There has never been someone as innovative as Eddie Van Halen when it comes to guitar gear. Other people have tried and failed. Eddie changed the face of rock and metal with crazy designs. Today we take a look at his biggest accomplishments.
Eddie Van Halen: Talent And Innovation
We recently talked about Steve Vai, and the creation of the Ibanez Jem. That guitar definitely changed the whole landscape of future guitars made by Ibanez, as well as the countless other brands these days that make similar guitars. But all of those ideas that Vai had, were built on the foundation of another player. In fact, he might be the most important player in all of rock and metal. Not only was his style unique in a way no one had ever heard before, but he also created and invented gear.
Eddie Van Halen was a force to be reckoned with, throughout his entire career. But the beginning of his musical journey is what made his contributions to rock and metal so important. For years, guitarists tried to copy him. This is an unfortunate side effect of being a trailblazer with guitar. If you create something totally different, you will always have people trying to ape your style. Look at the Grunge scene in the early 90s, or even recently with bands like Meshuggah and Polyphia. There are always copycats out there, trying to steal your style.
But we live in the internet age now, and it has never been easier to find out how a guitarist gets a certain sound. Back in the early 80s, it was totally different, and you had to do some deep digging to find out how a guitarist got a certain sound. Eddie Van Halen made a game of this, by often telling people in interviews about how he got his famous “Brown Sound”. Eddie would tell people all kinds of made-up stories, and add components to his guitars that didn’t even work!
Today we are going to look at all of the innovations that Eddie Van Halen left us, that are still used in the rock and metal community today. We are also going to take a look at how he made some of his first guitars, and the modifications he made to them. Most of us know that he created all kinds of gear, but the sheer amount of innovation over the years is staggering.
Eddie’s biggest accomplishment was being able to craft songs that people would love, while still being able to show off his virtuosic playing style. That is a serious balancing act for any artist because if you go too far off the deep end with your playing, you lose the average fan. If you go too far into pop music, you lose the dedicated guitarist fans. Eddie somehow walked that line perfectly. He drew inspiration from everywhere, and you can hear that over all of the albums. He started a total revolution.
While also crafting these perfect songs, he also managed to tinker with guitars and amps. Today we are going to dive into all of the things he changed along the way, his personal inventions, and his amazing guitar innovations that changed the world forever. I look at my guitars all the time and think about how they probably wouldn’t exist without Eddie. So let’s take a look at the beginning, and then move on to the most recent designs.
Eddie Van Halen: The “FrankenStrat”
When you mention the FrankenStrat to anyone, they usually think of the red, white, and black version. That was definitely the final form, and Eddie Van Halen added new stuff all the time until it was retired in 1983-1984. The only reason he quit using it, was because Kramer Guitars had made him a signature model. Kramer was at the top of the game in the 80’s, making guitars for all kinds of famous guitarists. But it all started in 1977 with the original creation that Eddie threw together.
The story begins with a 1961 Fender Stratocaster. Eddie had been playing these for a while, and had two at the time that he either bought from Wayne Charvel, or Dave Schecter. These had various pickup swaps in a short period of time, with Eddie chasing a particular tone. But they all ended up the same; one humbucker in the bridge, and a single master volume control. So Eddie had at least figured out that part of his setup.
Eddie was hanging around the Charvel factory a lot in those days, and he came across a “Factory Second” Ash wood body. Wayne Charvel explained to Eddie that this body was not for for sale from the custom shop, but Ed could buy it if he wanted to for $40. The body was technically a bad piece of wood, since it had a knot in it. The body shape was designed by Dave Schecter to be lighter, and have tonal improvements.
To finish the guitar, he needed other parts from his Fender Strat, so he cannibalized the Fender guitars and placed the parts on the Charvel body. It only lasted two shows before Ed started changing it up more. He painted the body gloss black, and added the mint green pickguard from his 1961 Strat. But then this was short lived as well, as sometime over the Summer of 1976, Eddie Van Halen saw a punk rock guitarist named Chip Kinman playing at a club. Chip had a striped Les Paul, and Eddie copied it.
Ed then took a black pickguard that he designed himself and installed it. This white and black striped guitar was the first iteration of the FrankenStrat. The Fender neck was soon replaced as well with a Boogie Bodies Maple neck. Eddie Van Halen then added a few 1/8” strips of black to the body, finalizing the signature look. But of course, drama rears its ugly head as soon as someone starts to get some notoriety.
Own a living piece of history on a budget! This is the same design that Eddie played for years! Based on the original artwork Eddie created for the guitars he rocked the stages with during Van Halen's heyday of the late-'70s through the early '90s. Underneath the recognizable artwork are basswood Stratocaster-style bodies with quartersawn maple necks, a hand-rubbed oil finish and thumbwheel truss rod adjustment, compound-radius maple fingerboard (12"-16") with 22 jumbo frets and black dot inlays, plus a single ferocious direct-mount Wolfgang humbucking pickup.
Eddie Van Halen: 1978-1979 And Massive Changes
Ed used this black/white guitar for the two tours, and while it worked just fine, it had started to show some serious wear. Around the same time, Grover Jackson finalized his deal with buying Charvel in 1978, and made a black and yellow “Bumblebee” version of the FrankenStrat for Eddie. This would have been an excellent time to get Eddie to endorse Jackson guitars…until Ed found out that Jackson was making copies of the FrankenStrat and selling them behind his back and without consent. This started a grudge that may have never been rectified.
Ed was pretty angry about the copies and really wanted to make a change. Ed knew that he had to change up his guitar, now that so many copies were floating around. People all over the California Sunset Strip were playing his signature guitar. He started by sanding down the body and taping off the black and white model. He added red to the already striped guitar. This is where the FrankenStrat that we know today started to take shape. Some new things were added:
- A new Trem system: Taken from a CBS Fender
- The original Boogie Maple Neck (Later The Bumblebee Neck)
- Two single coil pickups, direct mounted
- Pickguard removed
- Volume pot added (single)
- Mini output toggle switch (From a Les Paul)
- Reflectors on the back
We are not sure how many of the added components were actually operational on this version of the guitar. Eddie Van Halen was known to pretty much use the bridge humbucker only. With so many guitar players copying him, he may have put things on the guitar just to throw people off. Ed had made it a habit to start rumors about his gear, and how he got his sound. He made outlandish claims about his gear to throw off guitar players that tried to copy his sound. These fibs made him a legend in the industry. So how functional was the FrankenStrat? We don’t know.
At the same time, the original “Bumblebee” had been taken apart for the neck. But this guitar started the relationship that really changed the way Eddie Van Halen played forever. The Bumblebee had a Floyd Rose FRT bridge. This was one of the first locking trem systems, and although in the infant stages, the Floyd helped to keep the guitar in tune for Eddie after doing massive dive bombs. But the Bumblebee guitar left a bad taste in Ed’s mouth, since he was still angry with Jackson for copying his design.
Eddie put a lot of effort into keeping his tone, and guitar designs a secret. Jackson had really crossed the line by producing copies of his guitar. Ed was never the guy that was 100% happy with his gear, and constantly experimented. Around 1980, Eddie Van Halen also briefly played an Ibanez Destroyer that he also customized with the red/white/black paint job. Going into the next decade, Eddie had a few ideas…
*The “Bumblebee” model was laid to rest with Dimebag Darrell of Pantera. Dime had always said that this was his favorite guitar, and Eddie Van Halen was his biggest inspiration. Always a class act, Ed showed up to Dime’s funeral with the guitar, and he personally put it in the casket with Dime at the funeral.
Eddie Van Halen: 1980 And Beyond…
Eddie Van Halen was instrumental in helping Floyd Rose design the trem that we see today, suggesting a locking nut. Eventually, you see Eddie using Floyds on all of his guitars by about 1980. These Floyd models were pretty primitive compared to the ones that we see today on shredder guitars, but they did the job. Eddie was a sort of test subject for the different Floyd Rose Models. The FRT5 is closest to what we see today, and it was the first to feature fine tuners.
The FrankenStrat saw many more incarnations through 1997. Eddie was always trying something new with the guitar. It was his main axe, but it also saw several new necks and design choices over the next few years. Tom Anderson worked at Schecter for quite a while and eventually made a special tapered neck for Eddie to put on the FrankenStrat. This neck profile is still used today with EVH Brand guitars.
Ed eventually picked up an endorsement deal with Kramer guitars, where they recreated the FrankenStrat with Kramer aesthetics. These 5150 Kramer Barretta Models were very similar to the original model, and Eddie played them for quite a few years. But he kept a list of things that he wanted in a guitar, and never stopped designing. At the same time, he started working with Peavey on a new amp design around 1989-1990.
Eddie Van Halen played the FrankenStrat for years to come, even if he had an endorsement deal with another company, like Kramer. Little things were added over the years, like different pickups and a real German Floyd Rose in the 90’s. But after the 90’s, it seems like he quit experimenting with the FrankenStrat all together, even though he still played it live. This is because he had a totally new idea in the works for a guitar…
The Peavey And Music Man Days
Ernie Ball and Kramer were both endorsed by Eddie Van Halen for quite a few years. But always holding to his ethics, once he found out about an “issue” between the two companies, he left Kramer for good. The two companies were fighting over accounting issues, and instead of letting the drama reach a peak, Ed stepped out and started playing Music Man instruments. In particular, the Axis models.
These were customized to Eddie’s specs, and while he had a “FrankenStrat Inspired” version of the Music Man, he preferred the “Amber Orange” model seen above. The neck was electronically mapped out to be a replica of his favorite guitar neck made by Tom Anderson at Schecter. A German Floyd was added, as well as a three way switch for the dual humbuckers. Eddie had used quite a few Les Paul guitars in the past, and while they were not exactly what he wanted, he like the dual humbucker setup.
The Music Man version sold for a few years under his endorsement, and they can still be found today as the Axis Model. Along with the Axis, Eddie worked with Floyd Rose to develop the D-Tuna for the Floyd trem system. This gadget allows you to drop from standard to drop D tuning instantly without having to tune or change guitars. This is still sold and is definitely a huge innovation since people who play Floyd Rose equipped guitars usually have to stay in one tuning due to the nature of a Floyd.
The EVH 5150 Iconic 40-watt 1x12 combo amplifier captures classic Eddie Van Halen tone like never before. A must-have for any Van Halen aficionado, this 40-watt, two-channel amp features a 1x12" custom-voiced Celestion EVH speaker designed to Eddie’s specifications. Powered by two 6L6 output tubes and two 12AX7 JJ preamp tubes, the closed-back EVH Iconic combo amp is built to deliver unmistakable Van Halen sound. Boost control over both Clean and Gain channels, along with Overdrive and Burn switches, help to shape the EVH tube tone into something entirely original.
The Peavey Years
Eddie Van Halen stayed with Music Man for years, until 1996 when he was approached by Peavey to redesign the Axis with new improvements. He had already begun a relationship with Peavey in 1990 when he designed the 5150 Amplifier, which is still used today and is legendary when it comes to the high gain tones you get out of it. If you listened to a metal album between 1991 and now…there was probably a 5150 involved. Carcass was famous for using the 5150, as well as many other metal bands.
The Peavey EVH Wolfgang was a totally different beast than what Music Man has designed for him. The announcement came directly from Eddie himself when he decided to move to Peavey guitars, and he explained the differences since they were very similar in appearance to the Music Man Axis models. The advertising campaign was a huge success, and finally, Eddie had endorsements from a single company with Peavey:
“For as long as I’ve been playing guitar, I’ve always been searching for a certain feel and tone…I’ve experimented by tearing apart and reassembling hundreds of guitars in different ways searching for these qualities. Although I’ve ruined a lot of great guitars by having done this, I have learned what it takes to make a truly great guitar. The Wolfgang, after years of trial and error, (for me) is that guitar. Our collective efforts in designing the Wolfgang guitar have resulted in a versatile, quality-crafted guitar that feels great, sounds great and is truly inspiring to play. I’ve already put mine to the test in the studio and on tour and now it’s your turn.“[Eddie Van Halen
The Peavey EVH Wolfgang was named after his son, and it was a redesign of the Axis, with brand new features. Eddie worked with luthier Jim DeCola at Peavey to design the Wolfgang. The new Wolfgang had a spoke wheel truss rod adjustment at the heel of the neck, something we see all the time now since many companies have adopted it. This created a stronger neck joint as well, making it easier to maintain on the road. The features added up to a guitar that so many companies copy today:
- Solid (usually 2-piece) basswood body
- Carved maple top (1/4″ to 5/8″ thick) on selected models (translucent finishes); no top on the Special models
- Bolt-on construction with contoured neck heel, no neck plate
- Unique offset cutaway design
- Birdseye maple neck and fingerboard, oil-finished
- Dual graphite reinforcements and adjustable torsion rod with recessed adjustment wheel
- 25 1/2″ scale length
- 22 jumbo frets (Dunlop 6105)
- 15″ fingerboard radius
- Locking nut, string retainer bar
- Straight string pull headstock with asymmetrical 3+3 tuning machine configuration
- Precision die-cast tuning machines (based on the Schaller M6L)
- Two Alnico-V custom-wound Peavey humbucking pickups (DC resistance:16.22 kΩ on the neck, and 13.87 kΩ on the bridge)
- Master volume control (500 kΩ, long split shaft, logarithmic)
- Master tone control (500 kΩ, long split shaft, logarithmic)
- Switchcraft® 3-way toggle switch and output jack
- Peavey/Floyd Rose licensed, double-locking tremolo assembly
- D-Tuna device (allows instant drop of low E string to D)
- Chrome-plated hardware finish
Unfortunately, Peavey and Eddie Van Halen split ways in 2004. This was after Fender/Charvel started making replicas of his original FrankenStrat models for Eddie to play on tour. Jim DeCola went to Fender/Charvel and he tried for a few years to get Eddie on board. When he showed Eddie that he could still make the Wolfgang to the high specs that Eddie wanted, Ed finally relented and took his endorsement to Fender. The Fender Wolfgang, and the 5150 III amps are still made, and hugely popular.
Ed was very smart to own the design of the guitar and amplifier as he went with Fender for further production. Eddie had ownership rights to both designs, meaning he could go to any company that he wanted. Eddie went to Fender since Jim Decola left Peavey to join Fender. Eddie and Jim had a very special relationship, so where Jim went…Eddie Followed. These days, the Fender team has the EVH guitars at just about every price point, and tons of finish options.
The EVH Wolfgang series was actually set to have some design tweaks, but unfortunately on October 6th 2020…Eddie passed away after a long battle with cancer. This came as a shock to the guitar community, and we lost a true hero that day. But Eddie Van Halen left us with so much, and his legacy will live on forever.
Eddie Van Halen: A Legacy Of Brilliance
We will have a whole different article on the Peavey 5150 that you can find here. I feel like this amp is so inspiring, that it needs its own write-up. Eddie might be gone, but I don’t think his legacy will ever be forgotten. Eddie Van Halen shocked the world first with his technique, but then with his innovative designs that we still use today. He inspired me, and several generations not only to pick up a guitar but to take the guitar to new heights.
Eddie Van Halen had a style that no one had ever heard until the first time “Eruption” was heard on Van Halen I. The high-speed tapping sounded like it was from another planet. But Ed was also an amazing rhythm player, that wrote great songs using unconventional chords. One listen to “Hot For Teacher” is all you need to realize just how great of a player Eddie was. I think he is just as important as Jimi Hendrix when it comes to the guitar zeitgeist and history.
But his technique was only half of his contribution. The guitar and amps that he designed had features that we all take for granted these days. Without his ideas, we might have never seen the birth of the “Super Strat” or the amazing high gain amps like the 5150. Eddie was often described as the “Guitarist’s guitar player” since he loved gear so much, and could talk your ear off about guitars. I could say a million things about Eddie Van Halen, but this article is the best tribute I can give him. Thanks for all of the smiles, and the amazing gifts you left to all of us, Eddie.
Sporting a bolt-on baked maple neck with graphite reinforcement rods hold strong against the ravages of temperature and humidity, with spoke wheel at the base of the neck makes for quick and painless truss rod adjustments. Designed for comfortable playability and speed, the Wolfgang WG Standard also features a smooth oiled finish on the back of the neck and a 12"-16" compound radius 22-fret baked maple fingerboard with rolled edges and black dot inlays.
This is where your shred journey begins!