"I was playing an ES-335 before we got signed, but the guys said, 'Come on, you look like Roy Orbison' – this little punk kid playing a Ted Nugent axe": Why Eddie Van Halen left Gibson's famed semi-hollow behind, and how he would've built his ideal ES-335

(left) Eddie Van Halen performs onstage, a Gibson ES-335 guitar
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images, Future)

Eddie Van Halen is synonymous with the hot-rodded, Strat-shaped electric guitars he built for himself starting from the earliest days of Van Halen. 

Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine a young Van Halen without one of those impossibly cool custom creations – be it the “Bumblebee,” his “Shark” Ibanez Destroyer, or, of course, the Frankenstein.

Prior to all that, though, one of Van Halen's go-to six-strings was, of all things, a Gibson ES-335. Though Van Halen himself liked the semi-hollow just fine, it's hard to picture the man who was largely responsible for the Superstrat template that took over the guitar universe in the '80s wielding Gibson's stately semi-hollow.

Though they couldn't have possibly foreseen the Superstrat revolution, Van Halen's bandmates also couldn't really see their guitarist as an ES-335 man.

“I was playing a 335 for a while before we got signed, and it sounded fine,” Van Halen explained in a 1980 Guitar Player interview. “But, the other guys would go, 'Come on, you look like Roy Orbison.' Really, here's this little skinny punk kid playing a Ted Nugent axe, you know. They said, 'You're rock and roll – you ain't Roy Orbison. Either get some dark glasses or get rid of the guitar.' So I dumped that and started playing a Les Paul again.”

Eddie Van Halen plays a mini Les Paul onstage at the Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan on April 6, 1984

Eddie Van Halen plays a mini Les Paul onstage at the Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan on April 6, 1984 (Image credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images)

That said, Van Halen, in the same interview, also expressed his desire to put together an ES-335 more suited to his needs, and style. 

“What I would like is a 335 to fit my body, and maybe not [be] quite as hollow as some 335s. I'd like a solid beam all the way to the back of the wood in there. The one I have now locks a little bit of tone – it's too acoustically toned, too hollow.”

Asked if he would put a vibrato bar on this theoretical ES-335, the late guitar legend replied in the affirmative.

“I love 335s – I can haul ass on those things,” Van Halen explained. “When I pick up a stock 335, you probably wouldn't even recognize my playing, It's more jazzy, more fluid and fast – kind of like Allan Holdsworth. One of the reasons I started using a vibrato was that my playing got so fast it was just too much. So now I break it up a little bit, It's like a race car racing down the road and then crashing every now and then.”

Jackson Maxwell
Associate Editor, GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.

With contributions from