Early Van Halen Tone!

Posted: November 18, 2013 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 4.36.16 PMArguably one of the greatest guitar tones in Rock history was Eddie’s sound on the early Van Halen albums. This was captured by engineer Donn Landee, and producer Ted Templeman of Montrose and Doobie Brothers fame at the legendary Sunset Sound studios. Eddie’s tone had a lot to do with Eddie’s playing, his great sense of time and tuning but you just can’t ignore his eccentric gear setup!

In interviews, Eddie claimed he used his old Marshall Plexi. If you’ve ever played through a Marshall Plexi, then you have to scratch your head and think, huh? Plexis just don’t sound like that. Furthermore, I’ve heard that Eddie’s amp guru “Jose Arredondo” didn’t modify the Plexi much. I never doubted that Eddie was being honest about his amp but over the years I’ve always wondered how he made it sound like that, what gives?

A few months back I was researching  ”On Fire,” from Van Halen’s first album for Guitar World Magazine’s “Pedals and Amp Suggestions.” First, I knew Eddie used a Variac variable voltage supply to lower the voltage to his Plexi to about ninety volts. This made the amp overdrive at a lower volume. But surfing the internet I discovered Eddie’s second trick! He used a “dummy load!” He plugged his Plexi’s speaker-out into electronic components that absorbed all the amp’s power!  Eddie then ran his Plexi at full volume but the output ended up near line level. This made his 100 watt Plexi into a big “four-power-tube” distortion box!!! Check out the amplifier description at this site: Brown Sound

Using a dummy load also allowed Eddie to run his flanger, phaser and tape echo after the amp-distortion so the effects sounded clear and not distorted. He then re-amped everything with a stereo H&H power amp into two Marshall cabs with low powered 25 watt celestions. Running the low powered speakers added a bit of speaker distortion too.

Btw, pretty sure Eddie also inserted a MXR graphic EQ pedal between guitar and amp for a mid boost, maybe just for solos. Below are my notes.

Eddiesgear2The main advantage of using this type of setup is that distortion comes from the amp’s power amp section! If you’re using a master volume, it allows you to distort the preamp section. However, unless you really crank the amp insanely loud, the power amp stays pretty clean. Eddie always claimed he liked power amp distortion!

There are multiple amp attenuator units available these days that you can use as a dummy load. Also, If you want to run your effects after the power amp like Eddie did, then you’ll need the amp attenuator to have a “line out.” Then from the line out you can go into your effects and then a power amp. Here’s a link to Mitch Gallagher at Sweetwater showing one of these attenuator units. Sweetwater Demo

Eddie had some other tricks up his sleeve too. In a previous post about pickups I describe how Eddie screwed his humbucker into his guitar so it had a solid wood contact. All pickups are slightly microphonic. So, in addition to the pickup’s normal function, a solid wood contact makes the pickup act like a contact mic too.  

One note, in the early years Eddie did use the Univox Tape Echo pictured above in my notes. By the time he recorded the first album he may have switched to an Echoplex. 

Rock on!


  1. RoKh says:

    I have a RockCrusher and works really well. This might be cool as well: http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/RockCrushREC

    • phanson says:

      Yo Roman, cool!!! That’s right you told me about it. As I recall you use a Mesa amp? Did you ever try using the unbalanced line out to fx pedals then into a power amp and speakers? What always impressed me about VH’s set up was his MXR flanger and tape delay sounded so good!

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