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Eddie Van Halen Reveals Secrets Behind His Live Rig: Guitars, Amps, Effects and More

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. 
 

Guitars

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.”

 


Amps

Van Halen’s onstage backline is an impressive sight consisting of 10 EVH 5150 IIIS heads and 10 5150 III 4x12 speaker cabinets, and so are his racks, which are hidden from view at stage left and contain eight EVH 5150 heads of various models. However, Ed’s massive guitar sound is generated by just a single 100-percent stock production EVH 5150 IIIS head. Ed has even used the same exact head for the entire tour.

“The beauty of the production version of the IIIS is that the sound doesn’t change once you turn it on,” says Van Halen. “It sounds the same at the beginning of the set as it does at the end of the show. On this tour our front of house guy told me that the sound doesn’t change at all, so he never had to make any EQ adjustments to compensate. I blew a tube one night on my main head, but since then I’ve used the same set of tubes for the whole tour.”

Ed is similarly enamored with his 4x12 cabinets, which are stocked with Celestion G12 EVH 20-watt 12-inch speakers. “They’re made in the U.K.,” he says. “The more that you use them, the better they sound. I’ve used those speakers for several tours now, and I’ve never blown a single one.”

Two other 5150 IIIS heads and four 5150 III heads from the previous tour, which were modified to IIIS specs, are in the racks as backups. The prototype of the new EVH 5150 EL34 head, which features EL34 tubes instead of the 6L6 tubes used in the power amp sections of the 5150 III and IIIS, also came along on this tour. Like the 5150 IIIS, this new amp provides three fully independent channels and many other features found on the IIIS, like adjustable bias, an effects loop, direct output and rear-panel Resonance controls.     

“The EL34 amp is getting its first road test,” says Van Halen. “I haven’t used it for a show yet, but I plug into it every couple shows to check how well it’s holding up and how it’s maintaining its tone. The sound is very vintage Van Halen, but it’s also capable of achieving modern high gain tones while maintaining EL34 character if you want that. Right now I’m waiting on a revision to improve the adjustment range of the EQ and gain knobs. I’m still tweaking it.”

 

Effects

Although many guitarists these days place their pedals in racks and operate them via remote MIDI controllers, Ed is somewhat old school and prefers to have his pedals at his feet where he can make quick adjustments. However, he connects them to a custom-built true-bypass loop switcher, which keeps the pedals entirely out of the signal chain until he engages them with a footswitch on the loop switcher.

The only pedal that isn’t connected to the loop switcher is an EVH95 Eddie Van Halen Signature Cry Baby wah, which is placed directly in front of it. Pedals connected to the switcher include Van Halen’s signature MXR EVH90 Phase 90 and EVH117 Flanger, which are meticulously designed to replicate the classic tones of his original Seventies MXR pedals. A pair of Boss pedals—an OC-3 Super Octave and CE-5 Chorus Ensemble—complete his onstage stomp box selection.

“Normally I use chorus for ‘Pretty Woman,’ but we’re not playing that song this time,” says Van Halen. “On this tour I use it for ‘Drop Dead Legs,’ and I also use the octave pedal for the outro riff on that song.

“I’m using in-ear monitors now,” he continues. “Because they really enhance the effects, I tend to use my effects less. In-ear monitors are great for vocals, but they suck for guitar. They make it harder to play because it sounds like your ear is right up against the speaker, which can be annoying. You don’t have that distance between the guitar and the cabinet, so everything sounds more pronounced than I’m used to.”

The loop switcher on the pedal board also features footswitches for engaging his Roland SDE-3000 digital delay and Lexicon PCM70 rack effects. These are effect on/off switches only, as both delay units are placed in the signal chain after the 5150 IIIS amp’s speaker output instead of going directly into the head’s input like the stomp box effects. Above the loop switcher is a standard four-switch EVH 5150 III foot controller for selecting channels and engaging the effects loop on the main EVH 5150 IIIS head.     

One stomp box resides in the rack instead of the pedal board—an MXR Smart Gate that is connected to the 5150 IIIS head’s effects loop. “At the volume levels and high gain settings that Ed uses, the noise floor is higher,” explains Ed’s guitar tech Tom Weber.

“When you put three mikes in front of the cabinets and boost that through a PA that’s loud enough to fill a 25,000-seat venue, you don’t want any noise showing up. The lowest setting on the Smart Gate makes the rig absolutely quite when Ed isn’t playing, but it gets completely out of the way once he starts playing.”     

Interestingly, Ed has no tuner on his pedal board, but he doesn’t need one thanks to the stability of his main Wolfgang USA guitar. “He plays that guitar for nine or 10 songs before the first guitar change,” says Weber. “On the 2007-08 tour he played his main guitar for 13 songs before making a change. If the guitar is set up properly, the tuning remains consistent, especially because the Wolfgang is a very solidly built guitar.”

 

Post Effects

About 25 years ago Ed pioneered the wet/dry/wet setup, which utilizes a center dry speaker cabinet and delay-processed left and right speaker cabinets, and that setup still remains part of his stage rig design today. Using this setup, the primary core of Ed’s tone is always the sound coming from a half stack setup consisting of his main EVH 5150 IIIS head and a single EVH 5150 III 4x12 cabinet placed at the center.

That center cabinet always remains 100 percent dry, which maintains maximum clarity and never compromises the pure, unadulterated tone and character of Ed’s half stack core. Meanwhile, delay-processed audio coming from a pair of Roland SDE-3000 digital delay units is routed to EVH 5150 III 4x12 cabinets placed to the left and right of the center 4x12 cabinet. The delays are programmed to provide big, spacious sound similar to reverb, but without losing definition and clarity the way typical reverb effects do.

“I don’t want to hear the delay itself,” says Van Halen. “I just want it to fill in some holes and make my sound bigger, like reverb, although using delays this way sounds better than reverb. It gives my sound some added depth without getting in the way of the main dry signal.”

The signal for the wet cabinets comes from a custom speaker-to-line level converter box made by Dave Friedman of Rack Systems that is connected to the main amp head’s speaker output jack. The speaker output-tapped line level signal goes to the input of a Lexicon PCM70, the left and right outputs of the PCM70 go to the inputs of individual Roland SDE-3000 units, and the output of each SDE-3000 is connected separately to left and right channel inputs of an HH V800 power amplifier. Finally, the audio signals for each channel are sent separately via the V800’s left and right speaker outputs to the left and right 4x12 cabinets onstage.   

 The HH V800 power amps, which have remained a vital part of Ed’s live rig since the mid Eighties, are key elements in the warm, natural sound of Van Halen’s wet/dry/wet setup. “I’ve never heard a MOSFET circuit that sounds that good,” says Bruck. “It sounds like a tube amp. We’ve kept those amps around even though they’re as old as the hills because they’re extremely reliable. The filter caps are huge. They look like a four-pack of beer cans. We’ve had them rebuilt once or twice by Stretch at Valley Sound Music Technologies, but it was just routine maintenance and replacing parts due to normal wear and tear.”     

Finally, the three left, center and right 4x12 EVH 5150 III cabinets onstage left are mic’d with Shure SM-57 microphones, which are the final link between Ed’s rig and the front of house sound system.   

“It’s the most dependable rig I’ve ever worked with,” says Weber, who has also been a guitar tech for Nine Inch Nails, Poison, Billy Duffy of the Cult, and guitarists in Reba McEntire and Lyle Lovett’s bands.

“You set it up, and it works. Ed has always insisted in getting everything right, and that has paid off. His name is on the gear after all, so it has to be right. Ed has direct input into every EVH product, and he and Matt are always providing observations and suggestions to make things better. Ed insists that anyone who buys a piece of gear with his name on it gets the same gear that he uses. You’ve gotta admire that.”     

“I’m very happy with my guitars and amps,” says Van Halen. “My tone on this entire tour has been very consistent from the beginning to the end and one night to the next. The 5150 IIIS is holding up very well. I don’t have to worry about the little details like I used to. That allows me to go out onstage every night and play my best. That’s the way it should be.”


TUNING
Eb -9 cents
Bb -9 cents
Gb -3 cents
Db -1 cent
Ab +/-0 cents
Eb +/-0 cents
D-Tuna Db -4 cents


PEDAL SETTINGS

EVH Phase 90
Speed: 10 o’clock
Script switch: On

EVH Flanger
Manual: 11 o’clock
Width: 11 o’clock
Speed: 11 o’clock
Regen: 5 o’clock
EVH switch: Off

Boss OC-3 Super Octave
Direct Level: 3 o’clock
Oct. 1 Level: 5 o’clock
Range: 1 o’clock
Mode: Poly
Guitar In
Output Mono

Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble
E. Level: 5 o’clock
Rate: 8 o’clock
Depth: 5 o’clock
Filter High: 10 o’clock
Filter Low: 5 o’clock
Output A

MXR Smart Gate
Trigger Level: 7 o’clock
Hi Trigger Range switch: Off
Noise Band Cut switch: Mid


AMP SETTINGS

EVH 5150 IIIS
Channel 1
Gain: 10 o’clock
Low: 1 o’clock
Mid: 10.5 o’clock
High: 2 o’clock
Volume: 10 o’clock
Presence: 1 o’clock
Resonance: 1 o’clock

Channel 2
Gain: 5 o’clock
Low: 3 o’clock
Mid: 12 o’clock
High: 12.5 o’clock
Volume: 10 o’clock
Presence: 1.5 o’clock
Resonance: 5 o’clock

Channel 3
Gain: 2.5 o’clock
Low: 2 o’clock
Mid: 12 o’clock
High: 1 o’clock
Volume: 11 o’clock
Presence: 1.5 o’clock
Resonance: 1 o’clock
Impedance: 16 ohms

ROLAND SDE-3000 LEFT
Front panel
Input: -2dB
Delay Time: 398
Delay Feedback: 30
Delay Out: 31
Modulation Rate: 00
Modulation Depth: 00

Rear panel
Delay Time: 7 o’clock (minimum)
Unigain: +4dB
Mixed output
Remote Switch Delay On/Off

ROLAND SDE-3000 RIGHT
Front panel
Input: -2dB
Delay Time: 798
Delay Feedback: 20
Delay Out: 31
Modulation Rate: 00
Modulation Depth: 00

Rear panel
Delay Time: 7 o’clock (minimum)
Unigain: +4dB
Mixed output
Remote Switch Delay On/Off

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