Here's a just a small taste of Guitar World's latest exclusive cover story. For the full interview—and all the intricacies, details and secrets behind Eddie Van Halen's live rig—pick up the February 2016 issue of GW. It's available at newsstands and the Guitar World Online Store.
Eddie Van Halen smiles a lot when he’s playing guitar.
That smile remains there constantly, whether he’s doing soundcheck or performing onstage, and it’s a genuine expression of happiness and joy. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to describe Ed’s smile as an expression of exhilaration, as the look on his face is similar to that of a driver pushing a sports car past 190 mph or a skydiver plunging into the wild blue yonder from 18,000 feet above the earth’s surface.
The source of Van Halen’s exhilaration is a rig that has constantly evolved over his entire career and that he has meticulously refined over the past nine years with the guitars, amps and other items of gear he’s developed for his own EVH brand.
The sound produced by Ed’s rig is as powerful as the throaty, earth-shaking roar of a Lamborghini V12 engine at full throttle, and it demands your full, immediate attention. This point is driven home during soundcheck for Van Halen’s show at New York’s Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. As the Van Halen family—Ed on guitar, his son Wolfgang on bass, and brother Al on drums—roar into an instrumental version of “Light Up the Sky,” the entire backstage crew gathers to watch, and even the venue workers, who moments ago were hastily preparing for the evening’s events, stop in their tracks to listen.
Thanks to the unlimited access that Van Halen gave to Guitar World, Ed has allowed us to share every detail of his rig, including the signal path, amp and effect settings, and other insights into his signature sound to help players dial in the same exact tones or use his rig as inspiration for their own signature sounds. Remember this is just an excerpt. For all the details, check out the new issue of Guitar World
For Van Halen’s 2015 tour, Ed initially planned on using the Wolfgang USA with a Stealth black finish and ebony fretboard with dot inlays that was his main guitar during the entire 2012 tour as well as for the television appearances the band made in early 2015. However, shortly after rehearsals for the tour started Ed took delivery of a Wolfgang USA guitar built by Chip Ellis featuring a heavily relic’d white finish, block fretboard inlays, and a custom kill switch, which Ed uses to create stuttering staccato effects during “You Really Got Me” and his solo.
“I wanted a white guitar that was relic’d,” says Van Halen. “Chip built that for me and did a wonderful job. I compared it to my trusty old Stealth, and the white guitar sounded better, so it immediately became my main guitar for rehearsals and the tour.”
While Ed loved the white Wolfgang USA, he found the neck a little thicker than he normally likes for his neck profiles. He sanded down the back of the neck until it was slim and comfortable enough for his preferences. “It’s still a little fatter than the Stealth’s neck, but I’m happy with it, so it stuck,” he says.
The white Wolfgang also features Ed’s latest innovation—a custom-made volume pot designed to provide absolutely noise-free performance, which EVH will offer as an accessory that can be installed in any guitar. “We’re testing it on this tour,” says Van Halen. “It’s the only volume pot I’ve found where I can play ‘Cathedral’ without any crackle or pop.”
“We look at just about everything under a microscope,” says Matt Bruck, who is, for lack of an official title, EVH operations manager. “There’s a point on most pots between 0 and 1 where you can hear noise, especially at the gain levels and stage volumes that Ed plays at. We had all kinds of custom pots made for us with different tapers and designs, but we stuck with this one. It’s good for a million turns and it’s silent.”
Van Halen’s onstage backline is an impressive sight consisting of 10 EVH 5150 IIIS heads and 10 5150 III 4x12 speaker cabinets, and so are his racks, which are hidden from view at stage left and contain eight EVH 5150 heads of various models. However, Ed’s massive guitar sound is generated by just a single 100-percent stock production EVH 5150 IIIS head. Ed has even used the same exact head for the entire tour.
“The beauty of the production version of the IIIS is that the sound doesn’t change once you turn it on,” says Van Halen. “It sounds the same at the beginning of the set as it does at the end of the show. On this tour our front of house guy told me that the sound doesn’t change at all, so he never had to make any EQ adjustments to compensate. I blew a tube one night on my main head, but since then I’ve used the same set of tubes for the whole tour.”
Ed is similarly enamored with his 4x12 cabinets, which are stocked with Celestion G12 EVH 20-watt 12-inch speakers. “They’re made in the U.K.,” he says. “The more that you use them, the better they sound. I’ve used those speakers for several tours now, and I’ve never blown a single one.”
Although many guitarists these days place their pedals in racks and operate them via remote MIDI controllers, Ed is somewhat old school and prefers to have his pedals at his feet where he can make quick adjustments. However, he connects them to a custom-built true-bypass loop switcher, which keeps the pedals entirely out of the signal chain until he engages them with a footswitch on the loop switcher.
The only pedal that isn’t connected to the loop switcher is an EVH95 Eddie Van Halen Signature Cry Baby wah, which is placed directly in front of it. Pedals connected to the switcher include Van Halen’s signature MXR EVH90 Phase 90 and EVH117 Flanger, which are meticulously designed to replicate the classic tones of his original Seventies MXR pedals. A pair of Boss pedals—an OC-3 Super Octave and CE-5 Chorus Ensemble—complete his onstage stomp box selection.
“Normally I use chorus for ‘Pretty Woman,’ but we’re not playing that song this time,” says Van Halen. “On this tour I use it for ‘Drop Dead Legs,’ and I also use the octave pedal for the outro riff on that song.
“I’m using in-ear monitors now,” he continues. “Because they really enhance the effects, I tend to use my effects less. In-ear monitors are great for vocals, but they suck for guitar. They make it harder to play because it sounds like your ear is right up against the speaker, which can be annoying. You don’t have that distance between the guitar and the cabinet, so everything sounds more pronounced than I’m used to.”
About 25 years ago Ed pioneered the wet/dry/wet setup, which utilizes a center dry speaker cabinet and delay-processed left and right speaker cabinets, and that setup still remains part of his stage rig design today. Using this setup, the primary core of Ed’s tone is always the sound coming from a half stack setup consisting of his main EVH 5150 IIIS head and a single EVH 5150 III 4x12 cabinet placed at the center.
That center cabinet always remains 100 percent dry, which maintains maximum clarity and never compromises the pure, unadulterated tone and character of Ed’s half stack core. Meanwhile, delay-processed audio coming from a pair of Roland SDE-3000 digital delay units is routed to EVH 5150 III 4x12 cabinets placed to the left and right of the center 4x12 cabinet. The delays are programmed to provide big, spacious sound similar to reverb, but without losing definition and clarity the way typical reverb effects do.
“I don’t want to hear the delay itself,” says Van Halen. “I just want it to fill in some holes and make my sound bigger, like reverb, although using delays this way sounds better than reverb. It gives my sound some added depth without getting in the way of the main dry signal.”
For Ed's tunings, amp and pedal settings (EVH Phase 90: Speed — 10 o’clock; Script switch — On), check out the February 2016 issue of GW.
Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images