Eddie Van Halen's style is still much appreciated today as it was in the late '70s/ early '80s, and we'll help you emulate his famous "Brown Sound" in this article.
Eddie Van Halen is one of the most iconic guitarists from the late seventies / early eighties. In an era when guitar virtuosity wasn't on most people's agenda, first due to punk then to 80's synth-pop, Eddie was one of the few, real "Guitar Heroes". The release of MXR's latest overdrive pedal, the MXR EVH 5150, and of the EVH Micro Stack show once again that his popularity remains undimmed - with many players still seeking to emulate that holy grail of 80's heavy rock guitar tone: Eddie's "Brown Sound".
Over the years, Eddie left his mark as one of the most remarkable Hard Rock guitarists ever. Unlike many others, he never actually relied on distortion pedals, keeping his overdrive sound quite pure and smooth, with a very original use of modulation effects as his main "secret weapon".
Perhaps this is why his "Brown Sound" is so celebrated - it's powerful, heavy, but not too harsh. It totally rocks, but it's also very musical. His pedalboard has changed quite a bit over the years, but always keeping his two main ingredients: the MXR phaser and Flanger pedals, two effects that Eddie mastered like few other players ever did.
THE ORIGINS OF THE "BROWN SOUND"
The guitar tone on Van Halen's first albums (Van Halen, Van Halen II and Fair Warning) is called the "Brown Sound". It was created using a very creative combination of customised guitars, creative pedalboard and the valve amp distortion. Here's a look at an early Eddie Van Halen pedalboard, amps and effects:
There are no clear pictures of this pedalboard plugged (you will notice a couple of unplugged leads above) and even after many years no-one knows for sure how Eddie used his pedals! An old Tone Bender was modded to be used as a signal splitter, with one input and 3 outputs.
However, the main ingredients of the "Brown Sound" are all there, already: MXR Flanger > MXR Phaser > Echoplex Tape Echo > Marshall amps
The MXR EQ was not a specific part of his "Brown Sound". It was used simply for certain guitars that lacked the mids, to match the tone of his other guitars. Back in the day, Eddie didn't have an A/B switch, so his Flanger would have to be manually unplugged from the phaser, and plugged into the EQ, which was plugged into the "Tone Bender" splitter.
What happened then, is a matter of speculation. Maybe the phaser wouldn't be used on those occasions, with the first two Tone Bender outputs going straight to Amps / Echoplex, or maybe the third output (the short, unconnected cable from pic) would be connect to the Phase 90 again. For all we know, maybe he did both things, at different times!
Here's the main ingredients for the classic "Brown Sound":
1) MXR Phase 90 pedal
Eddie originally wanted his guitar to stand out during solos, without boosting the signal. When he discovered the MXR Phase 90, he found it perfect for what he had in mind. On a recent interview, he said:
"I thought it sounded unique. I never heard that before. It didn’t sound like the phase shifters made by other companies, where the phase sweep is more heavy and pronounced, almost more like a flanger. The Phase 90 produces a very light change of the sound. It’s not an over-the-top effect. It’s very subtle."
Listen to how he uses the MXR Phase 90 on "Eruption":
MXR manufactures several versions of their famous phaser pedal. For Eddie Van Halen fans, owning a phaser is essential to get the Brown Sound. Of course, the MXR EVH Phase 90 pedals are the best bet. These Eddie Van Halen signature pedals are very versatile and even guitarists who don't like his band will find much to enjoy, as they are two of the best phaser pedals on the market today, thanks to the mode switch that allows the guitarist to select between vintage Phase 90 sound (as used by Van Halen) and the deeper sound of the modern, block-logo Phase 90. Eddie "Brown Sound" setting was Phase 90 at around 9 o'clock.
2) MXR 117 Flanger
The 2nd important ingredient for Eddie's classic tone was a MXR Flanger. His setting was: first 3 knobs at around 11.30, last knob all the way up. It would always be the first pedal in the signal chain.
Flangers can be a very tricky fx pedals, and many guitarists don't like them... but often, because they don't know how to use flanger in a creative way! Not so with Eddie, who used it on many songs, but always sparingly. For such an "over-the-top" band, Eddie was actually a very sensible and thoughtful guitarist:
"I might fine-tune the speed a little to match it to the tempo of the song, like on “Unchained” where the sweep goes perfectly with the riff. I was just goofing off and experimenting. It wouldn’t have sounded good to use the flanger all the way through. The riff just needed a little bit here and there. It’s a cool, tasty little tidbit that I threw in there to draw attention to the riff."
Listen to how he uses the MXR Flanger on "Unchained":
The MXR EVH-117 Signature flangers are ideal options for Eddie fans, though, like the Phase 90, even players not into Van Halen might enjoy their sounds!
3) Maestro Echoplex
The Echoplex was a vintage tape delay effect, which is now very rare and expensive. The first photograph shows two Echoplex round footswitches, and the second pic shows indeed two Echoplex, both with identical settings, which suggests that perhaps the MXR Phase 90 was plugged to one, and the Tone Bender splitter to the other.
Eddie used the Echoplex a lot - many of his guitar solos feature a subtle, short tape echo. Therefore, this effect is essential for anyone who wants to sound similar to Eddie. The best option are the new TC Electronic Alter Ego FX Pedals, which have an "Echoplex" setting and sound very close to the original:
Some of the most recent pics of Eddie's pedalboard shows that he still uses the classic "Brown Sound" mainstays MXR Phase 90 and MXR 117 Flanger (his signature models, of course!) with the addition of a few extras:
Eddie now uses a Dunlop EVH Signature Wah, and a MXR 234 Analog Chorus (used on a few songs, such as Pretty Woman). A few years ago, he was using a MXR 134 Chorus, instead. He also uses a Boss OC3 Super-Octave.
EDDIE VAN HALEN GUITAR AMPS
The "Brown Sound" was created on stock Marshall Plexi amps. However, Eddie - always the "tone seeker" - wouldn't settle and soon moved on to a Peavey 5150, made to his own specifications, which became a classic. The 5150 amps now live on as part of his own branded range, the EVH Guitar Amps.
Of course, today EVH amps is Eddie's first choice and perfect for guitarists who want a similar tone. The EVH guitar amps offer a mix of Fender-style cleans and Marshall-style crunch. They're perfect for players who, like Eddie, prefer to rely only on the natural distortion of a guitar amp. One of the best options is the "lunch box"-sized EVH 5150 III 15W LBX Guitar Amplifier Head which packs incredible tone & power at a very affordable price! Just check our exclusive demo to hear it for yourself...
If you can't afford an amp like Eddie's, fear not - there are a couple of great fx pedals that nail the 5150 tone perfectly, and getting one of those is ideal if you fancy getting an authentic "Brown Sound" on the cheap: The Wampler Pinnacle pedals got the approval of Eddie Van Halen's guitar tech, and certainly won't disappoint. But better still is the new MXR EVH 5150, which was designed with the help of Eddie himself!
EDDIE VAN HALEN ELECTRIC GUITARS
Always chasing the perfect tone, Eddie has used several guitars over the years, in the studio and on stage. Some of his choices may even surprise some: he's used an ES-335 for recordings, and played a Gibson Les Paul Junior live.
However, what most people associate with Eddie are his custom-built guitars, with the paint job featuring stripes, done by Eddie himself. At the beginning, he would simply build them himself: cheap Strat copies, with replaced necks and humbuckers. Eddie would fit thicker, Gibson-style frets on the fretboard, and install Gibson PAF humbuckers taken from ES-335 guitars, with the coil rewound for his specifications. The completed model became known as his "Frankenstein" guitar, or "Frankenstrat". It was the final, and very important, ingredient of his "Brown Sound":
But Eddie got a taste for customised guitars and the Frankenstrat wouldn't be his last, of course.
After of years of experimentation, he developed (originally with Peavey) the Wolfgang guitar, which can be considered the ultimate Eddie Van Halen guitar.
"Everything that I've built, destroyed, stumbled onto, learned and experienced is in this guitar," Eddie Van Halen said. "Every aspect and component of this guitar has been examined and upgraded to the highest standards possible: stainless steel frets, double-potted custom-wound pickups, five-piece binding on the matching body and headstock, custom-made signature tuning machines and Floyd Rose® bridge, new low-friction pots, and the list keeps going. We left no stone unturned."
Today, like with his signature amps, Eddie Van Halen's EVH Electric Guitars are released under his own brand, and are better than ever! PMT Online has some of the best models in stock now, including: