Eddie Van Halen Reveals Secrets Behind His Live Rig: Guitars, Amps, Effects and More
Eddie Van Halen smiles a lot when he’s playing guitar.
That smile remains there constantly, whether he’s doing soundcheck or performing onstage, and it’s a genuine expression of happiness and joy.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to describe Ed’s smile as an expression of exhilaration, as the look on his face is similar to that of a driver pushing a sports car past 190 mph or a skydiver plunging into the wild blue yonder from 18,000 feet above the earth’s surface.
The source of Van Halen’s exhilaration is a rig that has constantly evolved over his entire career and that he has meticulously refined over the past nine years with the guitars, amps and other items of gear he’s developed for his own EVH brand.
The sound produced by Ed’s rig is as powerful as the throaty, earth-shaking roar of a Lamborghini V12 engine at full throttle, and it demands your full, immediate attention.
This point is driven home during soundcheck for Van Halen’s show at New York’s Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. As the Van Halen family—Ed on guitar, his son Wolfgang on bass, and brother Al on drums—roar into an instrumental version of “Light Up the Sky,” the entire backstage crew gathers to watch, and even the venue workers, who moments ago were hastily preparing for the evening’s events, stop in their tracks to listen.
Van Halen fans who attended the band’s 2015 tour unanimously agreed that Ed’s playing is better than it’s ever been. It’s very likely that the reason for that is because his sound is also the best it’s ever been, and thanks to the iron-clad reliability of his rig all he has to think about is playing.
Ed’s guitar tech Tom Weber and Wolfgang’s bass tech Jim Survis—both experienced road pros who have worked on previous Van Halen tours as well as with numerous headlining acts for decades—both humbly comment that the rigs remained trouble-free for the entire tour, something that neither can recall ever happening before on tours with other artists.
While the racks of gear at stage left—Ed’s side of the stage—look intimidating and complicated to the average music fan, Ed’s rig is brilliantly straightforward and simple, with a fundamental signal path that consists of guitar to pedals to half-stack amp. That signal path forms the core of Ed’s sound, which is subtly enhanced and given added body and dimension thanks to his wet/dry/wet setup where delay-processed signals are routed to 4x12 cabinets on the left and right.
What’s even more amazing is that the primary source of Ed’s phenomenal tone on Van Halen’s entire 2015 tour was a single amp head—an EVH 5150 IIIS. On Van Halen’s previous tour in 2012, Ed used 5150 III amps that were modified to provide enhanced gain and midrange as well as additional features such as Resonance controls for each channel.
Those modifications were the result of Ed’s feedback after using the original 5150 III amps for Van Halen’s 2007-08 tour, and they all became stock features of the production version of the IIIS head, which is what Ed is using now.
The end results of the meticulous attention to detail that goes into every EVH amp and guitar were boldly evident throughout the 2015 tour, as Ed’s tone remained massive, crisp, articulated, aggressive and, most importantly of all, consistent from the first note of the first night through the last note of the last night. Because the improvements and innovations that Ed makes to his gear become standard features of EVH products, that same sound and performance is available and accessible to any guitarist.
But even better than that, thanks to the unlimited access that Van Halen gave to Guitar World, Ed has allowed us to share every detail of his rig, including the signal path, amp and effect settings, and other insights into his signature sound to help players dial in the same exact tones or use his rig as inspiration for their own signature sounds.
For Van Halen’s 2015 tour, Ed initially planned on using the Wolfgang USA with a Stealth black finish and ebony fretboard with dot inlays that was his main guitar during the entire 2012 tour as well as for the television appearances the band made in early 2015. However, shortly after rehearsals for the tour started Ed took delivery of a Wolfgang USA guitar built by Chip Ellis featuring a heavily relic’d white finish, block fretboard inlays, and a custom kill switch, which Ed uses to create stuttering staccato effects during “You Really Got Me” and his solo.
“I wanted a white guitar that was relic’d,” says Van Halen. “Chip built that for me and did a wonderful job. I compared it to my trusty old Stealth, and the white guitar sounded better, so it immediately became my main guitar for rehearsals and the tour.”
While Ed loved the white Wolfgang USA, he found the neck a little thicker than he normally likes for his neck profiles. He sanded down the back of the neck until it was slim and comfortable enough for his preferences. “It’s still a little fatter than the Stealth’s neck, but I’m happy with it, so it stuck,” he says.
The white Wolfgang also features Ed’s latest innovation—a custom-made volume pot designed to provide absolutely noise-free performance, which EVH will offer as an accessory that can be installed in any guitar. “We’re testing it on this tour,” says Van Halen. “It’s the only volume pot I’ve found where I can play ‘Cathedral’ without any crackle or pop.”
“We look at just about everything under a microscope,” says Matt Bruck, who is, for lack of an official title, EVH operations manager. “There’s a point on most pots between 0 and 1 where you can hear noise, especially at the gain levels and stage volumes that Ed plays at. We had all kinds of custom pots made for us with different tapers and designs, but we stuck with this one. It’s good for a million turns and it’s silent.”
Ed brought his favorite black Stealth Wolfgang USA on the tour as a backup for the relic’d white Wolfgang, but he never used it as he was satisfied with the stellar performance the white Wolfgang delivered night after night. A similar fate befell another Wolfgang USA in his arsenal, this guitar featuring a one-of-a-kind matte red finish, block neck inlays, and no kill switch.
“I occasionally used the red Wolfgang for keyboard songs during the last tour,” says Van Halen. “My main guitar is tuned down a half step, but for the keyboard songs I switch to a guitar that’s tuned to standard pitch. On this tour I’ve been using either an EVH Stripe Series Star or Stripe Series Circles or a black Wolfgang WG Standard. I prefer the Standard because it has a front pickup that I like to use for the solo in ‘I’ll Wait.’ The Standard is the most economically priced guitar that EVH offers, but it plays just as good as the Special or USA models. It has same setup specs and similar components and sounds great.”
Because “Little Guitars” returned to the band’s set for the first time since the 2007-08 tour, Ed brought along a pair of custom-made EVH Wolfgang mini guitars. His main one has a tobacco sunburst finish and Floyd Rose tremolo with D-Tuna, while the backup has an amber-yellow finish and stop tailpiece.
One other guitar joined Ed’s collection late in the tour but never appeared onstage—an accurate replica of Ed’s colorful “Rasta” guitar made by Scott Smith. Ed’s original “Rasta” first started out as the black and white Circles/”Unchained” guitar, but he later modified the finish by taping the body and adding layers of red, green and yellow paint.
“Scott has made replicas of every guitar I’ve ever made,” says Van Halen. “He gave that to me as a present. I gave my original one to Dweezil Zappa about 20 years ago.”