Eddie Van Halen, considered by many to be the best Rock ’N Roll guitarist, passed away on October 6, 2020. I must admit I knew little about him and his music. However, as I read a few stories about him, I became curious to learn more.
In this 2019 interview with Denise Quan, part of a series by The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Eddie Van Halen talks about how he and the band “had worked so hard” to create their sound.
Eddie Van Halen was an immigrant from Holland whose family moved to Pasadena California in the 1960’s. Eddie and his brother, Alex, grew up in a musical family. His father, a classically trained musician, inspired both of them, not just musically but with his determination to make a living from music. Their mother, who was Indonesian, insisted that the two boys learn piano. Eddie surprised his piano teacher by admitting that after five years of lessons that he could not read music — he learned by watching the teacher’s hands and memorized the music. After hearing the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five, Alex took up the drums and Eddie the guitar. He had taken piano lessons but never took guitar lessons.
I was struck by the DIY origins of his Eddie Van Halen’s musical career. He began by hacking his instruments — the electric guitar itself — to make it do what he wanted it to do.
“What drives me to tear things apart is,” he says, “some of it is necessity, some of it is just experimenting. I’m always pushing things past where they are supposed to be.” He explained that some of what he did, he had to do because he couldn’t afford some of the equipment that others had.
He goes on to explain how he liked the vibrato bar of a Fender guitar and the humbucking pickups of a Gibson guitar, and he wanted both in the same guitar. He liked the “much fatter sound” Gibson’s pickups, which cancelled out some of the hum caused by the vibrato bar. So, he mashed them together, buying a knockoff Fender body — a second, and then ripping the pickups out of Gibson guitar. He describes using a hammer and chisel to make a hole in body for the Gibson pickup. “I screwed the pickup straight into the wood,” he said, mentioning that the Gibson Stratocaster has three pickups. “I routed out the body and crammed (in) the humbucking pickup. Mind you, everything was just lying there, unsoldered.” He struggled to figure out how to connect three pickups to two knobs. “How am I going to hook this back up? I had no clue.”
He wondered if he could hook up the humbucking pickup up to one knob. He tried it and “it worked!” He called it “The Frankenstein” guitar, sometimes called “Frankenstrat” and one of them is in the National Museum of American History. The Frankenstein guitar helped him produce the sound he wanted.
He spray-painted the guitar body black, but thought it was dull. So he used gaffer tape to cover up parts of the body and added another color. He created a flashy two-tone look that others copied. In the interview, he also talks about hacking his Marshall amp to control the voltage to give himself the ability to change how loud it was.
Ms. Quan commented that he always seemed to want to push beyond — looking “for more power, more volume.” “He replied: “Yes. More is always better, right?” After laughing and cracking a joke, Van Halen said “It was just a natural evolution. I’m always tinkering with things. The main thing I ask myself is: ‘what if I do this?’”
This experimentation — by trial and error — applied not only to the instruments but also led him to developing techniques to play the guitar in new ways. He played with two hands on the fret board, which he demonstrates in this video. He says that he himself had no particular name for the techniques.
Van Halen, the band, produced its debut album in 1978. Van Halen rose to No. 19 on the Billboard 200 chart in 1978.
The music, his sound, is what sold albums and what made him famous. Behind that sound were the tools and techniques he developed as a maker through experimentation to produce something different, something new, which was the unique way he and his band expressed themselves creatively. They not only had to create the music but also find ways to sell it. They worked hard to get as many people to know them and their music. “The bottom line is we believed in ourselves and we wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said Van Halen, a remarkable maker and musical innovator. Billboard reported that there were 30 million downloads of his band’s catalog of songs following his death.