The Brown Sound Of Edward Van Halen – Exploring the Guitar Tone of a Rock Master

By Ian T Robertson

I can still remember the feeling of hearing ‘Runnin’ With The Devil’ burst from my cheap headphones – most likely on my Sharp Cassette Walkman, by the way.

My older brother had a cassette of Van Halen’s ’1984′ which I ritually abused often in my Walkman and ghettoblaster. ‘Panama’, ‘Hot For Teacher’ and ‘Top Jimmy’ were smoking tunes to me, and even ‘Jump’ for all its synthy pop sheen had a ripping guitar solo. The sound, attitude and tone of that record convinced me to reach back and before long I had a double cassette copy of Van Halen I & II.

H-O-L-Y!

The tone!

It smacked me around the head. The car siren fades out, the bass thump introduces the end of the world, and Eddie rips into that simple, arrogant riff. The guitar tone was like nothing I had experienced before, and I was a guitar child of the eighties.

As I said, I had absorbed ’1984′ – a guitar tone that can’t be said to be vastly removed from Van Halen I if you were to describe it in words. Mid rangey, ripping, squealy, sustainy, popping, substantial, echo-y (but never drenched, always with its own sense of space) – those words can be used for ‘Hot For Teacher’ as well.

But – they are worlds apart in impact to me. Eddie, a souped up Plexi Marshall, an echoplex and some homemade partscaster guitars created what would always be ‘the tone’ for me to chase on that record.

And it was never quite the same again after that, albeit there were slightly different iterations of it. Van Halen II was similar but lacked the body of the first record and little bit of the ‘sizzle’, both ‘Women and Children First’ and ‘Fair Warning’ started to go darker in tone (although hats off to ‘Unchained’ of course!), ‘Diver Down’ and ’1984′ seemed to lean a little more back to II’s tone.

Van Halen I’s incredible jaw dropping tone was really never to be replicated by Ed on record again. Worse still, it became apparent that he had started to disown that sound as from 5150 through the Van Hagar years his tone became tamer and tamer. Less ‘sizzle’, more digital chorus.

Which brings us to the latest chapter in the Van Halen tone saga, ‘A Different Kind Of Truth.’ The 2012 release was a welcome return to form for a band that had lost its way long ago, even if it was obvious that Dave was certainly not in possession of the same voice. Given that Van Halen had never really been about vocal prowess in the first place, it mattered little. (Michael Anthony backing vocals aside… but I digress.) But, Eddie’s tone? What direction had the divebomb master taken this time with his all-important sound?

Truthfully, given attempts with most other facets of the release to cast a backwards gaze to the glory days of the band, I was hopeful of a faithful attempt at gunning for Van Halen I’s mystical tone. Of course, I was sadly disappointed. Ed had instead attempted to modernise his sound – which seemed to consist of dialling down the digital reverb and chorus units (thankfully) but instead driving up a stark, fizzy high gain sound that is more akin to a hardcore band than Van Halen. Actually, it is a tone I find quite difficult to listen to for long periods.

And so, with hope ever springing eternal, the glorious quest for Van Halen I’s elusive guitar tone continues. Will Ed ever try and recreate it? Is it long lost, never to be found, along with his bell bottoms, 70′s hair and youthful gummy grin?

I know it’s the latter, but I can dream.

Odysseus’ Dog are fine purveyors of Strange Rock. You can hear guitarist Ian Robertson look to chase the Eddie Van Halen tone among many other slightly more crass sounds over at http://www.odysseusdog.com. Free music, updates on the Dog’s blog activity and more are readily found!

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