Credit: Richard W. Strauss

How Eddie Van Halen found his sound

Any major Van Halen nerd can explain the process behind how Eddie wound up with his signature guitar, the Frankenstrat. Without the money to splurge on a high-priced axe, Van Halen decided to construct his own, looking to combine his favoured elements from both Gibson and Fender guitars.

Everything about the guitar is iconic, from the striped paint job to the roughly soldered electronics to the addition of a 1971 quarter to the body. When plugged in through a Marshall amp and filtered through an MXR Phase 90 pedal, the rest was down to the unparalleled skill Van Halen possessed in his fingers. Anyone can replicate the setup, but very few can actually replicate the sound that produced some of the greatest hard rock records of all time.

That largely comes down to Van Halen’s six-string influences. Originally a trained piano player and a drummer, Van Halen had a self-admitted limited palate, as he told journalists Denise Quan in 2017. But perhaps in contrast with his flashy, note-heavy playing style, Van Halen’s self-professed hero was a guitarist known primarily for restraint and economy when it came to note choice.

“Eric Clapton was my hero, because he was a straight-ahead guy: ‘just plug this guitar straight into an amp’. It was very organic, so to speak. It wasn’t a lot of BS in between.” Van Halen cited Clapton’s work in Cream as his primary influence, claiming to have “lost interest” afterwards.

More surprisingly, Van Halen claims during the chat that once Clapton left Cream, he largely stopped listening to music altogether. “I was so busy wrapped up in my own little world that I just didn’t. You can ask Alex [Van Halen] or my son [Wolfgang Van Halen]. What’s the last record I bought? Peter Gabriel’s So.”

When talking with Rolling Stone back in 2011, Van Halen attempted to cite additional influences and came up with players that were appropriate to his post-Cream Clapton cut off. “With Tony [Iommi], it’s the riffs, and the power of the music. And you’ve got people like Ritchie Blackmore [and] Leslie West. Leslie West has this incredible tone in Mountain. And Ritchie Blackmore I liked because of his vibrato bar use on [1970’s] Deep Purple in Rock. Also, they come out with great riffs. I mean, come on, ‘Smoke on the Water’ is one for the history books.”

From there, it was the synthesisation of his influences and the extensive experimentation of a mad scientist brain always tinkering with his guitar and amps that led to Van Halen’s incredibly unique sound. The results are nothing short of some of the most enthralling and celebrated rock and roll guitar work of all time.