Eddie Van Halen: The Complete 1979 Interview

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    To outsiders, Eddie Van Halen seemed to be sitting on top of the world in December 1979. The first two Van Halen albums had gone platinum, the band had just wrapped up a massive world tour, and he’d been widely proclaimed one of the best – if not the best – guitarist in rock and roll. But behind the scenes Eddie had rapidly discovered that fame had its price. He was irritated with manufacturers who’d cloned his trademark guitar, with big-name players copping his techniques, and with journalists misrepresenting his words.

    A few days after recording the third Van Halen album, Women and Children First, Eddie called me at home to see how I was doing. When I mentioned I was working on a Guitar Player magazine article on do-it-yourself guitar kits, he volunteered to give me his insights into building guitars. Naturally, I accepted – after all, he was largely responsible for the trend’s popularity. Two days later, on December 29, 1979, we had that conversation. Here, for the first time, is a complete transcript. Eddie offers a wealth of insight into his homemade guitars, as well as his feelings about some of the harder lessons he’d learned on and off the road.

    ***

    Hey, Eddie, how you doing?

    Oh, you know, feeling a bit zombied.

    That’s the way I was last night.

    [Laughs heartily.]

    I’d like to start by asking why did you start building your own guitar?

    See, actually I ruined a lot of old guitars. I just didn’t like the fact of having the standard rock-star setup – you know, a brand-new Les Paul and a Marshall. I was really into vibrato. Like when we used to play the high school dances and shit, I bought myself a ’58 Strat. But it’s only guitar and bass and drums, musically, and the rest of the guys just looked at me and said, “Hey, that thing sounds like hell!” [Laughs.] You know, single-coil pickups, they sound real buzzy, thin. It wasn’t enough sound to fill it up. So the reason I started dickin’ around that way is I wanted a Gibson-type of sound, but with a Strat vibrato. So I stuck a humbucking pickup in a Strat, and it worked okay, but it didn’t get good enough tone because Fenders are kind of cheap wood – they’re made out of alder or something. So then I found out about Charvel, but I’m suing them right now.

    Didn’t they go out of business?

    No, no. Not at all. It’s actually my guitar design that’s keeping them in business. See, Wayne [Charvel] sold it to a guy named Grover Jackson, and Wayne was a real cool dude. When he owned it, I was considering endorsing it. And then this Grover Jackson dude took over, and he’s just sold so many of them for like a grand apiece.

    Are these Eddie Van Halen model guitars?

    Yeah!

    No kidding.

    No kidding! It’s not like I want the money. It’s like the reason I did that – I mean, it looks like a Strat, but it only has one pickup in it, one volume knob, no tone, no fancy garbage. It’s painted the way I like ’em, and it’s rear-loaded – you know, it doesn’t have a pickguard. I’m not saying it’s “Wow, the new guitar,” but it is a guitar that you could not at the time buy on the market. So he kind of exploited my idea, so I’m suing him. See, I feel kind of fucked doing that, but all I want him to do is to stop. I don’t give a damn about the money. But the main reason I did that [built my own guitar] was to have something that no one else had. You know, I wanted it to be my guitar, an extension of myself. Just the other night – Christmas Eve – I went to the Whisky. A band called the Weasels was playing, and the lead guitarist had a guitar exactly like mine. I just don’t understand how someone could walk onstage with my guitar, because it is my trademark. You know, when people see a freaked-out striped guitar like that, with one pickup and one volume knob, they obviously know it’s mine.

    There goes your identity.

    Yeah. And also, him selling it and advertising, makes it seem to the fans that I’m selling myself. They don’t know that I’m against it. They think that I’m out for the bucks. That’s not it at all. So it’s kind of a drag. There’s another guy too . . . . See, I’ve rewound my own pickups before, and a guy named Seymour Duncan – you probably know him – I I got pissed at him too. He called me up and said, “Can we use your name for a special pickup?” And I said no. Next time I pick up Guitar Player magazine, there’s a special Van Halen model customized Duncan pickup. So I called him up and said, “What the hell’s goin’ on?” So he stopped, finally. It’s just kind of weird, you know.

    You’re getting exploited.

    Yeah. Just say something like.

    Where’s a good place to go for guitar parts?

    There’s a lot of different companies where you could buy parts. DiMarzio makes parts, Mighty Mite, Charvel. The main person who I buy parts from now is a guy up in Seattle named Lynn Ellsworth. He makes Boogie Bodies. He’s a nice guy.

    How many guitars have you made now?

    Let’s see. Two, three, four, five – about seven.

    And how many are part of your act?

    See, what I do mainly is I use one a year. Like the first year, supporting the first album, I used the black-and-white-striped one. That was actually the original. It was not rear-loaded. It had a pickguard which I cut out myself, and it had an old Gibson P.A.F. The thing I always do to the pickups is I pot them. You dip them in paraffin wax, which cuts out the high, obnoxious feedback. It’s kind of a tricky thing, because if you leave it in there too long, the pickup melts [laughs].

    You just heat up some paraffin at home and stick the pickup in it?

    Oh, yeah. You just take a coffee can and use the same kind of wax that you use to wax a surfboard. You just melt it down, put the pickup in it. See, the reason the pickup feeds back is the coil windings vibrate. And when the wax soaks in there, it keeps it from vibrating. It still feeds back, but it’s controllable. It’s like it feeds back when you want it. It doesn’t cut out feedback totally; it just gets rid of that real high squeal, like a microphone feeding back.

    And you used a Gibson P.A.F. or a copy of one?

    A Gibson.

    Is that the guitar you had when I did the first [1978] Guitar Player story on you?

    Yeah.

    That’s not the one that had the chain in it.

    You mean the – what do you call those things?

    You had one that you cut with a chainsaw . . .

    Yeah, yeah. That was originally an Ibanez Destroyer, and it was one of the original ones, which are actually as good or better than the original Gibsons, because they’re made out of korrina wood, which is real rare, hard-to-work-with wood. It’s real light wood, but real toney. Ibanez stopped making them out of that wood, probably because it’s too hard to work with. They started making them out of ash, and those are turkeys.

    Where did you go for the hardware for your Strat-style guitar?

    Well, it was actually the old ’58 Strat. I took the vibrato tailpiece out – I guess that’s about it. Yeah, I took that out. Like new Fenders, the vibrato tailpiece isn’t half as good as the original old ones. So I took that out of the ’58 and went to Charvel and bought a heavier piece of wood. And I really like wide necks – you know, I hate skinny necks. I like them real wide, almost like a classical guitar. You know, they’re flat and wide. They’re thin . . . I don’t know how to explain it. I mean, they’re real wide up and down, but thin the other way.

    So it’s wide across the fingerboard, but it’s a thin neck.

    Right, right.

    You got the neck at Charvel too?

    Yeah.

    Was that a maple neck?

    Yeah. And also I don’t like ’em sprayed. I hate the lacquer shit.

    Do you put oil on it?

    No, nothin’. Just bare wood. Because I like to feel the wood, you know? I hate to slip and slide. You start sweatin’, and you can’t stretch the strings.

    How long did it take to make your first guitar?

    Not really too long, but it took me a while to build up to doing that. Like I used to have an old [Gibson ES-] 335, which if I didn’t ruin would be worth a lot of money right now. I refret them myself. I do just about everything. By trial and error, I’m pretty good at it now. But I’ve ruined a lot of good stuff learning.

    Did you make a different  guitar for your second album and tour?

    Yeah. Well, see, it was my idea to have it rear-loaded, so it wouldn’t have a pickguard. Charvel routed it for me, because at the time I couldn’t afford a router. So they claim that they built it for me, which is actually bullshit. You know, all they did was that did what I told them to do. That’s the guitar on the second album cover.

    What kind of electronics went into that one?

    The pickup that’s on the picture is not really what I used. It’s like when we did the photo session for the album cover, I’d just finished painting it and slapping it together, and I just stuck some garbage pickup in there I wasn’t actually playing, just so it would look like a complete guitar. But I’ve tried a bunch of different pickups in there. I took the pickup out of the first one and put it in there, and it didn’t sound too good. So what I did is I took a DiMarzio pickup – I don’t really go for those, because they’re real distorted. See, I like a clean sound, but with sustain. I hate the fuzz-box, real raspy sound. I don’t particularly go for that.

    It’s old now.

    Yeah. DiMarzio pickups have real big magnets – that’s how they get their power – so what I did is I took a DiMarzio pickup and put the P.A.F. magnet in it and I rewound it, which took a long time.

    You did that by hand?

    Yeah. It took a long time to rewind that thing. Actually, I ruined about three pickups. By the fourth time, you know, it worked.

    Did you have an idea of how many windings you wanted?

    Uh, just by sight.

    Did you use fresh wire?

    Yeah. See, I’ve done something else too before – I put two Strat pickups together and added more windings to make a humbucking out of it.

    Did that work?

    Uh, it got kind of an interesting tone. It sounded like a heavy-duty Telecaster.

    Sharp edged?

    Actually, it was kind of bassy, but it didn’t have the bite. It had kind of a unique sound, but it was not something that I could use.

    What other pickups did you try?

    That’s about it. I’d do anything to get an old P.A.F. They’re the best. They go for 100, 200 bucks apiece, but that’s what I use, that’s what I like. A lot of people don’t like ’em. See, with my setup, it’s matched. Like if I play my guitar through someone else’s setup, it won’t sound right. And if I use someone else’s guitar through my setup, it won’t sound right.

    So what pickup did you finally end up putting in it?

    A DiMarzio with a P.A.F. magnet, rewound with copper tape around the windings.

    And then dipped in paraffin?

    Yeah. Well, I dipped it in paraffin before I put the copper tape on. But DiMarzio plastic is real cheap. I mean, you have to really be careful. It looks like a wrinkled prune, actually, but it still works [laughs]. It’s real cheap stuff. But old P.A.F.s, you can just throw them in there and let them soak it up. Doesn’t matter how hot it gets – doesn’t melt. But DiMarzios, God! If you blink, all of a sudden your pickup’s ruined.

     So you dip the entire pickup and casing into wax?

    Yeah, the whole thing submerged in paraffin wax.

     How many pickups are on the second guitar?

    Actually, this year, supporting the second album, I used two guitars. One of them was the original guitar from the first year. And because Charvel started copying them, I said, “What the fuck, man. I better change it.” So what I did is I really went to town painting it all freaked out, and I put three pickups back in. But they didn’t work – only the rear one worked. But I did it just because they copped my original idea. I did it just to be different again, so every kid who bought one like the model I had last year would go, “Oh, man! He’s got something different again.” [Laughs.] Well, you know, I always like to turn the corner on people when they start latching on to what I’m doing. I never really imagined that people would do something like that. I just kind of fell into this whole business. I’m just a punk kid, trying to get a sound out of a guitar that I couldn’t off the rack, so I built one myself, and now everyone else wants one.

    So you’ve got to keep going for the individualistic stuff.

    Yeah!

    So the first guitar now has three pickups, and the second one has one or two?

    One.

    Have you built any since then?

    Okay. I bought a couple of necks from Boogie Bodies, which I refretted with larger frets.

    Like Gibson Jumbos?

    I guess. I’m pretty sure they’re Gibsons. I don’t know. The way people do fret jobs, I hate. I do it real simple. I just sand it down with some 400 wet or dry – that dark stuff – and then I just use some steel wool. I like real rounded frets. I hate them flat, you know, like the old Les Paul Custom “fretless wonders” or whatever you used to call them – I couldn’t stand those, because the intonation’s off. The more a fret comes to a peak, the more precise the intonation is. The more fret space you have that the string rests on, the harder it is for it to be right on. So what I do is I sand them and build them up to a point, instead of being flat. Most fret jobs, they file them flat, and they do them individually, which I think is kind of a stupid way to do it, because if they do them one by one, then how do you know they’re all even? I don’t know if it’s a weird way of doing it, but I just do it a real simple, cheap way. But it works for me.

    Have you put any of these necks onto bodies yet?

    Oh, yeah. Okay, another thing. There’s this guy named Floyd Rose. I have a vibrato setup that he makes, and I like it and I don’t. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Like in the studio, I use a standard vibrato, a Fender. I’m used to it.

    The one off the ’58?

    Yeah. I’m real used to it. People go, “Oh, wow, how do you keep it in tune?” Well, it’s actually a totally different technique. I mean, there are special tricks that I know to keep it in tune, but it still goes out of tune. You have to play with it. If you bring the bar down, the G and the B string always go sharp when you let it back. So what you have to do before you hit a barre chord, you gotta stretch those strings back – a real quick little jerk, and it’ll pop back right to where it was. But it’s totally different than playing a Les Paul. A lot of kids, they go, “Hey, how do you keep it in tune?” and they pick up a guitar and just go crazy on that bar.

    It takes a lot of finesse.

    It’s just a totally different technique. That vibrato thing is actually like another instrument. You’ve got to know how to use it. You can’t just grab it, jerk the thing, and expect it to stay in tune. The Floyd Rose thing is a real good idea. My brother actually had the exact same idea years ago. He had the exact same idea. He said, “Ed, why don’t you do this – clamp it down here and there, and there’s no way it will go out of tune.” But I just kind of passed it off. I go, “Yeah, right.” Because I don’t have a machine shop, I couldn’t build it. So Floyd pursued it, and he’s got a hot item. But it has disadvantages too, because I tune a lot while I’m playing. I’ll hit a chord and tune it while I’m playing. With this thing, you can’t. You have to unclamp it and then tune it.

    Does the Floyd Rose keep the strings in tune as much as players claim?

    Okay. It’s hard to get in tune perfectly. Well, I mean, any guitar. A guitar is just theoretically built wrong. Each string is an interval of fourths, and then the B string is off. Theoretically, it’s not right. Like if you tune an open-E chord in the first position and it’s perfectly in tune, and then you hit a barre chord an octave higher, it’s out of tune. The B string is always a motherfucker to keep in tune all the time! So I have to retune for certain songs. And when I use the Floyd onstage, I have to unclamp it and do it real quick. But with a standard-vibrato guitar, I can tune it while I’m playing.

    How do you set up the intonation on your homemade guitar?Do you have to take it to somebody?

    No, I actually pretty much do it by ear. It’s not that hard. You just hit the – what do you call it?

                Harmonic?

    The [12th fret] harmonic and then hit the [open] note, and it’s obvious if it’s off. So you just have to have an ear for it. I got pretty good ears, I guess.

    Do you do for brass hardware?

    No.

    Why?

    Because it’s too brittle sounding. See, that’s the thing I was getting to also. I like the sound I get out of the normal old Fender tremolo. The only thing I don’t like about the Floyd Rose thing – it’s a great idea, you can go crazy with the bar – but I don’t know what kind of metal he uses, but it sounds real brittle-bright. I have to do some heavy equalization to get a tone out of it. That’s why I don’t use it in the studio. Because in the studio, Ted [Templeman] really doesn’t do much equalization. We just go in there and play live, and I depend on making it sound good out of the amp, instead of, “Oh, well. Fix it in the mix.” That’s why it also goes so quick. We just finished recording our third album in six days. We finished about a week ago. Well, we finished the music in six days. We just go in there and play live. I mean, how long does that take?

    You mentioned that you had 21 songs the last time you went into the studio for the second album. Did you use any of them for the third?

    No.

    All new ones?

    Yeah. You know, it’s weird: I like to be excited too. I think you’ll kind of trip off the next album. It’s hard rock.

    Any instrumentals?

    Let me see. [Pause.] Yeah, there’s a thing on there, a real weird vibrato noise. It actually sounds like an airplane starting. Dave wanted to call it “Tora Tora” [laughs]. I wanted to call it “Act Like It Hurts.” We haven’t decided. It’s kind of a trippy album. I like it. I think you’ll have to listen to it a couple of times. It’s a little bit different than the past.

    You should be getting ready for a live album after this one.

    Well, I look at it this way: Our studio albums are like live albums. They are live! I don’t do any overdubs. I solo on the basic track. One song I want to tell you about, because if you hear it, you might not even notice. I play an electric piano. It’s called “And the Cradle Will Rock.” The name of the new album is Women And Children First. [Laughs.] I played a Wurlitzer electric piano through my Marshall stacks, and it sounds like my guitar!

    I’ve never heard of someone doing that.

    Wait ’til you hear it! I play it for people, and I have to tell them that’s a piano. And they go, “What?!” It sounds real good. It’s real simple. You know, I’ve been trained on classical piano since I was six years old, but it doesn’t show. [Laughs.] You know, it’s nothing tasteful. I just picked the thing up and started banging on it. Wait ’til you hear this noise on it; it’s tripped out!

    Did the piano go through any effects?

    Just my pedalboard, my cheap piece of plywood with my MXR garbage. You know, that’s funny too. I’ve met just about everybody that I grew up on, and they all laugh – you know, like Montrose and Nugent and all these people. Last year when we’d open for them, they’d walk up to me and go, “What is this shit?” You know, I got my little plywood with an MXR phase shifter duct-taped onto it. And then after the show they start trippin’. They go [in a quiet, respectful voice], “Whoa! How do you get that sound?” I really think it’s funny. I see Ronnie Montrose with his $4,000 studio rack with his digital delay and his harmonizer and everything else, and I swear to God, I can’t tell he’s usin’ it. And then he laughed himself silly looking at my stuff. And then later on he’s going, “Whoa, how do you get that sound?” And Nugent, we opened three shows for him in Maryland, and the first day he’s just kind of saying, “You little fucker, you” – but he meant it jokingly. And he laughed: “What is this garbage pedalboard you’re using?” By the third day, he came to our soundcheck and asked me if he could play through my equipment. I just said, “Hey, Ted, you can play through it if you want, but it’s not gonna sound the way it sounds when I play through it.” Because it really isn’t the equipment. It’s in the fingers. Not to sound egoed-out, but it is.

    You use techniques they don’t use.

    And I’ve gone through every amp on the market. I mean, first tour I started out using my old 100-watt amp, which breaks down every other song, so I started using new Marshalls. I didn’t like they way they sounded, but I had to. I just had to have something that would make it through the show. Then I lost them somewhere on an airplane, never got them back. And I started using Music Mans. I used Laneys. I used just about everything, and they all pretty much sounded the same, just because I play the same.

    What did you finally settle with?

    Well, in the studio I use my old Marshall, which gets a slightly different sound. Live I use new Marshalls, but I do little tricks to them too.

    Like overdriving them with a Variac?

    Yeah. I don’t even use fuses in my amps. See, okay, I use a combination of two different amps. They’re both Marshalls, but one of them is actually lower-powered and the other one is boosted. I use them together. Like one of them has this giant capacitor – I don’t know what they’re used for, but it takes off ten volts. It doesn’t really change the sound, but whatever I use, I use to the max. I just turn it all the way up. And a standard, on-the-market amp won’t last that long doing that. So I put this capacitor in there, which lowers it down to about 100. I mean, a Marshall is under-rated. They’re actually like 150 watts, even though they say that they’re a 100-watt amp. So I lower it about ten volts, and it lasts a little longer. I still have to retube them once a week.

    Do you lose many of them during shows?

    Uh, yeah. But I have so many of them. I use between twelve and fifteen.

    How many are switched on?

    Usually six at a time. Depends on the size of the place I’m playing. I mean, I can actually play so loud onstage that you won’t hear anything else. But I don’t really like to do that. I like to get balanced sound. Actually, they’re all on, and I have this footswitch where if one blows out, I just kick the switch and it changes to another one. It’s like a bypass switch. When you click it on, the other amp comes in. It’s simple, you know. It’s all basement stuff. I mean, everything we do, we do ourselves in the basement.

    It’s funny how far people will go trying to duplicate your sound.

    Yeah.

    Going back to your guitars, have you built any new ones?

    Yeah, I was just getting to that. I had a mahogany body made by Boogie Bodies.

    Strat-style?

    Yeah. It fits me, because I’m small. It just feels good on me. I had it made like two-and-a-half inches thick, which is thicker than a Les Paul.

    For the sound?

    Yeah, because it’s got a Floyd Rose tailpiece on it, which gets such a thin sound. I thought that maybe if I got a chunky piece of wood, it would make up for the tinkiness of the sound. But, ehh. Well, it works a little bit.

    What kind of hardware did you put in it?

    It has an old Gibson P.A.F. in it and just one volume knob.

    These are old Gibson P.A.F.’s?

    Oh, yeah.

    Did you use Schaller tuning heads?

    Yeah. They’re about the best kind, I guess.

    What other electronics are in it?

    Well, the wire from the pickup to the pot. That’s it. It’s real simple. That’s what’s so funny. I mean, everything I do is simple. That’s why people trip, because everyone tries to do the cosmic trip – you know, like the more complicated, the better. “Look at this guitar, man, it’s got fifteen phase switches on it!” Who gives a fuck? I just use raw power.

    How much time do you spend putting them together?

    I’m pretty quick at it now. I don’t know. I spend an hour or two.

    How do you finish them?

    Well, this one I haven’t painted yet. I use Schwinn bicycle paint. It’s acrylic lacquer, like car paint. It’s good paint.

    Do you still tape it to get the stripes?

    Yeah. I love stripes.

    Are you building any other ones?

    No, not really. I’ve got so many guitars now I don’t know which one to play. There’s a guitar I want made, but I don’t know who I want to have build it, see, because I love 335s. I mean, I can haul ass on those things. When I pick up a 335, you probably wouldn’t even recognize my playing. There’s no vibrato, and I just play totally different. It’s more jazzy, more fluid-fast. Kind of like Holdsworth. That’s another reason I actually started using a vibrato, because I started playing so fast that it lacked . . . . It was just too much – daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily, like that. So what I do now is go, daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily, waaahh-waaah-waaah, daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily, waaahh-waaah. [Laughs.] You know, to break it up a little bit. It’s like a race car racing down the road, and then crashing every now and then. And with the bar, I really don’t have special chops down with it. I just grab it when I feel like it. I like it because I can get more feeling out of it. When I grab it, that’s what I feel.

    What’s the hardest part of building a guitar from scratch?

    Making the neck fit the body. Another problem with a Gibson pickup, or any humbucking-style pickup, is that the bridge on a Stratocaster is wider than a Gibson, so the strings don’t line up with the pickup poles. I’ve tried slanting the pickup, the double-poled humbucking, so one of them would pick it up if the other one didn’t. If you slant it, the high E would be picked up by the front pole, and the low E would be picked up by the rear pole, whereas if it were straight, the high E and the low E would lose power.

    Which way do you tilt it?

    The bottom part to it is towards the bridge. To me, for the sound I like, it’s also important to do the space between the bridge and pickup almost like a Les Paul. The pickup placement has a lot to do with how it’s gonna sound. If you put it up too far, you get the Grand Funk-Johnny Winter tone. And if you put it too close to the bridge, you get a real trebly Strat-like sound. So I move it up a little bit from the Strat sound to get a little beefier tone.

    Describe your ideal guitar.

    Pretty much what I have. That’s the main thing that pissed me off about Charvel, because I spent 150 bucks building my own guitar. Well, maybe a little more because of the bicycle paint. The painting is the most involved thing. If you want it to come out good, you have to spray it and then let it dry overnight. And then wet-sand it, spray it again. You have to do that about six times. The more coats you put on and wet-sand it, the more shiny, the more glossy it looks. Sometimes I just get fed up and go, “What the hell. Who cares what it looks like?” The original guitar, which I repainted and put three pickups back in, I painted in about two hours.

    When you say it costs $150 to make one, are you just speaking about the wood?

    Yeah, and to buy the parts. It doesn’t include the pickups. I have so many parts that I just kind of take something out of something else and put it in.

    Do you want me to find you a source for vintage P.A.F. pickups?

    That’d be great. See, another thing, if you do find them, I’ll give you the money and you buy it. If they know they’re for me, they’ll jack up the price. There’s a place called House of Guitars or something – this is when we were touring with Black Sabbath – and Tony Iommi goes in there. And they just racked up the price unbelievable. They figured, hey, rock star, he’s got a lot of money. I was smart, and I had my roadie go in and get a price list. They didn’t know that I knew the price list, so I walked in with it, and I go, “How much do you want for this?” And they quoted me a price a grand above what it said on the paper. I said, “Wait a minute, man, it says right here that it’s . . . .” And they said, “Oh, oh, oh,” and tried to make excuses. I hate dealing with people like that. That’s another reason why I build my own. I also did buy two old Les Pauls, just actually for an investment, because I don’t play them.

    Gold-tops?

    No. I bought a ’59 Les Paul Standard, which is a beautiful guitar – I don’t even want to tell you how much I paid for it. For the person who wants it, the price doesn’t matter. Like other people will say, “Oh, what a fool. You got ripped off.” I spent ten grand on both of them, but they’re beautiful guitars. I got them from a guy named Norman Harris. This stuff wasn’t even in his shop; it’s so nice, he was afraid to let any punk kid touch it. One has a beautiful flame maple top. Right now I’m trying to figure out where to keep them, because when we played the Forum – we ended our tour at the Forum – my mom and dad came. And when my mom came home, the house got ripped off for about twenty gold and platinum albums. Which is real fucked, because playing the Forum is like a dream come true. I’ve seen everyone play there. It was a hell of an event for me, and then I come home and the back door is smashed in and all the records are gone.

    You should rent someplace where you can store things.

    Yeah. It’s such a drag. To tell you the truth, I’m not into the star bullshit at all.

    Gets old fast, doesn’t it, Eddie?

    Yeah. I mean, a lot of people get off on it. They let their hair grow, buy a Les Paul and a Marshall, and be a rock and roll star. I don’t even consider myself a rock star. I enjoy playing guitar, period.

    They’re working your band a lot.

    No, we’re working our band a lot. That’s what we want. The only thing that sells us is our live show. Actually, everything we do is the complete reverse of other people. We applied all we ever knew, which was our live show. We never knew much about recording, overdubbing. That’s why when we did our first album, I said, “Hey, Ted, I’ve never done overdubs.” Just the thought of playing to a machine, to me, would lose feel. So I said, “Can I just play live?” You know, go for what you know. So I did, and Ted freaked out. He’s going, “Whoa! It doesn’t even need another guitar.” Because what we did was applied our live show, our live performance, to plastic, whereas people like Boston and Foreigner, they do it the opposite way. They work it out in the studio, and then when they have to go out on tour, they have to rehearse to make it happen live, and it’s obvious. With us, actually, there’s more mania and more feel and more excitement live, because that’s where it’s based. That’s where it comes from. I mean, that’s bottom line. The only thing that sells us is the live show. It’s not hype. I mean, we’re not new wave. They print more garbage about Elvis Costello and . . . you name it. You rarely see us.

    But musically, you’ve got these people beat.

    Yeah, I guess. I don’t really look at it competitively at all; I just enjoy what I do, period. And I really get off that people like it. Because when we did our first album, we just put on it what we liked. And for it to sell that many copies freaked me out!

    How many copies has it sold?

    It’s up to about four million now – between three and four.

    That album was in the charts for more than a year.

    It just popped backed in.

    When is your next one coming out?

    February.

    That’s a good way to start the 1980s.

    Yeah. And the touring is what does it. Okay, like say with Boston, you know. They’re known for a song. They’re known through the radio. You know, kids drive down the street and they hear that song, and it registers. And then they go, “Oh, Boston. Yeah! I know that song. Let’s go see them.” With us it’s different. They come and see us, half the time not even knowing who we are, and then go, “Whoa! I gotta buy the record.” When we first started touring, we were third bill. We opened for Ronnie Montrose and Journey. And within two months, they were begging us to stay.

    Do you make money on tours?

    Uh, we break even, because we put all our money into the sound system and lighting. We tour to sell the record.

    Will you be touring as much as you have been?

    Sure. This year will probably be the last ten-month world vacation. It’s the type of thing where I don’t want to turn out like a Foghat – you can always see Foghat, that type of thing. There’s got to be a little bit of mystique there. You gotta leave them wanting more. That was our whole philosophy last year’s tour. Like they were begging us to do another show at the Forum – we sold it out in an hour-and-a-half, and we just said no way. You know, build up to it. Take it step by step. All these promoters are trying to take advantage of you. They’re just thinking bucks right now. We’ll lose money just to build, as opposed to taking the money and running, you know.

    Is your music changing?

    Yes and no. It’s hard for me to say. Listen to the new album and call me up and let me know what you think.

    How about with your playing? Are you learning new things on guitar all the time?

    Yeah. Like if I sit down and play by myself, I play completely different than I would when I’m playing with the band sometimes. It’s hard to explain, really. It’s like I love Allan Holdsworth, and I can play like that, but it doesn’t fit to the music that we’re playing. I don’t know – I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just really go for feeling. All our albums have mistakes. Big deal! We’re human. It reeks of feeling, you know, and to me that’s what music is all about. Like Fleetwood Mac spent so much money and so much time [in the studio], and my thing is, if something is too perfect, it won’t phase you. It goes in one ear and out the other, because it’s so perfect. Our stuff, to me, keeps you on the edge of your seat. It builds tension. Whether you like it or not, it slaps you in the face.

    It’s “Ice Cream Man” when the electricity comes in.

    Yeah. It’s almost like you’re just waiting for us to blow it. You’re sitting on the edge of your seat, just waiting for something to go wrong. But it doesn’t, and that’s what creates that feel, that tension. It’s like winding something up and just waiting to see when it’s gonna break. It’s just inner feelings coming out. It’s not conscious. It’s just the way I am.

    You sure have a legion of followers.

    Yeah, that’s a trip. You know, it’s funny too. The things I do, like “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly” – I hate to say it, and it’s not hard to do, but I came up with it. Like Rick Derringer opened for us last year, and he did my exact solo. After the show, we’re sitting in the bar, and I said, “Hey, Rick. I grew up on your ass. How can you do this? I don’t care if you use the technique – don’t play my melody.” And he’s drunk and stupid and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The next night he does my solo again, and he ends the set with “You Really Got Me,” which is exactly what we do. So I hate to say it, but I just told him, “Hey, if you’re going to continue doing that, you ain’t opening for us.” So I kicked him off.

    Did he ever open for you again?

    No. But it’s fucked, you know, because I’ve seen him plenty of times. I’ve even copied his chops way back when. You know, [Johnny Winter’s] Still Alive and Well, stuff like that. And here’s a guy copping my stuff. It’s pretty weird. Tom Scholtz from Boston too. We played right before them – I forget where – and I do my solo. And then all of a sudden he does my solo. And it was real weird, because it was a daytime thing, and I was standing onstage and the whole crowd was looking at me like, “What’s this guy doing?” I was drunk, and I got pissed. Tom Scholtz is a real dick. He’s unsociable. He just thinks he’d God or something. He never comes around; he doesn’t say, “Hi.” He doesn’t do anything. He just kind of hides out, runs onstage and plays, and disappears afterwards. So I started talking to the other guitarist, and I told him, “Hey. Tell him I think he’s fucked!” I was real pissed, you know. Now I’m just raggin’ [laughs].

    Who are the players you really admire now?

    It’s funny. There’s two types of guitarists. Like Blackmore, I used to hate, because I met him once at the Rainbow with John Bonham when we were just playing clubs. You know, I grew up on him too, and I ran over and said hello, and they both just looked at me and said, “Who are you? Fuck off.” And it pissed me off. And to this day I remember that. And then just recently Rainbow played the Long Beach Arena. I went down there. This is right after I won Best Guitaristist [in the Guitar Player Readers Poll], which I’m real honored – makes me feel good. I went down there, in a way, with a vengeance, you know. I just felt like saying, “Hey, motherfucker, remember me? About three years ago, when you treated me like shit?” But I didn’t. I just said hello, and he knew me, I guess just through records and radio, and he complimented me.

    Do you know of Randy Hansen, the Hendrix imitator?

    Yeah.

    Randy opened for Ritchie Blackmore at the Oakland Auditorium, and Randy just kicked ass.

    That’s what happened when I saw him!

    I ran across Blackmore, standing there watching him too, and he just looked pale. That night after the show Blackmore reportedly said that he refused to let Randy open for him. They had two more gigs, so their managers switched the bill, and Blackmore opened for Hansen.

    Yeah, that’s what happened when I saw them! Ritchie, I guess, was so afraid that he’d blow him away that Ritchie played before Randy. And then Randy came on, and they just fucked him over – you know, equipment problems, power failures. When I talked to Randy afterwards, man, I just didn’t know how to make him feel better, because I know Randy pretty well. I just said, “Shit, man. The more people that hate you, the better you are.”

    Do you think so?

    Fuck yeah! The more musicians hate you – they’re jealous! The more they hate you, the better off you are, because the better you are. I mean, no other musician is gonna hate another guitarist if you’re no good. You’re no threat. But I don’t really think about that, because everybody can do their own thing, period. U.K. opened for us last year for a few shows. And I never heard of the band U.K. Here we are in Reno, I’m sitting here tuning up, and all of a sudden [in a reverent voice], “Is that Bill Bruford? Whoa!” All of a sudden I got the chills. I was freakin’ out. All of sudden Allan Holdsworth walks in. I’m going, “My God! These guys are opening for us? These guys are veterans!” I mean, they’ve been through it. They played before us, and they bombed. People hated them. But I’m standing there with tears in my eyes, just getting off, trippin’. It was so good. But it’s like they’re artists – “I’m playing my art, and I don’t care if you like it or not” – that type of thing, which I think is a real bad attitude. Music is for people. It’s not for yourself. If it is, sit in your room and play it. But if you’re gonna play it for people, you better play something that they’re gonna want to hear, instead of walking up there and pretending like you’re so good and beyond your audience. That’s what they were doing, playing all this off-beat stuff, which to an average person sounds like mistakes. Even though because I’m a musician, I get off on it and like it and understand what they’re doing. But they bombed, and I couldn’t believe it.

    Any other revelations come to you on the road?

    Yeah. I hate doing interviews, because they always fuck me over. They always write things, they twist and bend what I say. Like Circus or Creem magazine, I do a phoner with them, and they go, “Oh, just off the record, what do you think of new wave?” And I’m such a stupid jerk, I’ll tell them what I really think. I’ll tell them, “They can’t play for shit. They sound like garage bands, but they have that feeling.” And the next thing I know, I pick up the magazine, and they print it. I hate doing interviews. I just can’t stand it. I just don’t feel I have anything to say, because if I really say what I feel, they’ll completely bend it and make me seem like I think I’m egoed out and that I’m God, you know. I did an interview once with Circus magazine, and they asked me, “Who are your main influences?” I said, “Well, Clapton, you know, the usuals.” And they said, “Oh, not Jimi Hendrix?” I go, “No, actually I didn’t like Jimi Hendrix at all. He was too flash for me. I get off on the bluesy feeling that Clapton projected,” but then I said, “even though I don’t play like Clapton or sound like him at all.” Which doesn’t sound egoed out, because I don’t sound like him. But when I read it back, they made it seem like, “I don’t play like Clapton. I’m better than all of them.” That’s the way it read in print. So I called the guy up. I just go, “Hey, fuck you, man! That’s the last time I’m doing an interview with you.” Which I guess is bad to do too, but the fucked thing is the kids only know me through what they read. I feel like going door to door and going, “Hey, this is bullshit. Don’t believe it.” But the kids do. I ain’t no extrovert. I’m a quiet person. That’s probably why I do all these weird things on guitar.

    I’ve heard that Jimi Hendrix was like that too.

    Yeah. There’s a lot of people who don’t know me who hate me, because they think I’m some egoed-out motherfucker, but I’m not at all. That’s just one thing that I never expected. Doing interviews – God! I remember once I did a radio interview in the beginning – and I’m not much of a talker, really. It was live on a Top-40 AM station. They’re all motor mouths – like Dave’s real good at it. You’re excited when you’re listening to him, but when you play the tape back, he actually didn’t say anything, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just excitement. I can’t do that. So here’s Dave motor mouth getting the guy all jazzed up, and then he turns to me and goes, “I understand you and your brother are from Amsterdam, Holland.” And I go, “Yeah.” That was it! Big long pause. I just wasn’t ready for a big long story: “Oh, yeah, we used to live there. Grew up there. We came over  . . .” You know.

    The best interviews are when two people talk about something that matters to both of them.

    Yeah! Yeah. It’s like I’m not an entertainer with my mouth, but everyone expects you to be. It’s just like Mark Spitz, you know. He wins the Olympic gold medal for swimming, and then everybody thinks he’s an actor, but he’s not.

    Where is he now?

    Exactly! They just exploited the hell out of him, and now he’s nowhere.

    How do you keep them from exploiting you?

    Don’t talk to them. But then again, then they really think I’m egoed out. But they don’t understand; it’s just that I ain’t got nothing to say. Then if I don’t talk to them, they get pissed and they hate me. But it’s not that; I just don’t have anything to say. Like the guitar, man, it’s part of me. I just feel like saying, “Hey, everything I’ve got to say is in notes.” It really is. I project more feeling out of playing than I can with my mouth. I feel like I can never explain myself right. No one really understands what I’m trying to say, and then they just kind of use their own imagination to figure out what I’m trying to say, which is usually wrong.

    Are you happy with your career?

    Oh, yeah. It’s the same as it’s always been. We do everything ourselves. We got rid of our first manager because he had a heavy ego problem. He wanted to be the big manager, in control of everything. We’d say, “Hey, don’t do that. We want it done our way. For better or worse, we want it our way,” and he couldn’t handle it. So we got rid of him and went through a big lawsuit. It’s just fucked. This is all stuff that I never imagined I’d get into. I just figured, “Hey, I can make my music – period.” But I’m handling it.

    You’ve probably learned more in the last two years than you ever imagined you would.

    Oh, my God. You wouldn’t believe it. Things you can’t learn in any book or any school.

    But you guys have all weathered it well.

    Yeah, doin’ our best, you know.

    This has been a nice conversation, Ed.

    Thank you. Yeah. I enjoy talkin’ to people who understand what I’m saying. I rarely talk like this to anybody that I don’t really know. The only other journalist I can think of who’s a real nice guy is Steve Rosen. I can sit around and shoot the shit with him, but in the beginning when I first did an interview with him I was afraid. I’d get real uptight. I worry about the things I say. But I’ve gone to concerts with him, and now it’s more like he’s a friend too, and I can just say what I feel.

    So how long are you on vacation for?

    Well, actually it’s not much of a vacation, because we run everything ourselves. We design our own album cover, we have to be in the office every day to sign checks – the whole corporation or whatever revolves around us. Nothing can be done without our approval. We even have photo approval – that’s another thing that was a hassle and a half. People shooting our live shows, and us telling them, “Hey, we want to pick the shots and then give them back to you. And those are the ones you can send out.” People like Lynn Goldsmith and Fin Costello, a bunch of people, they go “Sure, yeah.” They figure we never read the magazines, we never see them. All of a sudden we see pictures that are pictures we wouldn’t have wanted printed. So we call them up and go, “Hey, what the fuck’s going on? I thought we agreed to let us approve them and just send out the ones we want.” So we don’t deal with them anymore. It was just egos. People have ego problems. Sometimes I look at myself and I go, “Fuck, I don’t have an ego at all,”

    The dangerous position you’re in is that you might be having a bad day or say something to somebody, and because of who you are, they may attribute all sorts of other things to it.

    Exactly.

    Everybody needs to get away. Do you get enough time to yourself?

    As much as I can, because I am pretty much a loner. I just can’t get along with people. They don’t understand me. If I go to a party and I don’t talk, it’s not because I’m unsociable and I think I’m bitchin’. It’s just that I’m quiet. I have nothing to say. I spend a lot of time alone, playing my guitar. It’s just more satisfying. I get something out of it. It’s just a feeling. I don’t like to waste my time acting, because I’m no good at acting.

    Well, Eddie, thanks for the interview.

    You need anything else on guitars? See, I have a lot of advice, but I can’t tell you over the phone. I’d have to have a guitar and show you. The important thing is it has to be matched – like that certain pickup will only sound good in that guitar. Take it out and put in another one, and it won’t sound right.

    Hey, I hear you met my editor Don Menn the other day.

    Yeah. He’s a nice guy. So when are you gonna do a cover story on me?

    In 1980, I hope.

    Yeah, that’d be great. Tell him you want to do a cover story.

    I did one with Pat Travers that comes out next week.

    How come I don’t get one?

    Our original plan was to have Pat on the inside and Kenny Burrell on the cover, but things with Kenny got complicated.

    So do one on me.

    I want to.

    Shit, Best Rock Guitarist, you know. And I see clowns on the cover who . . . .

    You don’t even have to say it.

    That’s what I don’t understand. It seems like everyone hates my ass. Being on your cover would be like a dream come true for me. See, at our last interview [in 1978] I was nervous talking to you. But now I feel real comfortable talking to you, and I’d love to do an interview with you. We’ll be here in L.A. until the end of February.

    ###

    Epilog

    Eddie did get his cover. Sixteen days after the above interview took place, we met at Neil Zlozower’s photo studio in Hollywood and did a five-hour interview. A small portion of this conversation ran as Guitar Player’s April 1980 cover story, but most of it has never been transcribed. 

    For more on Eddie Van Halen:

    Eddie Van Halen: The Complete 1978 Interview

    Eddie Van Halen: The Dave Lee Roth Era

    For high-quality prints of his early Eddie Van Halen photos, contact Jon Sievert at jon@humblepress.com or visit his photo gallery at Humble Press .

    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2012 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


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      6 comments on “Eddie Van Halen: The Complete 1979 Interview

      1. Thank you so much Jas for sharing this complete intereview. I’m obviously a huge “fan” (see website) and really enjoy reading these complete interviews as they give so much insight and perspective for what was going on at that time. PLEASE do publish the complete 1980 cover story interview! Thank you again! -Derek

      2. Great Interview Jas!! Thanks for sharing.

        Can you get an interview with him about the new album?

      3. TD WRIGHT on said:

        it was 1978, and i had a craig 8track in my falcon. my friend popped his van halen tape in, and i heard eruption for the first time. i couldn’t believe what i was hearing. how did eddie do that? i remember reading this interview when it came out back then and it helped unravel the mystery of his playing somewhat. unfortunately within a few years, every dork in the world was trying to copy his style. but eddie was a true originator and genius. thanks for posting this interview again.

      4. Man, I hope you transcribe the full five hour interview.

        This interview alone was amazing to ready, so I can’t even imagine what a whole five hour interview would be like.

        Amazing, amazing stuff. A real piece of history and moment in time. Thanks for making this available.

      5. Andre Cholmondeley on said:

        Jas — this site is fantastic!! Of course have read your work in GP etc since the 80s, always a fave. I will spend a lot of time here perusing and learning new info. Kudos – great EVH interview. All the best for 2012.

      6. Geno Peegoo on said:

        Jas, thanks for publishing this interview. Great insight into the early big days of one of the most influential rock guitarists ever to walk the planet.

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