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This article was originally published in issue #10
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Los Angeles-based journalist Steven Rosen was a regular at the Whisky in the 1970s. In ‘78 he was introduced to a kid called Edward Van Halen - whose eponymous band was just about to release a record. No one could have foreseen how Rock guitar was just about to change forever. Filed away in a drawer ever since, Rosen’s interview sheds new light on one of the great mysteries of guitar history: just how did Eddie get that sound?
Downstairs on the Whisky stage, Eddie Money is singing about paradise and holding on to something. Upstairs, at the end of a hallway reeking of burned-out butts, I’m standing in one of the dressing rooms with guitarist Edward Van Halen. He is holding on to a cigarette and talking as if we’d been friends forever. We’ve just been introduced by club booker Michelle Myers. Somehow, though I’d been attending shows at the Whisky and the Starwood for the last four years, I’ve never heard him play. I knew about Ed - everyone in Hollywood knew about Van Halen. He smokes and philosophizes about Eric Clapton (loves Cream), Jeff Beck (not a huge fan) and Detective’s Michael Monarch (sounds too much like Beck). Their first album is due out in a couple of weeks. It is the beginning of 1978 and the record is scheduled for February/March.
“I think it’s good,” he says, the assessment offered up with equal doses enthusiasm and aw shucks humility. “I hope it does OK,” confesses the guitarist, almost embarrassed by the admission. Cue: the grin.
Two weeks later and the newest shipment of Warner Bros. records arrive. There is the Rutles’ debut, Manfred Mann’s Watch, Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus, and Van Halen. I drop the needle down on Runnin’ With the Devil and realize instantly that the parameters of electric guitar will forever be changed. Those opening power chords are, at once, semi-classic in nature, harkening back to shades of Blackmore’s Purple. And yet the very depth of expression and profound character here makes the sound as unique as any ever created.
An Eddie Money lyric comes back to me: “The future is ours to see.” I have now seen that future and his name is Edward.
Van Halen changed the very tools, techniques, and tones that were the scaffolding upon which modern guitar would be built. Considered separately, the pieces are considerable; taken in concert and the album is forever frozen in legend. Amongst these innovations:
1] Hot rodding guitars (single pickup/single tone control) and amplifiers (beefing up transformers/different tubes).
2] Tapping (yes, Harvey Mandel and Brian May have done it but not like this); flutter picking.
3] Massive rhythms/sweeping and articulated lead sounds (not since the signature sonics of Hendrix and Beck and Clapton will a guitar tone be so imitated).
Several months after listening to the album, I conduct my first phone interview with that modest man from the Whisky. He is the same low-key character and at this early stage in the game, even he isn’t aware of what Ed hath wrought.
The album would eventually climb to Number 19 on the Billboard charts. Not a stunning achievement but some 28 years after its release, Van Halen would go on to sell over 10 million copies. Ten more records would follow and while 1984 provided them with their first Number one single (Jump) and 5150 and OU812 maneuvered themselves into number one slots on the charts, none of these releases would carry the impact of this classic. Edward would grace the cover of every guitar mag known to man and in pursuit of the infamous brown sound, an entire cottage industry of custom guitar builders, amplifier modifiers, and vintage instrument collectors would be born. As debuts go, the Pasadena quartet’s eponymous first step registered as important as Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? Zeppelin’s first, and Beck’s Truth.
Yeah; he got us into music very early. He got Al and me practicing piano for concert stuff, classical piano, at like seven and eight years old.
Oh, yeah; my brother was six, I think, when he started and I started when I was about seven. Well, then we decided to come to the land of opportunity in southern California and just started getting into rock and roll a little bit. The Dave Clark Five, the real early stuff. And went out and got myself a paper route and bought a drum set.
Originally I played drums and my brother played guitar.
While I was out throwin’ my papers, he was practicing my drums. He got better than I did and I said, “OK, you play my drums and I’ll pick up your guitar.” It went on from there. I’d say I really didn’t start playing guitar and getting into lead guitar and stuff like that until Cream came out and stuff like that. When the heavy guitar thing started to happen.
Oh, yeah [laughs.] A Sears Teisco Del Rey; a three pickup job. I thought the more pickups it had, the better guitar it was; the more switches and everything. Nowadays I’ve got kind of a homemade copy of a Strat with just one pickup and one volume knob on it. Really simple.
It looks like a Strat but there’s a place in San Dimas, California called Charvel Guitars and they custom make ‘em. Mine wasn’t really custom made; it was like a junk neck and a hacked-up body that was just laying around and I wanted to experiment building my own guitar. So I could get the sound I wanted. See, I always wanted a Strat for the vibrato bar because I love that effect. So I just bought it from them for $50 and the neck for $90 and slapped it together. Put an old humbucking pickup in it and one volume knob and painted it up the way I wanted it to look and it screams.
My main guitar up until right now.
Yeah; it’s the one that’s on the cover of the album. Just one pickup and one volume; no tone or fancy out of phase switches or nothin’ like that.
Yeah, I did; I couldn’t get the sound I wanted out of a regular Strat. Somebody told me about the Charvel place; about their wood. Their bodies get much better tone and stuff like that and I checked it out. It’s true.
Uh, yeah; you know I use a couple of effects like an MXR phase shifter, a flanger and two Echoplexes which change the sound a bit, you know. And I use two Univox echo boxes also for the end of my solo on Eruption. That’s not an Echoplex; it’s a Univox. Everything I use is MXR; it’s about all I can afford. Mounted on a piece of wood. I use a pretty long cord on stage about a 25-footer or a 30-footer and after it goes through the pedals I use an equalizer to boost the line back up. But tone-wise I just crank everything all the way up and depending on how you pick, you get different tones and stuff. My amp setup is pretty tricked though.
OK; I’ve got six old Marshalls which have been rebuilt. They have bigger tubes in ‘em and bigger transformers to make ‘em a lot louder. I use six heads hooked to six cabinets. The cabinets are pretty much stock except I changed the way they look a little bit. And I use these things called voltage generators. What this box does is it enables me to put 150 or 160 watts; it enables me to crank up the voltage higher than the amp is supposed to take.
It really makes the tubes red-hot, you know; it really makes the amp overload so much that it gets the sound I like.
It’s a box that you plug into the wall and it has a big knob on it that goes up to 160 and you plug your amp into it. It’s a voltage box or something like that; yeah, a voltage generator.
I just crank ‘em all the way up; everything all the way up. Presence; middle; bass …
I use the exact same thing.
Oh, no, no no [much laughter.] OK, see the thing is I get the exact same sound out of one or out of six. All the difference in numbers just means how loud it’s gonna be. And each amp sounds the same. I use two actually ‘cause I like to feel it too while I’m playing.
Oh, yeah; we play stage volume. We recorded at Sunset Sound; I like that room. It’s just a big room; it’s like our basement actually. The guys who run the studio and maintain the place, they walk in after we’re done, boy, and there are beer cans all over the floor and Pink’s hot dog smears all over the place. But in order for us to be comfortable we just do what we want. We just set up in a big room (Sunset Sound) and I used almost everything I use on stage. Only I used my old Marshalls as opposed to brand new ones that I use live. The sound of my guitar and the solos were cool (though) I’m not sayin’ I couldn’t do better. For the first album, it took us just a week to do the music; four or five days. Everything was basically done in first and second take. Our concept was to just do what we came up with as opposed to forcing ourselves to write something commercial
That is a very tricky question. So far I haven’t told or showed anybody. I dicked around with a Strat for years learning how to do that and there’s about four or five different things that you have to do including knowing the technique of playing it. A lot of people just grab the bar and go wahwahwahwahwah [mimics the sound of a bar going up and down] and expect it to stay in tune. There’s little things that you have to do like after you hit the bar after you bring the note down usually one of the strings goes sharp.
So what you do is before you come back in with a full chord, you have to stretch with your left hand to pop it back. Without picking the string, you just grab the string and jerk it up real quick and then it pops right back to where it was before you hit the bar. And then on top of that, you know the little metal jobs at the top? What part of the guitar is that? I don’t even know. Where the tuning pegs are, Fender always has these little metal things that hold the strings down. String retainers or whatever they’re called. If you have those too tight, the string will get caught up on that and it won’t pop back the way it’s supposed to. Also, it’s the way you wind your strings.
Hey, I don’t know if I want to tell you! It’s basically simple and the kind of strings you use is important. I don’t know if I should be putting down certain strings but I use Fender strings; they’re very good and I like ‘em.
They’re pretty light really: .040; .032; .024; .015; .011; and .009. So far for that Strat those are the best gauges for keeping it in tune. I used to think that the heavier strings I used, the better it would stay in tune but that ain’t true either.
I use Schallers; they’re not regular Fenders.
The spring setup; they come with five springs and I only use four. It’s hard to explain everything because it also depends on the guitar. I could tell you exactly what to do and you could do it to your Strat and it wouldn’t work. And also there’s a thing in the back where the strings hook up; there are two long screws and how tight you got that set, it changes the tension of the springs. So it’s that; how you wind your strings; how many springs you got; the string retainers at the top; and the way you play it. It took me a while to figure it out.
When we were in New Orleans, I just bought a Les Paul. I needed another guitar because I tend to bend the hell out of the strings a lot; usually after my solo live, I change guitars. So I needed another guitar and when we were in New Orleans I just picked up a Paul. It’s a real nice white one; it looks cool.
I have never in my life owned an acoustic guitar; I really haven’t. I’ve written songs on electric guitar that would sound real nice on an acoustic but I’ve never owned an acoustic guitar. I guess one of these days I’ll buy one. I don’t know nothin’ about acoustics; I know what I like in electric guitars but acoustic I’m lost. I don’t know what’s good; I really don’t.
A little bit; there’s nothing on the record. There’s no slide on the record. But who knows what lurks in the future? Me and my brother both play keyboards, too; I’ve been thinking about getting a synthesizer. I know there’s a lot of people starting to get into guitar synthesizer but like Roland you have to play one of their guitars but I don’t dig ‘em. So I think maybe I might get a synthesizer and play keyboards. But who knows? I might not.
Sometimes I bring the low E down to a D for like some acoustic stuff; it sounds real deep.
Fender mediums. What I used to do was use a metal pick. A friend of mine always used to make me metal picks; he used to work in a machine shop. And they were really cool but when you start sweatin’ I couldn’t hold onto ‘em. They’d fly out of my hand and I’d be bummed out.
Just practice, I guess. I’ve been playing eight to 10 years; that’s quite a while. I kind of pick at an angle; a downward angle. And I started early, which is good. A lot of people start late and play for 10 years and they don’t get quite as far. You’ve got a lot more hang-ups or whatever when you get older and shit. I enjoy playing; that’s the main thing. It’s not like I was forcing myself because I wanted to be a rock and roll star. I started out playing because I really liked to.
Sure; I mean I’ve got a guitar right here in my hands right now. I change the strings before a gig; I play for half-an-hour, an hour, just to break in the strings and loosen up my fingers. And at night sometimes I come home and write a tune.
Oh, yeah, every day especially on the Strat; they wear out so quick with that bar.
Oh, no, no. I hate overdubbing ‘cause it’s just not the same as playing with the guys; there’s no feeling there for me to work off of. I’ve got to feed of them to play good, too. Are you familiar with the album?
Like Runnin’ With the Devil is a melodic solo so I put a rhythm underneath it. Songs that have a spontaneous solo like I’m the One, Ice Cream Man and most of the songs on the album, Ted, our producer felt and us also, that it was good enough on its own without fattening it up. Also when we play it live it sounds the same. I hate people - without namin’ names - they over-produce in the studio and then when they walk out on stage people go, “Wow! Is that the same band?” It doesn’t sound the same. With us it sounds exactly the same and maybe even better because you get to see it us doin’ it at the same time. It’s very energetic; we’ll get you up and shake your ass.
Oh, sure. What he managed to do was put our live sound on a record. I mean a lot of people have to do a bunch of overdubs to make it sound full. It’s a lot easier to make a lot of instruments sound full than a guitar, bass and drums. That’s where Ted comes in; he knows his shit. He’s the man. He’s doing our next one, too. Van Halen is three instruments and voices with very few overdubs; very live sounding. Ted Templeman, the producer and Donn Landee, the engineer, they weren’t quite sure of what we wanted; they weren’t too familiar with our sound. We sifted through all the songs with Ted and we picked out what we wanted to do. And one out of the four might say, “Hey, let’s do this one” and the other guys are going, “Nah, why don’t we try this one?”
It was cool. I’m not sayin’ I couldn’t do better but for a first album it only took us a week just to do the music; four or five days. Everything was basically done in a first or second take.
Umm, I don’t know; I like all the songs and I like all the solos. I guess it takes someone from the outside to pick which one they like best. Spontaneous-wise, I like I’m the One, the boogie.
Yeah, the fast boogie. I like soloing to quick stuff. That one was pretty much spontaneous; like Runnin’ With the Devil and On Fire and some of the other ones were set solos. But that one gave me a chance to space off a little bit and noodle around. Which I do a lot live; we all get crazy live. I mean nobody spaces off to the point where it falls apart; we just add a little bit visually and sound wise but keep it interesting.
OK, I don’t really know what scales they are [laughs.] I really don’t. I know music theory and I know how to write music on paper and how to read for piano but on guitar it’s a different story. I don’t know nothin’ about what a scale is; I know basic notes. I can play what sounds good; what I think is good anyway.
Since the last five or six years, I really haven’t been into any one guitarist; I like everybody. I’ve listened to Blackmore and Beck; especially Wired, I like some of that stuff. Before that I just never really got into him. I didn’t like him with Beck, Bogert & Appice. But the main guitarist I’d say that influenced me to play the most was Clapton. I used to love the way he played; he was real smooth and a lot of feeling. Every review I ever read of the album or my playing it’s always Blackmore, Beck, and Page influence. But I never really sat down and copped their licks like I did Clapton. I guess a lot of people think I sound like Beck or Blackmore because I do use the bar and they do also so it kinda gets the same kinda sound. The only thing Blackmore got me hooked on was the whammy bar. Because I never really liked the way he played that weird staccato stuff. But I feel a lot of my licks are different than theirs. Like the wide stretch things I do I try and make it sound a little bit different.
Right, right; it’s like having a sixth finger on your left hand. Instead of picking you’re hitting a note on the fretboard.
I really don’t know how to explain that, man. I was just sittin’ in my room at the pad at home, drinkin’ a beer, and I remembered seeing people stretching one note and hitting the note once. They popped the finger on there to hit one note. I said, “Well, fuck, nobody is really capitalizing on that. Nobody was really doing more than just one stretch and one note real quick.” So I started dickin’ around and said, “Fuck! This is a totally nother technique that nobody really does.” Which it is. I haven’t really seen anyone get into that as far as they could because it is a totally different sound. A lot of people listen to that and they don’t even think it’s a guitar. “Is that a synthesizer? A piano? What is that?”
I just liked the sound of it and I just kept workin’ at it until I got the notes I wanted. You can almost do a complete scale with all the harmonics. Just gotta know where to him ‘em. I guess I could be funny and say I take a lot of pills but that ain’t true.
Umm, we’re all trippin’ on that it happened quick. We’ve been together for four years as a band. I talk to these guys in Journey and they go, “Wow, man, you guys are lucky because you guys happened so quick.” But what they don’t understand is we’d been together for four years before the album got out.
A lot of bands make a demo tape; we did that also. We went to New York with Gene Simmons from Kiss I’d say about two years ago. He saw us in a club and asked us, “Are you guys on a label or anything? Do you have a manager?” and we said, “No.” So he said, “Wow, you guys are a hot band, I’d like to work with you guys.” And we’re going, “What do you mean?” And what it boiled down to was he wanted to take a shot at producing a rock band so we said, “Sure” because he was payin’ for it all. We didn’t have any money and I guess basically that’s why we did the tape. But then again we went to New York, made the world’s most expensive demo tape, and never ended up using it. On top of not having a tape, we didn’t know where in the hell to take it; we didn’t know anyone. Bands take it to a record company and there will be some clown sittin’ on a couch, smokin’ a joint, listens to your tape, and nothing will ever happen that way. So what we basically did is we just kept playing the L.A. area everywhere. We used to put on our own shows at the Pasadena Civic, our hometown, and draw like 3,000 people on a $4 ticket. This was way before Warner Bros. So we just developed such a following that a sister of a friend at the record company, the word got around about the band.
Finally Ted Templeman and Mo Ostin came down to the Starwood in Hollywood which was really always just kind of a bad place for us because we weren’t a Hollywood band. When we’re out in the Midwest and they ask where are you from and you go, “L.A.,” immediately they think Hollywood. They’re wrong. Hollywood is like New York; they’re islands. Pasadena is really where we’re from and that’s like San Bernardino; that’s like Bumfuck, Iowa. That’s what people are like out in Hollywood.
It really tripped me out because when we were playin’ and Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman walked in, we really didn’t know. Somebody just said, “There’s somebody real important out there so play good.” There were no people there; it was some rainy Monday night without any people at all. And still they came backstage and they loved it. They said, “If you don’t negotiate with anyone else, you’ve got what you want right here.” We were happy; we tripped out. Warner Bros., man, that was always the company I wanted to be with. On top of that, we got Ted Templeman to produce the record. I talked to a lot of people who we’ve played with and they say, “Wow, man, we’re trying to get Ted Templeman to produce our record.” He’s in demand and here we are; we get picked up by him.
Oh, yeah; we write all the time. That’s a good thing about the band and everybody contributes. I’m the guitarist so I write all the riffs and shit but Dave writes lyrics and Al and Mike really help arrange; every song is a group effort. There’s not one song that one person wrote totally. Who’s idea was it to release “You Really Got Me” as the first single?
Uh, it was a joint effort; it was a joint thing between us and Ted. The night he saw us play we played that song and he got off on it. He’s going, “Hey, man, that might be a good song to put on the record.” And I thought, “Yeah, shit” because we’ve all been waiting to do that song anyways since we were four years old. I mean it sounds different than the original; it’s kind of updated; it’s been Van Halenized like a jet plane.
Pretty good; we’ve sold about 350,000. We’re like 29 with a bullet next week in Billboard. So we’re kickin’ some ass. We started out, no … I better not talk about that.
When we started out with Journey and Montrose, we were brand new; I think our album was only out a week at the start of the tour. And now we’re almost passing up Journey on the charts and stuff. So they’re freakin’out; I think they might be happy to get rid of us. We’re very energetic and we get up there and blaze on the people for half-an-hour; that’s all we’re allowed to play with them. They won’t let us use any effects. For my solo, “Eruption,” I do that every night live and I have this old World War II bomb, which is about six, or seven feet tall and I put some echo boxes in it. Usually the thing blows up at the end of my solo with all the smoke bombs but they won’t let me use it. We don’t get soundchecks; we don’t get shit. But we’re still blazin’ on the people, man; we’re getting a good strong encore every night. All we’re tryin’ to do is put some excitement back into rock and roll. It seems like a lot of people are old enough to be our daddies and they sound like it or they act like it; they seem energy-less. It seems like they forget what rock and roll is all about.