LOVE the first four Van Halen albums. Always have, always will. Love the rest too, including the Van Hagar years (oops, forgot about VH III…), but those first four vinyl donuts are to me and many others just the nads. The nadliest of nads.
They’re a band kicking the world’s butt in every way, and it shows.
Anyhow, tone-wise seems like most Ed Van Halen fans are bent on copping the larger-than-life, comet-hitting-the-Earth-from-outta-nowhere first-album tone. I get that, but it ain’t my favorite.
The Van Halen II tone – much different – is great too, the over the top tone raspy on Women and Children First likewise, and then we come to what I think is the hardest, meatiest, nad-kickin’est guitar tone on any Van Halen record: Fair frickin’ Warning.
And here’s the thing: It’s the most difficult to cop. Or can be. Or maybe so many guys are focused on nailing the first album tone that the other four tones have gotten shoved aside.
Some folks have gotten close to the Fair Warning tone with the base components of any early VH tone chase: Marshall plexi or plexi-like/clone amp, and low-efficiency Celestion speakers (e.g., Greenbacks), along with any number of pickup and geetar wood combinations.
Talkin’ real tone here, not modelers, computers or whatever. Kinda like:
But not me…yet. Haven’t gotten real close. Maybe you’re in the same boat. Before going into that, a couple disclaimers:
> Tone is in the ear of the beholder. Your Fair Warning tone might not be the same one I’m hearing.
> It’s possible that Ed used the exact same setup he used on any of the four albums and it’s all recording magic. We don’t know for sure exactly what was used on any of those albums, including Fair Warning. You can say you need this or that tube or pedal or pickup or body wood, but talking here about COPPING that tone, not REPLICATING it – which you gotta admit is pretty much impossible. You’d have to have Ed’s hands, the board, studio magic, etc.
> Forget the supposed importance of the Eventide Harmonizer that first makes its wet appearance on Fair Warning. Yes it’s there, yes it affects the tone and yes you can get all you need in that department (and all subsequent VH) from the stellar Eventide PitchFactor pedal. But this is about the core tone.
Here’s what I’m hearing that’s different from the first three albums:
Aka hair, distortion, whatever. It’s there. It’s there on Women and Children First too, but that sounds more like the blue MXR 6-band EQ-type buzz. Fair Warning to me sounds like a hotter pickup.
Some say they think he used the “normal” EVH lower-output or hot-wound PAF-type pickup (I best Ed changed stuff practically every day), but I think it’d be tough to cop that tone with such a pickup. To my ears Fair Warning has some “razor” and some sustain that aren’t just from a Marshall with 6CA7 power tubes on 10. It’s a DiMarzio Super Distortion or something more along those lines.
Actually, the vid above is a good example of a great core tone – through one of the best plexi-style amps ever created by man, the Metropoulos ’68 Super Lead replica. But it lacks that razor, sustain and a little hi-fi you can get from higher-output pickups.
Is said hair from the Variac cranked up like Ed says he did but everyone now acknowledges is unwise and dangerous…not that that ever stopped him before? Don’t care. I’m not messing with a Variac. I want to plug in and play.
Aka lower mids. Ed’s tone always has the characteristic Marshall high mids though in a more-musical way than many plexis are able, but Fair Warning also has BALLS – Bogner Shiva-like balls.
Unusual, and it may be where some of the “dark” label comes from that folks like to slap on Fair Warning.
To be clear, the FW tone has the clanking plexi/6CA7 upper mids AND the balls. Now that’s an amp I’d buy in a hot second.
Fatness too, some of which is the Harmonizer, but also from the lower mids.
Is it the speakers? Mebbe, but I doubt it. Is it, as some have claimed apparently with no proof, Gibson Les Pauls suddenly used on this album? Doubt it and again, no proof. Is it studio EQ? Possibly, maybe probably, but doesn’t matter. I want to cop that tone live, mang!
The best way to hear the hair and balls (hair and balls?) is in the Mean Street iso track (ripped from Guitar Hero), but I couldn’t find it online so here’s Unchained a decent example:
What Does This Mean?
Here’s the iso track from “Hear About It Later” off the same album. Supposedly the rhythm track was a Strat. If so, that’s one ballsy Strat tone…but to my ears it’s not as ballsy or hairy as the humbucker tunes – and you can hear the humbucker punch in and out on this track:
So Where Are We Now?
Okay maybe not “we,” but where I am now on the Fair Warning tone-copping recipe is this:
- Plexi-style amp, ideally 100w (more balls) with 6CA7 tubes (for clang), but a 50w with EL34s will work too.
- 4×12 with good Greenbacks and maybe some Blackbacks worked in for more vintage VH, though a 2×12 may do it…maybe.
- Lower mids boosted (EQ or…?), unless Santa has a deal with Reinhold Bogner….
- Higher-output pickup, like: a Super Distortion or similar DiMarzio, a similar Duncan, or a custom wind.
Try it EVH-heads and fellow Fair Warning fans, lemme know. I’ll do the same and report back here.