Here’s part 2 of highlights from the legendary April 1980 Guitar Player cover interview of Edward Van Halen.
Do you do anything special to your pickups?
I usually use old Gibson PAFs, and I always pot them. I submerge the whole thing in paraffin wax, and this cuts out the high obnoxious feedback. It’s kind of a tricky thing because if you leave it in there too long. The pickup melts. I take a coffee can and melt down some wax — the same kind that you use for surfboards — and put the pickup in it. See, one of the reasons a pickup feeds back is that the coil windings vibrate, and when the wax soaks in there, it keeps them from vibrating as much. It will still feed back, but it’s controllable. After I dip the pickup in paraffin, I put copper tape around it. You have to be really careful if you do this to a pickup like a DiMarzio. You can throw an old PAF in there and let it soak [wax] up. It doesn’t melt. But with DiMarzio, if you blink, all of a sudden your pickup’s ruined.
How do you keep tuned while using a standard vibrato?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. For one, some manufacturers don’t keep in mind that the distance from the bridge to the machine heads has got to be straight line so the string windings won’t get caught anywhere. A lot of people drill the machine holes off center, and the strings get caught up. I have extra-wide notches in the nut, and string trees for only the high E and B strings. I also set the vibrato bar so I can only bring it down; you can’t pull back on it. See, I rest the palm of my hand on the bridge, so If I use a standard vibrato, I sound like a warped record. Sometimes I’ll bring the bar down before I hit a note and then let it up.
Do you own any stock factory-made guitars?
Yeah, I have a new Gibson ES-335, and two ‘58 Les Paul Jrs — a single-cutaway and a double-cutaway. I’ve got a whole load of Japanese Strat copies [= a lot of experimentation – who knows what parts were swapped where!]. I also just two vintage Les Pauls — a’59 flame top and a ‘58 gold top. These are pretty much in immaculate condition. I bought them as an investment; I don’t play them. My main stage guitars are the ones I build myself for under $200. I have an acoustic, too — the one I used on “Spanish Fly.” It’s an Ovation nylon-string, not the real expensive model. I’ve never owned a steel-string.
How do you hold your pick?
Between my thumb and middle finger. Sometimes when I play fast I’ll put the tip of my index finger on the corner of the pick. [I’ve come to believe that this is one key component to Ed’s attack and rhythm.]
Do you put new strings on every night?
Yeah, Fender 150XLs [these are 9s!]. I stretch them to death. With that new Rose thing, I boil the strings so they stretch, because if you just put them on and clamp it down, the strings stretch out on the guitar. I just take a pack and let it boil for 20 minutes in the hot water. And then I dry them in the sun, because otherwise they rust. But I only use them one night anyway, so who cares if they rust?
Amps and Effects
What’s in [his pedalboard]?
It’s a piece of plywood with two controls for my Echoplex on it, an MXR Phase 90 that I’ve had for years, and an MXR Flanger. They’re all taped to a piece of board with black duct tape [that’s the secret! LOL]. And like a lot of big name players laugh themselves silly when they see it, but after they hear me, then they go, “Can I plug in?” Some of these guys have got four out-of-phase switches, and a this and a that, and a biamp crossover, and blah, blah, blah. And I just go, “Is it on? Is it working? What’s it for? What’s it do?” I can’t tell! At least when I use an effect, you know I’m using it. My main tricks are in my amps.
What kind of amps are you now using?
Well, in the studio I use my old Marshall, my precious baby. It gets a slightly different sound. Live I use new Marshalls. I made the mistake of taking my main one out on the road last year and I lost it on the way back from Japan. It was flying around India somewhere and six months later, thank God, I got it back. This is the one I bought when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what I had until now. It’s very old; it has a Plexiglas front. It used to be the house amp at the Pasadena Rose Palace; whoever played there has played through it. It’s a real good amp – unbelievable balls!
How do you modify your amps?
Okay, I use a combination of two different kinds of amps. They’re both Marshalls, but one kind actually has less power than the other, which is boosted. I use them together. The ones that have less power have a giant capacitor in conjunction with the fuse; if anything happens, the fuse blows first. The capacitor has something to do with the computerized ignition system of a car. I can’t give you the exact specs, but it looks like a stick of dynamite, only fatter. What it does is suck juice. I hook it up to the fuse holder and the mains, and it lowers the voltage about ten volts so the amp lasts a little bit longer. It doesn’t really change the sound, but whatever I use, I use to the max. I just turn it all the way up. So this capacitor lowers the voltage and the amp lasts a little longer. I still have to retube them once a week. (Editor’s Note: This is not a recommended procedure for modifying amps and should not be attempted by anyone inexperienced in the field of electronics and amp modification.)
What is done to the other kind of amps?
I use a Variac, which is like a dimmer on a lighting system. It’s an autotransformer which goes all the way from 0 to 160. In the studio I crank it up to 140 and watch the tubes melt! (Editor’s Note: Again, this is not a recommended procedure for modifying amps, as Paul Rivera of Rivera Research and Development points out: “You can cause severe damage to the amp besides melting tubes. Since a Variac is an exposed transformer, by hooking it up incorrectly you could get the hot of the AC line on the chassis of the amp and electrocute yourself. Anyone wishing to attempt this sort of modification should go to a knowledgeable repairman.”) [Ed might have turned up the Variac here and there, but usually kept it at around 85-90.]
– End of part 2 (of 3) –
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