It was 1978, Jimmy Carter was president, Elvis had been dead a year and “Help us Obi-Wan, you are our only hope” was echoing in our ears. Guitarists in the US were struggling to find an identity in the wash of punk, weak 70s rock, Led Zeppelin, and new wave all mixed together. Bands like the Clash, Ramones, and Sex Pistols battled against the Commodores and Donna Summer while the Eagles sang about the “Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air.” Disco was hugely popular, Saturday night fever still in theaters and the Yankees, behind Ron Guidry, Thurmon Munson and Billy Martin were poised to win their third pennant in a row.
Meanwhile, out on the Sunset Strip, in places like the Whiskey a Go GO and the Troubadour, 2 Dutch brothers, a Chicago born bassist and a crazy, black belt singer from Indiana released a seminal album that changed the face of electric guitar like no other since Jimi Hendrix and the Experience a decade earlier. Eddie Van Halen exploded on the LA scene with Van Halen I, the ten time platinum album with classics such as Running with the Devil, Ice Cream Man, Ain’t Talkin’ About Love and the indispensable instrumental, Eruption. The guitar EVH chose to create this masterpiece was an early superstrat known as Frankenstein.
Fender Music had created the Stratocaster in 1954 and along with the Gibson Les Paul, helped shape most of the popular music we have ever heard. Both guitars had different scale lengths (the span of the string from the nut to the bridge) and the Fender’s 25.5 inch scale gave the strings a snap that didn’t exist on Gibson’s shorter 24.75 inch scale. Les Paul’s were also notoriously difficult to play fast high on the neck and the pyrotechnical Van Halen flew on the strat profile which allowed access to the highest notes with ease.
The body and neck for the Frankenstrat were made by a young Wayne Charvel who will be heard from again on this blog. The body is northern ash and was purchased as a second because of a blemish in the wood which explains the color choices Eddie made. The maple neck had a slightly asymmetrical profile (the shape “behind” the fingerboard) which was not intended and was probably due to imperfect shaping at the finishing stage of production. The entire purchase for the neck and the body was $130.
The original strat has some issues when it came to heavy rock, the amplifier gain made Stratocaster pickups (which make guitar amplification possible) very noisy, even when not playing. The magnetic field the “single-coil” pickups produced picked up radio/electrical interference and made a mess of a player’s sound if they didn’t play clean. Eddie was one of the dirtiest players around and employed multiple methods to increase his distortion including a variac to lower amp line voltages while driving his Marshall Super Lead amps to their limits, leaving the gain and volume pegged. This was not possible with pickups Fender offered.
Gibson, while having not the optimal scale length for Eddie, did make a pickup that took 2 single coil pickups, and put them together with opposite magnetic poles to cancel the hum. The humbucker was invented in 1934 but it took until 1955, with the assistance of Seth Lover at Gibson, before the PAF (patent applied for) humbucker was born. This was the pickup that Eddie (and lots of other players), stuffed into the bridge position of their strats, creating the hybrid of Les Paul humbucker with strat scale and pow, the superstrat was born. This innovation drove virtuosity and graced players with a platform that would accelerate technique to absurd levels in the 1980s and beyond. There is speculation that not only did Van Halen popularize the superstrat, he invented it but that is hard to prove out.
After adding a Fender tremolo system (a whammy bar), Eddie finished the original Frankstrat first with black spray print then taped the body up with masking tape, and sprayed the guitar again with white giving us the iconic guitar gracing the cover of the band’s first album (capped above). This guitar, with the original Charvel neck, is on every one of the first four Van Halen albums, the golden era of Van Halen, in my opinion. By far his favorite guitar, Eddie decorated and altered the appearance over the course of his career before moving it into storage. He uses his EVH Wolfgang models and one of the 250 near perfect replicas of Frankenstein made by Fender when he tours today. The replicas, mind you, retailed for $25,000 US and sold out before a single one left the building. One hangs in the National Museum of American History to show the impact this guitar and its’ creator had on popular culture. Please take a look at this exceptional article on Eddie’s guitar which goes into far more detail than I have done here.
After AC/DC’s Back in Black, no album impacted my being a guitarist more than Van Halen I. Even though it came out in ’78, I didn’t discover it until 1980, I was 12 and headed into Junior High (middle school these days). I listened on vinyl, on a tiny little speaker and I must have listened 100 times that summer. How did he do it? My fingers felt useless, to pick that fast was impossible and Eddie’s popularization of fingerboard tapping (using both hands on the fingerboard at the same time) just made it worse. There was no youtube, no fancy equipment to recreate your hero’s sound, no tablature or music charts. Just luck, persistence with a record needle and some kind of amplified distortion. I can play parts of Eruption, not the whole thing but it’s on my bucket list. By now I bet I’ve heard it 2,500 times and I’ve never skipped that song once, ever. Make that 2,501 times. Eddie was a God in those days. From 1979 to 1989, he won Guitar Player magazine’s reader’s poll for guitarist of the year 9 out of 10 years. We loved him. My favorite song on VH I is Atomic Punk, after Eruption of course, for it’s innovative intro which leveraged a heavily distorted guitar with flanging (swooshing sound for lack of a batter way to say it) and timeless (seriously) lyrics.
Along with Clapton, Beck, Hendrix and Page, Eddie was and still is among the pantheon of guitarists world wide and remained top dog from 1978 until 1984 when a young Swede named Yngwie released an album called Rising Force. More on that next time, thanks for stopping by.
KSK January 2017