Eddie Van Halen, like many of his constituents at the highest level of musical ability, is both a revolutionary and a traditionalist.
As wild as his tapping, delay drenched tone, walls of feedback and generally monster conceptions seemed when the Van Halen album arrived in 1978, his gear was frighteningly basic. His primary tools were his famously mutilated guitar — pared back to something akin to a glorified stick with a jack and pickups — and vintage Marshall Plexis. If the tonal bedrock of those amps was good enough for Jimi, St. Pete, Pagey and Slowhand, well, then it was good enough for Eddie, regardless of how much he set out to overturn the conventions of hard rock fret banging.
And he did nothing less, without mercy. When FM radio began to play “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “You Really Got Me” and “Eruption,” guitarists all over America and then the world went scurrying back to their amps to search for that same Earth-rattling tone.
At that point Eddie had been chasing that signature tone for at least half of his 23 years. He described it — somehow clean, dirty, dark and bright all at once — as a “Brown sound,” because he “browned” down the voltage of his 100-watt Marshall heads with a Variac, a voltage regulator that works much like a damper on a lighting fixture. He also ran his guitar through an equalizer to scoop it to his taste. And the other mainstay of his early rig was an Echo-Plex tape delay, which gave the spitfire notes of songs like “Eruption” and the crunching chords of “Jamie’s Cryin’ ” their magnificent spacial dynamics. Phrase shifter and flanger put icing on the sonic cake.
Then, of course, there was his butt-ugly striped guitar, built by Eddie himself from a Charvel factory reject body and a $50 neck. With a vibrato bridge, single volume knob and single vintage Gibson PAF humbucker carved into its face, the instrument was a study in limitations from its simple components to Eddie’s sparse soldering skills and lack of knowledge about electronic circuitry — but they were obviously all the right limitations.
Another factor was his staggering technique. Eddie was raised in a musical household in Pasadena, California, and first played piano and drums. When he found guitar, he rarely put the instrument down. Both piano and drums informed his percussive fretboard conception and contributed to his development of the two-handed tapping he essayed with maximum flash and brilliance on “Eruption.” He also developed an uncanny ability to pluck out artificial harmonics and blend those techniques with the whammy bar while slugging it out in the California club scene.
Many previous guitar legends had employed tapping — Jim Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Genesis’ Steve Hackett and Queen’s Brian May among them — but none with Eddie’s command and melodic authority. Eddie credits Jimmy Page with inspiring his interest in developing the technique, citing the hammer-ons at the beginning of Page’s “Heartbreaker” solo as inspiration.
Another reason for the ferociously fresh sound of the group Van Halen’s first album was the re-tuned B string on Eddie’s guitar. Using the theory he’d learned studying piano, he tuned his B-string slightly flat to achieve an interval between the G and B in just intonation, a more numerically correct standard of tuning developed in classical music before conventional Western even-tempered tuning.
One more trick he employed early on was volume swells achieved by hammering notes with one hand and rolling his guitar’s volume knob back and forth with the other. His inspirations for this are unclear, but both Jeff Beck and the late Roy Buchanan mastered this technique to a peerless level. Eddie’s fresh spin, however, was applying the technique to all the notes within whole chords, producing a distinctive harmonically resonant sound he described as the “cathedral,” which also became the name of the instrumental that displayed this approach on Van Halen’s 1982 album Diver Down.
Armed with this gear and knowledge it’s still impossible for another guitarist to sound like Eddie. The distinct combination of character, attitude, personality and body English he brings to his playing is impossible for anyone else to exactly duplicate and guarantees that whether he’s playing one of his signature models or a Steinberger GL-2T with a locking TransTrem bar, he’s gonna always sound like Eddie. But his mammoth tone and thrilling approach have influenced a vast amount of guitarists including such fret-burning notables as Slash, Dimebag Darrell and Zakk Wylde.