Eddie Van Halen was one of the most influential guitarists of all time. He revolutionized the way guitar was played and paved the way for modern hard rock and heavy metal guitar. He pioneered techniques such as tapping and dive bombs and was one of the first guitarists to use the Floyd Rose Tremolo system. If you want to sound just like Eddie Van Halen, you are in luck! A lot of Van Halen’s iconic gear has been mass-produced, so you can purchase his replica guitars, pedals, and amps.
In this article, I will break down the pedals, guitars, and amps that gave Van Halen his iconic sound. Spoiler alert: Despite being a hard rock guitarist, he never really used distortion pedals!
How did Van Halen get “brown sound”?
“Brown sound” is a term that was coined to describe the distorted sound that Eddie Van Halen got on his rig in the late 70s and early 80s. Eddie Van Halen was known throughout his career as a modifier. He rarely used any amps, pedals, or guitars that weren’t heavily modified to fit the specific sound he wanted to achieve.
Eddie Van Halen invented “brown sound” with his gear. He used his heavily customized Stratocaster, “Frankenstrat”, which had custom pickups, a Floyd Rose tremolo, and a SUPER strong and durable neck.
Interestingly, he didn’t use a distortion pedal to distort his guitar’s tone. Instead, he pushed his amps hard and relied on the naturally overdriven tubes to boost his signal. This gave him a clear and crisp sound with unique crunchy amp distortion.
In his solos and lead riffs, he also frequently utilized the whammy bar to add flair and “dive bomb”.
Check out this video of one of Van Halen’s best ever solos. It is a perfect example of Van Halen’s “brown sound”. The shredding and technical ability in this solo is pretty unbelievable.
Eddie Van Halen started his own equipment company in 2009 called EVH, now owned by Fender.
Eddie Van Halen’s pedals
MXR Phase 90
The Phase 90 was one of the main pedals Van Halen used. You can hear this phaser pedal used in many of his recordings and live performances. The MXR Phase 90 is a simple but effective phaser that comes at a very fair price. If you want to emulate “brown sound”, you’ll definitely want to add a Phase 90 to your pedal board.
MXR 117 Flanger
Phasers and flangers are similar, but flangers function with a time-based delay, while phasers have a phase-based delay. Eddie Van Halen used flangers extensively throughout his career. A famous example of Eddie playing a flanger pedal is in the intro riff of the iconic Van Halen song “Unchained”. The MXR 117 Flanger was Van Halen’s favorite flanger, and MXR has even released a special “EVH” version of the pedal with a switch that gives you the sound settings that Eddie Van Halen would have used.
Van Halen loved his modulation effects, but delay was also an important pedal on his pedalboard. The Dunlop Echoplex was one of his favorite pedals before he switched to primarily using flangers and phasers. You can hear his use of this delay pedal, especially in his early riffs in Van Halen and Van Halen II.
“Holy Grail” Customized Cry Baby Wah
While Van Halen wasn’t known as a wah pedal whizz like Jimi Hendrix or Dimebag Darrell, he still used the pedal extensively. He used a Cry Baby Wah that was customized to have a higher EQ range and a more voice-like effect. He named his customized wah the “Holy Grail”. Dunlop and Van Halen collaborated on mass producing a replica “Holy Grail” EVH CRY Baby Wah. This pedal sounds pretty identical to Van Halen’s wah pedal, so if you ware wanting to emulate his iconic sound, this is a must-have pedal.
Van Halen’s guitars
Probably the gear that had the biggest influence over Van Halen’s sound was his customized guitar. Throughout his career, he customized his “Frankenstrat” guitar several times and was constantly experimenting with different guitar and pickup combinations.
EVH’s “Frankenstrat” was an attempt to combine Fender and Gibson into a single guitar with a Van Halen flair. He used a Stratocaster body, a Gibson Humbucker pickup, a Floyd Rose tremolo system, and an ultra-thick and strong neck. A Frankenstrat replica has been created that is insanely well-made and was actually endorsed by Van Halen!
This guitar went through several transformations throughout Van Halen’s career. It was his main guitar from 1977 till 1983, when the wear and tear of touring started to take a toll on the guitar. He retired the guitar altogether in 2006.
Eddie Van Halen’s “Bumblebee” guitar is by far his second most famous instrument. Unlike “Frankenstrat”, this guitar wasn’t built, painted, and customized by EVH but was made by Wayne Charvel for him. Van Halen installed custom pickups into thee guitar himself, though. The guitar was used extensively by Van Halen between 1979 and 2004 when it was buried with Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell who was a huge fan of Van Halen.
Yet another Van Halen customized guitar was his Ibanez Destroyer that he named the “Shark” due to the massive chunk he cut out of the bottom of the guitar. This guitar was used “on every song that doesn’t have vibrato parts” on Van Halen’s first self-titled album. After the first album, however, the guitar was retired due to issues it had due to the extensive modifications he made to it. Regardless the guitar looks pretty dang cool!
EVH Wolfgang Guitars
Wolfgang EVH Guitars weren’t necessarily played by EVH often, but they were designed and manufactured by his company EVH. Later in his career, he started using these guitars more often, most likely as a marketing technique. These guitars sound great and truly emody the Van Halen “sound”. Wolfgang’s are designed for the fast shredding playing style that Van Halen was famous for. The pickups are perfect for loud guitar solos, the neck is smooth, and the guitar has an incredibly clear sound.
He named the Wolfgang guitar company after his son Wolfgang Van Halen who was named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Wolfgang Van Halen was also the bassist of Van Halen until his father’s death in 2020.
Van Halen’s amps
Van Halen played several different amps over his career, but he mostly used Peavey and Marshall tube amps.
In the beginning of his career, Eddie Van Halen used Marshall Plexi amps. Sometimes he would use several amp heads at one time to get a loud, crisp sound.
Peavey 5150 Tube Amp
Later in his career, EVH moved on to using Peavey 5150 tube amps. From 1984, he exclusively used 5150 amps for recordings and most of his live performances. This was the amp that he settled with because it gave him the powerful sound and natural tube distortion that was synonymous with “brown sound”.
When EVH started his company, he created his own custom mass-produced EVH 5150 Amp Head and 5150 Combo Amp. These amps are a great choice if you want a classic 80s metal sound, as they sound very similar to the original Peavey amps Van Halen used.
Strings used by Van Halen
When emulating the sound of a famous guitarist, using the same string gauge is often overlooked. While this may not have as big of an impact as using the same amp, guitar, and pedals, the strings create specific frequency sounds that can make a huge difference in your sound. Van Halen mostly used regular light gauge Fender strings with thinner treble strings and thicker low strings. This gave him the ability to play super fast licks on the high strings and get a bassy low-end sound on the low strings.
Fender has released EVH style guitar strings that are pretty much identical to the ones he used.
Low E: .052
High E: .010
Have more questions about Van Halen’s gear or other gear from famous guitarists? Feel free to reach out to me!
Anirudh Koul from Montreal, Canada.
Attribution: Anirudh Koul CC BY 2.0