By Zac DelVecchio
In the height of the 1970s, in what was then considered the peak of guitar playing, one kid turned the world upside down. Just as everyone remembers their first guitar, every single guitar player remembers the first time Eddie Van Halen graced their ears. It’s a moment of sheer acoustic acrobatics, dynamics, swing, and sweet, sweet tone. Eddie’s bombastic playing needs no introduction, and there is certainly no substitute.
On October 6th, 2020, the world lost this guitar idol to the idols, and with that, a wave of love and support for Van Halen has since seemed to sweep the planet. With over 56 million albums sold, 23 songs on the Billboard Top 100, and millions of inspired guitar players, Van Halen has left a legacy that will endure for all time.
Just as Les Paul was known for his insatiable quest for the ultimate tone, Eddie Van Halen, too, had the same affliction. These sonic innovations have not only created dozens of companies, new patents, and new instruments but created just as many genres. Today we go through the evolution of Eddie Van Halen’s legendary Frankenstrat Guitar.
It All Starts With Great Bones
While many guitar enthusiasts spend thousands (or more!) on bespoke instruments, a humble Eddie Van Halen changed the world with a $130 partscaster.
Procuring a $50 B-Stock Boogie Body from Wayne Charvel made of Northern Ash and an $80 2 piece Birdseye Maple neck, Eddie began to set off on a build that would change the world.
1) 1978: The Body and Neck’s Specs
The Boogie Body was marked as a B-stock piece because of a knot located in the body’s top right section. One of Van Halen’s earliest innovations was merging the world of Fender & Gibson, which at the time did not exist within the current offerings of both brands. Desiring a Gibson tone with a Fender’s feel, Eddie took a chisel and began to carve the bridge cavity. To fit a humbucker into the bridge position, Eddie chiseled away an area large enough to have the pickup fit. To make the humbucker fit the way he desired (more on this later), the cavity itself needed to be partially angled and larger. With this simple innovation, Van Halen gave birth to the first iteration of the Super Strat. This instrument would lead the charge into the ’80s and inspire countless companies such as Jackson and Kramer to take flight.
The Boogie Neck was a 2 piece Birdseye Maple (no skunk stripe) neck with 21 jumbo frets made of nickel. The truss rod for the neck is located at the heel of the guitar. Eddie added Schaller mini tuners to the neck and a Gibson logo decal, and a brass nut.
2) The Paint
The body would be finished with acrylic Schwinn bicycle lacquer with a light sealer as the first layer. The thought that it is a light sealer is based on studying the now heavily reliced instrument’s lightest portions. One can still see the grain pattern showing through the base layer on the lowest paint layers, typically indicating a thin layer over the wood.
The tape stripping on the guitars was roughly ⅛” pinstriping and ¾” wide gaffers and console tape. This is evident by the pattern of a clean edge and a rougher edge on the other side when looking at the stripe markings. Additionally, the tape’s folded patterns and tapering at certain edges indicate the tape being torn off.
3) Plastics & Hardware:
The plastic pickguard found on the 1978 Frankenstrat was a solid black, no ply, 11 hole guard. Much like the rest of Eddie’s work, the guard was crudely cut, as seen by the chatter marks and inconsistencies. This pickguard additionally featured 2 holes in the control area even though only one pot would occupy its place. An additional hole was located slightly above and towards the right side of the guard.
The knob that Van Halen placed on his guitar was a “Tone” knob presumably from the doner Stratocaster that lent its parts.
King Edward took the Bridge of the 1978 Franeknstrat from a 1957 Stratocaster. The material of this bridge would be a cold-rolled steel bridge with “Fender PAT Pend” stamped decals on the saddles as well as a gray painted tremolo block.
4) The Pickup
Few topics of lore are more discussed than the origin of the Frankenstrat’s pickup. Allegedly taken from 1961 ES-335, this PAF would go on to change rock forever. This pickup would have its nickel cover removed and would be potted in paraffin wax to prevent feedback (a first once again to the world of guitars). Almost every pickup maker would, later on, adopt this waxing pickup style in one form or another.
The humbucker was then directly mounted to the wood, not because of a tonal decision, but because Eddie thought that was how it was supposed to fit! The guitar would have a simple wiring scheme of just a single 500K volume pot and wired directly to the output. This lack of tone control and loading is another reason why this guitar’s tone is inherently brighter.
For the humbucker’s size to match the tremolo’s spacing (no F Spacing humbuckers then!) Eddie angled the pickup to make sure each pole would line up with the string correctly. This is a key part of capturing the EVH sound as the pickup frequencies are slightly different from the standard humbucker’s alignment.
Once word of Eddie Van Halen began to go around, many imitators began to surface, trying to copy some of Eddie’s magic. One for not liking to be copied, Van Halen began to further modify his now-famous black and white guitar.
First, Eddie sanded and smoothed the finish down. After smoothing some of the body, Eddie taped up the white and black guitar one more time with gaffer’s tape and placed a thin layer of white Schwinn lacquer before applying the now infamous red layer.
5) Updated Electronics
A Mighty Mite phenolic red single coil was installed into the guitar’s neck pickup but was never fully wired. Additionally, he installed a 5-way switch in the middle position cavity of the guitar. This switch was also not wired but became a widespread topic of conversation among players trying to debug the Van Halen code.
6) A Plastic Makeover
For a brief period, a white plastic pickguard was installed and hiding most of the guitars cavity mods. Additionally, Eddie added mirror reflectors from a truck stop to the guitar’s back for good showmanship. This was to reflect light at the crowd at their shows.
It is around this year that we see the Frankenstrat take its near-final form. While the band was continuing to rocket to success, Eddie still was not satisfied with the guitar’s current state, so off he went to continue his sonic quest.
7) Floyd Who?
In 1980 Eddie and now legendary bridge manufacturer Floyd Rose met. Eddie, looking for better ways to keep his guitar in tune, added Floyd’s prototype bridge to the Frankenstrat. This early Floyd featured no fine tuners but offered superior stability than its 6 screw predecessor thanks to locking the string from both sides.
In 1982 the Floyd Rose unit would be replaced with the fine tuner version and become his tremolo of choice for the rest of his career.
8) Can I borrow a Quarter?
In 1981, after constantly trying to get his new tremolo system not to float, Eddie came up with a simple solution: Use a quarter.
Arbitrarily grabbing a 1971 Quarter and screwing it to the tremolo’s bass side, the Frankenstrat was now able to sit flush and not float.
Ah, Now That Looks “Right”
In 1981 Van Halen replaced the white pickguard with a short custom guard made of vinyl with foil on the back to help reduce noise. EVH would later swap this guard in 1982 for a same size black plastic guard. Both of these guards would only cover the lower portion of the controls.
The music world will forever remember Eddie Van Halen’s contribution to music, and his music will continue to live on. Eddie’s musical innovations would continue to occur with Music Man, Peavy, and then Fender to create his own body shape, among many more achievements.
From luthiers such as myself who’s first guitar build was a Van Halen replica to the thousands of DIY inspired builders. Eddie showed the world that anybody could create musical tools if they dive in. His fearless creativity and ears will forever inspire every corner of the music industry. Now do yourself a favor and put on Van Halen I, crank it up, and be prepared for some guitar playing that will forever captivate you.