Very few guitarists have had the profound influence and impact on the culture of music that Eddie Van Halen has had. For some of you reading this, he is THE guitarist that inspired you to pick up a guitar for the first time. In addition to being iconic for his inventive, other-worldly technique his tone has stood the test of time. Eddie took it upon himself in the early days of his quest for tone. He would often perform modifications on his amps and guitars which led to his creating of the “brown sound” introduced to the world in Van Halen’s 1978 debut release. Today we will take a look at Eddie’s guitars, amps and his remarkable use of effects pedals!
Eddie’s original tone came from his famous homemade “Frankenstrat” guitar, a marshall amp and use of MXR effects pedals like the Phase 90 and Flanger.
Eddie is widely known for building his own guitar. His goal in building this instrument was to combine the sound of a Gibson guitar with the feeling, aesthetic and playability of a Fender guitar. He made it from a Northern Ash body Stratocaster body, a maple neck and a maple fretboard. He took a Gibson PAF pickup from a ES-335 and placed it in the bridge position. The guitar also features the Floyd Rose locking tremolo system. Later in his career, Eddie played Kramer and Charvel guitars until eventually the EVH guitar brand was founded and began manufacturing guitars.
The EVH company produces instruments truly endorsed by the man himself so they would be a great place to start on the quest for the brown sound. The striped series by EVH guitars features a basswood body, maple neck, floyd rose locking tremolo and the high output Wolfgang humbucking pickup, which is similar to the PAF. And it comes in the iconic red, white and black color scheme (other color options are available as well!)
Later in his career Eddie started using the Wolfgang model of guitars which are also available through the EVH line. This is the EVH Wolfgang Standard and features a double cutaway basswood body with a quilted maple top, maple neck and 2 wolfgang pickups. All these features and it goes for only $550!
If you’re not in the market to spend too much on a new guitar, there are ways to make the guitar you already have capable of the brown sound! If you have a guitar with a humbucker in the bridge you are on the right path!
Pickups: The higher the output, the better!
As mentioned before Eddie was building the Frankenstrat to put the higher output Gibson sound, associated with humbucking pickups, into the Fender stratocaster body style. Initially he used a Gibson PAF. Gibson has produced many PAF’s throughout the years but currently they produce the Burstbucker Pro which is a high output PAF style pickup endorsed by the Gibson name!
Also, in addition to producing guitars, EVH also produces the Frankenstein pickup which would be a great option!
Amplifiers – What is the “Brown Sound”
There is much debate about the amps that Eddie used in the early days of Van Halen. Some say he used modified super lead Marshall plexis, some claim they weren’t modified at all. To achieve the “brown sound” Eddie utilized a variax which is basically a power supply that the amp plugs into and you can than control the voltage that the amp receives. By turning that down the tubes of the amp get “starved” and this gives a warmer tone that Eddie dubbed the “brown sound”.
Eddie’s tone is surprisingly clean. He relies on power amp distortion rather than pre amp distortion. This is why he would always crank his amp, to push the tubes and get a nice, natural distortion. It is a tone with quite a bit of top end and sparkle which makes the pick attack very audible. A great way to start in dialing in the brown sound is simply turning all of the knobs up and than adjusting from there! Lets take a look at some amplifier choices.
The JCM 800 is a great choice. It is a classic amp that evolved from the Plexi era. All tube amplifier head that can be pushed to get that all tube overdrive that is characteristic of the Brown Sound
If you’re not looking for a half stack, the DSL400 combo is a great choice
EVH is also famous for using effects pedals to augment his guitar tone and to enhance his compositions. He is widely known for using the MXR Phase 90 and the MXR Flanger pedal (hear this one on the Van Halen song “Unchained”)