When Eddie Van Halen talks about guitars, people listen. It’s like LeBron James waxing poetic on the art of the assist, or Kate Winslet on getting acting awards. Van Halen is that highly regarded in the guitar world. In fact, in a recent article in USA Today, he was referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix of his generation.”
High praise indeed. What does Eddie think of accolades like that? “I say it’s a hell of a compliment, but at the same time I’m really nothing like Jimi Hendrix,” he says, quickly adding that he doesn’t mean any disrespect. “I’m just saying I’m very different than Hendrix because I create stuff. He used so many effects and stuff that I was the complete opposite. I wanted the guitar to do things, but nobody built the guitar that I wanted. Hendrix didn’t do things like that. He was an amazing player, but if you ever heard any live bootlegs of him, even some of the Woodstock stuff, it’s hard for him to keep that thing even tuned.”
Growing up in Southern California, Van Halen got turned on to the six-string by surf music. “The first song I ever learned was ‘Pipeline,’ by the Surfaris, and ‘Wipeout.’ Then I hear this song on the radio — it was the ‘Blues Theme’ on the soundtrack to ‘Easy Rider,'” he says. “It was the first time I heard a distorted guitar, and I’m going, ‘God, what is that?’ I didn’t really have an amp then. I went to Dow Radio in Pasadena, and I jerry-rigged this plug to plug into the stereo. I just turned the damn thing all the way up, and it distorted. So every amp I’ve ever used, I just turn it all the way up.”
All of Van Halen’s guitars, starting with his famous first model, Frankenstein, have been custom-made. And now he’s taken his 35 years of experience and put it into the Wolfgang, his new Fender guitar, named for his son. “One more shot working with a major company to give people what I use,” he says.
The guitar went through two years of vigorous testing, according to Van Halen. “I’m pretty hard on Fender, and I make sure that they keep an eye on the people that make the parts that go into my guitars and my amps. I’m not a tyrant — it’s just that my name and my son’s name are on it, and I don’t just endorse, I build it.”
Of course, today’s technology makes everything so easy, which Van Halen doesn’t see as a good thing. “I think it stops people from being creative, because they don’t have to,” he says. “But also, to me, it lowers the standards. I don’t know who exactly is in charge of the MP3 player, the iPod business, who decided that is gonna be the standard sampling rate, because it’s nothing compared to a good mastered LP, nothing at all.”
Isn’t that thinking a bit antiquated, back to the way of the dinosaurs? “Yeah, maybe, but dinosaurs ruled this planet a lot longer than people have,” he says, laughing.