Eddie Van Halen: The Complete 1979 Interview (HD Audio+Transcription)
On Building Guitars, Clone Wars, Style Coppers, and “Women and Children First”
Note to subscribers: An earlier version of this interview audio was posted in July. The new YouTube video embedded below has superior sound. I’ve also added a lightly edited transcription.
To outsiders, Eddie Van Halen seemed to be sitting on top of the world in December 1979. The first two Van Halen albums had gone platinum, the band had just wrapped up a massive world tour, and he’d been widely proclaimed one of the best – if not the best – guitarist in rock and roll. But behind the scenes Eddie had rapidly discovered that fame had its price. He was irritated with manufacturers who’d cloned his trademark guitar, with big-name players copping his techniques, and with journalists misrepresenting his words.
A few days after recording the third Van Halen album, Women and Children First, Eddie called me at home to see how I was doing. When I mentioned I was working on a Guitar Player magazine article on do-it-yourself guitar kits, he volunteered to give me his insights into building guitars. Since he was largely responsible for the trend’s popularity, I accepted his invitation. Two days later, on December 29, 1979, we had that conversation. As you’ll hear, Eddie offers a wealth of insight into his homemade guitars, as well as his feelings about some of the harder lessons he’d learned on and off the road.
Hey, Eddie, how you doing?
Oh, you know, feeling a bit zombied.
Oh, that’s the way I was last night, man.
What made you decide to build your own guitar the first time you ever did it?
The reason I started dickin’ around… See, actually I ruined a lot of old guitars. I just didn’t like the fact of having the standard rock-star setup – you know, a brand-new Les Paul and a Marshall. I was really into vibrato. Like when we used to play the high school dances and shit, I bought myself a ’58 Strat. But it’s only guitar and bass and drums, musically, and the rest of the guys just looked at me and said, “Hey, that thing sounds like hell!” [Laughs.] You know, single-coil pickups, they sound real buzzy, thin. It wasn’t enough sound to fill it up. So the reason I started dickin’ around that way…. What I wanted a Gibson-type of sound, but with a Strat vibrato. So I stuck a humbucking pickup in a Strat. And it worked okay, but it didn’t get good enough tone because, I don’t know, Fenders are kind of cheap wood – they’re made out of alder or something. So then I found out about Charvel, which I don’t want you to mention in the article because I’m suing them right now.
Have they been out of business now for a couple of years?
No, no. Not at all. It’s actually my guitar design that’s keeping them in business. Wayne [Charvel] sold it to a guy named Grover Jackson, and Wayne was a real cool dude. When he owned it, I was considering endorsing it. And then this Grover Jackson dude took over, and he’s just sold so many of them for like a grand apiece.
Are these Eddie Van Halen model guitars?
No kidding. It’s not like I want the money. But the reason I did that – I mean, it looks like a Strat, but it only has one pickup in it, one volume knob, no tone, no fancy garbage. It’s painted, you know, the way I like ’em. You know, I’m not saying it’s “Wow, the new guitar,” but it is a guitar that you could not at the time buy on the market. So he kind of exploited my idea, so I’m suing him. See, I feel kind of fucked doing that, but all I want him to do is to stop. I don’t want the money. I don’t give a damn about the money. But the main reason I did that [built my own guitar] was to have something that no one else had. You know, I wanted it to be my guitar, an extension of myself. Just the other night, Christmas Eve, I went to the Whisky. A band called the Weasels was playing, and the lead guitarist had a guitar exactly like mine. I just don’t understand how someone could walk onstage with my guitar, because it is my trademark. You know, when people see a freaked-out striped guitar like that, with one pickup and one volume knob, they obviously know it’s mine.
There goes your identity, your individual guitar.
Yeah. And also, him selling it and advertising makes the fans think I’m selling myself. They don’t know that I’m against it, [they think] that I’m out for the bucks. That’s not it at all. So it’s kind of a drag. There’s another guy too…. See, I’ve rewound my own pickups before, and a guy named Seymour Duncan – you probably know him – I got pissed at him too. He called me up and said, “Can we use your name for a special pickup?” And I said no. Next time I pick up Guitar Player magazine, there’s a special Van Halen model customized Duncan pickup. So I called him up and said, “What the hell’s goin’ on?” So he stopped, finally.
What a drag.
It’s just kind of weird, you know.
You’re just getting exploited. Anyway, going back to making your guitar, I won’t mention Charvel.
Yeah. Just say something like there are a lot of different companies where you can buy parts. DiMarzio makes parts, Charvel. The main person who I buy parts from now is a guy up in Seattle named Lynn Ellsworth. He makes Boogie Bodies. He’s a nice guy.
How many guitars have you made now?
Let’s see. About seven.
And how many are part of your act?
See, what I do mainly is I use one a year. Like the first year, supporting the first album, I used the black-and-white-striped one.
What was in that one?
That was actually the original. It was not rear-loaded. It had a pickguard which I cut out myself, and it had an old Gibson P.A.F. [“patent applied for” pickup]. The thing I always do to the pickups is I pot ’em. You dip them in paraffin wax, which cuts out the high, obnoxious feedback. It’s kind of a tricky thing, because if you leave it in there too long, the pickup melts [laughs].
You just heat up some paraffin at home and stick it in it?
Oh, yeah. You just take a coffee can and use the same kind of wax that you use to wax a surfboard. You just melt it down, put the pickup in it. See, the reason the pickup feeds back is the coil windings vibrate. When the wax soaks in there, it keeps it from vibrating. It still feeds back, but it’s controllable. It’s like it feeds back when you want it.
Yeah. You can get feedback when you want it. It doesn’t cut out feedback totally; it just gets rid of that real high squeal, like a microphone feeding back.
And you used a Gibson P.A.F. or a copy of one?
Is that the guitar you had when I did the first  Guitar Player story on you?
That’s not the one that had the chain in it. It’s the other one.
You mean the – what do you call those things?
You had one that you cut with a chainsaw . . .
Yeah, yeah. That was originally an Ibanez Destroyer. And it was one of the original ones, which are actually as good or better than the original Gibsons, because they’re made out of korina wood, which is real rare, hard-to-work-with wood. But real toney. It’s real light wood, but real toney. Ibanez stopped making them out of that wood, probably because it’s too hard to work with. They started making them out of ash, and those are turkeys.
That’s too bad. Some of the companies now are really coming out with strong lines with about twenty different kinds of wood.
And for your hardware on your first one, your Strat-style guitar, where did you go for that?
Well, it was actually the old ’58 Strat. I took the vibrato tailpiece — I guess that’s about it, yeah. I took that out. Like new Fenders, the vibrato tailpiece isn’t half as good as the original old ones. So I took that out of the ’58 and went to Charvel and bought a heavier piece of wood. And I really like wide necks – you know, I hate skinny necks. I like them real wide, almost like a classical guitar. You know, they’re real flat and wide. They’re thin . . . I don’t know how to explain it. I mean, they’re real wide up and down, but thin the other way.
So it’s wide across the fingerboard, but it’s a thin neck.
You got the neck at Charvel too?
Was that a maple neck?
Yeah. And also, see, I don’t like ’em sprayed. I hate the lacquer shit.
Do you put oil on it?
No, nothin’. Just bare wood. Because I like to feel the wood, you know? I hate to slip and slide. You start sweatin’, and you can’t stretch the strings.
How long did it take to make that first one?
Not really too long, but it took me a while to build up to doing that. Like I used to have an old [Gibson ES-] 335, which if I didn’t ruin would be worth a lot of money right now. I refret ’em myself. I do just about everything. By trial and error, I’m pretty good at it now. But I’ve ruined a lot of good stuff learning.
Did you make a different guitar for your second album and second tour?
What’s in that one?
Well, see, it was my idea to have it rear-loaded, so it wouldn’t have a pickguard. Charvel routed it for me, because at the time I couldn’t afford a router. So they claim that they built it for me, which is actually bullshit. You know, all they did was they did what I told them to do. That’s the guitar on the second album cover.
What kind of electronics and hardware went into that one?
The pickup that’s on the picture is not really what I used. It’s like when we did the photo session for the album cover, I’d just finished painting it and slapping it together. I just stuck some garbage pickup in there I wasn’t actually playing, just so it would look like a complete guitar. But I’ve tried a bunch of different pickups in there. Like, I took the pickup out of the first one and put it in there, and it didn’t sound too good. So what I did is I took a DiMarzio pickup – I don’t really go for those, because they’re real distorted. See, I like a clean sound, but with sustain. I hate the fuzz-box, real raspy sound. I don’t particularly go for that.
It’s old now.
Yeah. So what I did is I took the DiMarzio pickup…. They have real big magnets – that’s how they get their power – so what I did is I took a DiMarzio pickup and put the P.A.F. magnet in it and I rewound it, which took a long time.
You did that by hand?
Yeah. It took a long time to rewind that thing. Actually, I ruined about three pickups. By the fourth time, you know, it worked.
Did you have an idea of how many windings you wanted?
Uh, just by sight.
Did you use fresh wire?
Yeah. See, I’ve done something else too – I put two Strat pickups together and added more windings to make a humbucking out of it.
Did that work?
Uh, it got kind of an interesting tone. It sounded like a heavy-duty Telecaster.
Well, actually, it was kind of bassy, but it didn’t have the bite. It had kind of a unique sound, not something that I could use.
What other pickups did you try?
That’s about it. I’d do anything to get an old P.A.F.
An old Gibson P.A.F.?
Yeah, they’re the best.
I’ll keep my eye to the ground. I run across them every once in a while.
They go for 100, 200 bucks apiece, but that’s what I use, that’s what I like. A lot of people don’t like ’em. See, with my setup, it’s matched. If I play my guitar through someone else’s setup, it won’t sound right. If I use someone else’s guitar through my setup, it won’t sound right.
So what pickup did you finally end up putting in it?
A DiMarzio with a P.A.F. magnet, rewound with copper tape around the windings.
And then dipped in paraffin?
Yeah. Well, I dipped it in paraffin before I put the copper tape on. But DiMarzio plastic is real cheap. You have to really be careful. It looks like a wrinkled prune, actually, but it still works [laughs]. It’s real cheap stuff. Old P.A.F.s, just throw them in there and let them soak it up. Doesn’t matter how hot it gets – doesn’t melt. But DiMarzios, God! If you blink, all of a sudden your pickup’s ruined.
So you dip the entire pickup and the casing into wax?
Yeah, the whole thing submerged in paraffin wax.
How many pickups are on that second guitar?
Actually, this year, supporting the second album, I used two guitars. One of them was the original guitar, the first year. Because Charvel started copying them, I said, “What the fuck, man. Let’s change it.” So what I did is I really went to town painting it all freaked out, and I put three pickups back in. But they didn’t work – only the rear one worked. But I did it just because they copped my original idea. I did it just to be different again, so every kid who bought one like the model I had last year would go, “Oh, man! He’s got something different again.” [Laughs.] Well, you know, I always like to turn the corner on people when they start latching on to what I’m doing.
That makes a lot of sense.
I never really imagined that people would do something like that. I just kind of fell into this whole business. I’m just a punk kid, trying to get a sound out of a guitar that I couldn’t off the rack, so I built one myself, and now everyone else wants one.
So you’ve got to keep going for the individualistic stuff.
So the first guitar now has three pickups, and the second one has one or two?
Have you built any since then?
Okay. I bought a couple of necks from Boogie Bodies, which I refretted with larger frets.
Like Gibson Jumbos?
I guess. I’m pretty sure they’re Gibsons. I don’t know. The way people do fret jobs, I hate. I do it real simple. I just sand it down with some 400 wet or dry – that dark stuff – and then I just use steel wool. I like real rounded frets. I hate them flat, you know, like the old Les Paul Custom “fretless wonders” or whatever you used to call them – I couldn’t stand those, because the intonation’s off. The more a fret comes to a peak, the more precise the intonation is. The more fret space you have that the string rests on, the harder it is for it to be right on. So what I do is I sand them and build them up to a point, instead of being flat. Most fret jobs, they file them flat, and they do them individually, which I think is kind of a stupid way to do it, because if they do them one by one, then how do you know they’re all even? I don’t know if it’s a weird way of doing it, but I just do it a real simple, cheap way. But it works for me.
Have you put any of these necks onto bodies yet?
Oh, yeah. Okay, another thing. There’s a guy named Floyd Rose. I have a vibrato setup that he makes, and I like it and I don’t. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Like in the studio, I use a standard vibrato.
Yeah. I’m used to it.
The one off the ’58?
Yeah. I’m real used to it. People go, “Wow, how do you keep it in tune?” Well, it’s actually a totally different technique. I mean, there are special tricks that I know to keep it in tune, but it still goes out of tune. You have to play with it. If you bring the bar down, the G and the B string always go sharp when you let it back. So what you have to do before you hit a barre chord, you gotta stretch those strings back – a real quick little jerk, and it’ll pop back right to where it was. But it’s totally different than playing a Les Paul. A lot of kids, they go, “Hey, how do you keep it in tune?” and they pick up a guitar and just go crazy on that bar.
It takes a lot of finesse.
It’s just a totally different technique. That vibrato thing is actually like another instrument. You’ve got to know how to use it. You can’t just grab it, jerk the thing, and expect it to stay in tune. The Floyd Rose thing is a real good idea. My brother actually had the exact same idea years ago. He said, “Ed, why don’t you do this – clamp it down here and there, and there’s no way it will go out of tune.” But I just kind of passed it off. I go, “Yeah, right.” Because I don’t have a machine shop, I couldn’t build it. So Floyd pursued it, and he’s got a hot item. But it has disadvantages too, because I tune a lot while I’m playing. I’ll hit a chord and tune it while I’m playing. With this thing, you can’t. You have to unclamp it and then tune it.
Does it stay in tune as much as people like [Randy] Hansen say it does?
Okay. It’s hard to get in tune perfectly. Well, I mean, any guitar. A guitar is just theoretically built wrong. Each string is an interval of fourths, and then the B string is off. Theoretically, it’s not right. Like if you tune an open-E chord in the first position and it’s perfectly in tune, and then you hit a barre chord an octave higher, it’s out of tune. The B string is always a motherfucker to keep in tune all the time! So I have to retune for certain songs.
That’s why you can’t use the Floyd onstage.
I do, and then I have to unclamp it and do it real quick. But with a standard-vibrato guitar, I can tune it while I’m playing.
How do you set up the intonation on your homemade guitar? Do you have to take it to somebody?
No, I actually pretty much do it by ear. It’s not that hard. You just hit the – what do you call it?
The [12th fret] harmonic and then hit the [open] note, and it’s obvious if it’s off. So you just kind of have to have an ear for it. I got pretty good ears, I guess.
Do you go for brass hardware?
Because it’s too brittle sounding. See, that’s the thing I was getting to also. I like the sound I get out of the normal old Fender tremolo. The only thing I don’t like about the Floyd Rose thing – it’s a great idea, you can go crazy with the bar – but I don’t know what kind of metal he uses, but it sounds real brittle-bright. I have to do some heavy equalization to get a tone out of it. That’s why I don’t use it in the studio. Because in the studio, Ted [Templeman] really doesn’t do much equalization. We just go in there and play live. I depend on making it sound good out of the amp, instead of, “Oh, well, fix it in the mix.” That’s why it also goes so quick. We just finished recording our third album in six days.
Just a few days ago?
We finished about a week ago. Well, we finished the music in six days.
In six days? No kidding!
Well, we just go in there and play live. I mean, how long does that take?
You mentioned that you had 21 songs the last time you went into the studio for your second album. Did you use any of them for the third?
All new ones?
Yeah. You know, it’s weird: I like to be excited too. I think you’ll kind of trip off the next album. It’s hard rock.
Let’s see. [Pause.] Yeah, there’s a thing on there, a real weird vibrato noise. It actually sounds like an airplane starting. Dave wanted to call it “Tora Tora.” [Laughs.] I wanted to call it “Act Like It Hurts.” We haven’t decided. It’s kind of a trippy album. I like it. I think you have to listen to it a couple of times. It’s a little bit different than the past.
You should be getting ready for a live album after this one.
Well, I look at it this way: Our studio albums are like live albums.
Yeah. They’ve got the feel.
That’s because they are live! I don’t do any overdubs. I just solo on the basic track. One song — I want to tell you about, because if you hear it, you might not even notice. I play an electric piano.
It’s called “And the Cradle Will Rock.” The name of the new album is Women And Children First. [Laughs.] I played a Wurlitzer electric piano through my Marshall stacks, and it sounds like guitar!
I’ve never heard of someone doing that.
Wait ’til you hear it! I play it for people, and I have to tell them that’s a piano. And they go, “What?!” It sounds real good. It’s real simple. You know, I’ve been trained on classical piano since I was six years old, but it doesn’t show. [Laughs.] You know, it’s nothing tasteful. I just picked the thing up and started banging on it. Wait ’til you hear this noise on it; it’s tripped out!
Did you run the piano through any effects?
Just my pedalboard, my cheap piece of plywood with my MXR garbage. You know, that’s funny too. I’ve met just about everybody that I grew up on, and they all laugh – you know, like [Ronnie] Montrose and [Ted] Nugent and all these people. Last year when we’d open for them, they’d walk up to me and go, “What is this shit?” You know, I got my little plywood with an MXR phase shifter duct-taped onto it. And then after the show they start trippin’. They go [in a quiet, respectful voice], “Whoa! How do you get that sound?” I look at them, I look at Ronnie — don’t write any of this — I really think it’s funny. I see Ronnie Montrose with his $4,000 studio rack with his digital delay and his harmonizer and everything else, and I swear to God, I can’t tell he’s using it. And then he laughed himself silly looking at my stuff. And then later on he’s going, “Whoa, how do you get that sound?” And Nugent, we opened for him, three shows in Maryland. The first day he’s just saying, “You little fucker, you.”
Nugent would say that to you?
Yeah, but he meant it jokingly. And he laughed. He said, “What is this garbage pedalboard you use?” By the third day, he came to our soundcheck and asked me if he could play through my equipment. I just said, “Hey, Ted, you can play through it if you want, but it’s not gonna sound the way it sounds when I play through it.” Because it really isn’t the equipment. It’s in the fingers. Not to sound egoed-out, but it is.
You use techniques they don’t use.
I’ve gone through every amp on the market. First tour I started out using my old 100-watt amp, which breaks down every other song, so I started using new Marshalls. I didn’t like they way they sounded, but I had to. I just had to have something that would make it through the show. Then I lost them somewhere on an airplane, never got them back. And I started using Music Mans. I used Laneys. I used just about everything, and they all pretty much sounded the same, just because I play the same.
What did you finally settle with?
Well, in the studio I use my old Marshall, which gets a slightly different sound. Live I use new Marshalls, but I do little tricks to them too.
Do you still overdrive them?
Yeah. I don’t even use fuses in my amps. See, okay, I use a combination of two different amps. They’re both Marshalls, but one of them is actually lower-powered and the other one is boosted. And I use them together. Like one of them has this giant capacitor – I don’t know what they’re used for, but it takes off ten volts. It doesn’t really change the sound. Whatever I use, I use to the max. I just turn it all the way up. And a standard, on-the-market amp won’t last that long doing that. So I put this capacitor in there, which lowers it down to about 100. I mean, a Marshall is under-rated. They’re actually like 150 watts, even though they say that they’re a 100-watt amp. So I lower it about ten volts, and it lasts a little longer. I still have to retube them once a week.
Do you lose many of them during shows?
Uh, yeah. But I have so many of them. I use between twelve and fifteen.
How many are switched on?
Usually six at a time. Depends on the size of the place I’m playing. I mean, I can actually play so loud onstage that you won’t hear anything else. But I don’t really like to do that. I like to get balanced sound. Actually, they’re all on, and I have this footswitch where if one blows out, I just kick the switch and it changes to another one. It’s like a bypass switch. When you click it on, the other amp comes in. It’s simple, you know. It’s all basement stuff. I mean, everything we do, we do ourselves in the basement.
And it’s funny how far people will go trying to duplicate your sound.
Going back to your guitars, have you built any new ones?
Yeah, I was just getting to that. I had a mahogany body made by Boogie Bodies.
Yeah. It fits me, because I’m small. It just feels good on me. I had it made like two-and-a-half inches thick, which is thicker than a Les Paul.
For the sound?
Yeah, because it’s got a Floyd Rose tailpiece on it It gets such a thin sound, I just thought that maybe if I got a chunky piece of wood, it would make up for the tinkiness of the sound. But, ehh. Well, it works a little bit.
What kind of hardware did you put in it?
It has an old Gibson P.A.F. in it and just one volume knob.
Did you use Schaller tuning heads?
Yeah. They’re about the best kind, I guess.
What other electronics are in it?
Well, the wire from the pickup to the pot. That’s it.
Not much can go wrong.
It’s real simple. That’s what’s so funny. I mean, everything I do is simple. That’s why people trip, because everyone tries to do the cosmic trip – you know, like the more complicated, the better. “Look at this guitar, it’s got fifteen phase switches on it!” Who gives a fuck? I just use raw power.
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How much time do you spend putting them together?
I’m pretty quick at it now. I don’t know. I spend an hour or two.
Putting a guitar together?
How do you finish them?
Well, this one I haven’t painted yet. I use Schwinn bicycle paint. It’s acrylic lacquer, like car paint. It’s good paint.
Do you still tape it to get the stripes?
Yeah. I love stripes.
Are you building any other ones?
No, not really. I’ve got so many guitars now I don’t know which one to play. There’s a guitar I want made, but I don’t know who I want to have build it, see, because I love 335s. I mean, I can haul ass on those things. When I pick up a 335, you probably wouldn’t even recognize my playing.
What happens to it?
There’s no vibrato, and I just play totally different. It’s more jazzy, more fluid-fast. Kind of like [Allan] Holdsworth — daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily. Like that, you know. That’s another reason I actually started using a vibrato, because I started playing so fast that it lacked. It was just too much – daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily, like that. So what I do now is I go, daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily, waaahh-waaah-waaah, daadaadiddily, daadaadiddily, waaahh-waaah. [Laughs.] You know, to break it up a little bit. It’s like a race car racing down the road, and then crashing every now and then. I use the bar…. I really don’t have special chops down with it. I just grab it when I feel like it. I like it because I can get more feeling out of it. When I grab it, that’s what I feel.
Make that guitar cry for you.
When you put together these axes, Eddie, what’s the hardest part?
Making the neck fit the body. Another problem with the Gibson pickup, or any humbucking-style pickup, is that the bridge on a Stratocaster is wider than a Gibson, so the strings don’t line up with the pickup poles. I’ve tried slanting the pickup, the double-poled humbucking, so one of them would pick it up if the other one didn’t. If you slant it, the high E would be picked up by the front pole, and the low E would be picked up by the rear pole, whereas if it was straight, the high E and the low E would lose power.
Which way do you tilt it — toward the neck?
Uh, no. The bottom part to it is towards the bridge. But it’s also important, to me anyway, for the sound I like, to do the space between the bridge and pickup almost like a Les Paul. The pickup placement has a lot to do with how it’s gonna sound. If you put it up too far, you get the Grand Funk-Johnny Winter tone. And if you put it too close to the bridge, you get a real trebly Strat-like sound. So I move it up a little bit from the Strat sound to get a little beefier tone.
What would be your ideal guitar? What would you like to have in the future?
Pretty much what I have. That’s the main thing that pissed me off about Charvel, because I spent 150 bucks building my own guitar.
Is that the first one?
No, all of them. Well, maybe a little more because of the bicycle paint.
How about time-wise?
Well, the painting is the most involved thing. If you want it to come out good, you have to spray it and then let it dry overnight. And then wet-sand it, spray it again. You have to do that about six times. The more coats you put on and wet-sand it, the more shiny, the more glossy it looks. Sometimes I just get fed up and go, “What the hell. Who cares what it looks like?” The original guitar, which I repainted and put three pickups back in, I painted in about two hours.
When you say it costs $150 to make one, are you just talking about the wood?
Yeah, and buying the parts.
And that doesn’t include pickups?
No, it doesn’t. I have so many parts that I just take something out of something else and put it in.
If you want, I’ll try to find you a source for vintage P.A.F. pickups.
That’d be great. See, another thing, if you do find them, I’ll give you the money and you buy it.
You don’t want them to know it’s for you.
Well, if they do, they’ll jack up the price. There’s a place called House of Guitars or something – this is when we were touring with Black Sabbath – and Tony Iommi goes in there. And they just racked up the price unbelievable. They figured, hey, rock star, he’s got a lot of money. I was smart, and I had my roadie go in and get a price list. They didn’t know that I knew the price list, so I walked in with it, and I go, “How much do you want for this?” And they quoted me a price a grand above what it said on the paper. I said, “Wait a minute, man, it says right here that it’s . . . .” And they said, “Oh, oh, oh,” and tried to make excuses. I hate dealing with people like that. That’s another reason why I build my own. I also did buy two old Les Pauls, just actually for an investment, because I don’t play them.
No. I bought a ’59 Les Paul Standard, which is a beautiful guitar – I don’t even want to tell you how much I paid for it. For the person who wants it, the price doesn’t matter. Like other people will say, “Oh, what a fool. You got ripped off.” Okay, I spent ten grand on both of them, but they’re beautiful guitars.
Where did you find them at?
A guy named Norman Harris. This stuff wasn’t even in his shop; it’s so nice, he was afraid to let any punk kid touch it. It’s a beautiful flame-maple top. Right now I’m trying to figure out where to keep them. When we played the [Los Angeles] Forum – we ended our tour at the Forum – my mom and dad came. And when my mom came home, the house got ripped off for about twenty gold and platinum albums. Which is real fucked, because playing the Forum is like a dream come true. I’ve seen everyone play there. It was a hell of an event for me, and then I come home and the back door is smashed in and all the records are gone.
You ought rent someplace where you can store things under a different name or leave them with someone you can trust.
Yeah. It’s such a drag. To tell you the truth, I’m not into the star bullshit at all.
Gets old fast, doesn’t it, Eddie?
Yeah. I mean, a lot of people get off on it. They let their hair grow, buy a Les Paul and a Marshall, and be a rock and roll star. I don’t even consider myself a rock star. I enjoy playing guitar, period.
You’ve been doing a lot of work. They’re working your band a lot.
No, we’re working our band a lot. That’s what we want. The only thing that sells us is our live show. Actually, everything we do is the complete reverse of other people. We applied all we ever knew, our live show. We never knew much about recording, overdubbing. That’s why when we did our first album, I said, “Hey, Ted, I’ve never done overdubs.” Just the thought of playing to a machine, to me, would lose feel. So I said, “Can I just play live?” You know, go for what you know. So I did, and Ted freaked out. He’s going, “Whoa! It doesn’t even need another guitar.” Because what we did was apply our live show, our live performance, to plastic, whereas people like Boston and Foreigner, they do it the opposite way. They work it out in the studio, and then when they have to go out on tour, they have to rehearse to make it happen live, and it’s obvious. With us, actually, there’s more mania and more feel and more excitement live, because that’s where it’s based. That’s where it comes from. I mean, that’s bottom line. The only thing that sells us is the live show. It’s not hype. I mean, we’re not new wave. They print more garbage about Elvis Costello and . . . you name it. You rarely see us.
But musically, you’ve got these people beat.
Yeah. I guess. I don’t really look at it competitively at all; I just enjoy what I do, period. And I really get off that people like it. Because when we did our first album, we just put on it what we liked. And for it to sell that many copies freaked me out!
How many copies has that album sold?
It’s up to about four million now – between three and four.
That’s unheard of. That album was in the charts for more than a year.
It just popped backed in.
When is your next one coming out?
That’ll be a good way to start the ’80s.
Yeah. And the touring is what does it. Okay, like say with Boston, you know. They’re known for a song. They’re known through the radio. You know, kids drive down the street and they hear that song, and it registers. And they go, “Oh, Boston. Yeah! I know that song. Let’s go see them.” With us it’s different. They come and see us, half the time not even knowing who we are, and then go, “Whoa! I gotta buy the record.” When we first started touring, we were third bill. We opened for Ronnie Montrose and Journey. And within two months, they were begging us to stay.
Do you make money on tours?
Uh, we break even, because we put all our money into the sound system and lighting.
And then you’ve got to depend on record sales.
Yeah. We tour to sell the record.
Are you going to be touring as much as you have been?
Sure. This year will probably be the last ten-month world vacation. I don’t want to turn out like a Foghat.
What do you mean?
You can always see Foghat, that type of thing. There’s got to be a little bit of mystique there. You gotta leave them wanting more. That was our whole philosophy last year’s tour. Like they were begging us to do another show at the Forum – we sold it out in an hour-and-a-half, and we just said no way. You know, build up to it. Take it step by step. All these promoters are trying to take advantage of you. They’re just thinking bucks right now. We’ll lose money just to build, as opposed to taking the money and running, you know.
Is your music changing much?
Yes and no. It’s hard for me to say. Listen to the new album and call me up and let me know what you think.
How about with your playing? Are you learning new things all the time?
Yeah. Like if I sit down and play by myself, I play completely different than I would when I’m playing with the band sometimes.
It’s hard to explain, really. It’s like I love Allan Holdsworth. I can play like that, but it doesn’t fit to the music that we’re playing. I don’t know – I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just really go for feeling. All our albums have mistakes. Big deal! We’re human. It reeks of feeling, you know, and to me that is what music is all about. Like Fleetwood Mac spent so much money and so much time [in the studio], and my thing is, if something is too perfect, it won’t phase you. It goes in one ear and out the other, because it’s so perfect.
It doesn’t change your mood. It doesn’t lift you up or bring you down.
Our stuff, to me, keeps you on the edge of your seat. It builds tension. Whether you like it or not, it slaps you in the face.
It’s “Ice Cream Man” when the electricity comes in.
Yeah. It’s almost like you’re just waiting for us to blow it. You’re sitting on the edge of your seat, just waiting for something to go wrong. But it doesn’t, and that’s what creates that feel, that tension. It’s like winding something up and waiting to see when it’s gonna break. It’s just inner feelings coming out. It’s not conscious. That’s just the way I am.
You sure have a legion of followers out there now.
Yeah, that’s a trip. A real trip. You know, it’s funny too. The things I do, like “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly” – I hate to say it, and it’s not hard to do, but I came up with it.
Listen to the blues — it’s not hard to do, but the guys who came up with it….
Right. Like Rick Derringer opened for us last year, and he did my exact solo. After the show, we’re sitting in the bar, and I just said, “Hey, Rick. I grew up on your ass. How can you do this? I don’t care if you use the technique – don’t play my melody.” And he’s drunk and stupid and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The next night he does my solo again, and he ends the set with “You Really Got Me,” which is exactly what we do. So I hate to say it, but I just told him, “Hey, if you’re going to continue doing that, you ain’t opening for us.” So I kicked him off.
Did he ever open for you again?
No. But it’s fucked, you know, because I’ve seen him plenty of times. I’ve even copied his chops way back when.
The Johnny Winter time?
Yeah. You know, [Johnny Winter’s] Still Alive and Well, stuff like that. And here’s the guy copping my stuff. It’s pretty weird. Tom Scholtz from Boston too. We played right before them – I forget where – and I do my solo. And then all of a sudden he does my solo. And it was real weird, because it was a daytime thing. I was standing onstage, and the whole crowd was looking at me like, “What’s this guy doing?” I was drunk, and I got pissed. Tom Scholtz is a real dick. He’s unsociable. I guess he just thinks he’s God or something. He never comes around; he doesn’t say hi. He doesn’t do anything. He just kind of hides out, runs onstage and plays, and disappears afterwards. So I started talking to the other guitarist [in Boston], and I told him, “Hey. Tell him I think he’s fucked!” I was real pissed, you know. I don’t know. Now I’m just raggin’ [laughs].
Who are the guitarists you dig who are playing now?
It’s funny. There’s two types of guitarists. Like Blackmore, I used to hate, because I met him once at the Rainbow with John Bonham when we were just playing clubs. You know, I grew up on him too, and I ran over and said hello, and they both just looked at me and said, “Who are you? Fuck off.” And it pissed me off.
That was my experience with Ritchie Blackmore.
And to this day I remember that. And then just recently Rainbow played the Long Beach Arena. I went down there. This is right after I won Best Guitarist [in the Guitar Player Readers Poll], which I’m real honored – makes me feel good. I went down there, in a way, with a vengeance, you know. I just felt like saying, “Hey, motherfucker, remember me? About three years ago, when you treated me like shit?” But I didn’t. I just said hello, and he knew me, I guess, just through records and radio, and he complimented me.
Did you hear what happened with him a few weeks ago?
Do you know of Randy Hansen, the Hendrix imitator?
Randy opened for Ritchie Blackmore at the Oakland Auditorium, and Randy just kicked ass.
That’s what happened when I saw him!
I stood there with tears in my eyes. I just couldn’t believe it, and I’ve seen everybody. I ran across Blackmore, standing there watching him too, and he just looked pale, like he didn’t believe it. That night after the show Blackmore reportedly said that he refused to let Randy open for him. They had two more gigs, so their managers switched the bill, and Blackmore opened for Hansen.
Yeah, that’s what happened when I saw them! Ritchie, I guess, was so afraid that he’d blow him away that Ritchie played before Randy. And then Randy came on, and they just fucked him over – you know, equipment problems, power failures. When I talked to Randy afterwards, man, I just didn’t know how to make him feel better, because I know Randy pretty well. I just said, “Shit, man. The more people that hate you, the better you are.”
Do you think so?
Fuck yeah! The more other musicians hate you – they’re jealous! The more they hate you, the better off you are. I mean, no other musician is gonna hate another guitarist if you’re no good. You’re no threat. But I don’t really think about that, because everybody can do their own thing, period. Because I know plenty of people…. U.K. opened for us last year for a few shows. And I never heard of the band U.K. Here we are in Reno, I’m sitting here tuning up, and all of a sudden [in a reverent voice], “Is that Bill Bruford? Whoa!” All of a sudden I got the chills. I was freakin’ out. All of sudden Allan Holdsworth walks in. I’m going, “My God! These guys are opening for us? These guys are veterans!” I mean, they’ve been through it. They played before us, and they bombed. People hated them. But I’m standing there, like you said, with tears in my eyes, just getting off, trippin’. It was so good. But it’s like they’re artists – “I’m playing my art, and I don’t care if you like it or not” – that type of thing, which I think is a real bad attitude. Music is for people. It’s not for yourself. If it is for yourself, sit in your room and play it. But if you’re gonna play it for people, you better play something that they’re gonna want to hear, instead of walking up there and pretending like you’re so good and beyond your audience. That’s what they were doing. They’re playing all this off-beat stuff, which to an average person sounds like mistakes. Because I’m a musician, I get off on it and like it and understand what they’re doing. But they bombed, and I couldn’t believe it. So I’m talking a lot of shit. You’re not gonna write it all, are you?
No. The story is about do-it-yourself guitars.
That’s another thing. I hate doing interviews.
Because they always fuck me over. They always write things, they twist and bend what I say. Like Circus or Creem magazine, I do a phoner with them, and they go, “Oh, just off the record, what do you think of new wave?” And I’m such a stupid jerk, I’ll tell them what I really think. I’ll tell them, “They can’t play for shit. They sound like garage bands, but they have that feeling.” The next thing I know, I pick up the magazine, and they print it.
There’s not too many responsible music journalists out there. To be honest, in all the U.S. we know of maybe four or five guys outside of our own people that we trust to do anything for us.
I hate doing interviews. I just can’t stand it. I just don’t feel like I have anything to say, because if I really say what I feel, they’ll twist and bend it and make me seem like I think I’m egoed out and that I’m God, you know. I did an interview once with Circus magazine, and they asked me, “Who are your main influences?” I said, “Well, Clapton, you know, the usual.” And they said, “Oh, not Jimi Hendrix?” I go, “No, actually I didn’t like Jimi Hendrix at all. He was too flash for me. I get off on the bluesy feeling that Clapton projected.... “ But then I said, “Even though I don’t play like Clapton or sound like him at all.” Which doesn’t sound egoed out, because I don’t sound like him. But when I read it back, they made it seem like, “I don’t play like Clapton. I’m better than all of ’em.” That’s the way it read in print. So I called the guy up. I just go, “Hey, fuck you, man! That’s the last time I’m doing an interview with you.” Which I guess is bad to do too, but I just don’t….
No, man. You deserve to get kicked in the ass if you fuck up somebody. You deserve it because you’ve done more harm than you can undo.
Yeah. The fucked thing is the kids only know me through what they read. I feel like going door to door and going, “Hey, this is bullshit. Don’t believe it.” But the kids do. I ain’t no extrovert. I’m a quiet person. That’s probably why I do all these weird things on guitar.
That’s the same way Jimi Hendrix was, I hear. It seems like sometimes people come with an idea of you, and then they get you to fit it by picking the right quotes.
Yeah. There’s a lot of people who don’t know me who hate me, because they think I’m some egoed-out motherfucker, but I’m not at all.
You can’t win them all over.
I know. That’s just one thing that I never expected. Doing interviews – God! I remember once I did a radio interview in the beginning – I mean, I’m not much of a talker, really. It was live on a Top-40 AM station. They’re all motor mouths – like Dave’s real good at it. You’re excited when you’re listening to him, but when you play the tape back, he actually didn’t say anything, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just excitement. I can’t do that. So here’s Dave motor mouth getting the guy all jazzed up, and then he turns to me and goes, “I understand you and your brother are from Amsterdam, Holland.” And I go, “Yeah.” That was it! Big long pause. I just wasn’t ready for a big long story: “Oh, yeah, we used to live there. I grew up there. We came over . . .” You know.
The best interviews are when two people talk about something that matters to both of them.
Yeah! Yeah. It’s like I’m not an entertainer with my mouth, but everyone expects you to be. It’s just like Mark Spitz, you know. He wins the Olympic gold medal for swimming, and then everybody thinks he’s an actor, but he’s not.
Where is he now?
Exactly! They just exploited the hell out of him, and now he’s nowhere.
How do you keep them from exploiting you?
Don’t talk to ’em. But then again, then they really think I’m egoed out. But they don’t understand I ain’t got nothing to say.
A lot of people try to demand your time, don’t they?
Oh, yeah! And if I won’t talk to them, they get pissed and they hate me. But it’s not that; I just don’t have anything to say. The guitar, man, is part of me. I just feel like saying, “Hey, everything I’ve got to say is in notes.” It really is. I project more feeling out of playing than I can with my mouth. I feel like I can never explain myself right. No one really understands what I’m trying to say, and then they just kind of use their own imagination to figure out what I’m trying to say, which is usually wrong.
Are you happy with the way things are going now with the band and your career?
Oh, yeah. It’s the same as it’s always been. We do everything ourselves. We got rid of our first manager because he had a heavy ego problem. He wanted to be the big manager, in control of everything. We’d say, “Hey, don’t do that. We want it done our way. For better or worse, we want it our way,” and he couldn’t handle it. So we got rid of him and went through a big lawsuit. 300 grand. It’s just fucked. This is all stuff that I never imagined I’d get into. I just figured, “Hey, I can make my music – period.”
And all that stuff takes you away from it.
Yeah, but I’m handling it.
You’ve probably learned more in the last two years than you ever imagined you would.
Oh, my God. You wouldn’t believe it. Things you can’t learn in any book or any school.
But you guys have all weathered it well.
Yeah, doin’ our best, you know.
This has been a real nice conversation, Ed.
Thank you. Yeah. I enjoy talkin’ to people who understand what I’m saying. I rarely talk like this to anybody that I don’t really know.
It’s hard to. How many times do you get a chance to really talk about it?
Not often. The only other journalist that I can think of who’s a real nice guy is Steve Rosen. I can sit around and shoot the shit with him.
He’s real easy to get along with.
Yeah. But in the beginning when I first did an interview with him I was afraid. I’d get real uptight. I’d worry about the things I say. But now I’ve gone to concerts with him, and it’s more like he’s a friend too. I can just say what I feel.
And he’ll treat you right in the press.
Which is something I’ve always respected him for.
So how long are you on vacation for?
Well, actually it’s not much of a vacation, because we run everything ourselves. We design our own album cover, we have to be in the office every day to sign checks – the whole corporation or whatever revolves around us. Nothing can be done without our approval. We have photo approval – that’s another thing that was a hassle and a half. People shooting our live shows, and us telling them, “Hey, we want to pick the shots and then give them back to you. And those are the ones you can send out.” People like Lynn Goldsmith and a bunch of people. What’s this guy’s name in England? Fin Costello. I mean, these guys, they go “Sure, yeah.” They figure we never read the magazines, we never see them. All of a sudden we see pictures that are pictures we wouldn’t have wanted printed. So we call them up and go, “Hey, what the fuck’s going on? I thought we agreed to let us approve them and just send out the ones we want.” So we don’t deal with them anymore.
There are a lot of people out to use you for any way they can get ahead.
Yeah. It was just egos. People have ego problems. Sometimes I look at myself and I go, “Fuck, I don’t have an ego at all.”
The dangerous position you’re in is that you might be having a bad day or say something to somebody, just like anyone would. But because of who you are, they may attribute all sorts of other things to it.
Everybody needs to get away and be by themselves. Do you get enough time to do that?
As much as I can, because I am pretty much a loner. I just can’t get along with people. They don’t understand me. If I go to a party and I don’t talk, it’s not because I’m unsociable and think I’m bitchin’. It’s just that I’m quiet. I have nothing to say. I spend a lot of time alone, playing my guitar.
I’ve heard that from guys who’ve toured with you.
It’s just more satisfying. I get something out of it. It’s just a feeling. I don’t like to waste my time acting, because I’m no good at acting.
Do what you do best — just keep playing that old guitar!
Well, Eddie, I’ve got to thank you for this.
You need anything else on guitars?
The story is trying to let people know what the options are beyond buying stock Fenders and stuff. Just if you have any advice for people who want to build their own guitars.
Sure, I’d have a lot of advice, but I can’t tell you over the phone. I’d have to have a guitar and show you.
You had to try a lot of different pickups and it took you a lot of work to find the one.
Sure. And then again, it has to be matched – like that certain pickup will only sound good in that guitar. Take it out and put in another one, and it won’t sound right.
Hey, I hear you met my boss [Don Menn] the other day.
He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
Yeah, he’s a nice guy. So when are you gonna do a cover story on me?
In 1980, I hope.
Yeah, that’d be great.
I want to be the one that does it.
Yeah. Tell him.
Tell him you want to do a cover story.
I just did one with Pat Travers that’s coming out in about a week.
How come I don’t get one?
I’ll tell you the truth on that one. That was going to be a story inside, and we were going to put Kenny Burrell on the cover. And Kenny reportedly told us he wants money.
He wanted money? He wanted money for you doing a cover story?
Here’s what happened. A long time ago, we [GPI Publications] put out a record of guitar players. We hired Burrell to produce it, and then he reportedly bailed out, like, two cuts into the project. And we had to get a couple of other producers to put the record out. Now he’s telling us that we should give him $25,000, or something like that.
And because of that he wouldn’t do an interview. He missed out on having the first cover story of the ’80s. And his career is in a position now where a cover in Guitar Player sure wouldn’t hurt him.
Really. So do one on me.
I want to.
Shit, Best Rock Guitarist, you know. And I see clowns on the cover who….
You don’t even have to say it. I know.
That’s what I don’t understand. It seems like everyone hates my ass or something.
No, no. The way we’re set up [at Guitar Player magazine] is we’ve got to wait a year or two between stories before you put a guy on the cover.
That’s just the way it is. There’s very little question about the fact that you’ll be a cover. That’s inevitable. And that probably will be our best-selling issue of the year. I’ll do what I can — you can be sure of that.
That would be like a dream come true for me.
We’ll get it. I’ll bring it up on Monday and do what I can. We have a lot of stuff on this tape. Yeah, that last story was only like a 45-minute interview [this refers to Eddie’s “My First Interview,” linked below]. And at the time I didn’t know your music that well.
And at the time, I was nervous talking to you, too.
I was supposed to do Travers that day, and he said he was too tired or something. And then I ran across you, and it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I wasn’t as prepared as I usually like to be.
Now that I’ve talked to you, I feel real comfortable talking to you. I’d love to do an interview with you.
I’ll mention it to Don and we’ll try to at least get the interview. When are you going to be back up in this [San Francisco] area?
God, that’s so hard to say.
Are you gonna be in L.A. for a while?
Yeah. We’ll be here probably until the end of February.
Well, I’m coming down there in early February.
Maybe I can just do it then.
Let’s do it then.
Okay, for sure.
You got my home phone number, right?
Yeah, I talked to your mom a couple of times.
Give me a buzz.
Hey, thanks a million, Edward.
Same to you, Jas.
I’ll see you next time.
Eddie did get his cover. Upon my return to the office, Don Menn immediately approved my proposal. Sixteen days after the above interview took place, Eddie and I met at Neil Zlozower’s photo studio in Hollywood and did an interview that lasted several hours. The cover Eddie wanted came out that April. And it was, in fact, our best-selling issue.
Look for a podcast of this interview sometime this spring!
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