by an excited Kody, the Van Halens’ famous-in-his-own-right pet Pomeranian. “[Kody’s] going to be on the cover of Esquire with George Clooney!” Janie proudly announces. “Yeah, me and him go way back” Eddie adds.
We’re nervous. What do you ask Eddie Van Halen when you have a once-in-a-lifetime hour with him? You ask everything. From the story of that guitar and that amp and how they led to the creation of his gear company, to how he single-handedly became the greatest guitarist of his – and many would fairly argue – every generation since.
What you find is that not only is he real, but Eddie Van Halen is one of the most humble, friendly and funny rock stars you’ll meet. And he loves talking about guitars…
The EVH evolution
“It doesn’t seem that long! Well, I first started off with Music Man, and then I went to Peavey, and when they stopped, kind of… doing what I asked [laughs], we moved to Fender. Which is a great home, it’s a great team.”
It seems like you’re involved every step of the way with every piece of gear that goes out with your name on it.
If I’m going to use it then it has to be my way, you know what I mean?
“Well I have to be. If I’m going to use it then it has to be my way, you know what I mean? I’ll approach Matt, and Matt and I will approach the engineers, ‘How about this?’ – and everyone gets excited! Generally, depending on the intricacy or difficulty of the build, it can take anywhere between a year to three years to come to fruition.”
It also seems that your level of involvement is there regardless of the price, too?
“Well, the first thing we started out with was obviously the flagship/benchmark models. I very much wanted a versatile three-channel amp. That’s what I need to do my gig. As the brand evolved we expanded our line with some more affordable models, like the Lunchbox amp and the Wolfgang Standard for example.
“I just heard yesterday that a lot of players are buying the 1×12 cabinet because it’s the perfect match, and a reasonable price. When I use it, I use it with a 4×12 cabinet – for a 15-watt amp, it will still power a 4×12 cabinet and get a great sound – but I’ll have to try it through a 1×12 and see how it sounds, since everybody else seems to dig it that way!”
Be my Frankenstein
What was it like building the Frankenstein, and doing that out of necessity?
“Let me start at the beginning. When I first started playing guitar, I was at the local music store, which wasn’t even a music store, it was kind of like a Radio Shack that also sold musical instruments, it was called Lafayette Music.
“I fell in love with this hollowbody 12-string because of the neck, and the first thing I did was I took six strings off, because it was a 12-string, and I didn’t want 12! They didn’t have what I wanted in the store, so it had already started there!
I saved up for a ’68 Goldtop Les Paul with single-coil P-90 pickups…So what do I do? I take the chisel to it right away!
“Then, I got a paper route; we didn’t have any money and my parents couldn’t afford to buy us equipment. So I saved the money from delivering papers for two and a half to three years, and bought my first real guitar, which was a ’68 Goldtop Les Paul with single-coil P-90 pickups.
“So what do I do? I take the chisel to it right away! Because I wanted a humbucking pickup! But in Pasadena, there were no Les Pauls with a humbucker in them. There was one store in northern Pasadena – a Les Paul came in and they called me right away ‘Hey, we’ve got a Les Paul!’ I walk in and I go, ‘Ah, shit! It ain’t the kind Clapton plays!’ It didn’t have humbuckers.
“So, of course, I hunted down a humbucker, took a chisel and made the hole bigger and crammed it in there. I was lucky enough to solder it back properly, then I painted it black and added binding. I did all kinds of crazy shit to it.
“The funny thing is, I only changed the bridge pickup and left the P-90 neck pickup. Since my right hand was covering the bridge pickup, when I played people were going, ‘How the fuck’s he getting that sound out of a P-90?!’ Because that’s all they could see. Little did they know that I’d stuck a humbucker in there!
Be my Frankenstein
“From there, I bought a Strat, and the rest of the guys in the band hated the way it sounded! And I couldn’t really handle the hum, so it was just a logical marriage to – with the humbucker – cross a Gibson with a Fender. Because I loved the vibrato bar, and that was probably the most difficult thing; trying to figure out how to keep that thing in tune. This might take a while, but I’ll try to explain…
“Everything from the bridge to the tuning peg had to be perfectly straight. The only reason a tremolo goes out of tune is because of friction. When you bring the vibrato bar down and if the string angle is wrong then it’s not gonna slide back to its original position.
A lot of it was through necessity and just mistakes. A lot of accidents
“So, I would do things like take the string and put it through the tuning peg hole and wind it up instead of down, so there would be no tension on the nut to the tuning peg. I had a brass nut that I cut larger grooves into, and I put oil in it all to eliminate any friction that could cause the string to hang up.
“Another problem is Fender Strats always have the string retainers, I removed them. Again, to eliminate any other factor that would cause the string to not slide back and forth smoothly. As a result if I hit an open string too hard it would pop out of the nut.
“So, I’d have to keep my index finger on the other side of the nut to keep it from popping out! I got away with that – in the club days, through the whole first record and live on tour. That’s how I used the stock Fender tremolo until the locking tremolo was introduced.”
So a lot of it came out of solving problems?
“Yeah, a lot of it was through necessity and just mistakes. A lot of accidents. Like the one-pickup thing wasn’t intentional. I just didn’t know how to wire it back up to the five-position toggle switch, it was just too complicated!
If you’re happy with what you have then fine, but if not then do something about it. I apply it to everything
“Even with what we call the Shark guitar – the Ibanez Destroyer that I cut a chunk of wood out of – it’s got two pickups in it, but I couldn’t figure out how to wire it to the toggle switch, so I just went straight to the pot and boom! I’m happy.”
Were you always the kind of person who was taking things apart?
“Well yeah, like I said, the very first thing that I did [to a guitar] was take six strings off a 12-string, because I didn’t want 12 strings. Anything just to make it do what I wanted.”
Do you think people are less inclined to tinker with their gear these days?
“It’s totally up to them. If you’re happy with what you have then fine, but if not then do something about it. I apply it to everything. Even if there’s something about my car I don’t like, or anything for that matter I’ll change it, until I like it.”
High (and low) voltage
Do you think the advancement in technology and gear killed some of the need for players to be imaginative with their gear?
“Yeah, I mean, really there was no humbucker Strat available until I built one. Now it’s just common, everyone uses them now. But even before I did what I did, I didn’t know anybody who fucked around with guitars and amps as much as I did.
I went ‘Ding! I wonder what’ll happen if I hook my main amp up to the light dimmer in the house?!’ Of course, I blew out all the fuses in the house
“It wasn’t until the first interview I ever did that I tried to explain how I got the sound out of my Marshall with the Variac [a variable voltage transformer], except our singer said, ‘Don’t tell ’em the truth, lie!’. So I told them that I cranked the thing up to 140 volts, instead of lowering it. And, god! The editor’s note in the next magazine was, ‘Don’t do what Eddie said!’ – because everyone was frying their amps!
“The real reason I did it was I had my main baby Marshall, except it was too loud, and it would blow up on full voltage. So not only did lowering the voltage take care of the amp not blowing, it also enabled me to contain it and play anywhere between 60 to 90 volts depending on the size of the room. Everything was all the way up on the amp, and the Variac was my volume knob.
“What made me think of lowering the voltage was I bought another Marshall head not realising it was a European model. So I plug it in, and there’s a really dim pilot light. I’m waiting and waiting and there’s no fucking sound coming out! ‘Goddammit, I got ripped off!’
“So I just let it sit, and I come back to it an hour or two later. I pick up my guitar and it’s really, really quiet, but it sounded like it was all the way up. Then I realise ‘Shit! The damn thing’s set on 220 volts!’
“Then I went ‘Ding! I wonder what’ll happen if I hook my main amp up to the light dimmer in the house?!’ Of course, I blew out all the fuses in the house because I wired it backwards, but once I figured it out, I went down to an electronics store and asked ‘Do you guys sell an industrial type of variable voltage regulator?’ and they go ‘Yeah, here you go!’ It was called a Variac.
“So I plug my amp into it and voila. I was going, ‘Holy shit, this is great!’. But you know, so many people like Tom Scholtz came out with the power soak or whatever. They all thought I had something in between the head and the cabinet, but I didn’t… it was a very happy accident that I bought that 220-volt Marshall!”
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