It’s impossible to think about iconic guitar heroes without thinking about the tools they used to ply their trade. Whether it’s Hendrix and his white Strat, or Jimmy Page and his ’59 ’burst, there is an inextricable link between the player and his or her gear.
But most guitar heroes played instruments they bought right off the rack—notable exceptions being an inventor named Les and a professor named May. Sure, they may have modded them, and made them do things they weren’t designed to do, but, when push comes to shove, Hendrix played a Strat and Page played a Les Paul.
When the first Van Halen record came out in 1978, however, the world was exposed to not just another philosophy on guitar playing— one rooted in dazzling, high-energy future blues from Mars—but a whole new take on equipment. The guy whose name was on the album, Edward Van Halen, was playing a guitar that looked at once familiar and never before seen. GP covered this watershed moment in its July 1999 issue, paraphrased here:
“To say that Van Halen’s playing was influential is an almost laughable understatement. It’s easy to forget, however, how much he changed the guitar-making industry. Almost overnight, music stores were filled with single-humbucker, Strat-shaped guitars—many of which sported outrageous graphics. Most of these super-Strats featured larger frets, as well as double-locking trem systems for VH-approved divebombs. Van Halen explained how he arrived at the design of his game-changing ax: ‘I was just a punk kid, trying to get a sound out of a guitar that I couldn’t get off the rack, so I built one myself.’”
What happened to the guitar universe after VH hit the scene was nothing short of a revolution. Every player, producer, pop artist, and manufacturer wanted to grab a piece of that magic. The guitar was half the battle, but it obviously had to be plugged into something, and people chased after the audio component as much as the visual. His tone was characterized by ringing harmonics, a brilliant top end, and a huge crunch that somehow never lost its dimension or openness. There was a tremendous amount of voodoo, folklore, and flat-out disinformation surrounding Van Halen’s amps—which only served to further the mystique, making “what Eddie uses” the rock dude’s be-all-and-end-all tonal Holy Grail.
Just as guitarists were starting to figure out some of the nuts and bolts of the VH machine, Mr. VH would throw them a curve (case in point: painting his black-and-white guitar red all over). He would go on to change guitar companies completely, endorsing Kramer guitars, teaming up with Ernie Ball/Music Man to design a guitar, and partnering with Peavey on guitars and a wildly popular amp.
All this is evidence of the fact that Edward Van Halen doesn’t stay in the same place long. He’s constantly searching in his music, and in the tools he uses to create that music. A few years ago, that journey led him to collaborate with Fender to launch his very own brand: EVH.
Van Halen and his team set about delivering an unbelievably realistic, anatomically correct replica of his famous Frankenstein guitar, as well as an all-new amp design: the fire-breathing 3-channel 5150 III (both reviewed in the April 2008 GP). All EVH products go through what you might call “rigorous” testing—such as turning a 100- watt prototype all the way up, setting a guitar in front of it to feed back, and letting it do so for a month. (True story, and the amp survived. Don’t try this at home. Even if it doesn’t void your warranty, it will probably get you thrown in jail.) Guitars were taken on the road, and put through their paces before being signed off on— literally. The EVH office wall is lined with instruments with lines scrawled on them, such as, “This is the one—make all necks like this,” with the man’s autograph below. Nothing says “EVH” until EVH says so.
While EVH headquarters are in Scottsdale, Arizona, the brand’s U.S. manufacturing facility is housed within the Fender offices in Corona, California. To get there, you have to walk past a ton of office and factory space devoted to the creation of Fender, Jackson, Charvel, Gretsch, and Guild instruments, which is, in itself, a fascinating experience. As you turn down the last hallway, you see a red, white, and black striped work area, and that’s where a VH fan’s “Eddie sense” starts tingling. In that space resides a bunch of Van Halen memorabilia, including the first Frankenstein replica, a Van Halen IIstyle body with yellow stripes on a black background, the actual instrument from the “Unchained” video, and various Wolfgang prototypes. It’s there that we met with the EVH design and support team: Mike Ulrich, Chip Ellis, Chris Cannella, Matt Bruck, and Keith Chapman, who talked about how and why they do what they do