Eddie Van Halen – the 1978 interview

Eddie Van Halen in 1978
(Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith / Getty Images)

It was sometime in '78. I was looking at my copy of Van Halen’s first album when I heard a car engine stop below my Laurel Canyon guest house window. I stuck my head out, looked down at this beat-up, nondescript car parked in front of my garage, and was about to walk down the stairs to tell the offender to move his vehicle. I was waiting for Eddie Van Halen to come by and I didn’t want some bozo taking up the spot. 

I had spoken to Ed just a few weeks earlier at the Whisky, where I was introduced to him by Michelle Myer, my good friend and the club’s booker. Five minutes into our conversation he asked me for a pen because he wanted to write down his phone number. A couple of hours ago I found that piece of paper, called him and asked if he might want to get together some time and talk. He said: “I’ll be right over.”

I couldn’t believe he wanted to come over that same day. I hadn’t put together any kind of real interview, so I just jotted down a few things to talk about and hoped for the best. I was on pins and needles already, so when I saw that other car parked in my spot I was about to go insane. I walked down the stairs, and was ready to tell the intruding driver to move his car or I was going to have it towed. 

The car door opened and Ed got out. I laughed nervously and thought: “Oh, shit. I almost had Eddie Van Halen’s car towed.” He met me halfway up the stairway and we shook hands and hugged. Any nervousness I had went away. He acted like there was no other place he’d rather be in early 1978 than sitting on my beat-up couch, smoking a cigarette and playing the ’66 Strat he eyeballed the second he walked in the room. 

He saw his album lying on the table and smiled. I told him how cool it was for him to drive over – he was still living in Pasadena with his parents at the time, which was about a 30-minute drive without traffic – and he just shrugged it off. I put the cassette player on the couch between us, pushed ‘record’, and began my first interview with this then 23-year-old wunderkind who was about to take over the world.

Was your father a musician?

Yeah. He got us into music very early. He got Al [brother Alex] and me practising piano for concert stuff, classical piano, at like seven and eight years old.

You were that young?

Oh yeah. My brother was six, I think, when he started, and I started when I was about seven. Well, then we decided to come to the land of opportunity in southern California, and just started getting into rock’n’roll a little bit – the Dave Clark Five and the real early stuff. And I went out and got myself a paper route and bought a drum set. Originally I played drums and my brother played guitar.

Is that right?

While I was out throwin’ my papers, he was practising my drums. He got better than I did. And I said: “Okay, you play my drums and I’ll pick up your guitar.” It went on from there. I’d say I really didn’t start playing guitar and getting into lead guitar and stuff like that until Cream came out and stuff like that [mid-60s], when the heavy guitar thing started to happen.

Do you remember the first guitar you had?

Oh, yeah, hah hah hah. A Sears Teisco Del Rey. A three-pickup job. I thought the more pickups it had, the better guitar it was. The more switches and everything. Nowadays I’ve got kind of a home-made copy of a Strat with just one pickup and one volume knob on it. Really simple.

Can you describe your guitar a little more?

It looks like a Strat but, there’s a place in San Dimas, California called Charvel Guitars and they custom make ’em. Mine wasn’t really custom made, it was like a junk neck and a hacked-up body that was just laying around. I wanted to experiment building my own guitar so I could get the sound I wanted; I always wanted a Strat for the vibrato bar, because I love that effect. So I just bought it from them for fifty dollars and the neck for ninety dollars and slapped it together. Put an old humbucking pickup in it and one volume knob and painted it up the way I wanted it to look, and it screams. My main guitar up until right now.

Is that the black-and-white striped guitar?

Yeah. It’s the one that’s on the cover of the album. Just one pickup and one volume. No tone or fancy out-of-phase switches or nothin’ like that.

You used to use a Fender Strat?

Yeah, I did. I couldn’t get the sound I wanted out of a regular Strat. Somebody told me about the Charvel place; about their wood – their bodies get much better tones, and stuff like that. And I checked it out, it’s true.

You only need the one volume control and the single pickup to get all the tone you need?

Yeah. You know, I use a couple of effects, like an MXR phase shifter, a flanger and two Echoplexes, which change the sound a bit. And I use two Univox echo boxes also, for the end of my solo on Eruption. That’s not an Echoplex, it’s a Univox. Everything I use is MXR – it’s about all I can afford – mounted on a piece of wood. I use a pretty long cord on stage, about a twenty-five-footer or a thirty-footer, and after it goes through the pedals I use an equaliser to boost the line back up. But tone-wise I just crank everything all the way up, and depending on how you pick you get different tones and stuff. My amp set-up is pretty tricked though.

Tell me about your rig.

I’ve got six old Marshalls, which have been rebuilt. They have bigger tubes in ’em and bigger transformers to make ’em a lot louder. I use six heads hooked to six cabinets. The cabinets are pretty much stock except I changed the way they look a little bit. And I use these things called voltage generators. What this box does is it enables me to put one-fifty or one-sixty watts. It enables me to crank up the voltage higher than the amp is supposed to take.

That sounds amazing.

It really makes the tubes red-hot, you know. It really makes the amp overload so much that it gets the sound I like.

Does this actually plug into the amp somehow?

It’s a box that you plug into the wall, and it has a big knob on it that goes up to one-sixty, and you plug your amp into it. It’s a voltage box or something like that. Yeah, a voltage generator.

Do you use any special settings on the Marshall amps?

I just crank ’em all the way up. Everything all the way up: presence, middle, bass…

Do you use the same set-up in the studio?

I use the exact same thing.

You actually crank up six Marshall stacks in the studio?

Oh, no, no no [much laughter]. See, the thing is, I get the exact same sound out of one or out of six. All the difference in numbers just means how loud it’s gonna be. And each amp sounds the same. I use two, actually, cos I like to feel it too while I’m playing.

It must be pretty loud in the studio.

Oh yeah. We play stage volume. We recorded at Sunset Sound. I like that room. It’s just a big room. It’s like our basement, actually. The guys who run the studio and maintain the place, they walk in after we’re done and there are beer cans all over the floor and Pink’s hot-dog smears all over the place. But in order for us to be comfortable we just do what we want. We set up in a big room, and I used almost everything I use on stage. 

Only I used my old Marshalls, as opposed to brand new ones that I use live. The sound of my guitar and the solos were cool, though I’m not sayin’ I couldn’t do better. For the first album it took us just a week to do the music, four or five days. Everything was basically done in first and second take. Our concept was to just do what we came up with, as opposed to forcing ourselves to write something commercial.

How you do you manage to keep your guitar in tune when you have so much whammy bar stuff going on in your playing?

That is a very tricky question. So far I haven’t told or showed anybody. I dicked around with a Strat for years learning how to do that, and there’s about four or five different things that you have to do, including knowing the technique of playing it. A lot of people just grab the bar and go [mimics the sound of a bar going up and down] and expect it to stay in tune. There’s little things that you have to do. Like after you hit the bar after you bring the note down, usually one of the strings goes sharp.

That is exactly what happens.

So what you do is, before you come back in with a full chord, you have to stretch with your left hand to pop it back. Without picking the string, you just grab the string and jerk it up real quick and then it pops right back to where it was before you hit the bar. And then on top of that, you know the little metal jobs at the top, where the tuning pegs are, Fender always has these little metal things that hold the strings down – string retainers, or whatever they’re called. If you have those too tight, the string will get caught up on that and it won’t pop back the way it’s supposed to. Also, it’s the way you wind your strings.

How do you wind your strings?

Hey, I don’t know if I want to tell you! It’s basically simple. And the kind of strings you use is important. I don’t know if I should be putting down certain strings, but I use Fender strings. They’re very good and I like ’em.

What gauges do you use?

They’re pretty light really: .040; .032; .024; .015; .011; and .009. So far, for that Strat those are the best gauges for keeping it in tune. I used to think that the heavier strings I used the better it would stay in tune, but that ain’t true either.

Have you done anything to the tuning pegs themselves?

I use Schallers. They’re not regular Fenders.

Have you altered the bridge?

The spring set-up. They come with five springs, but I use only four. It’s hard to explain everything because it also depends on the guitar. I could tell you exactly what to do, and you could do it to your Strat and it wouldn’t work. Also, there’s a thing in the back where the strings hook up. There are two long screws, and how tight you got that set changes the tension of the springs. So it’s that. How you wind your strings, how many springs you got, the string retainers at the top, and the way you play it. It took me a while to figure it out.

Do you think you’ll stick with Strat-style guitars?

When we were in New Orleans I just bought a Les Paul. I needed another guitar because I tend to bend the hell out of the strings a lot. Usually after my solo live, I change guitars. So I needed another guitar. So I just picked up a Paul. It’s a real nice white one. It looks cool.

Do you play any acoustic guitar?

I have never in my life owned an acoustic guitar. I really haven’t. I’ve written songs on electric guitar that would sound real nice on an acoustic, but I’ve never owned an acoustic guitar. I guess one of these days I’ll buy one. I don’t know nothin’ about acoustics. I know what I like in electric guitars, but acoustic I’m lost. I don’t know what’s good. I really don’t.

Do you play any slide guitar?

A little bit. There’s no slide on the record. But who knows what lurks in the future? Me and my brother both play keyboards, too. I’ve been thinking about getting a synthesiser. I know there’s a lot of people starting to get into guitar synthesier, but like Roland you have to play one of their guitars but I don’t dig ’em. So I think maybe I might get a synthesiser and play keyboards. But who knows? I might not.

Do you use any special guitar tunings?

Sometimes I bring the low E down to a D for some acoustic stuff. It sounds real deep.

What about picks?

Fender mediums. I used to use a metal pick. A friend of mine always used to make me metal picks. He used to work in a machine shop. And they were really cool, but when you start sweatin’ I couldn’t hold onto ’em. They’d fly out of my hand and I’d be bummed out.

Can you talk about how you developed that fast fluttering pick attack?

Just practice, I guess. I’ve been playing eight to ten years. That’s quite a while. I kind of pick at a downward angle. And I started early, which is good. A lot of people start late and play for ten years and they don’t get quite as far. You’ve got a lot more hang-ups or whatever when you get older and shit. I enjoy playing. That’s the main thing. It’s not like I was forcing myself because I wanted to be a rock’n’oll star. I started out playing because I really liked to.

Do you still practice?

Sure. I mean, I’ve got a guitar right here in my hands right now. I change the strings before a gig. I play for half an hour, an hour, just to break in the strings and loosen up my fingers. And at night sometimes I come home and write a tune.

You change the strings before every gig?

Oh yeah. Every day. Especially on the Strat. They wear out so quick with that bar.

Talking about the album, it really sounds like there isn’t a lot of overdubbing going on?

Oh no, no. I hate overdubbing, cos it’s just not the same as playing with the guys. There’s no feeling there for me to work off of. I’ve got to feed of them to play good, too. Are you familiar with the album?

Pretty familiar.

Like Runnin’ With The Devil is a melodic solo, so I put a rhythm underneath it. Songs that have a spontaneous solo, like I’m The One, Ice Cream Man and most of the songs on the album, Ted [Templeman], our producer, felt – and us also – that it was good enough on its own without fattening it up. Also, when we play it live it sounds the same. I hate people – without namin’ names – who over-produce in the studio and then when they walk out on stage people go: “Wow! Is that the same band?” It doesn’t sound the same. With us it sounds exactly the same. Maybe even better, because you get to see it us doin’ it at the same time. It’s very energetic. We’ll get you up and shake your ass.

Ted Templeman was important as far as finding a direction on the first album and bringing out the best in you?

Oh, sure. What he managed to do was put our live sound on a record. I mean, a lot of people have to do a bunch of overdubs to make it sound full. It’s a lot easier to make a lot of instruments sound full than a guitar, bass and drums. That’s where Ted comes in. He knows his shit. He’s the man. He’s doing our next one, too. Van Halen is three instruments and voices with very few overdubs, very live sounding. 

Ted Templeman the producer and Donn Landee the engineer, they weren’t quite sure of what we wanted. They weren’t too familiar with our sound. We sifted through all the songs with Ted and we picked out what we wanted to do. And one out of the four might say: “Hey, let’s do this one.” And the other guys are going: “Nah. Why don’t we try this one?”

You were pleased with your solos and the sound of your guitar on Van Halen?

It was cool. I’m not sayin’ I couldn’t do better, but for a first album it only took us a week just to do the music – four or five days. Everything was basically done in a first or second take.

Any solos that stand out for you?

Um… I don’t know. I like all the songs and I like all the solos. I guess it takes someone from the outside to pick which one they like best. Spontaneous-wise, I like I’m The One, the boogie.

That’s the real fast one.

Yeah, the fast boogie. I like soloing to quick stuff. That one was pretty much spontaneous. Runnin’ With The Devil and On Fire and some of the other ones were set solos, but that one gave me a chance to space off a little bit and noodle around, which I do a lot live. We all get crazy live. I mean, nobody spaces off to the point where it falls apart, but we just add a little bit visually, and sound-wise but keep it interesting.

Are there certain scales and things that you work from in putting together your solos?

I don’t really know what scales they are, hah hah hah. I really don’t. I know music theory and I know how to write music on paper and how to read for piano, but on guitar it’s a different story. I don’t know nothin’ about what a scale is. I know basic notes. I can play what sounds good – what I think is good, anyway.

It sounds like there are Ritchie Blackmore influences in your playing.

Since the last five or six years I really haven’t been into any one guitarist. I like everybody. I’ve listened to Blackmore and [Jeff] Beck and especially [Beck’s album] Wired, I like some of that stuff. Before that I just never really got into him. I didn’t like him with Beck, Bogert & Appice. But the main guitarist I’d say that influenced me to play the most was Clapton.

Eric Clapton was really the guitarist who did it for you?

I used to love the way he played. He was real smooth and a lot of feeling. Every review I ever read of the album or my playing, it’s always Blackmore, Beck and Page influences. But I never really sat down and copped their licks like I did Clapton. 

I guess a lot of people think I sound like Beck or Blackmore because I do use the bar and they do also, so it kinda gets the same kinda sound. The only thing Blackmore got me hooked on was the whammy bar. Because I never really liked the way he played that weird staccato stuff. But I feel a lot of my licks are different than theirs. Like the wide stretch things I do, I try and make it sound a little bit different.

You do that one thing during Eruption where you’re hitting a note and…

Right, right. It’s like having a sixth finger on your left hand. Instead of picking, you’re hitting a note on the fretboard.

Is this [fret tapping] a technique that you developed, or was it just something you stumbled across?

I really don’t know how to explain that, man. I was just sittin’ in my room at the pad at home, drinkin’ a beer, and I remembered seeing people stretching one note and hitting the note once. They popped the finger on there to hit one note. I said: well, fuck, nobody is really capitalising on that. 

Nobody was really doing more than just one stretch and one note real quick. So I started dickin’ around, and said: fuck! This is a totally another technique that nobody really does. Which it is. I haven’t really seen anyone get into that as far as they could, because it is a totally different sound. A lot of people listen to that and they don’t even think it’s a guitar. “Is that a synthesiser? A piano? What is that?”

The way you hit harmonics at the beginning of some of the songs from the album also sound different from the way other guitarists hit them.

I just liked the sound of it, and I just kept workin’ at it until I got the notes I wanted. You can almost do a complete scale with all the harmonics, you just gotta know where to hit ’em. I guess I could be funny and say I take a lot of pills, but that ain’t true.

How did you promote Van Halen in the early days?

A lot of bands make a demo tape, and we did that also. We went to New York with Gene Simmons from Kiss, I’d say about two years ago. He saw us in a club and asked us: “Are you guys on a label or anything? Do you have a manager?” And we said no. So he said: “Wow, you guys are a hot band. I’d like to work with you guys.” And we’re going: “What do you mean?” And what it boiled down to was he wanted to take a shot at producing a rock band. So we said: “Sure.” Because he was payin’ for it all.

I guess it would be hard to turn that down.

We didn’t have any money, and I guess basically that’s why we did the tape. But then again we went to New York, made the world’s most expensive demo tape and never ended up using it. On top of not having a tape, we didn’t know where in the hell to take it. We didn’t know anyone. Bands take it to a record company, and there will be some clown sittin’ on a couch, smokin’ a joint, listens to your tape, and nothing will ever happen that way.

You didn’t want to do that?

What we basically did is we just kept playing the LA area everywhere. We used to put on our own shows at the Pasadena Civic, our home town, and draw like three thousand people on a four-dollar ticket. This was way before [the deal with] Warner Brothers. So we just developed such a following that a sister of a friend at the record company heard about us and the word got around about the band.

Then you had some people from Warner Brothers Records come down and see the band?

Finally, Ted Templeman and [Warner Bros president] Mo Ostin came down to the Starwood in Hollywood, which was really always just kind of a bad place for us because we weren’t a Hollywood band. Pasadena is really where we’re from, and that’s like San Bernardino – that’s like Bumfuck, Iowa. That’s what people are like out in Hollywood.

Did you know they were in the audience?

It really tripped me out, because when we were playin’ and Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman walked in we really didn’t know. Somebody just said: “There’s somebody real important out there so play good.” There were no people there; it was some rainy Monday night without any people at all. And still they came backstage and they loved it. 

They said: “If you don’t negotiate with anyone else, you’ve got what you want right here.” We were happy, we tripped out. Warner Brothers, man. That was always the company I wanted to be with. On top of that, we got Ted Templeman to produce the record. I talked to a lot of people and they said: “Wow, man, we’re trying to get Ted Templeman to produce our record.” He’s in demand, and here we are – we get picked up by him.

Have you written any songs for the next album?

Oh yeah. We write all the time. That’s a good thing about the band, and everybody contributes. I’m the guitarist so I write all the riffs and shit, but Dave [Lee Roth] writes lyrics and Al [Alex van Halen] and Mike [Anthony] really help arrange, so every song is a group effort. There’s not one song that one person wrote totally.

Who’s idea was it to release You Really Got Me as Van Halen’s first single?

It was a joint effort. It was a joint thing between us and Ted. The night he saw us play, we played that song and he got off on it. He’s going: “Hey, man, that might be a good song to put on the record.” And I thought: “Yeah, shit.” Because we’ve all been waiting to do that song anyways since we were four years old. I mean, it sounds different than the [Kinks’] original. It’s kind of updated. It’s been Van Halenised like a jet plane.

What are your hopes for the album?

All we’re tryin’ to do is put some excitement back into rock’n’roll. It seems like a lot of people are old enough to be our daddies, and they sound like it or they act like it. They seem energy-less. It seems like they forget what rock’n’roll is all about. We’re very energetic and we get up there and blaze on the people.

Van Halen: The Debut Album That Saved Rock

Steven Rosen

Steven Rosen has been writing about the denizens of rock 'n' roll for the past 25 years. During this period, his work has appeared in dozens of publications including Guitar Player, Guitar World, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Creem, Circus, Musician, and a host of others.