How Eddie Van Halen Hacks a Guitar

Amps

If it was movable, or turnable, or anything that resembled something that could go up or down, I would mess with it to make the amp run hotter. I opened the amp up and saw this thing. I found out later it was a bias control, which controls the power to the output tubes. 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. My whole body flexed stiff, and it must have thrown me five feet. I’d touched a capacitor. I didn’t know they held voltage.

The Marshall amp I brought home from the store where I worked was only good if you turned it all the way up. Any lower and you’d lose the distortion. I needed that, but it was impossible to play anywhere with the volume that loud, so I tried everything, from leaving the thick plastic cover on it to facing it backwards to putting it face down. I’d blow a fuse twice an hour.

I touch this huge blue thing and my God, it was like being punched in the chest by Mike Tyson

Luckily, I stumbled onto the Variac transformer soon after. I’d bought another Marshall amp, and I had no idea that it was actually a European model. I plugged it in, and I’m waiting for it to warm up and thinking, I got ripped off here, there’s no sound coming out! Pissed off, I came back an hour later to give it another shot. I’d left the amp on the whole time. I didn’t know it was set on 220, so when I turn my guitar on it sounds like a full-blown Marshall, all the way up, except really, really quiet. That was when I realized there was something going on with the voltage. 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. It’s just a huge light dimmer. I plugged it into the amp and controlled the voltage from that. That became my volume knob. I would set the voltage depending on the size of the room we were playing, getting all that feedback at any volume.

Pickups

My first real guitar was a Les Paul Goldtop. I was a total Eric Clapton freak, and I saw old pictures of him playing a Les Paul. Except his had humbucking pickups, and mine had the soapbar, P-90 single coils. The first thing I did with that guitar was chisel it out in the back and put a humbucker in. When we were playing gigs, people kept saying, “How is he getting that sound out of single–coil soapbar pickups?” Since my hand was covering the humbucker, they never realized that I’d put it in.

When my guitar was black and white, I cut out my own pickguard so it would cover the holes from the pickup I’d removed. But when I painted red on top of the black and white, which is how it is now, it didn’t look cool with that black pickguard. It covered most of the paint job. I decided just to take the switch and cram it in the middle and put a nonworking pickup in the front because I didn’t use it. I wasn’t trying to trick anyone. Bottom line is, I didn’t know how to hook it back up.

The last real step for me was adding paraffin wax to my pickup. Pickups can have this really high-end squeal, like the annoying screech of feedback you sometimes hear when someone speaks into a microphone. I thought maybe what was causing that with a guitar was the coil windings vibrating. So what I did—and I have no idea where this idea came from—was buy a hot plate and bricks of paraffin, and borrow a Yuban coffee can from my mom to put the wax in. Of course I ruined a lot of pickups, because the plastic frames would melt before I had a chance to yank the pickup out. But finally, when I had a chance to really keep an eye on it, as soon as I saw the pickup start to heat up and shrivel a little bit I’d yank it out. Man, the first time I put that in—between the Variac, the beast that Marshall was, and now the pickup not having unwanted feedback—the combination was just ideal. That was heaven to me. When all those things came together, it was like, okay, I’m going crazy with the whammy bar, I got my Marshall with the Variac, there’s no stopping me.

The patents of Eddie Van Halen

He had three. One expired earlier this year. Two remain.

U.S. Patent #388117. Guitar peghead: Placing the tuning pegs on the opposite sides of the headstocks helps the strings hold tension. It also obviates the need for string trees, guides that clamp down on your strings and hinder string replacement.

U.S. ­Patent #4656917 ­Musical instrument support: A bracket that swings down from the back of the guitar, supporting it at a 90-degree angle from your body and letting you play the instrument like a lap guitar.

How to play like Eddie

(Or at least look a little more like him when you do play.)

Eddie started manufacturing his own equipment in 2007 under the brand EVH Gear. His newest offering, the Wolfgang WG Standard, launched in the spring. Named for Van Halen’s son, the entry-level guitar is made from extremely lightweight and porous basswood, providing the perfect resonance for musicians who are heavy on the treble and fade. The neck is maple, with a deliberately minimal satin finish. “The more porous the wood, the more tone you’re going to get,” Van Halen says. “My guitars aren’t sealed, so they breathe. The sap can escape, allowing the wood to age.” If you get good enough to really wail, the specialty Floyd Rose bridge locks the strings to the body in two places instead of just one, so the guitar stays in tune, even when you hit a dive bomb—the high-pitched whine at the end of the song that you know you’re going to try.

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Popular Mechanics.


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