One Man’s Recollections, Anyway…
And: Why Ed Used a Variac and Greenbacks?
[A quick request: Please do not copy and paste this entire post somewhere else. Thanks!]
Not too long ago I had the pleasure of connecting with a guy who grew up with Eddie Van Halen. Ed went to the same high school, they both played guitar – I could go on with the personal details, but I don’t want to betray this guy’s identity.
Anyhow, naturally I peppered this guy – who still plays – with questions about Ed’s early gear and sound. I didn’t get the “holy grail” responses everyone wants because no one around Ed back then seems to have had a photographic memory (beer, anyone?). They also didn’t walk around writing everything down, fully realizing that Ed would be such a gigantic influence on guitar players worldwide.
Nonetheless, the following info has some interesting tidbits I haven’t picked up anywhere else. It’s also interesting what this gentleman doesn’t appear to know, which indicates he’s recalling this from memory, not from endlessly reading about Edward.
All of what follows are this guy’s words, edited here and there for brevity or clarity. Stuff in (parenths) his his. Stuff in [brackets] is mine.
I first saw/heard Ed when he was in his bad before Roth and Michael Anthony joined. It was a three-piece with Ed playing and singing all the songs (he has the best voice – better than Roth). They’d play anywhere, anytime for $50.00 and a case of Bud (Alex always drank Coors).
Ed was always Ed – he played every Clapton tune note for note, and his sound was unbelievable. He played a goldtop Les Paul through an old Marshall 100-watt with speaker cabinets reversed: the straight front cab on top of the slant front. He had long hair and it covered his face completely so you saw this guy standing there, covered with hair, with a mike going into his hair/face. They were great and played only covers.
He’d borrow my [Marshall head] for big gigs – where he would have three full stacks on stage, but only running one head and two bottoms – so I saw a lot of Van Halen and hung out with them.
Before going to college, I saw them play at a biker bar in Van Nuys, the Valley [he said this was in 1976]. Me and a friend went to hang out with them since I would be gone for a long time. I heard them play in this small venue and [Ed's] sound was better than ever. So at the break I met them in the “band area” and asked him about the sound. He tried to bullshit with me saying it was the pickups, the old tubes, etc. Of course I reminded him that it was I who he was talking to, and I affectionately lifted him up and said, ‘No really – how did you get that sound at this low volume?’ That was, you know, a perennial problem.
He swore me to secrecy (like who would I tell?) and showed me his Ohmite Variac, a 10-amp AC dimmer. He said that if you take the AC down from the wall at 110 to 85 volts, then the power section of the Marshall pushes to put out in a way that became his now famous ‘brown sound.’
He was always someone who was tinkering with his rig. He ran an old tube-driven Echoplex and an MXR [Phase] 90 phase shifter.
[I asked about the flanger.] I don’t remember Ed using a flanger. Maybe he did, and placed in between the Marshall preamp and power stage. I am not sure.
When I knew him well, he ran the Variac (which runs between the wall power and the head) between the Marshall 100-watt and so when he pulled in down to 85 volts (that’s AC power to to head, decreasing the 110 from the wall so the amp’s power tubes can’t put out 100 watts and ‘brown’) to one cabinet with 25-watt Celestion greenbacks. The greenbacks always sounded best. Chris Holmes [later in WASP – see Notable below] and I built Marshall bottoms with 25 watt-Greenbacks [which] added to the sound and decreased the volume.
On the front end, Ed played his guitar straight from the guitar to the MXR [Phase] 90 and then to the Echoplex and then to the front of the Marshall. He never used a distortion pedal as far as I know. He didn’t need to.
[Note that signal chain. Also, the implication here is that Ed liked power-tube "distortion," which we all know by now, and used the Variac and the greenbacks to try to tame the insane volume of a cranked 100-watt head, thus leading him to a big part of his brown sound. Interesting.]
I asked him about Ed “slaving,” aka reamping, one head into another:
I never saw up close how Ed transitioned from his Marshall-Variac-speakers (with MXR [Phase 90] and Echoplex), to his modified Marshall head going to effects, and then to a series of H&H power amps to 4×12 bottoms [not sure if he meant this to describe a signal chain or as a description of how Ed's rig changed]. I remember him talking about it. But the brown sound on the first album comes from his Variac, Marshall head and 4×12 (with MXR and Echoplex). [In other words, no re-amping.]
I asked about mods to Ed’s amps and Jose of Ed amp-modding fame:
I am not certain of the mods in Ed’s amps. He was always a tinkerer with everything and he ruined many an effect or amp or guitar in his figuring out how they work and what works best. I admired him for that. I was always a bit afraid of destroying things I loved, so I would send the amps/guitars out for all work.
I remember Jose’s name, but I think it was Mark Bogner of Bogner amplfiers who rebuilt Ed’s old Marshall and cleaned them up/modified them. [This could be dead wrong – he doesn't sound convinced and this is a 30-year-old-plus recollection.]
I asked about the specifics of Ed’s Frankie/Frankenstein guitar:
I don’t really know about Ed’s guitar – its wood type or pickups. I am sure that is available somewhere on the web. But like the Nugent story [the story of Ted playing through Ed's rig and sounding like Ted – see the Notable below], it didn’t really matter if he played a Strat or Frankenstein or a Les Paul: He sounded like Ed. Unbelievable, never a mistake, and always, like a cat thrown up in the air (a joke we used to say about him in the beginning), he always landed on his feet rhythmically and in his fantastic phrasing.
On Ed’s gear choices and mods:
I don’t know what or whom he learned from. But most things he figured out for himself. I mean, the guy had an attention span of 8 hours! He’d just go and go ’til he figured something out.
He volunteered this on Ed’s ‘tapping’ technique:
Ed learned the two-hand tapping thing from a guitar player whose name is fuzzy to me right now. Something like Harvey? [Mandel?] I remember Ed talking about this before he began to utilize the two-hand tapping techniques. But Ed never claimed that he invented it. Back then he’d readily tell you that it was this guy up in the local mountains who played like that.
[This doesn't negate Ed's story of being inspired by Jimmy Page's pull-offs. it's just one person's recollection of something. Ed listened to everything and played it all note for note, so who knows.]
I asked about how much Ed and Van Halen influenced the local, which became the national, scene in the late ’70s and ’80s:
I saw [Randy] Rhoads at the Starwood club in Hollywood playing before he joined Ozzie. Quiet Riot was it? He was incredible and seemed like a real guy – a good person – a rarity in that day. There were other great players that never got big. This one band called Stormer (or ?) had this lefty player who played a regular right-handed guitar upside-down. So he learned to play by taking a regular right hand guitar and turning it upside-down so the high E string was at the top. He was as good as Ed. He had all the whammy and speed, and was incredible. A few other friends were good, but not like Ed.
Roth kept them from doing what all of us did – that is, go into progressive rock (Yes, King Crimson, etc). Roth would tell us in his loud and obnoxious voice, “We’re not going to send out demo tapes (like all of us did)! We are going to get signed by the fans demanding that Van Halen be signed!” We’d reply with, “Fuck you, Dave, you have Ed and that’s all you got!” (our competitiveness coming out….).
My style is very much influenced by Ed’s playing. You can imagine growing up playing in bands, being friends with Ed, one wouldn’t just jump up at his house to play the guitar when he was there. But he was always kind and quiet in those days. [Later] he had great stories from the road that we made him share with all of us musicians when he’d return.
Notable: Chris Holmes-Related
WASP guitarist Chris Holmes is known to have known Ed, who borrowed Holmes’ Ibanez Destroyer (or a similar Explorer-looking axe) to use for the Women and Children First album. Here’s are a few Chris-related tidbits from my source:
> I was also friends with Chris Holmes of WASP [who also knew Ed]. I actually taught him how to play lead at times, and we’d build/lust after equipment in our endless search for the ‘killer sounds.’
> A funny story about Chris Holmes of WASP: He’d play out and people would always say he was too loud so he finally took out his volume knob on his Marshall 100 so when he turned it on, it would be full power! (He’d also have his Variac so he could secretly turn down the volts to the head and thus reduce the volume.) After that, when someone came up and complained about the volume, he’d yell, “You fucking turn it down!” The person would walk to the amp stack and see the hole in the place where the volume control should have been. It was funny….
> [A version of the well-known 'Ted Nugent played through Ed's rig and sounded like Ted' story]: Another funny story from Chris Holmes on the road. On one tour with WASP, he met up with Ted Nugent and got to know him well. Ted mentioned to Chris that he had always wanted to play through Ed’s rig. Holmes said, “Hey, I know Randy (Ed’s guitar tech then) pretty good, and we will be touring in the same town in Sweden in a month. Why don’t I call Randy and see if you can play through Ed’s rig at the next festival?” Ted went bananas and said, “Yeah, man!” But Chris then said, “But, Ted, you’ll only sound like you!” Ted protested, “What do you mean? I play an ES125 through Fender Supers – there’s no way I will sound like me.” Chris said, “You wait and see.” Chris did contact Randy and set it up so when they got to Sweden, Chris and Ted went for sound check and Randy let Ted play through the whole rig, from Frankie through the Marshalls. Chris laughs when he tells it because Ted sounded like Cat Scratch Fever through Ed’s rig. Chris was proud to let Ted know that the sound is always in the hands more than any other piece of equipment.”
Sites That Link to this Post
- WoodyTone! - EVH Tidbits: First Frankie, Kramer Days, Studio/Pickup Tidbits | June 29, 2009
- WoodyTone! - EVH Started Using the Bar Because of Blackmore | September 18, 2009
- WoodyTone! - The Last Word on Where EVH First Saw Tapping? | November 16, 2009