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Eddie Van Halen on Building his Guitars

Editor’s Note: Future U.K., who acquired Guitar Player, Bass Player, Electronic Musician, and Keyboard (as well as Guitar World and other former NewBay Media titles) in 2018, recently decided to remove much of GP‘s legacy content from guitarplayer.com.

To the concern of many of the former editors who worked on the “player books,” this decision means that, at present, decades of guitar history and journalism from the first, and arguably one of the most renowned, guitar publications is unavailable to the community of guitarists, guitar enthusiasts, guitar historians, and guitar fans on the planet.

Given Eddie Van Halen‘s recent passing, it was extremely apparent that hard-guitar data on Eddie’s past was limited to some excellent article reprints from Guitar World, and, well, a lot of less scholarly publications, but words from the pages of Guitar Player — the magazine that published Eddie’s first guitar interview — were absent. It was as if GP‘s history with Eddie had been vaporized.

Until Future decides what to do with all the digital content that used to reside at guitarplayer.com, this sad omission will occur again and again as guitar heroes pass away, or as fans seek archival information on living players. It’s hard not to feel like significant elements of GP‘s 53+ year-old voice have been silenced, excepting whatever is happening in the now. And the same “gag order” applies to Bass Player, Keyboard, and Electronic Musician. So many legacy articles penned by the best writers and editors in the business — and as published by some of the finest musician magazines ever — are simply … gone.

As someone who worked for those august publications for more than 20 years, this is a difficult, almost incomprehensible matter to accept. I have asked about acquiring GP‘s digital archives for Guardians of Guitar so that the world guitar community can once again have easy assess to such a tremendous library of guitar history. I will update everyone whenever I receive any feedback from Future. I’m also trying to pave the way for Music Player Network and Bass Magazine to perhaps offer the appropriate “Player” archives to their communities.

Please understand that I have no beef with Future about this. It’s a business decision, pure and simple. Truth be told, I still freelance for Future from time to time, and I respect and thank current GP editor Christopher Scapelliti for keeping me in the loop. I also applaud the ongoing and excellent efforts of my old buddy Art Thompson, who still holds the title of senior editor, and the always groovy Jimmy Leslie, who remains with Frets.

But I’m also crazy emotional about GP‘s history, and it’s wrenching for me to consider a world where the archives are locked away from the community of guitar players that I served for so long.

So until I can beg for, buy, or otherwise acquire the digital archives of GP, I plan to offer short excerpts of the magazine’s legacy articles here whenever it seems people may want to have them. Such as to honor the life of Eddie Van Halen.

Jas Orbrecht‘s April 1980 cover story on Eddie is another one of Jas’ insightful and comprehensive interviews with a master, and it included some thrilling and educational information on how the guitarist crafted his famous self-made guitars. (For real guitar zealots, Jas interviewed George Gobel in the same issue — search for it. Hahaha.)

I’m hoping that Future — who owns the copyrights for all Guitar Player content — will see this little “incident of sharing info” as a service to the community. (I’m certainly not monetizing anything that doesn’t belong to me.) To keep up to date on present-day GP, please click to https://www.guitarplayer.com/.

And now to the MAIN EVENT…

Eddie Van Halen on Building his Guitars

“My main stage guitars are the ones I built myself for under $200”

Excerpted from Young Wizard of Power Rock by Jas Obrecht, Guitar Player, April 1980

What made you decide to build your own guitars?

A Les Paul to me was just the cliched guitar — the rock and roll guitar. I liked the sound, but it didn’t fit my body. I’d have to wear it too high to be able to stretch as I do, and it looks funky. So I wanted to get that type of sound, but with a tremolo. And Bigsbys have got to be the worst. So I bought a ’58 Strat years ago when we played high school dances, and Dave and Al said, “Don’t use that guitar — it sounds too thin.” You know, single-coil pickups. They had a real buzzy thin sound unless I used a fuzz box, and that’s even worse. So I sold that and the two years later, I bought a router and dumped a Gibson PAF pickup into a ’61 Strat. It got very close. All of a sudden, the band said, “That’s okay. It doesn’t sound like a Strat anymore.” Then, I heard that Charvel made exact duplicates of Fender guitars, but out of nicer wood.

Is this where you got the wood for your first homemade guitar?

Yeah. The very first one was the black-and-white striped one on the first album. I went to Charvel and had them rout a body for just one pickup and one volume knob. I had to cut my own pickguard to cover everything up because it was originally a three-pickup Strat body. I used the vibrato tailpiece from a ’58 Strat for that guitar. I also had Charvel make me a really wide neck. I hate skinny necks. I like them almost as wide as a classical guitar across the fingerboard, but thin in depth. I left it bare wood because I hate to slip and slide when I start bending strings. Now at the same time, I built what I call my shark guitar, which is actually one of the first Ibanez Destroyers made out of korina wood. I made the mistake of taking a chainsaw to it and putting a bunch of weird stuff on it.

Did it lose some tone?

I lost the tonality I want. It was that distinct little tone that I look for that was cut out of the guitar. Then, I went to Charvel and bought the parts for a Destroyer with a vibrato. I got tired of playing it and so I had a friend of mine carve a dragon biting a snake out of the Destroyer’s body.

How long did it take you to build the black-and-white Strat?

Not really too long, but it took me a while to build up to doing that. I used to have an old Gibson ES-335 that was my main experimental guitar. That was the one I refretted and painted and and totally screwed up. I mean, I did everything you can imagine to that guitar to ruin it. But I learned from it. It’s too bad, because that guitar would have been worth some bucks today. But I learned what I know of building guitars, so I guess it’s worth it.

Have you since modified the black-and-white Strat?

Yeah. A company started copying it, and I said, “Man, I better change it.” So I really went to town painting it all freaked out, and I put three pickups back in, but they don’t all work — or the rear one works. I just did it to be different, so every kid who bought one like that model would go, “Oh, man, he’s got something different again.” I always like to turn the corner on people when they start latching on to what I’m doing. Here I am, just a punk kid trying to get a sound out of a guitar that I couldn’t buy off the rack, so I built one myself and now everybody else wants one.

Did you make another guitar for your second album?

I made the yellow-and-black Strat. It has an ash body by Charvel. It was my idea to have it rear-loaded so I wouldn’t have to have a pickguard, and Charvel routed it for me. The pickup that’s on the photo is not really what I use. I had just finished slapping it together and painting it when they shot the album cover, and I just stuck some garbage pickup in it to look like a complete guitar. Then, I took the pickup out of my first guitar and stuck it in there, but it didn’t sound too good. I don’t really go for DiMarzio pickups because they’re real distorted. I like a clean sound with sustain. I hate the fuzz box, real raspy sound. So I put a PAF magnet in a DiMarzio pickup and rewound it by hand — which took a long time. I actually ruined about three pickups, and by the fourth time, it worked. I didn’t count the windings. I just did it by sight.

Was that the guitar you took on the second tour?

I used that one, plus the original one from the first album for the first part of the tour, and then I ran into Floyd Rose, and he showed me his special bridge and nut for keeping a Strat in tune. I said, “What the hell. I’ll give it a try.” I’m up for anything. So I had Boogie Bodies make me a mahogany body that’s fit to my size, and I put the Rose device on it. The body is a Strat style, but it’s 2-1/2″ thick, which is thicker than a Les Paul. The Rose tailpiece gets a thin sound, and I thought a chunky piece of wood could make up for the tinkiness. It works a little bit. That guitar has a Gibson PAF and just one volume knob. It’s real simple.

What is your overall opinion of Floyd’s vibrato device?

I like it and I don’t. For one, on my guitar it sounds brittle-bright, and I have to do some heavy equalization to get my tone. That’s why I don’t like to use it in the studio. We just go in there and play live, and I depend on making my guitar sound good out of the amp, instead of fixing it in the mix. Number two, if you pop a string, you can’t even one-note your way through, because the whole guitar goes out of tune. Sometimes, I’ll hit a chord and tune really quickly. With this device, you can’t — you have to unclamp it. On top of that, sometimes when I jump off the drum riser, the neck shifts a hair, and then I can’t tune it. But it has advantages: When you’re using the bar, it will not go out of tune.

What are the most difficult aspects of building your own guitar?

Making the neck fit the body. Another problem is that the strings on a Stratocaster are spaced differently than on a Gibson, so if you use a humbucking pickup, the strings don’t line up with the pickup poles. So I’ve tried slanting the pickup so the high E will be picked up by the front pole, and the low E will be picked up by the rear pole. For the sound I like, it is also important to get the space between the bridge and the pickup right. I do it almost like a Les Paul. If I put it too far towards the neck, I get the Grand Funk and Johnny Winter tone, and if I put it too close to the bridge, I get a real treble-y Strat sound. So I move it up towards the neck a little bit from the Strat sound to get a beefier tone.

Do you have any special methods for refretting necks?

Yeah. I hate the way people refret necks. I do it real simple: I sand them down with some 400 wet-or-dry sandpaper and then use some steel wool. I hate flat frets because the more space you have for the string to rest on, the more room you have for the intonation to be off. I like big frets height-wise, but I make them come to a peak. From a side view, one of my frets would look like the top of a pick. It doesn’t come to a complete point, but it would be rounded as opposed to flat. Another thing is you have to put them in right. Fender has a machine that puts them in from the side rather than above, and a lot of people take tem straight out and rip the wood. I toured the factory and saw how they did it and said, “No wonder I ruined so many Fenders by pulling them straight out!”

Do you do anything special to your pickups?

I usually use old Gibson PAFs, and I always pot them. I submerge the whole thing in paraffin wax, and this cuts out the high, obnoxious feedback. It’s kind of a tricky thing because if you leave it in there too long, the pickup melts. I take a coffee can and melt down some wax — the same kind you use for surfboards — and put the pickup in it. See, one of the reasons a pickup feeds back is that the coil windings vibrate, and when the wax soaks in there, it keeps them from vibrating as much. It will still feedback, but it’s controllable. After I dip the pickup in paraffin, I put copper tape around it. You have to be really careful if you do this to a pickup like a DiMarzio. You can throw an old PAF in there and let it soak it up. It doesn’t melt. But with DiMarzios, if you blink, all of a sudden your pickup is ruined.

Are there any guitars you’d like to build in the future?

I’ll have the next one built, and it will probably be difficult and cost a lot of money. What I’d really like now is like a three-quarter sized ES-335. I was playing a 335 for while before we got signed, and it sound fine. But the other guys would go, “You’re rock and roll—you ain’t Roy Orbison. Either get some dark glasses or get rid of the guitar.” So I dumped that and started playing the Les Paul again. So what I would like is a 335 to fit my body, and maybe not as hollow as some 335s. I’d like a solid beam all the way to the back of the guitar, and maybe a little extra wood in there. The one I have now lacks a little bit of tone. It’s too acoustically toned — too hollow.

Author: Michael Molenda

Founder of Guardians of Guitar. Longest-serving Editor in Chief of GUITAR PLAYER (1997-2018). Long live Link Wray and Mick Ronson!

2 thoughts on “Eddie Van Halen on Building his Guitars

  1. Thanx Michael, I really enjoyed reading this again. I hope Future will come to senses and come up with a good way to keep the legact of the greatest guitar magazine ever alive.
    Cheers, keep up the god work.

  2. Thanks Michael! The GP rag could use you more. I know Chris is doing his best, but it’s shadow of its old self. I’ve still kept my old copies, but they’re packed waiting for re-reading in my retirement someday. Peace.

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