Core of Eddie Van Halen’s ’Brown Sound’ Was in His Hands, Joe Bonamassa Says: ’He Could Play Anything and Sound Like Him’

Blues rock master Joe Bonamassa discussed Eddie Van Halen’s legendary “brown sound” and theorized on how he actually got it.

Although one of the most discussed things about Eddie is this so-called “brown sound,” it is somewhat of a mystery. Well, maybe it’s not a complete mystery in terms of gear he used since most of the stuff is widely known today. It’s a PAF-loaded guitar going into an EL34-loaded tube amp, along with a Variac to lower the voltage and create that “sag,” keeping it somewhat “muddy” while still having enough clarity and definition.  

However, his tone on the first few Van Halen albums is still debated to this day, and many professional guitar players had difficulties fully replicating it. But according to Joe Bonamassa, the only secret ingredient was Eddie himself.

Interview with JOE BONAMASSA

Speaking to Jordi Pinyol in a recent interview, the blues rock guitarist was reminded of how tough it is to recreate it, to which he replied (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“You know how he got it? First of all, it’s in his hands. He could play anything, and it would sound like Eddie Van Halen.”

Of course, there’s more to it than just Eddie’s hands and feel and how he attacks the strings. Joe reflected on the gear aspect of the “brown sound” but mentioned things outside of the usual suspects, like the Variac or the EL34 power amp tubes.

“Where most people missed the mark is they forget that his cab that they recorded all those early records at Sunset Sound was loaded with JBL’s on the top, it’s Celestions on the bottom.”

Obviously, a huge part of your sonic equation lies in the speakers. And not only that — it’s also about how you mic the guitar speaker cabinets and blend the different types of speakers. He added:

“They would mic one of each, and they would blend the JBL and they would blend the Celestion. The JBL gave it the teeth, and the Celestion gave it the warmth, and they would blend it. That’s how he did it.”

THE BROWN SOUND | The Secret of the VAN HALEN Guitar Tone!

On top of that, the studio where they recorded the debut album, Sunset Sound Recorders, had some specific gear in it.

“Plus big old Sunset Sound plate reverb,” Bonamassa added. “That was a that was a big factor.”

Nonetheless, the nerdy gear talks aside, Joe once again points out the main component of the Van Halen guitar tone — Eddie himself. He concluded by saying:

“But he could play anything and sound like him. Clapton can play anything and sound like him.”

Van Halen - Runnin' With The Devil (Official Music Video)

Speaking of this personal aspect of guitar tone, compared to the gear-related one, plenty of other guitar legends confirmed what Joe said here. For instance, Steve Stevens — known for his work with Billy Idol — recently recalled touring with Van Halen back in the early 1990s. He said:

“So we’re out on the road, and I’m bringing out my vintage Marshalls and stuff, trying to keep them working on the road. And Ed goes, ‘Hey, man, why are you bringing out that vintage stuff?’ And by then, he had Peavey 5150s.”

“He said, ‘Why don’t you play through my rig?’ And [I said], ‘Okay, I’ll come early tomorrow.'”

The 50 Bucks device Van Halen used to get the Brown Sound - VARIAC

“But his rig sounded absolutely incredible. And he arranged it. I think, from that point on, within three days, a truck shows up with a bunch of 5150s and cabinets. And from that point on, I used a very similar situation to Ed’s.”

“And man, that goes to show the guy wasn’t trying to keep his secret sound. And he handed me one of his guitars right off the racks, ‘Hey, you want one of my guitars?’ ‘Yeah, I like the black one.’ ‘Okay, here, take it.'”

“I mean, that’s incredible. And I’ve heard he did that for Jerry Cantrell and numerous other musicians, so that shows how secure the guy was.”

The “Brown Sound" Quest Van Halen - Fair Warning

“There was no secret sauce or something to being Eddie Van Halen. I played through his rig. I sounded like the guy from Billy Idol. I didn’t sound like Eddie Van Halen.”

Photos: Lightburst (Joe Bonamassa 2-18-23 Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee), Carl Lender (Eddie Van Halen at the New Haven Coliseum 2)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.