Eddie Van Halen Interview: Of Wolf and Man
ELLIS Before we tried using stainless-steel frets, Ed had the guitar only three weeks in rehearsal before the frets were gone. [Picks up Ed’s #4 prototype] You played this guitar for half of the tour, and the fret job looks brand new [due to the stainless-steel frets]. We fixed the jack plate first, because the one on this guitar almost fell out during the first show. We changed it to a square, four-screw jack plate.
VAN HALEN Another big development was the pickup potting. After a while the windings started vibrating and creating that high squeal again. I asked Chip, “What are we going to do?”
ELLIS We decided to try double-dipping them. There was a little foam pad in the tremolo cavity, which I thought would be a good idea [to prevent feedback], but out the blue Ed asked me what was the deal with this black thing in the cavity. The guitar sounded a little muffled, and we thought it might be the pickup. When I went into the guitar pit Ed was in there ripping out the foam pad, going, “What the hell is this?”
VAN HALEN We modified the volume pot, because when I’m playing “Cathedral” most pots freeze up when I’m doing the volume swells. I’m constantly turning down the volume between all the breaks and pauses within the songs. The volume control is like my steering wheel. If it doesn’t turn light, smooth and easy, and if it isn’t quality, I’m fucked. I have to turn that thing up and down in an instant. I’m probably harder on it and use it more than anyone else, so it has to be durable.
BRUCK It’s a low-friction pot.
ELLIS We spent a couple of months going back and forth getting that right. Some of the first potentiometer samples we got from [electronic parts manufacturer] Bourns felt loose, so we made a few revisions. Many players spend a lot of time tweaking their guitars.
With this guitar we’ve done all of that for you. There’s nothing left to do on it. Shame on you if you want to swap anything out on this guitar. You’re not going to find anything better.
I’m surprised how versatile this guitar is. When I first got involved with this project I thought that we were just going to make something that was loud, nasty and would squeal like a pig when you wanted it to. But we did a lot of testing on the clean channel of the 5150-II . This guitar cleans up so nicely. You can play anything with it.
BRUCK It’s Ed’s instrument but it’s applicable to many different styles of music. I’m really excited to see who picks up on it.
VAN HALEN It sounds great even when it’s not plugged in. I need a totally resonant body. That just makes sense to me. What makes an acoustic guitar sound better than others? The wood and its resonance. It’s the same with an electric guitar. The pickups are only there to amplify what the wood is doing. If you’re amplifying a body made out of concrete, it’s not going to sound very good no matter how good the pickups are. If the guitar sounds great unplugged, it should sound great when amplified, as long as you’ve paid attention to all the other aspects and details as we have.
GW I understand that Chip made eight different guitars and numbered each one so you could test finish options without making biased assumptions.
ELLIS Guitar number 4 won the battle in the batch of eight guitars that we made. We tried everything from rubbing gunstock oil on the body, to a sealer, to thin-skin lacquer, heavy polyester and thick urethane. We ended up going with a very thin acrylic finish.
VAN HALEN And we left parts of the body exposed, so it breathes. A violin isn’t sealed or clear coated on the inside of the body. With age it will only sound better.
BRUCK Whatever you put on top of the wood dampens its resonating capability.
ELLIS This doesn’t look like the typical production guitar that’s covered in clear finish and everything is smooth as can be. It is more like a violin. The finish is thin enough that it doesn’t negatively affect the sound. The finish is another essential part of the instrument.
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