EVH Roundtable The Designers Discuss the Gear

February 15, 2012

Mr. EVH spins knowledge with Chip Ellis (left)
and Matt Bruck (right).
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.)

Let’s begin at the beginning. What was the first connection between EVH the guy and EVH the brand?

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 individual products.

The first Fender products were part of the Charvel Art series…

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 position.

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 before!”

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 you.

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 the Wolfgangs?

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 happy with?

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 incredible discovery.

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