Beyond his playing skills, Eddie Van Halen is a highly successful tone chaser, having built, torn apart and modified his own gear from almost the beginning. In this interview, he discusses his vision for creating and the ongoing development of the EVH brand of guitars, amps and effects.
The HUB: As this year's Musician's Friend holiday catalog cover artist, what are some of the best gear gifts you've given over the years? And some favorite ones you've received?
Eddie Van Halen: The best gear gift I’ve received over the years was a beginner guitar that Les Paul gave me that he learned how to play on! It still had the sheet music in the case from his lessons with his teacher. He signed it to me!
For gifts that I’ve given, it would be guitars and amps I’ve gifted to people over the years. Before I gave EVH guitars and amps, back in the early days, I would buy all kinds of guitars for friends and help people out. Outside of the guitar that Les Paul learned how to play on, the biggest gift of all is my son.
The HUB: In what ways have you shared the gift of music — through teaching, exposing people to new genres, etc.?
EVH: I guess the main way that I’ve shared the gift of music obviously is through making records, touring and playing in front of people. I’m not much of a teacher, because I don’t know how to teach, 'cause I’m self-taught. I’m not really familiar with that many genres. The only genre I really know is Van Halen.
The HUB: If you were a new player today, what gear would be on your holiday wish list?
EVH: Well, how can I not say EVH? (Laughs) Not because it’s my stuff, but, honestly, I’ve tried everything else and my [stuff] sounds the best, and it’s easiest to play. And I put a lot of work and effort into it to making it as good as it can possibly be and the easiest to play.
The HUB: What was your very first guitar/amp setup? How old were you? And how long did you play on it?
EVH: I was probably 11, almost 12 years old. I was just getting away from drums and starting on guitar. My very first guitar amp was actually not a guitar amp; it was a homemade stereo setup that that had a 3/4-inch Radio Shack adapter and an auxiliary input for a microphone or whatever, and a cousin of ours gave us this converted radio into an amp. There’s a picture that’s been floating around of me and my mom, and I’m standing next to my mom and I’m playing the Tiesco Del Rey 4 pickup guitar. That’s the guitar that I plugged into this thing.
EVH: At the time, the song for Easy Rider was on the radio all the time (sings the riff to the song). I think it was called Blues Theme or something like that. So I was thinking to myself, "I wonder how you get that sound," y’know? This is when I realized that all you gotta do is turn everything all the way up! (Laughs)
It sounded just like it! All … fuzzy without a fuzz box, and I was like, "Ahhhh! OK, just turn it all the way up!"
I played on it until it blew up, like most things I’ve played on—with the exception of 5150s!
The HUB: When was the first time you modded a piece of your gear? What was it, and what did you change?
EVH: I had a 12-string guitar that I liked and strung with only 6 strings. But the first real “mod” that I did was when my 100-watt Marshall kept blowing up.
My Dad worked a Burroughs Corporation. He had a bunch of co-workers that were telling him, “Oh, tell your son it's probably like a rectifier. Here, tell him to put this in”. So my Dad comes home with this rectifier thing and I was asking, “Where does this go?” One of his buddies told him, “Just look for a dial or a sliding thing."
So, I found what I now believe was the bias adjustment, and this was a rectifier. It had four soldering points on it, and I didn’t know which ones to use. And there were only two soldering points in the amp, so I just soldered two of the ends of it, plugged the amp in and it worked!
I melted the tubes in that amp once, because the fuses blew and I put tin foil around the fuse, and it kept going while the tubes were melting. We played until the tubes fully melted!
The HUB: What are some of your most memorable mod failures?
EVH: Well, I'd say the rectifier thing wasn’t exactly a home run. (Laughs) I mean it worked, I guess for a while.
I ruined a 1958 Gibson 335 once, just not thinking. I wanted to repaint it and tear it apart and do all kinds of [stuff] to it. I wanted the paint off of it as quick as possible, so I got a belt sander and absent-mindedly forgot that it’s an arched or contoured top and I sanded right through the top of the body. So, I ruined a great guitar, but that’s the pickup that’s in Frankenstein.
There’s an old picture of me playing a 335 in white. After I painted it white, I wanted to take the white off and paint it black, and that’s when I [messed] it up and took the pickup out.
The HUB: How did you mod your first Marshall rig? And why?
EVH: One of my favorite mods was also a mistake. The Marshall was just too damn loud to play in a club, but I loved the way it sounded. So I tried everything from facing the speaker cabinet backwards to leaving the big, heavy plastic cover on, to even putting it face down—you name it. And it just didn’t work and it blew up all the time.
So I bought a second Marshall head through the Los Angeles Times classified ads. And the head I bought was in England, so it took a few weeks for it to get to Pasadena. So, I get it and, unbeknownst to me, I plug it in and it's set for U.K. 220 voltage (not 120V U.S. voltage), and its not working right.
I’m [adjusting] the amp and I’m goin, “OK, I got ripped off." Man, I was pissed off. So, I throw my guitar down, I walk away from it and I go in the other room to tell my Mom, Dad and Al how upset I am that I got ripped off.
After about a half hour, I come back, pick up my guitar and I start playing. And it sounded exactly like it would turned all the way up, except it was really, really quiet (low volume).
If the cat farted or the dog sneezed, you wouldn’t have heard the amp. That’s how quiet it was. I’m going, “OK, what’s going on here?”
I look in the back and it’s set on 240V or 230V, something like that, y’know? So, I say to myself, “Voltage, hmm. I wonder what would happen if I hook up my 100 watt to the light dimmer on the wall and lower the power. Would the same thing happen?"
Of course, this was a really old house, with screw-in fuses. I hooked it up backwards and popped the fuses. Everyone in the house was going, “Now what are ya doin?” (Laughs) I figured if that way is wrong, then this way has to be right. So, I hooked it up right and it worked! I think to myself, I can’t carry the house with me to every gig, so I need a light dimmer.
So, I went down to Dow Radio in Pasadena on Colorado Boulevard, and I asked them, do you guys sell any kind of industrial-strength light dimmer? And they said, ”Oh, you mean a variac." A variable voltage transformer.
I said, "Yeah, yeah! That looks like it!" I just plugged the amp into it and plugged it into the wall. It’s got a big knob on it. It went from 0 to 135 or 140 volts.
The guy said to me, "Don’t go past 115–120 volts." I kinda feel bad, because when people first asked me how I used it, I told people I turned it up, when I really turned it down. That mod prompted everyone from Tom Scholz to, you name it—every company on the planet to make some kind of speaker emulator, power soak.
But they didn’t understand what I was doing. My amp was full on, all the way up, and I just lowered the voltage. So the voltage knob was my volume control. I never went below 60 volts.
The HUB: What is the origin story of the iconic Frankenstrat? And what did it offer that you couldn't find off the rack?
EVH: There was no guitar like it. It might seem nowadays like a very simple thing because everybody makes one now (Strat body with humbucker), but at the time, I wanted a Fender vibrato and a Stratocaster body style with a humbucker in it, and it did not exist.
People looked at me like I was crazy when I said that’s what I want. "Where could I go to have someone make me one?" Well no one would, so I built one myself.
First with a couple of Fender Strats, and then finally the main one that ended up being a Boogie Bodies from Lynn Ellisworth and Wayne Charvel. It had the pickup from the '58 Gibson 335. It had the traditional Fender vibrato tailpiece. It had a very wide neck on it—wide and flat (Shallow depth “C” profile).
I ripped all the electronics out—the three pickups, and the five-position switch and all the wires. I proceeded to take a chisel and make a hole for the humbucker. I was looking at all the wires and electronics I took out, and I was thinking, "I wonder if it will work, just wiring it up to the one knob and from the one volume pot to the jack." It worked!
I made my own pickgard and I said to myself, “That’s all I need. I’m done!”
It wasn’t until much later, when I painted it red, that I took some of the electronics I didn’t use and crammed them in there just to fill the holes, just for the look. I almost feel bad that I transformed that first black-and-white version of the guitar into the red, black and white Frankenstein, 'cause it was so cool and unique in that original incarnation. But, then again, Frankenstein became more well know than anything. But if I had it to do again, I would have just built another one and left it alone.
The HUB: How does the new Striped Series 5150 compare? And what about it excites you the most?
EVH: It compares very well. It’s very close. We used the original one as the guide to build this one, so it is very, very close. That’s what excites me about it; it’s a high performance guitar. It’s speedy. It’s easy to play. It sounds really good. All the body and neck woods are accurate to the original. The neck is shaped like the original. It’s built for speed.
EVH's Striped Series 5150 features a custom designed EVH Wolfgang AlNiCo 2 Humbucker bridge pickup and Floyd Rose bridge.
The HUB: How has your rig evolved over the years? And why?
EVH: I’m a tone chaser. I think the rig has evolved with the heads I use more than any other element—the evolution of the 5150-III heads. I’m using the same pedals in front that I’ve used for years, like the MXR EVH Phase 90, MXR EVH-117 flanger and EVH95 wah. I’m using the same delays I’ve used forever, 'cause I don’t use all that much effects really. The 5150-III "S" 6L6 and EL34 are really the [best] for me!
The HUB: When founding EVH, what were you hoping to achieve with the guitars and amps that you didn't get elsewhere?
EVH: Instead of a signature guitar or a signature amp, I was hoping to give players access to an uncompromising brand that offered exactly what I like and what I use, because people have always asked for it. It was that simple really.
The HUB: What was the design process for the Wolfgang series of guitars vs. the Super-Strat style you've played for so many years?
EVH: Well, I was with Music Man, and I started off there. I went to Peavey and continued to change it around. I started the EVH Brand with Fender in the mid 2000s and completely redesigned it—worked on refinements and improving everything I could, and brought forth the best version I’ve ever produced of my guitar to this day.
I seem to always be refining the design. I’m constantly putzing around with it. You go on tour and you realize what works and what doesn’t work. It’s an endless pursuit.
Developing and refining the Wolfgang when I joined up with Fender was a particularly long and exacting process. I think it took us about 2-1/2 years to complete it. The pickup development alone spanned about nine months and over 80 incarnations of prototype pickups until we developed "the one.”
The EVH Wolfgang Special, pictured above in Cherry Burst, is available in 8 unique finishes.
The HUB: How has your tone evolved over the years?
EVH: From the beginning, I have pushed my [rig] to do way more than it was designed or intended to do. To this day, I still push just as hard with what I’ve got now to go even further.
Its just part of me and who I am. It’s in my DNA. Ask any of the principal engineers I work with on EVH gear. They will tell you, whether it’s a guitar or an amp, I always aim to take it further and past where I want it to go because I’d always prefer to have a little more than I need and dial it back than to come up short and not have what I need to get to where I want to go.
I think that part of me, and its result in the equipment and instruments I make, is a big reason the gear I’ve designed over the years has always found an audience and acceptance—because I tend to push things harder and further than anyone else I know.
The HUB: What is your average home-practice rig?
EVH: A guitar. No amp.
The HUB: And, if you can, what is your current live rig?
EVH: The essence of my rig is still based on me playing through a half stack. That’s the heart and soul of it and what everything is built around so I can maintain that pure essential core.
It’s my guitar, pedals in front of the input to one head and one cabinet. It's when you get into the left and right effects cabinets and feeding the outboard gear like the delays with a line level signal, taken after the output of the head before the speaker cabinet—that’s when it gets a little more advanced (laughs).
Dave Freidman at Rack Systems has always helped me with, and built my rigs over the years. This one is the best I’ve ever had.
The HUB: How did you develop your signature G12EVH Celestion speakers?
EVH: I worked with Celestion until we came up with a speaker I was happy with.
Over the course of my life, I’ve tried and played everything under the sun—every type of frame, every magnet type, every coil structure, every cone type.
The development of the speaker was like the development of the amps and the guitars, pickups and so on. I incorporate the full span of everything I’ve ever experienced to develop the ultimate gear for me to do my job. With the speaker, I called upon every speaker I’ve ever played through and determined what I liked about them and what I didn’t like to create the ultimate speaker for what I want a speaker to do.
The HUB: Given that you grew up with 100W tube heads being the standard, what is your opinion of the rising popularity of low- and medium-wattage amps? Would you have used today's lunchbox amps back then?
EVH: Hell yeah! If they existed as they do now, I wouldn’t have had to do all the stuff I explained earlier, like pointing the cabinet at the floor and turning it around backwards. I wouldn’t have had to blow up the house and the fuses. We used to get fired from gigs because the club owners would say I was too loud.
The HUB: How has the 5150 amp series evolved over the years?
EVH: I just think it’s gotten better and better and better. I’m proud of every one of them.
The HUB: And what about the sound and response of 5150-III appeals to you vs. other amps?
EVH: They are designed and incorporate all that I need for me to do my job. They respond the way I want. They emphasize the low end and the “voicing” of my guitar they way I want. They have exactly what I want and don’t have any of the elements that I don’t like.
The HUB: In your opinion, what is the tonal difference between EL34 and 6L6 power tubes? And do you prefer one over the other?
EVH: I like 'em both. EL34s tend to be a little brighter and harder sounding. I say that in a good way. That’s why we offer both EL34 and 6L6. Using one of each together in a stereo set up is an amazing sound!
It’s kinda hard for me as a player to say what happens tube wise between the two tube types, but they feel and sound different. Today I guess I probably prefer 6L6 a little over EL34, but that’s me where I’m at right now.
If you had asked me the same question 20 years ago, I would have said the opposite. I’m always changing, and my tastes are always changing and evolving. The both of them in stereo is what I really like!
The HUB: What's the story behind the new 5150III EL34 50W head? And what does it offer that the 100W version or 6L6 versions don't have/do?
EVH: We did the EL34 “S” 100 watt, and it was well-received and with a lot of enthusiasm. It seemed like the logical extension of the success of the 50 watt 6L6 5150-III, would be an EL34 version of it. It offers the character of the EL34 in a 50-watt package. Whatever your tube preference, we’ve probably got it available at this point. I like 'em all!
The 5150III EL34 offers three channels and 50 watts of classic EVH tone.
The HUB: Are there any new guitar, amp or accessories innovations planned for the future?
EVH: Many, but they are in development right now. And I always feel its better to see them through to completion before I let the cat out of the bag, or make any premature promises or announcements. I’m always tinkering and workin on new ideas. Its just part of who I am.
The HUB: What's one important piece of advice you would give to aspiring shredders?
EVH: Don’t shred all the time. There’s a time and place for everything. Use all the dynamics.
I don’t consider myself a shredder really, but I guess other people do. I’m not one of those arpeggio pickers that “fan picks,” even though I gotta hand it to them—it’s a tough thing to do.
Speed is not my primary objective. Taste and phrasing are key. Whatever fits the song best is what counts.