IT’S AN INTENSE, visceral thrill to stand next to Eddie Van Halen while he plays a series of riffs that pass at whip-cracking speed, each note articulated with clarity and purpose. The sound and the force of the music are unmistakable; he looks up while strumming an open chord at length, shouting that he’s playing the runs that other guitarists could not figure out in the 1970s. I assume he is referring to his use of harmonics in the middle of a run with the occasional bent note.
The song he is playing is a new one, a possibility for the next Van Halen album, work on which is expected to start in the summer. The tune makes effective use of his patented detuner, a metal bracket the size of a Tic-Tacs box at the tail of the guitar that alters the key he is playing in. He yanks on the device, the tonal quality shifts and I immediately hear a Pete Townshend influence. When he finishes, Van Halen’s comment is “it’s got an old Who thing in there.” It’s good to know we’re on the same page.
Van Halen, the greatest hard rock guitarist since Jimmy Page, is for once not talking about lead singers, reunions or his personal life. The subject is the guitar, specifically the introduction of the EVH line by Fender. Van Halen’s famous guitars, especially his “Frankenstrat” with the red, black and white stripes, have been duplicated by manufacturers, but the new instrument — called the Wolfgang — is the first to be design by Van Halen with Fender’s team of designers.
He took four prototypes on the road during the last Van Halen tour, tweaking, redesigning and reworking the instrument until Van Halen put his stamp of approval on it. Fender says it has worked more extensively with Van Halen to design this six-string electric than any other instrument in its catalog; Eddie says he wants to offer consumers the exact same instrument he plays onstage.
“What they do with it is up to them,” he said. “They won’t necessarily sound like me. I hope they’ll do something different.
“A lot of companies rest on what they designed in the ’50s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I like to squeeze out everything out of every idea. I have the painstaking job of making it work. It’s like writing a song — why do (I hear in my head) stuff that is harder to play than to hum. To get the patent, then get someone to believe that it works is insane, too.”
AT 54, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen is still not a big picture guy. He does not encapsulate what his playing means to generation of followers, of how guitar design fits within his legacy or even pinpointing the differences between his approach to the David Lee Roth material the first time around and again 20-odd years later. What he is remarkably capable of doing is remembering precisely how he recorded a specific sound, what went into building a guitar from factory seconds and the tweaks he has done over the years to everything from the screws to the tuning pegs.
Visitors who enter Van Halen’s 5150 studio are encouraged to walk around the performance area to understand how vastly different every space in the studio sounds. He not only is aware of the sonic differences — and the space would be cramped if a five-piece rock band were set up in it — he employs that knowledge in the way he makes recordings.
“It’s very basic, the way I mike things. I hate to say it, but it’s different from the ways others do it. I want the sound as pure as possible.”
That credo, which Van Halen has lived by for three decades, has played a key role in keeping the Van Halen sound distinct from others. His band, though, is at a crossroads. A 2007-08 reunion with David Lee Roth pulled in $93 million for 74 dates, evidence the demand remains for classic Van Halen material. They have not released an album of new material in the digital age, which makes the release of the EVH guitar seem more relevant in that desire to connect the artist with the fan. It’s an expensive route, but it takes the iconic and makes it lifesize. These days, that’s a path for survival in the music industry.