Eddie Van Halen Interview: Of Wolf and Man
Later I bought a Goldtop Les Paul with soapbar pickups, but I didn’t quite like the way they sounded. I wanted a humbucker. I got an old PAF from somewhere, took a chisel to make the pickup cavity bigger and crammed the pickup in the guitar. I only replaced the bridge pickup, not the neck one. Everyone who saw me play wondered how I got that sound from a soapbar pickup. They didn’t realize I put a humbucker in there because my right hand would cover the pickup when I would play; all they could see was the neck pickup. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone, but that was the sound I wanted. I also didn’t like the way the gold finish looked, so I painted it black. These were some of the first modifications I ever did to a guitar. Having the combination of two different pickups—which wasn’t available then—gave me more of what I wanted and was a hint of things to come, including the striped paint job.
Then I bought a Gibson ES-335 that had one of those Maestro Vibrola wiggle sticks with the bent metal tailpiece, like you find on an SG. I liked it but it wouldn’t stay in tune. I figured that maybe I could make the E, A and D string solid and just have the high three strings affected by the wiggle stick, so I sawed the Vibrola in half. My thought was that if the high three strings went out of tune, I would always be able to make it through a song playing chords that were on the low three strings that were in a fixed position—kinda like two guitars in one, a stop tailpiece and a wiggle stick on one guitar.
I figured out how to hard-mount the low three strings, but I couldn’t figure out how to bolt the wiggle stick part into the wood. I drilled a hole and put a huge screw in it, and it worked a little bit, but after a while the wood gave out amongst other problems.
I destroyed a lot of guitars trying to get them to do what I wanted, but I learned something from every guitar I tore apart, and discovered even more things. Things like if the string is not straight from the bridge saddle to the nut, you’re going to have friction. On most guitars the headstock is angled back which compounds the problem. When you press the vibrato bar down, the strings loosen from the bridge to the nut to the tuning peg. When you let up on the bar, the tuning does not return to the same point. So I got a brass nut, made the slots really big and put 3-in-One oil in the cuts where the string travels through the nut. Then I wound the strings up the tuning peg instead of down so the line from the bridge saddle to the nut to the tuning peg was straight as an arrow. Also, from the back of the guitar where you put the string through the block on a Fender tremolo tailpiece, every time I turned the tuning peg I would grab the ball end and turn it with every turn of the tuning peg, alleviating twist tension within the string itself. It worked really well. These are some of the discoveries I made that allowed me to use a standard vibrato and do the crazy shit I do and keep the guitar in tune.
I learned so many things along the way and incorporated all of them into building the “Frankenstein” guitar, which was originally painted black-and-white. On the first three or four Van Halen records, and especially live on tour, people were floored by how I could do all this crazy shit with a standard Fender tremolo and stay in tune.
I continued to putz with every aspect of a guitar. I even tried winding my own pickups. One thing I never liked about most other guitars is that the front and rear pickups were the same. When I would get the rear pickup sounding great, the front one would sound like mud. I didn’t like that, so I tried winding the pickup less and more, using a heavier magnet and a lot of different things. For years I used just one pickup because I couldn’t get the neck pickup to sound the way I wanted it to unless I changed the amp settings that were already dialed for the bridge pickup. I got different sounds through playing techniques.
Then I hooked up with some pickup companies and asked them to make me a different neck pickup. That helped. When I designed my Music Man guitar, that was the first time that the neck pickup was totally different from the bridge pickup. Then I started experimenting with the distance where the pickup was placed and the way it reacts with the string. I use my finger as a gauge. It’s like this. [Ed plays harmonics on the low E string, working his way up the neck from the nut to the saddle.] There’s harmonic in the root. That’s where you want the pole piece centered. I’ve checked other guitars and they just stick the pickups anywhere. That can cause all these dissonant overtones that make you go, “Shit! Where the hell did that come from?” Not many people know that. The pickup obviously picks up the sound from the strings. If it’s underneath a dissonant harmonic, it’s going to sound dissonant.
I also couldn’t stand the high annoying feedback squeal that occurs playing at very high volumes. I thought maybe it was the actual coil windings vibrating that caused the feedback. I thought if I dipped a pickup in molten wax, when the wax cooled it would prevent the coil windings from vibrating. I took a coffee can, melted paraffin wax into it, dipped the pickup in the wax and pulled it out right before the bobbins would melt. I didn’t always catch it in time. I ruined a lot of pickups that way. When I got it right… voila! It got rid of the squeal. This process I stumbled onto is now known as “potting,” and it also became a standard process for manufacturing in the industry.