EVH Frankenstein Replica

For most rock guitarists who were born in the mid ’60s, the release of the first Van Halen record in 1978 was our Beatles-on-the-Ed-Sullivan-Show moment. It divided recorded history into two distinct sections: stuff that came before VH and stuff that came after. In my neighborhood, we went from one bassist and zero guitarists to seven kids playing electric guitar in the space of a few months. What Eddie Van Halen played on that record instantly rewrote the rulebook and changed everything forever. The guitar he used to play those great parts made a bit of a splash as well. First off, it was a Strat-shaped body with only one pickup—and a humbucker at that. This was bold, crazy stuff for the time. And, speaking of bold, the white body of his guitar was painted up with wild, criss-crossed black stripes, unlike anything that was commercially available. It was a perfect storm of 6-string ass kicking: You couldn’t touch this guy’s technique and you couldn’t buy his guitar.

Soon enough, though, you saw finger-tapping guitarists in every bar, and wacky graphics on single-humbucker super-Strats in every music store. Determined to stay several steps ahead of his imitators, sometime in 1979 Mr. EVH took the pickguard off his black-and-white workhorse, crammed a broken pickup selector in the middle pickup slot, a non-functional single-coil in the neck position, installed a newfangled locking whammy made by a guy named Floyd Rose, and repainted his guitar with a soon-to-be-world famous red, white, and black stripe pattern. That is the instrument, christened “Frankenstein” by his rabid fans, with which he would rule the world of guitar for many years.

Now, for the low, low price of $25,000, that magical instrument can be yours. Well, not exactly—the real Frankenstein was recently appraised at a cool million. But thanks to a partnership between the biggest guitar manufacturer, Fender, and the biggest guitar hero since Hendrix, the EVH brand was born and the company’s first offering is the dead-on accurate, anatomically correct replica that you see here. To test this beast, we fittingly cranked it through the EVH 5150 III amp (see accompanying review).

So how accurate is the Frankenstein Replica? Terrifyingly accurate. The first Replica was painstakingly and lovingly created by Fender Custom Shop master builder Chip Ellis (from photos, no less—not the actual instrument). I was fortunate enough to play the real deal and a Replica side by side and it’s downright bizarre how identical they are. The real Frankenstein was in a state of disrepair at the time and thus not really playable, but to look at the two, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Ellis and his EVH team nailed the cosmetics perfectly—ding for ding, scratch for scratch, cigarette burn for cigarette burn. It goes without saying that they made sure to screw a 1971 quarter on the top to match the original’s ingenious and cost-effective whammy-blocking device. (If you start messing around with different years of quarters, especially those from the late ’80s, you’ll totally ruin the tone.) We could go on and on. Reflectors on the back? Check. Three trem springs with the bass side angled? Check. ’Nuff said. They got the details right in a big way.

We couldn’t wait to see if EVH had gotten the sonics right as well. This wouldn’t be easy, because a big part of the Van Halen mojo was a hand-potted PAF pickup that Mr. Ed had screwed right into the body of his guitar. That pickup had the amazing combination of detail, clarity, dynamics, and balls that helped him get such a huge range of tones from what appeared to be a butt-simple instrument. To capture such tonal lightning in a bottle, the EVH camp went to the Eddie Van Halen of pickup making, Mr. Seymour Duncan. In another one of those impossibly surreal moments, I was present as Van Halen and Duncan voiced, tested, and retested several pickups. Van Halen said at the time, “I can tell with one note if it’s right or not.” When asked what he was listening for, he replied, “The harmonics, man—it’s all in the harmonics.”

Well, once again they knocked it out of the park. Plugged into the EVH 5150 III (with a script logo MXR Phase 90 in line for good measure), the Replica sounds exactly as it should. Running through a Roth-era hit parade with fellow VH freak (and GP Associate Editor) Jude Gold, we couldn’t find a tone that Frankenstein couldn’t cop—from the swirling pre-chorus to “Jamie’s Cryin’” to the intro to “Mean Street” to the crushing breakdown in “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” It was a breeze to get dirtier or cleaner textures by picking more lightly or just rolling back the Volume knob (labeled Tone, of course). I ran Frankenstein through some other amps, including a Line 6 Spider Valve and a Bad Cat Mini Cat and it proved impossible to make this guitar sound bad. This pickup, in combination with the ash body and maple neck, just strikes the perfect balance between clean and dirty, light and heavy, and humbucker and single-coil.

When it comes to feel, the Frankenstein totally delivers. The unfinished maple neck is pleasantly beefy and its relatively flat radius and big frets make it easy to hammer, pull, bend, and just plain shred. And, because they did such a great job of relic-ing it, the neck feels old in the best sense: completely broken in and comfy.

Not everything was peachy with the Frankenstein Replica, however. Van Halen was known back in the day for his rattley Floyd Rose setup that featured a tremendous amount of play when you grab the bar. The EVH company got this aspect a little too right, because our test model showed up with the bar pretty much falling out of the body and needing tweaking before we could even think about divebombing. Likewise with the output jack, which would cut out intermittently until the intrepid Mr. Gold went into the control cavity with some electrical tape. The trem springs scraped against the body block if you depressed the bar all the way, creating a noise that was audible through an amp. And, lastly, the locking nut assembly needed to be tightened at the back of the headstock before the guitar would play in tune. Yikes. This would be unacceptable on a $250 guitar. But on an instrument that costs 100 times that price . . . I’m just saying.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is an expensive guitar. By his own admission, Van Halen spent about $150 to make the original, so if you want a single-pickup super-Strat, you can put together a really nice one and pocket the extra 24 large. But if you’re one of the millions of players who got their mind blown by this funky red, white, and black beauty, you owe it to yourself to track one of these things down and plug it in. It’s a thrilling, giddy experience that will have you grinning like a 13-year old kid in 1978.