August 29, 2013

Chasing Eddie Van Halen’s “Brown Sound”

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 9

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By Alex Vollmer

Eddie Van Halen always described the sound he was chasing as “brown,” but frankly I think of it as big. Think big, like John Bonham’s drums rattling the stones at Headley Grange in When The Levee Breaks. Think big, like an F-18 taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier right in front of your face. BIG.

His peers in the ’80s (who all had the same big Marshall stacks) didn’t sound like Eddie. Go put on Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman, and then spin Van Halen II. Randy Rhoades was a fantastic guitarist, but the guitar tones of the two aren’t even close. Even with a wall of amps and cabinets, the other guys’ tones are thin and piercing like a very loud horsefly buzzing in your ear. Not Eddie’s tone. It’s warm. It has sustain. It’s clear. It’s not harsh. Gain and distortion are a part of his sound, but that’s not really the essence. It’s something more fundamental.

When Eddie Van Halen hit the scene in 1978, he utterly changed the face of rock-and-roll guitar. How the hell did he do it? How could this skinny kid from Pasadena playing gear that was pretty much like everyone else come up with such a revolutionary tone? How did he get that sound?

These questions have plagued a lot of guitarists for a long time. Like most of the fools before me, I’ve always felt like the secret–the key to unlocking everything–was just around the corner. I have chased Eddie Van Halen’s sound for damn near 25 years. In some ways I’m closer than I’ve ever been. But the more I learn, the more I realize I have a long way to go.

Part of Eddie’s sound comes from his choice of gear. He doesn’t play the same stuff that someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan did. Both guitarists are some of the all-time greats, but with two very different sounds. Instead of playing a Stratocaster with single-coil pickups through a Fender Tweed, Eddie is more likely to run a hot-rodded PAF humbucker through a Marshall. These are pretty fundamental choices when it comes to sound, and they form the base of each player’s unique style and tone.

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