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Eddie Van Halen Interview: Of Wolf and Man

Eddie Van Halen Interview: Of Wolf and Man

Originally published in Guitar World, February 2009

Nearly two years in the making, Eddie Van Halen’s new EVH Wolfgang guitar is the ultimate refinement of his classic signature ax. Guitar World gets a sneak preview and learns the story behind its transformation.

 

The production line where Eddie Van Halen’s new EVH Wolfgang guitars are built delivers surprises and awe-inspiring sights around every corner. From the point where workers transform raw blocks of wood into the Wolfgang’s distinctive archtop body shape to the final setup section, where a few dozen white-, black- and sunburst-finished models rest in quiet grandeur before shipment to their new homes, the factory buzzes with spirited activity.

But today’s most impressive sight is a collection of about 30 EVH Wolfgang guitars hanging in a corner of a workshop tucked away upstairs. One glance at these guitars provides an instantaneous visual history of this model’s development, from the early raw prototypes and numbered examples that were used to evaluate finish options, to an autographed version displaying Ed Van Halen’s final seal of approval, to finished production models. Piles of pickups, necks and miscellaneous guitar parts scattered on a table suggest hints of the painstaking effort that went into making this guitar.

Ed Van Halen flashes his familiar smile as he pulls into the factory parking lot, but today it sparkles with distinct brilliance. Ed has plenty to be happy about these days, including the extremely successful Van Halen 2007-08 tour, which wrapped up in June. As Ed greets various staff members, he reveals that his girlfriend, Janie, who is accompanying him today, accepted his marriage proposal during their recent vacation in Hawaii.

Ed’s smile becomes blindingly radiant when he walks into the workshop and sees all of the various incarnations of the EVH Wolfgang guitar gathered in one place. He began working on a new Wolfgang model in 2005 after he joined forces with FMIC (Fender Musical Instrument Corporation) to establish the EVH brand, but the project stagnated until Ed brought in Chip Ellis to collaborate with him in May 2006. (Chip had previously impressed Ed with his immaculate attention to detail on the EVH Frankenstein replica guitar.) Ed, Chip and Matt Bruck, Ed’s partner at EVH, spent more than two years on the project. Nearly nine of those months were spent refining pickup designs, and prototypes were road tested on the Van Halen tour for several months more.

Ellis maintained a diary that captured every excruciating detail that went into the EVH Wolfgang’s design, and it provides a fascinating glimpse at the passion of a master musician, his personal standards of quality and performance and his unwillingness to compromise. Although Ed shared a few minor specifics about the new Wolfgang guitar in our three previous interviews, today he reveals how nearly every feature and detail of the guitar was changed, redesigned or improved.

“The only thing that’s the same with the new Wolfgang is the body shape, and even that’s changed a little bit,” he says, comparing the EVH version with the previous Peavey model. “Everything else is different: the way the neck bolts on, the stainless-steel frets, tuning pegs, binding, pickups, tailpiece, pots and more. The finish is extremely thin, and the cavity is left unfinished to let the wood breathe and age better. Even the output jack is different.”

Ed will formally introduce the EVH Wolfgang guitar to the public in January at the Winter NAMM convention, but today he’s invited Guitar World to an exclusive sneak preview. Following a tour of the production line, Ed, Matt, Chip and I return to the upstairs shop where we gather around a worktable and spend the next few hours discussing the project. But even as they express relief at reaching a milestone with the EVH Wolfgang guitar, it’s evident that this is just the start for this creative brain trust.

 

GUITAR WORLD This guitar represents the evolution of everything you’ve learned about guitars from modifying, building and designing your own instruments. Tell us about your quest to find your own sound and voice on the guitar.

ED VAN HALEN Ever since the beginning, everything that I picked up off the rack at a music store—even the custom-made stuff—did not do what I wanted it to. Either it didn’t have enough of something, or it had a bunch of Bozo bells and whistles that I didn’t need. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I never took lessons, so I didn’t know right from wrong. I didn’t know there were rules; I just knew what I liked and wanted to feel and hear. This also had a major impact on the way I play, doing things on the guitar that weren’t written in any books.

I bought one of my first guitars from Lafayette Electronics, which was like a Radio Shack. They had a 12-string guitar that I really liked, but I didn’t want 12 strings; I wanted six. I asked the sales guy if I could take six strings off and try it out, and he said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “If you buy it, you can do whatever you want.” So I bought it, took six strings off and loved it! And that was my very, very first successful attempt at changing something that was considered standard to my liking.

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