Guitar Center‘s new interview with EVH:
Eddie Van Halen
The art and science of the world’s most legendary electric guitar innovator
Van Halen burst onto the scene in 1978. Bombastic, high-energy and over-the-top, they were the ideal group to take hard rock from the late-seventies into the early-eighties and beyond. With radio-friendly hooks and harmonies, they merged killer riffs with pop sensibilities and defined commercial hard rock for a generation. At the core of this musical colossus was guitarist Eddie Van Halen.
Breaking through only eight years after the music world lost the visionary talent of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen took his own place in history with speed and dexterity, never sacrificing melody or solid songwriting for theatrics. While often citing Eric Clapton as an influence, Slowhand didn’t immediately come to mind as Eddie Van Halen immerged as the turbo-charged soloist he would come to be known. Amazingly enough, his style developed naturally, although with lots and lots of practice. As he explains, “I started playing guitar because my brother took my drums. I set out to really just have fun. As I played for years and years, my own style developed. The more you do anything, the more it comes out. Nothing was intentional. I was just a kid with a guitar. I’ve never pushed for change. I play and I play and I play and things happen y’know, like tapping harmonics and the pull-ons and pull-offs or whatever they call the Eruption-style thing. That came from just playing and playing and playing. Whether someone had done it before me or not is irrelevant. It became part of my style just from playing. I’m just about playing and grooving and having fun. I don’t take it that analytical. Is that the right word? I don’t think about it that much. I play guitar, I don’t analyze it. I really don’t listen to anything. I never really have. I listened to Clapton in the beginning.”
Beyond a player alone, Eddie Van Halen was also a tone chaser, and incredibly successful at it. Part do-it-yourselfer and part mad scientist, Van Halen was building, tearing apart or modifying his own gear from nearly the beginning. The most iconic guitar model is dubbed Frankenstein. It’s the partly Charvel, partly spare-parts monster that has been with him for countless shows from before the first album. Now retired, the guitar served as a prototype and test subject for future instruments, as Van Halen explains, “In so many ways, there are so many things that came from hacking up guitars and building the Frankestein. The humbucker bolted into the body, the placement of the pickup and on and on. It’s just a continuing evolution. I can’t say there was one particular moment where it all came together. I’m constantly pushing.” His dedication to advancing his personal instrument has resulted in his own EVH brand of products. While a number of artists have signature model guitars, Eddie Van Halen may be the first to branch out into a complete line of guitars, amplifiers and more. “I guess because I’ve developed enough designs to warrant a line and a brand rather than just have a signature model with a guitar company,” Van Halen says as he discusses the idea behind the brand. “Another reason is that most guys don’t build their own amps and they play a personalized version of a company’s standard issue guitar. I build my own guitars and amps. These are the tools I need to do my job.” He explains another bonus for the line, “What’s cool is to see and hear what other people do with the designs I build and to know that the stuff is gonna be reliable for them. We beat the crap out of our stuff in testing, so you don’t have to.” For the actual production of the gear, Van Halen partnered with one of the most trusted names in music. As he says, “All the people who staff EVH Brand are Fender employees except one. I have a person that organizes things from my end and keeps me in the daily loop. All of our research and development staff are Fender guys that I have chosen to work with. I’ve gone through a process to get to know them and worked with them to where they’ve become the master builders of guitars and amps for the designs that I want to develop. All EVH Brand instruments and electronics are built by Fender and I’m proud to say that. I’ve got the best partners.” While Fender does the production, the final product is still 100% Eddie Van Halen. “I have final approval on everything. Meaning, the buck stops with me. If it ain’t right, it ain’t approved,” he states.
The guitars are only half the story. With the 5150 III amplifiers, Eddie Van Halen has yet again pushed the envelope of what can be accomplished. “It was built from the ground up.” As he explains, ” I wanted a ‘sustainy’ amp. Again, nothing like it existed. Just after Fair Warning, the old Marshall of mine stopped pleasing me, stopped delivering the goods. I wasn’t that happy with it. Once that took a crap on me, it just never sounded as good. What happened was that too many people got their hands in that amp. Dickin’ around and saying ‘oh you need this kind of wire in it.’ They would rewire the whole amp, it sounded really different and I was never able to get it back. I wanted sustain.”
True to form, Eddie Van Halen uses his own EVH gear for live shows and in the studio. As he describes it, “I generally make it through a show with two guitars. One for keyboard tunes, because it’s tuned to standard, and my main guitar, which is the “Stealth” guitar, which is tuned to E-flat. I use one head and three cabinets. It’s a pretty basic rig. Its non-MIDI. I use a Shure wireless system. ” He continues, remarking about his recording setup, “Even simpler. It was just a head and a cabinet with my signature wah, my flanger and phaser.” Other than his MXR and Dunlop signature model pedals mentioned, the only other effect is his delay, “I use a pair of Roland SDE 3000 delays, which I have for years, they’re vintage at this point. I stopped using Echoplexes a long time ago.” He adds, “Unless something just totally blows my mind, I’m still using the same old stuff I used on the first record.”
From Eddie Van Halen’s history as guitar hero, inventor and designer, another legend of guitar playing and instrument production immediately comes to mind, and that would be Les Paul. Eddie Van Halen speaks about their friendship, “When I first met Les, I was amazed at how much we had in common. Our approach – we didn’t like anything that existed – so, we became friends because we’d always piss and moan about, ‘Why doesn’t this do what I want? Why doesn’t that do what I want,’ so we became very close friends. Not a year would go by where we wouldn’t talk and just have it out about other people’s gear and just cartoon on stuff. Everything we did was out of necessity. Nobody else made what we needed.”
Musically forging ahead, Eddie Van Halen is taking the band Van Halen onward into the future. Releasing their first album of new material since 1998, it’s also the first album to feature David Lee Roth as lead singer since 1984. Regarding the wait and the return of David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen simply says, “It just felt like the right time.” Somewhat cryptically, Van Halen doesn’t discuss the future of the group, aside from saying, “We make music for a living and we will do it till the day we die.” Other than the return of David Lee Roth, another new feature with this album and tour is an additional Van Halen family member, as the bass duties have been taken over by Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang. As far as being one of the few musicians touring with a son as bandmate, Eddie Van Halen says it isn’t a problem, “I don’t see Wolfgang as my son in the band. Every once in a while when we’re playing, I’ll look over at him and be so damn proud. I just get such a proud feeling being on stage with my son. Any other time, he’s just one of the band. He’s that mature. He’s far from a kid. He’s an equal y’know? Sometimes I forget he’s my son. Balance is not a challenge. Daddy does not have to oversee his son’s life. He’s not your average bear.” When speaking of his son Wolfgang, Eddie Van Halen is a more enthusiastic to talk about specifics for the future, which he says will be, “Music, music, music. What is next for Wolf is the next record and the next tour. He’s no different than I am. Music is his life. If he goes back to school, I’ll probably go with him.”
Groundbreaking in the late-seventies, genre defining in the eighties, redefining hard rock for the nineties and beyond, Eddie Van Halen continues to grow as a guitarist, songwriter and leader of his EVH brand of guitars and amplifiers. Be on the lookout for more music, more tours and a constantly evolving offering of products, as the imagination of Eddie Van Halen seems to be limitless.