To provide a nuts-and-bolts peek INTO
the development of EVH gear, we were fortunate to
be able to assemble—and quiz—the main “people
resources” of the brand’s production team. Matt
Bruck has worked for Eddie Van Halen for 21 years,
starting out as a guitar tech. For EVH, Bruck represents
the “Ed side of things,” and coordinates communication,
development, and product approvals at
every level of the brand. Chris Cannella is the EVH
product manager. Keith Chapman is Fender’s Senior
Vice President R&D. He describes his EVH gig as
helping with the design concepts and driving the
team to deliver the results Eddie wants. Chip Ellis
is a Fender Master Builder and principal engineer
for the EVH guitar line. Mike Ulrich is EVH’s amp
designer. Edward Van Halen needs no introduction.
(Van Halen was unable to attend the roundtable discussion
in person, but he was kind enough to weigh
in on a few questions via email.)
|Mr. EVH spins knowledge with Chip Ellis (left)|
and Matt Bruck (right).
Let’s begin at the beginning. What was the first
connection between EVH the guy and EVH the
Bruck: Eddie is a one-of-a-kind guy, because
he is one of the world’s greatest guitar players, and
he makes his own tools to do his job. And people
want what he builds. With the previous companies
he was affiliated with, they offered the guitar and the
amp that Eddie built—period. But EVH is different,
because there’s so much innovation and knowledge
and refinement of the instrument and the amplification
that Eddie goes through personally to achieve
his own results, and the company is sharing the
sum total of that knowledge to date with everyone.
The concept of the EVH brand is that the advancements
and discoveries Eddie has made throughout
his career are to be shared. Even if you are not into
the music of Van Halen, a musician can still benefit
from what we design and make, and apply it to their
own needs as players and performers and composers.
EVH is an evolving platform—not just a line of
The first Fender products were part of the Charvel
Bruck: Yes, that’s true. The Art series was kind of
a baby step. But it really got rolling with Frankenstein.
Chip, what was it like to duplicate Frankenstein—
one of the most iconic guitars of all time?
Ellis: Having the real one makes it a lot easier!
Being able to inspect everything under a microscope
was great. We were able to take the thing apart, and
really inspect the pickup and copy the body as close
as humanly possible. It made for a really fun project—
although taking the first one to Ed was incredibly
stressful. But when he couldn’t tell ours and his
apart it was like, “Alright! Home run!”
What was the most surprising thing you learned
about the original Frankenstein?
Ellis: It was that melted pickup from Ed’s wax
experiments. It was so curled up and gnarled up that
it was a miracle the thing still worked. We pulled
that pickup out and tried to get a reading on it. It
had a broken coil, but it still worked and sounded
great. It was just hard to believe that thing did what
it did all those years.
On to the Wolfgang design, what was the concept
behind the headstock?
Bruck: The headstock is an evolution. Decades
ago, Eddie was synonymous with Kramer, and then
he moved on to Music Man, and that was the first
time he designed his own signature headstock.
Eddie likes Telecasters—he appreciates how durable
they are. You can throw a Tele across a parking
lot, pick it up, and it would probably almost be in
tune. So he was likely going for the same functionality
and durability with his own headstock. As he
moved on to other companies, the headstock would
morph, because you don’t want to carry something
old over to a new program.
How did the decision to go with stainless
steel frets come about?
Ellis: Again, it was mostly about durability.
You can’t afford a failure. He can’t
afford a failure onstage.
Bruck: With Ed, no news is good news.
But when we were in rehearsals for the
2007 tour, we had nickel frets…
Ellis: … and I was constantly having
to come out and re-level and redress them.
They were just problematic.
Bruck: I can’t tell you how sensitive
Ed is to everything—to touch, to sound.
Chapman: He was just playing one day,
and he felt the strings stick a little on the
frets, and he talked to Chris about it.
Bruck: If you bend a note and drag it
back and forth across the fret for 30 seconds
or so, the fret material will go from
flat to getting burrs on it. He’d go, “Do
you feel how rough that is?” And you’d
go, “Yeah.” But as you were talking about
it, the fret would lay down a bit, and the
roughness would be gone. There was some
scientific principal going on here. We didn’t
even know what to call it until Keith told
us, “It’s called ‘galling.’”
What brings that condition about?
Chapman: It’s the heat and the friction
between the strings and the frets.
Cannella: Decades of electric guitar
players and how many people have called
attention to this thing? One.
Bruck: We were running around grabbing
other people’s guitars, and asking,
“Does it do it on this?” And it did it on
every guitar we tried. So using stainless
steel frets was a way to eliminate something
that was giving us problems. Until
we tackled it, Ed wasn’t happy. My initial
take on stainless steel frets was that they
sounded hard, and lacked the tonal quality
of nickel frets. But I don’t believe that
anymore. Stainless steel frets are a bitch
to install and a bitch to dress because it’s
such a hard material. But it’s so resistant
to fret wear, and, to our knowledge, using
stainless steel was the best solution for
what Ed’s needs are.
Ellis: Aside from relying on Ed’s 30-plus
years of experience, we had the luxury of
crash testing the guitars on a tour. The prototypes
played 70 dates—over two hours
each. That’s how we really tested the durability
of the stainless frets. They looked brand new after the tour was over.
Talk about the graphite reinforcement
in the neck. What drove that decision?
Ellis: That was another hurdle we had
to cross with Ed. When we first started the
Wolfgang project, we were using a 100-percent
birdseye maple neck with a truss rod,
and it was just so temperamental. If the
humidity went up ten percent during the
day, the neck would freak out. We tried
different types of maple to help stabilize
the neck a bit more, and then we took it
a step further with the graphite reinforcement.
That nailed it—that’s what made the
neck as stable as we could possibly get it.
You’ve taken that even one step further
on the new Wolfgang Customs. The
graphite actually goes all the way up
into the headstock.
Ellis: That’s because it’s not a bolt-on
guitar where you can easily replace the neck.
If you drop a set-neck model like the Wolfgang
Custom, and the headstock comes off,
it’s heartbreaking. We figured the graphite
would help reinforce it.
Bruck: We don’t want these guitars
to have an Achilles’ heel, so we’re going
to fortify things. We’re going to reinforce
things so that you can depend on these
guitars not putting you in a compromising
We’ve always associated Eddie with a
maple fretboard, and now we’re seeing
ebony fretboards on some of the models.
What was it like when you first presented
him with a guitar that had an ebony
board on it?
Cannella: I’ve been an ebony guy
my whole life, and we were talking about
making a Wolfgang for the metal guys—
something that looked dark and menacing.
So Chip makes this prototype, and it
becomes like the godsend of all of his guitars.
I remember that day when Ed got it,
and he was walking all around the building
constantly playing it. Everywhere he
went, he was playing it. He really enjoyed
it. I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen that
Bruck: Ed is always going to surprise
you. A lot of people want to take a snapshot
of what he has used to make tones in
his career and sort of define him. But what
he is really defined by are the snapshots
all along the way. The concept of pursuit never changes. What is used at a certain
time will eventually change. I think with
the ebony board it was like, “Hey, want to
try an ebony board on this?” And Ed said,
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” I was really surprised.
Once he got that guitar, it became
his main guitar, and now he’s preferring
ebony to maple. Two years from now that
might change. You can count on him surprising
Talking about surprises, the concept of
more than one Volume knob, or a Tone
knob on a guitar—there was a time when
that was very surprising for this guy.
What are the various pots that go into
these models, and what are they contributing
to the guitars?
Ellis: As we all know, Ed likes to do
volume swells, and you can’t do that stuff
with a stiff Volume pot. So when we first
started doing the Wolfgang, we made both
the Volume and Tone pots really low friction
so that they’re easy to spin. Now, that
was great for the Volume pot, but then we
realized if your hand bumps the Tone knob
and accidently rolls it back a quarter of a
turn, it sucks. So we ended up going with
a stiffer Tone knob that’s going to stay put
if you bump it. But you still have the loose
Volume knob to do your volume swells.
Bruck: You could stick an off-the-shelf
Volume pot on a guitar, and most people
would be like, “Okay.” But Ed will go,
“Can I show you something?” He’ll open
it up about two thirds, and say, “Do you
hear how fast it’s coming on?” He’ll analyze
the taper of the pot. And if it doesn’t
work for him—well, this is not a guy who
thinks in terms of what is currently available.
He thinks, “I don’t like that. Can we
do better?’ So the pots in these guitars are
not off-the-shelf. Chip was saddled with the
responsibility to take Ed’s feedback and find
a manufacturer that was willing to develop
pots to our specifications. That happened
to be Bourns Electronics. A lot of the proprietary
items on EVH gear comes out of
dissatisfaction with what’s currently available.
And it’s very gratifying when you go
through a process like this, and then you
bring the guitar to Ed, and he says, “Sh*t.
Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”
Ellis: Most off-the-shelf pots are
within a 20 percent tolerance rate. When
we worked with Bourns Electronics, we were able to narrow it down to a ten percent
tolerance rate. So now we have something
reliable, and we know what we’re
getting every time we put one in a guitar.
Does Eddie ride his Tone knobs very much?
Bruck: I don’t think it’s a feature in
what he does. I can’t kick out five examples
of where he’s rocking out on the tone
pot. But the concept is that wherever the
tone is set, it will stay there. He doesn’t
want it to get knocked around.
What about the Floyd Rose systems on
Bruck: This is the best quality system
that we can procure from Floyd at this
time. Ed is vicious with a bar. He’s reckless.
Nobody ever heard someone play a tremolo
like Eddie did. As a tech, you put a guitar
in tune, you hand it to him, you clamp it
down tight, and you hope the tuning doesn’t
slip. If it does, you can’t say, “But, man,
you’re killing it.” That’s not his problem.
It’s your problem. It’s our problem. So we
will always be looking to improve—especially
on such an integral part of our guitar
and of his playing.
What about the pickups? Are they the
same across all the Wolfgang models?
Ellis: Yes. It’s the same pickup on
everything. It’s just a great pickup.
I got to watch Eddie test pickups once,
and I was absolutely blown away by what
he hears, and how quickly he hears it
when he’s testing a pickup. What was the
process like to arrive at a pickup he was
Bruck: Two words: never ending.
Ellis: It was a very arduous process.
Bruck: We wondered if we were ever
going to figure it out.
Ellis: He’d hit one note, and say, “It’s
just not there.” When we’d call him on it
and ask what he was hearing, he’d, say, hit
a note and point out the decay. These were
things I’d never come across myself unless
he had pointed it out to me. Once he did
that, I was dialed.
Bruck: There were more than 80 pickup
prototypes—all well documented—and
three manufacturers involved. The process
took about 11 months. We got to a point
where we never achieved any success with
two companies, so we decided to develop
the pickups at Fender. And the first Fender rendition was better than the 80 that preceded
it from other people. This was mostly
because the interpretation from him to the
actual building of the thing was much closer
and tighter because it was done in-house.
Then, we went through maybe ten or 15
pickups until we got it right.
Ellis: And that was within three weeks—
verses 11 months of nothing but frustration.
It was just awesome.
Eddie, you experimented with thicker
bodies in the past to beef up the tone.
How important is body thickness on the
Wolfgangs as it relates to the sound?
Van Halen: I’ve always experimented
with different types of woods. Thicknesses
of wood, weight, and density—it all comes
into play. The Wolfgang body, its thickness
and shape and type of wood is the
best combination to date that I’ve found
for sustain and tone.
Let’s talk about the amp. How would
you say your tastes in amplifiers have
changed over the past 30 years—specifically,
in terms of gain level, headroom,
sustain, and features?
Van Halen: My objective with any
amp from day one has always been the
same—to get the maximum amount of sustain
and tone out of it. That’s why, in the
club days, I used to lower the voltage of
the amp with a Variac so I could turn it all
the way up. To put it in a nutshell, I guess
now it just goes past “all the way up.” It’s
a never-ending pursuit.
Does Eddie actually use all three channels
in the course of a gig?
Bruck: Oh, yeah.
ULRICH: I think he has even played
rhythm on the third channel.
Eddie, you’ve said before that you can
tell in one note if a piece of gear is right.
When you were developing this amp,
what sort of things were you listening
for to know if the current design was
happening or not?
Van Halen: The reason I prefer to hit one
note as opposed to a barrage of notes is, when
you hit one note, you can obviously tell how
long it’s going to sustain. If you’re playing fast,
it doesn’t make much difference. But if you
hit one note and it sustains—boom! You’re
there. If it peters out sooner than I want it to,
I guess the thing needs more work!
Bruck: It’s pretty common knowledge
that there are no rules with this guy. I think
the more colors—the larger palette you can
offer him to express himself—the happier
he is. It’s interesting when you think about
him using a Marshall on the first record, and
that all the dynamics were accomplished
with the Volume knob. Now, he has three
channels to play with. I’m sure he’ll hit us
up sooner or later to expand it even further.
But, once again, everything we all do
with this line goes back to a central theme,
which is, “This gear is for everybody.” This
is not just for Ed. Yes, he inspired it, he
designed it, he drove it, and he approved
it, but it all works way beyond Eddie Van
Halen. It’s gear that you can do your own
thing on. Have fun.
Ulrich: Ed’s fingerprints are all over
the gear that’s here, but it really does speak
to any player out there.
Cannella: EVH is a brand of musical
equipment for everybody to enjoy that
just happens to come from the unobtainable
mind of Eddie Van Halen. We make
this equipment to his level of expectations.
Bruck: He’s not demanding in a bad
way—he’s demanding in a good way. Sometimes,
it’s difficult to give him what he’s
looking for, but when you do—when everything
you’ve given him is just perfect—he’s
such a monster to watch play. It’s mind
boggling. You sit there and you go, “That’s
why he asked for that, because that’s what
he wants to do with it.” It’s like an Indy
car. He’s the driver, and we’re the crew.
He needs everything. Give him what he’s
looking for, and he will blow you away with
what he’s capable of as a musician. It’s just
un-freaking-real. On the flip side of that,
you feel like absolute sh*t on the day that
you didn’t lick the problem, because he has
to go out there and play anyway.
Chapman: Any time he brings up
something he wants to improve—or some
issues he found—he comes in, and says, “I
got something for you guys. I don’t want
to ruin your day.” But we’re like, “No.
This is why this brand exists. Because
when he’s not satisfied, he brings it up a
notch. And every time we go and search
and research and find out how to solve
the issue he is facing, we end up with an