Guitar technician returns to Grand Rapids as Van Halen ends tour Monday
Posted by John Sinkevics | The Grand Rapids Press June 01, 2008 05:48AM
Photo courtesy of Matt Bruck
GRAND RAPIDS — In the kingdom of rock guitar, few people get as close to “the hand of God” most nights as Grand Rapids native Tom Weber.
As guitar technician for the revered Eddie Van Halen, Weber not only prepares the musician’s arsenal of eight guitars every day on tour, but gets to watch the rocker ply his craft from just off stage.
“Ed is a force of nature. I understand the math behind how a guitar works. Ed does things on the guitar that defy the math,” raved Weber, a 1975 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School.
“I’ve sat with him and watched him do things that you can’t do. Ed doesn’t play guitar; the guitar submits to Ed’s will. It’s truly an amazing thing. It’s a very inspiring place to be.”
Long regarded as one of hard rock’s most influential guitarists, Van Halen on Monday brings his inspiring musicianship, along with energetic singer David Lee Roth, brother/drummer Alex Van Halen and son/bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, to Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena for the final show of the group’s 2007-08 reunion tour.
Though interrupted earlier this year so Van Halen — who previously has battled tongue cancer and substance abuse problems — could be treated for an unspecified medical condition, the tour has earned largely favorable reviews. The band expects a climactic finish in West Michigan.
Indeed, Weber said the recent resumption of the last leg of the tour in mid-April (after the Grand Rapids date and more than a dozen others were rescheduled) has exceeded expectations.
“I think the hiatus did everybody good. We did the show in Reno, the first show back, and I stood with my hair standing on end with near tears in my eyes,” Weber recalled.
“My guy (Eddie Van Halen) was defying every law of nature. This whole leg of the tour has been that way. It’s truly a great opportunity to be here just to listen to him every night.”
At 50, Weber may have landed the most thrilling and formidable gig of his 32-year career when he was invited to join the Van Halen reunion tour as the lead guitarist’s guitar tech.
A friend of a friend recommended the veteran guitar-maker, production manager and audio technician for the job after Van Halen “went through three or four guys before the tour ever left rehearsal,” said Weber, who now makes his home in Kentucky and has a guitar shop in nearby Cincinnati.
“He knows what he needs to do what he does,” Weber said of Van Halen. “So far, we seem to have established a good working relationship and friendship. You have a short period of time to prove the trust that is to be born between you. It’s a matter of creating the communication between the artist and the tech and the manufacturer.”
For Weber, who logs 14 or 15 hours on concert days setting up gear, stringing guitars, replacing electronic pickups and making sure every instrument is in optimum condition for sound checks and performances, the Van Halen tour represents the latest highlight of a colorful — and often difficult — career in music. That “long hard road,” as he puts it, includes surviving a battle with cancer in the 1980s.
Early romance with guitars
Weber’s fascination with guitars began early: At 14, he bought an old Gibson guitar broken into four pieces after spotting it at a yard sale and reassembled it with help from his father. He took it to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo “to see what somebody would say” about the repairs.
“An old guy came out and he looks it all over, and he put it over his knee to test the strength of the neck,” Weber recalled in a recent phone interview from a New Jersey tour stop. “He says, ‘This is pretty good work for not knowing what you’re doing. You might consider doing this.’ That’s pretty much the only inspiration I needed.”
Kik like second father
By the time he was 15, he was teaching guitar lessons at Grinnell’s in Woodland Mall and later began working for the Kik & Associates music store in Grand Rapids.
Weber considers the late John Kik “my father away from family” who taught him about instruments and the music business.
While attending Ottawa Hills and playing guitar in various rock bands, Weber would frequently “run down to Wings Stadium” in Kalamazoo to sneak backstage and hang around with crew members for rock concerts by the likes of Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and Montrose.
“I would get in the back door and help people do stuff. I’d find something that I know how to do and ask the road guy if I could help. Pretty soon, you start exchanging information. … The learning process was just by osmosis.”
Weber moved to Atlanta in the mid-1980s to work for a large music store and has done just about everything in music’s behind-the-scenes realm since. He is a sound engineer, production manager for theater tours and a master luthier (guitar-maker). It has meant countless late nights and long hours on the road.
“It’s not a job; it’s part of who I am. I can’t be unhappy doing what I do for a living, because it’s me,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade that life for anything, but I also wouldn’t want to wish it on anybody.”
For the past 12 years, he also has served as a guitar tech in stints with Cincinnati rock band Blessid Union of Souls and Poison lead guitarist C.C. DeVille.
“I like to know there’s pretty much nothing you can do to a guitar on the road that I can’t fix,” Weber said, adding he’s particularly pleased that guitarists break few strings on stage when he’s handling their instruments.
“I’m really proud of that. … Most of what goes into keeping a guitar as a viable instrument song after song is the manner in which you stretch strings after you tune. I’ve developed a touch with my stretching method.”
Homecoming in GR
Weber brings that touch to Van Andel Arena for the first time Monday, coming home to the city where his love of guitars and music began.
His brother, David, still lives in the Grand Rapids area, and Weber hopes to meet up with that part of his family. His sister, Carol Lee, now lives in California; his mother, Pat, has a place in Cincinnati near Weber, who lives with his wife, Tammy.
Of course, adding to the excitement is the knowledge that Monday’s show is the final concert of a triumphant tour.
But is it the last show ever by this often fractious rock band? Maybe not.
“Anything is possible with this tour,” Weber insisted. “It’s hard to say what the future brings for anybody, but I’m really hoping this is a continuing process. I could see us taking an extensive break, but I’m hoping it does come back out. If we head back out, it’d be my pleasure to be here. … I love (Eddie Van Halen) to death. I hope he doesn’t go anywhere without me.”
Working so closely with one of rock’s most respected musicians in one of the top 20 best-selling bands in history ranks as a career highlight. One man who called him recently about a guitar for sale and learned of Weber’s current gig even gushed that he was “talking to the guitar tech for the hand of God.”
“It’s been an awesome responsibility and an awfully awesome challenge to be here,” Weber said. “For what I do, it’s the top of the mountain.”