Lessons From A Master Musical Innovator


Intelligent fanatics are never satisfied. It does not matter what field. Great Ideas Are Born Out of Frustration and Necessity, Not Greed.

Here’s a great music example.

Brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Dutch immigrants to the US, had formed the hard rock bank Van Halen. In the 1970s, punk and disco was dominating the music charts. Hard rock was not popular. That didn’t matter to Van Halen. They weren’t satisfied.

Van Halen’s self-titled debut album was released in 1978. That one album turned the music industry on its head. The album peaked at #19 on the music charts. The album would sell more than 10 million copies in the United States. The album, and the band, would relaunch the hard rock music genre.

How did they do it? It was largely due to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sound and technique. In a word it was revolutionary. Eddie explained the work involved to create their first album, and create his unique sound:

“The sounds on that record (debut album) were a lot of years of experimentation and tearing apart guitars and opening up old amplifiers and getting electrocuted.”

Why would someone put themselves through so much pain?

"Let me start by saying I was never happy. I guess what drives me to tear things apart is some of it is a necessity. And some of it is just experimenting because I’m always pushing things past where they’re supposed to be.

I hate to bring up Spinal Tap, but while they’re going to 11 at the time, I was already going to 15. I was way past that."

For those unfamiliar with the Spinal Tap reference, here is the clip:

Eddie and Alex were from a poor immigrant family. Their dad was a pianist, working odd jobs as a janitor, and their mother was a maid. They couldn’t afford new equipment, so the brothers had to piece together their own.

Eddie told the story of the creation of his Frankenstrat. The guitar would not only go onto change how guitars were made but how they sounded. It was created out of necessity because there was no guitar on the market that did what Eddie wanted.

"What I really loved about a Fender guitar was the vibrato bar, except they only came with single coil pickups, which at high volumes they squeal and they’re very thin sounding. Unless you use some kind of distortion pedal or whatever, which I could not afford.

And there’s the other company, Gibson that made a Les Paul. Les Paul was a dear friend of mine also, which made humbucking pickups, which for a similar to these. They canceled the hum and has a fat, a much fatter sound. So I proceeded to find a company that made knock off bodies and necks of Fenders, a company called Boogie Bodies.

And, I went out there and said, “How much for a body?” He goes, “Oh, you don’t want them.” The guy goes, “Thery’re seconds.” I thought he meant those are next to be made. No, what he meant was those are junk. We can’t solve those because they have knots, they’re damaged. I said, “Great, I’ll take one.” So I bought a $50 body and $75 neck and I proceeded to take a chisel and a hammer and make a hole big enough for a Gibson pickup to put in there. And of course the pickup had to come up out of a guitar somewhere. So I ruined that guitar by ripping the pickup out. But I knew I was onto something. So I screwed the pickup straight into the wood. A Stratocaster actually has three pickups. So I routed out the body and crammed the humbucking pickup and mind you, everything was unsoldered and just laying there.

It had three knobs and two pickups over here. And I have one pickup that I wanted in there. And I go, okay, now how am I going to hook this back up? I had no clue how to hook it back up. So I wondered if it would work if I just hook the, the humbucking pickups straight up to one knob and it worked. So I just ripped everything out, threw it away and made my own pickguard to cover the holes. And that’s what ended up being that guitar.

When asked how Eddie came up with the unique paint job, he said:

I painted it black and I’m going, this looks kind of boring and there’s some tape laying there. And I just started taping it up and take a razor blade and just cut pieces out and, and spray painted it white and took it all off and I’m going and this is Kinda cool. And it was really as simple as that. There was no, “I have to make a piece of art,” even though it’s interesting looking. And then later on, the red guitar is the same as the white one. I taped over it again and spray painted it red.

Also, in the process, Eddie developed an industry standard way to quiet a guitar’s pickups.

But there are so many other things that I did like potting the pickup, which, if you get unwanted high squeal feedback, like if you ever watched a public speaker it gets real annoying. I’m not talking about the good feedback. I’m talking about annoying high squeal now. I have no idea what prompted me to think this. But I was thinking, okay, coil windings, very thin copper wire around these plastic things with the magnet. I’m going, maybe it’s the little coil things vibrating. So I proceeded to get an empty one of my mom’s coffee cans and went to the store and bought some paraffin wax and got a hot plate. And again proceeded to ruin many pickups because I forgot that the pickup bobbins, the black and white part, that they’re plastic. So, and I didn’t know what temperature to dip them at. So, I melted a lot of pickups and then I figured, okay, I’ll just hold onto it.

And as soon as I see an inkling of shrivel, I’m gonna yank it out. And it worked. And people still, that became, that became a standard in the business

Today, one can purchase a limited edition replica of Eddie’s Frankenstrat for $25,000.

Eddie didn’t stop at innovating his guitar and equipment. He innovated his playing. When he and his brother started playing, Eddie on the guitar and singing, Alex on the drums, they had to fill every hole possible. Eddie added:

The main reason why I squeezed so many, what you call them, tricks, call them whatever, techniques out of a guitar was out of necessity because I couldn’t afford the peddles. I couldn’t afford a wah-wah peddle. I couldn’t afford a fuzz box and all the toys that everybody else had. So I did everything I could to get sounds out of out of the guitar with my fingers.

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