The secrets behind Eddie Van Halen's guitar tone on Tattoo

Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Chelsea Lauren/WireImage)

Released in 2012, Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth was the band’s first album since Van Halen III in 1998 and first new studio recordings released by the band since the three songs recorded with Sammy Hagar for 2004’s The Best of Both Worlds greatest hits compilation.

Because it was Van Halen’s first album with David Lee Roth since 1984, the band recorded the album with the goal of reproducing the “back to basics” simplicity and energy of its early albums combined with modern sonics to ensure that the album still sounded new and fresh.  

Tattoo, the first single released from the album, accomplished this in several ways. First, the song originated from Down in Flames – a previously unreleased original song dating back to Van Halen’s mid-'70s club days. 

Ed used a very straightforward rig to record the song consisting only of a guitar plugged straight into an amp with no pedals, but instead of using a single half stack like he did on Van Halen’s debut album, he employed a pair of 50-watt EVH 5150III heads, each paired with its own EVH 5150III 2x12 cabinet, with one amp miked with a Shure SM57 and panned hard to one side while the other was miked with a Royer 122v ribbon mic and panned hard to the other side. 

Original Gear

GUITAR: EVH Wolfgang USA (bridge pickup), Volume: 10, Tone: 10.
AMP: Two EVH 5150III 50W heads (Blue/Crunch channel, Gain: 10, Low: 8, Mid: 3, High: 5.5, Volume: 6, Master Presence: 6, Master Resonance: 10) each into EVH 5150III 2x12 cabinets with Celestion G12H 30-watt speakers.
EFFECTS: (post/mix only) AMS DMX 15-80 28ms delay left, AMS DMX 15-80 32ms delay right, EMT140 plate reverb with API 550A EQ (for 50Hz cut) on ending volume swells.
STRINGS/TUNING: DEVH nickel-plated steel .009-.046/standard
PICK: EVH/Dunlop .60mm Max-Grip nylon standard

“All of the guitar tracks on Tattoo were played through the 50-watt head and 2x12 cabinets,” Ed recalled in his 2012 Guitar World interview about the album, where he also noted that his main guitar for the entire album was an EVH Wolfgang USA with a Stealth Black finish. 

“It has a slightly different tone than the 100-watt 5150III amps I used for the rest of the album (with 4x12 cabinets). It’s pretty whomping. I also used the 50-watt head to record a few solos, like the one on Blood and Fire.”

Ed’s tone on the song is mostly dry, which allows it to cut through a relatively dense mix with huge bass and drums, multi-tracked backing vocals and keyboards. However, each of the main rhythm guitar tracks were processed during mixing with very short delays (28ms on one side and 32ms on the other) to thicken the tone and give the tracks a slight perception of distance or air.

Engineer Ross Hogarth said he usually boosted the mids for Ed’s guitar tracks at 1.5kHz, 3kHz or 5kHz using an API 550B equalizer, depending on Ed’s input on how he wanted his guitar to sound. Here, it sounds like Hogarth boosted 3kHz, but that may also be attributed to the 50-watt heads’ more aggressive mids.

Tattoo also differs from most of the other songs on A Different Kind of Truth for Ed’s use of standard tuning instead of his usual half-step down (Eb) tuning. Ed often used standard tuning for Van Halen’s keyboard-oriented songs so he could easily employ open strings and open chords.

For the song’s conclusion, Ed performed volume-knob swells on his Wolfgang that were processed with the EMT140 plate reverb at 5150 to provide ethereal ambience.

Get the sound, cheap!

EVH Wolfgang Standard

EVH Wolfgang Standard

EVH Wolfgang Standard (Image credit: EVH)

EVH 5150 III 15W LBXII head and 5150 III 1x12 cabinet

Tone tip: If you can afford to spend an extra $400, the EVH 5150III 50W 6L6 head is the way to go, but the LBX’s blue channel also provides Ed’s “Tattoo” tone, albeit at lower volume levels. 

EVH 5150 III 15W LBXII head and 5150 III 1x12 cabinet

EVH 5150 III 15W LBXII head and 5150 III 1x12 cabinet (Image credit: EVH Gear)

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.