Interview: Eddie Van Halen Talks 'A Different Kind of Truth'
Your playing is as good as, if not better than, it has ever been. Did the hand surgery and arthritis treatment you had back in 2009 help with that?
Definitely, but what I think helped more is that my head is clearer. I’m aware of what I’m doing now. It’s amazing that I ever did it any other way, to tell you the truth. Looking back now, I don’t see how I did it for all those years. I could not imagine going back. At the same time, I’m up there playing so I can only go by what Matt [Bruck, Ed’s guitar tech, road manager and jack-of-all-trades] tells me. When I’m up there playing I can’t tell. I know that my playing is a lot more consistent. It’s like all the little neurons are more connected.
The beauty of doing my solo now is that I get to sit down. I was just talking with [Ed’s wife] Janie the other day about how the reviews mention that I sit down to do my solo like I’m sitting on my front porch or couch playing for people. Believe it or not, I can sit there and play like that all night long. It’s harder for me to play when I’m standing up. When I sit down I can really play. It’s a gas! I’m having fun. Sometimes a solo goes by so quickly and the next thing I know it’s over. I don’t mix it up too much. I used to noodle so much, but now it’s more mapped out. I know that people want to hear certain things, so I do the beginning and end of “Eruption,” a bit of “Cathedral” and “Spanish Fly” in the middle, and a few transition parts to piece everything together. I don’t remember what I did at the last gig, but Dave walked up to me afterward and said, “Whatever you did in your solo tonight was different. It was great!” But it happened so fast with me that I don’t know what I did that was different. Sometimes Matt will say the same thing, and I’ll think that I played the same thing I always do.
Your tone is so clear. That’s probably because your fingers are like clamps on the strings.
I dig in with both hands. That’s why my thumb is like this [holds up right hand to show thumb, which is bent back toward his wrist]. About 20 minutes before this one show, I was backstage and I walked past a tapestry that was covering the door frame. I whacked my hand against the doorjamb, and it swelled up really badly. I was able to make it through the show, but the next day I went to have an X-ray taken of my hand to make sure there were no hairline fractures or anything. The radiologist went, “Man! What’s wrong with your thumb!” I said, “Nothing. It’s this part of my hand that I hit.” He said, “Your thumb is all fucked up. It’s not supposed to bend back that far.” It’s from years of digging in with the pick. [laughs] It’s an occupational hazard. My thumb won’t bend the other way.
Before the operation on my left hand I wasn’t able to stretch my fingers open all the way. I’ve never had very big hands, but I could do the splits with them. Eventually I couldn’t any more. I had a twisted tendon in my little finger that prevented me from being able to stretch. It would fucking hurt when I was playing. You can still feel the twist. When I flex the tendon it feels like it’s snapping, but now I can stretch all the way again. If it hurts I just take a couple Advil instead of a couple shots of vodka.
Was the EVH Wolfgang Stealth that you’re playing onstage also your main guitar on the album?
I used it for everything except “As Is,” where I used a D2H “Drop 2 Hell” guitar. The solo and some overdubs on “You and Your Blues” were a Strat. It just happened to be lying there and John went, “Here, try this!” The rest was the Stealth. I even played the whole record on the same set of strings with the exception of two strings that broke and were replaced. I’ll always leave the same set of strings on my guitars when I’m recording. If I break one I’ll just replace it instead of putting on a whole new set of strings.
After all of these years of playing maple fretboards you now prefer a guitar with an ebony fretboard. How did that develop?
I’m constantly changing and evolving. I thought that the Stealth, with its flat-black finish, wasn’t going to look good with a maple fretboard. I just threw out the suggestion to use an ebony fingerboard. When the guitar arrived, I started playing it, and I really liked it.
Did you use the 50-watt EVH 5150 III on any songs?
All of the guitars on “Tattoo” were played through the 50-watt. I used a 2x12 cabinet too. It’s really whomping. I also used it on the solo on “Blood and Fire.” It has a slightly different tone.
You’re using a lot more wah on your solos on this record.
Yeah, I noticed that too when we were done. I said, “I’m using an awful lot of wah on this record.” “The Trouble with Never” was designed to be kind of Hendrix-ish, so using wah on that was a given. On other spots I just stomped on it and went, “Oh great. That works.” There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to that. You know me. I’m the kind of guy who likes to wing it. I don’t plan out my solos.
The one solo that I had to plan out was on “She’s the Woman.” The original breakdown of “She’s the Woman” ended up being the breakdown in “Mean Street.” Wolfgang came up with a new breakdown that had these crazy chord changes. The chord changes were so fuckin’ weird, but I didn’t even think about them until I had to solo over it. I couldn’t just go…[plays random notes in a pentatonic scale]. It wouldn’t be in key. Instead I had to go like this…[plays melodic line from solo]. I never really worked out a solo like that before. It took me a couple of days to figure out what notes worked against those chords. If I don’t hit these particular notes [plays solo] it wouldn’t work. It flipped me out. When we did the demo, Matt punched me in, and I just sat there going, “Goddamn. This doesn’t work!” [laughs] You can’t just noodle your way through those chord changes. You have to hit the right notes. The only thing I ever really planned before was the solo in “Runnin’ with the Devil.” Other than that, nothing else was planned or written out in advance.
“Blood and Fire” used to be “Ripley,” which you originally recorded with a Ripley stereo guitar. Did you break out the Ripley guitar again to record the new version?
Oh yeah, but I had to send it back to Steve Ripley to have him fix a couple of the panning pots, since I hadn’t used it in quite a few years.
Even before the first note is played, you can feel this huge presence at the beginning of the song, where it seems like you’re sitting in the room with a very loud amp.
It’s actually two big, loud amps, since I was playing in stereo. The single-coil pickups—there are two of them because it’s in stereo—had something to do with that. It’s a hell of a sound. In the room it was really loud. The Ripley guitar sounds different than a Strat. It has Bartolini pickups and a proprietary circuit, so you have a lot of unique things going on there. Put that all together and you’re not going to sound like a Strat.
You used a Whammy Pedal on several songs.
It’s on “China Town.” A lot of people thought that I used a harmonizer or octave box on the intro to that song, but that is just Wolfgang and me. The Whammy is just for little parts here and there during the chorus. I don’t use it live. I just hit a harmonic instead. On “Honeybabysweetiedoll” I used a Whammy, a Boss OC-3 octave box, a Sustainer and a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. That’s only on the intro, where all those weird noises are happening.
The legato lines you play with the Sustainer have a very Middle Eastern sound.
That was the point. I love that song. We have some other versions of that song that are really twisted. The main riff on the intro is all Wolf; it’s all bass. I’m just making noises. Up at 5150 when Wolf unplugged his bass, it picked up all these radio frequencies. You hear this whooshing sound until he plugs it in. I’m doing the high, cascading whistling shit; he’s tapping the main riff. The end of the song is him unplugging his bass. If you give that a good listen you can hear all kinds of weird shit going on. I also used the Sustainer on the end of “As Is.”
You brought out the Phase 90 for the solos on “Outta Space” and “Stay Frosty.” Was that to replicate the classic early Van Halen sound?
It’s very straight ahead. I wanted to stay true to the original version.
Dave’s guitar playing often gets overlooked. He’s really good at fingerpicked, country-style blues like he plays on the intro to “Stay Frosty.”
Yes! He is great. He played guitar on that song up until the band came in, and then I took over on acoustic. He played that on a nylon-string flamenco guitar. It’s an interesting sound. But he can really fingerpick! Even on our first album, a lot of people thought that I played the intro to “Ice Cream Man” but that was Dave.
His lyrics on the album are full of wit and personality with a lot of street wisdom.
Some of his lyrics are hilarious. Dave’s good. He’s a very well-read person, and it shows in his lyrics. I don’t know of anybody else who can write lyrics that are so out there, yet in. Some of the stuff is blatant, but a lot of it makes you think. It’s tripped-out and deep, but not so deep that you can’t relate to it. I think he’s brilliant.
Considering the reception to the album and the tour, and the fact that you recorded so many songs, it seems like there’s good motivation to continue moving forward for a while.
Oh yeah. As far as I know, when we’re done with this cycle we’ll take a little break and make another record. That’s what I hope to do. I’m pretty sure that’s what our intention is. We truly are a band; it’s not just a one-off thing. I don’t want to say it’s a rebuilding process. If anything it’s a continuation. It feels more like a band and a family than it ever has, and not just because three quarters of it is family. Working with Dave has been very productive. We’re all very opinionated about things, but it’s all for the benefit of the music. We’re working together better than ever. I see us doing this for a long, long time. When things feel right, why the hell not keep doing it?
I think being older and wiser you’re no longer concerned with all of the distractions that took your focus away from the music.
I was just thinking about that before you got here, because I had the feeling that you’d ask me what’s different now than it used to be. I think I finally put my finger on it. It wasn’t really us; it was people around us. When you’re doing drugs, drinking and partying, you start believing the shit people tell you. Those days are gone. We’ve gotten rid of people who don’t belong here. Now it’s truly just the band. We have no problems with each other at all. We’re here to do a job, and we love doing our job.
You seem to be genuinely happy now. You went through quite a dark period for a while, and we were worried about you.
So was I. But I can’t think of anyone on the planet who is more lucky and blessed. Not only do I get to play with my brother but I also get to play with my son. If my dad was still here now that would really make things amazing. I have a wonderful wife, wonderful friends, and a son who doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. I’m just a guitarist in a kick-ass rock and roll band. What more could I ask for?
Photo: Matt Bruck