Eddie Van Halen Interview: Of Wolf and Man
GW Although you’ve developed two previous signature models, you spent almost two years working with Chip to develop the new EVH Wolfgang guitar. Why did the process take so long?
VAN HALEN I’m constantly searching. We tore apart and analyzed every little thing on the new Wolfgang. If someone didn’t make something that was good enough for us, we found someone to make it.
The new Wolfgang is a culmination of my 35 years of experimenting with guitars. Everything that I’ve destroyed, stumbled onto, learned and experienced in my journey to get to where we are now is in this guitar. And there is a lot more to come. A guitar is a very personal extension of the person playing it. You have to be emotionally and spiritually connected to your instrument. I’m very brutal on my instruments, but not all the time. I’m not to the point where I’m like Pete Townshend and smashing the shit out of it after a gig. I wouldn’t do that to an instrument that is a part of me. I don’t need to do this for financial reasons. I could have just stayed at home and built this guitar for myself. I do this because a lot of people ask if they can get what I use. Well, yes you can, and what youget is identical to what I use.
From the basics of the guitar to painstaking aspects like the binding and everything else, we redid everything on this guitar. That’s why it took so long. Thank God that Chip stuck it out, because I was driving everybody nuts.
GW What was the most painstaking process about making this guitar?
CHIP ELLIS Developing the pickups.
VAN HALEN Chip would show up with a new batch of pickups, and all I had to do was plug into the new 5150-III amp and hit one note. Chip would look at me confused, but I can really tell by one note. Explaining sound is like trying to explain what something looks like to a blind person. It’s very difficult. Over and over I would say, “It ain’t hitting me in the gut!” It was either too shrill in the high end or too muddy. All it took was one note.
ELLIS I didn’t get that at first. I wasn’t tuned in to what Ed was thinking about pickups. When he would hit that one note, I would go, “That’s it?” I couldn’t hear it at first. Once Ed pointed it out to me, it was clear as day.
VAN HALEN Eventually, anybody will hear it. But the feel is what’s really important. The harmonic overtones and the overall tone of a guitar all contribute to sustain and the feel, which has so much to do with how easy it is to play. A lot of factors come into play when it comes to making pickups, including placement, coil windings and magnets, et cetera.
MATT BRUCK We went through about 80 sets of pickups.
VAN HALEN The pickups were all great, but they weren’t what we were looking for. Ultimately, we decided to try making our own pickups.
ELLIS It was a matter of being able to sit down with an engineer, plug in and say, “You hear that? That’s what we’re trying to get rid of.” We came really close with the first version we made in-house.
VAN HALEN That’s because we had a lot more control. We weren’t on the phone trying to tell a guy, “Hey, warm it up. I want more sustain.” I’m not saying the other companies couldn’t have done it. It just happened a lot quicker when we started making the pickups ourselves.
Before we made that decision, I said, “Let’s try moving the pickup around.” It was one of our last attempts to make things work. Chip wanted to take the guitar back to the shop to rout out a bigger pickup cavity. I said, “Let’s just do it now with a screwdriver and a chisel and make it bigger.” I didn’t want to wait until the next day.
ELLIS That was a very important step. We ended up moving the pickup forward just a little bit.
VAN HALEN It was only 1/32nd of an inch. The tolerance of things on this guitar is like NASA standards. It had to be tight, and it had to be quality.
ELLIS These pickups turned out to be very versatile. They can soothe your soul and caress you a little bit, but also slap you in the face.
BRUCK They cover the whole dynamic range—every nuance and articulation of playing.
VAN HALEN It’s easy to play, and it has the sustain, harmonics and feedback that you want. That’s how I can tell just by hitting one note. If it takes too long to feed back, it’s not picking up the right frequencies from the string.