How Eddie Van Halen Hacks a Guitar
May 21, 2015 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Eddie Van Halen describes early experiments with guitars, electronics, and home wiring in the quest for his famous tone. "I'm poking around, and all of a sudden I touch this huge blue thing and my God, it was like being punched in the chest by Mike Tyson."
posted by swift (37 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Capacitance is a hell of a drug.
posted by GuyZero at 10:04 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Also, how awesome is it that Eddie got 3 patents?
posted by GuyZero at 10:05 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]




And Mr. Van Halen discover the power of the Big Ass Capacitor.

GET THEE ON THY ASS! THE POWER OF THE FARAD COMPELS YOU!
posted by eriko at 10:07 AM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


That tinkering is good fun, but somehow doesn't compare to MIT Engineeering grad Tom Sholz's creation of Boston's signature sound.

Of course, I love VH because Big Dumb Fun and I love Boston because the music is more cerebral and complex, so the universe seems to make some sense today.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:11 AM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]




Supposedly he used to put out a lot of disinformation about his mods, in interviews, to put imitators off the trail.
posted by thelonius at 10:12 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Worship of Eddie Van Halen against my better judgment and in the face of social scorn, including among my long-time music collaborators, has been one of the few constants of my life. Nevertheless, I really think his tone got worse over the years, not better, and I have to wonder if it owes nearly as much to constantly tinkering with something that's not broken (i.e. his tone on the first two albums) as it does to 1) drugs, and 2) sponsorship deals.

According to the folklore, EVH switched from his Marshall Super Lead to a Soldano SLO100 to record the F.U.C.K. album because the Marshall was slowly dying. If true, that would partially account for the deteriorating tone over the years (with 80s production techniques probably about 80% to blame). His early-90s stuff certainly sounds like a Soldano more than a Marshall, but it all would have sounded better with stripped-down production and a better mix, regardless of the amps used.

It fascinates me that he's so fastidious and hands-on about guitars and amps, but recording and production don't come along for the ride. He co-produced Van Halen III (ugh), and I can only give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was some combination of too wasted, too deaf, or too not in room at all for the mixing and mastering, because I refuse to believe that album represents the ideal sound he had been going after for all those years.

And then A Different Kind of Truth comes out and just sounds amazing, tone-wise (but still not at the level of, say, Fair Warning - and it's pushed so hard in terms of arrangement and mastering that it doesn't really bear repeated listenings, IMHO).

Anyway, I could ramble about Van Halen all day. I'd love to just sit and talk with him for hours about this stuff and let him berate me for my sloppy playing and crappy tone.
posted by The World Famous at 10:58 AM on May 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


deedley-deedley-deedley-WHEE-OOO.
posted by Zerowensboring at 11:14 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


with 80s production techniques probably about 80% to blame

The main thing was the addition of Hagar to the lineup. I thought DLR wrote some vapid and stupid lyrics, but Hagar was even worse (Cabo Wabo ? Ugh.) Not to mention that along with the addition Hagar, VH polished their sound to a high sheen - losing so much of the raw edge that made them fun. Metallica made the same mistake with Black Album and it really was a turn for the worse - they both became Mall Music like, say, Night Ranger or Toto.

Van Halen died in 1985. Van Hagar and Van Cherone were only pale imitations. Grunge had to happen, because there is Only One Way to Rock and Van Hagar was not it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:21 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Mall Music like, say, Night Ranger

Step off, just back away.
posted by Cosine at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


My older brother was a Van Halen fan, so naturally I had to hate them when I was younger. As a grown-up, though, the fuckin WEIRDNESS of Eddie's solos has really been borne in on me. For all Van Halen's reputation as hard-rockin mullet magnets, Eddie's solos are as out-there as most art-music. Beyond melody and harmony.
posted by Zerowensboring at 11:31 AM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Different Kind of Truth was so much better than it had a right to be. Yes, Eddie's tone was brown again, maybe not exactly 1982 but damn, it sounded great. His playing, now that he's truly sober, was astonishing. Roth's voice has grown even more limited and while no one here is ever going to mistake him for Dylan, some of the lyrics were just hilarious. Most reunion albums are tepid affairs, with the players long past their prime and going through the motions. The tempos on DKoT were pretty much relentless. Maybe it was because they were going back to old demos for some of these songs, maybe having a youngster on the bass gave them a boost, but I have absolutely no problem shelving this CD next to Fair Warning or VHI.
posted by Ber at 11:38 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mall Music like, say, Night Ranger

Step off, just back away.


"Why would you want to go to a Metallica concert in Minneapolis ? You could go see Night Ranger or something. I've heard them, they seem like much better music. It'll be safer, too."

-- My mom, 1986(ish).
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:54 AM on May 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Also, how awesome is it that Eddie got 3 patents?

I think it's pretty common for guitarists to tinker. Les Paul was a tinkerer and got some patents on electric guitar. I don't think Brian May applied for any patents, but surely the "red special" sound was the result of some inventive tinkering on his part.

and I have to wonder if it owes nearly as much to constantly tinkering with something that's not broken (i.e. his tone on the first two albums) as it does to 1) drugs, and 2) sponsorship deals.

Or as David Lee Roth noted, it was from watching too many reruns of One Day at a Time.
posted by three blind mice at 12:06 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


...or Toto

Mods! MODS!! Pogo_Fuzzybutt is flat-out trolling in here!
posted by Cookiebastard at 12:09 PM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I read an interview years ago with Ted Nugent and Van Halen opened for him on a tour. He was astounded by Eddie's sound and asked if he could try his rig. Turns out that Ted Nugent playing Eddie's gear sounds like Ted Nugent.
posted by plinth at 12:10 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't think Brian May applied for any patents, but surely the "red special" sound was the result of some inventive tinkering on his part.

I know Deacon was urged to patent some of the electronics work he came up with for the band's equipment but I don't believe he ever did either.
posted by Cosine at 12:12 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I read an interview years ago with Ted Nugent and Van Halen opened for him on a tour. He was astounded by Eddie's sound and asked if he could try his rig. Turns out that Ted Nugent playing Eddie's gear sounds like Ted Nugent.

I read the exact same tale but from Nuno Bettencourt.
posted by Cosine at 12:13 PM on May 21, 2015


Speaking of ridiculous amp hacks, I've been toying with the idea of FPPing this little article. Blacky (Jean-Yves Thériault) of Voivod has this incredible distorted yet clean tone on many of their early albums, with Nothingface being the best example of the sound. He achieved this by running the bass through a 70s Marshall Super Lead with half the power tubes removed, which would give this killer attack and distortion, but would eventually melt through the side of the tubes.

"Here the break down on the first setup, which I had in the first four albums.
a 1976 and a 1972 100 watt Marshall, which I used in combination with a set of four 15 inch at 16 ohm impedance speaker cabinet. Then I run the whole thing at about 7 or 8 (btw there is no 11, it stop at 10 ) , trust me that is loud, so you can also use a Tom Shotz Power Soak which I used to put on the side forcing me to re-weld the whole after a while since it was getting so hot that part became un-welded. There was also a trick that I used often and it was pretty cool, is to run the only two of the four power tube, since they run in pair (push-pull), you have to take 2 and 4 out, but be really careful, it will eventually blow the tube, I mean literally, and also you will need to run a powerful fan behind or making a whole [hole] on the side closer to the tube. One thing with the power soak, you will burn the main resistance that is under each tube socket, so be prepare to get space [spare] part. I never really use effect or distortion pedal of any kind except of course for effect like echo or reverb and harmonizer which was use in the last few records, for that I hired a technicien, Richard of Amplitech (sorry I can't remember his last name), to do a modification for Piggy’s and my Marshall which consisted in having a input and output between the pre-amp and power amp section of the Marshall, this would also add one extra pre-amp tube, this would give us the ability to pass the distortion as clean as possible into the effect, which for the bass was not such a big deal but for Piggy’s sound it was crucial, otherwise everything would sound very muddy. I later learn to do it myself since we went through many amp, and they needed some repair on tour sometime. I remember that night in LA when a beer fell in the back of my Marshall during the show, I quickly change the fuses and up it was running again, that damn thing got so hot that by the time I switched fuse all the liquid was gone, no big deal. I’ll post the whole modification on the site later on if people want to know. "
[sp. errors in the original]
posted by Existential Dread at 12:13 PM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Brian May has that weird little preamp the bass player John Deacon made out of parts found in a dumpster, but I don't think he uses it that often. There was also a period where he was playing through the preamp of a 70s Akai reel-to-reel. He's well known for using Vox AC 30 amps. Those are much louder than you might expect.

Obviously though the top fact is that he and his dad made that guitar from scratch. There's even a book about it.
posted by w0mbat at 1:05 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: touch this huge blue thing
posted by leapfrog at 1:06 PM on May 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


Turns out that Ted Nugent playing Eddie's gear sounds like Ted Nugent.

No kidding. Eddie van Halen talks about how he flattened the back of his necks in order to more easily reach the far frets in every position. If you play like Eddie, this makes a difference, if you play like Ted it doesn't. Not saying one is better than the other, only different. It's like riding someone else's bike where you can't adjust the seat and handlebars.

Metafilter: touch this huge blue thing

Not the same shade of blue. IIRC, those big ass F&T and Sprague electrolytic can capacitors were more baby blue. And hell yes they can pack a punch.
posted by three blind mice at 1:14 PM on May 21, 2015


I just saw Eddie Van Halen.
posted by Naberius at 1:29 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


The tone of Ed's guitar is the texture of the air in every suburban 7-11 parking lot on a warm summer night. I don't know if that will make sense to anyone but me.
posted by davebush at 2:27 PM on May 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


It is empirically provable that Van Halen only actually sounds right when played at maximum volume on the tape deck of a 1986 Chrysler minivan with the windows rolled down at midnight in suburban Detroit.
posted by The World Famous at 2:36 PM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


Also, I wonder if part of the guitar tone shift from 1984 to 5150 is due to Hagar's voice sitting different in the mix and forcing the guitar tone to be subject to different mix/master EQ. The Glen Balllard DLR Van Halen songs of the late 90s seem to mess that theory up a bit, though, because Roth was back and Ed's tone didn't spring back to brown.
posted by The World Famous at 2:40 PM on May 21, 2015


Mods! MODS!! Pogo_Fuzzybutt is flat-out trolling in here!

You seem thirsty. Might I suggest some Aqua?
posted by dr_dank at 3:39 PM on May 21, 2015


The World Famous: "It is empirically provable that Van Halen only actually sounds right when played at maximum volume on the tape deck of a 1986 Chrysler minivan with the windows rolled down at midnight in suburban Detroit."

I don't know. It sounded pretty damn good on vinyl at that party we sometimes still talk about almost 30 years later. That, of course, was the party that started with stealing a truckload of beer from the grocery store and only got better from there.
posted by double block and bleed at 4:04 PM on May 21, 2015


Stolen beer is, I am certain, one of the secret ingredients in the brown tone.
posted by The World Famous at 4:07 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Gotta love Popular Mechanics.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 4:28 PM on May 21, 2015


There were these cheesy light dimmers in the house, and I hooked it up to one of those. Of course I wired it backwards and shorted out the whole house, so I went down to a place in Pasadena and asked if there was some kind of industrial-size variable transformer that would let me adjust voltage, and they introduced me to the Variac.

two thoughts: an amp attenuator is definitely on my to-build list, and it's hard to read EVH telling this stuff without thinking of Mehdi.
posted by mcrandello at 4:31 PM on May 21, 2015


Not really a Van Halen fan but goddamn, every time I hear "Hot for Teacher" on the radio their musicianship just floors me.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:33 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm just glad to see him looking a hell of a lot better than several years ago.
posted by fungible at 5:16 PM on May 21, 2015


I'm not a fan of the VH band, but Eddie is a real genius guitarist. Tone subtleties aside, his uncanny fretboard plucked harmonics were a virtuoso innovation. Even in terms of basic visual presentation, his coloured electrical tape decorations were something different.
posted by ovvl at 6:28 PM on May 21, 2015


God the production on 5150 is awful.
posted by gottabefunky at 1:06 PM on May 28, 2015


I ended up buying the Brian May guitar book I linked to earlier and read it last weekend. The engineering of the tremolo system was really advanced for the era, and I loved how it was made out of whatever materials they had lying around the house, even one of his mum's knitting needles and some of her pearl buttons got incorporated into it.
posted by w0mbat at 2:48 PM on May 29, 2015


« Older I’m never seeing my Astoria friends again!   |   when your Tinder pic is on point and you start... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments