Tech Shares Secrets Behind Eddie Van Halen’s Sound, Says It Was Mostly in His Hands

Famous for his legendary Friedman amplifiers, Dave Friedman sat down for a chat with Final Resonance TV to discuss his collaboration with Eddie Van Halen. Back in the day, when Van Halen were blowing up, Friedman was there to help Eddie achieve his legendary “brown sound” by modifying his gear and building his rig.

During the interview, Dave was asked about Van Halen’s fourth studio album “Fair Warning” and the guitar tone on it. In particular, he was reminded of one of Eddie’s amps and how the legendary guitarist felt like it had some pretty rich harmonic content in the tone.

Mean Street (2015 Remaster)

Asked whether it was all down to Variac, the device Eddie used to turn down the voltage for the amplifier, Friedman replied (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“That’s part of it, and a really great-sounding amp. Also, at the time, he was never a content person to leave anything well enough alone, he was constantly messing with pickups. Who knows what stuff was recorded with, really? Because it was a constant ‘if there was a knob, he’s gonna turn it up.'”

Dirty Movies (2015 Remaster)

As Friedman further adds, that guitar sound had many components to it and it wasn’t all just down to the amp and the famous Variac. Instead, it also came down to his choice of pickups which are, unfortunately, kind of a mystery to this day. Friedman continued:

“That’s just the way he was, and we don’t really know what pickups were in what guitars and when. We do know that his ’58 [Gibson Flying] V or something used later was probably the stock pickup in the ’58 V, but some of the early stuff, God knows what was in it.”

“There was the original 335 pickup, but then that pickup eventually got rewound by Seymour Duncan, and that created — supposedly — the 78 pickup, which is a great pickup.”

The “Brown Sound" Quest Van Halen - Fair Warning

Going more into it, Friedman also recalls Eddie using the Seymour Duncan JB humbucker, explaining that this is the likely choice of a pickup for the “Fair Warning” album:

“Then from there, I think he went to hotter pickups, I think he got one up. I think at one point in time there was a [Seymour Duncan] JB — the [Kramer] 5150 guitar had a JB in it for sure, with a broken coil later.”

“I have a theory that ‘Fair Warning’ was a JB. It sounds significantly different, it’s darker and thicker of a tone. It’s considerably different.”

Van Halen - Unchained (HD)

Again, Friedman admits that he’s not 100% sure about this but that the tone was pretty close to what he’d expect to hear from a JB humbucker:

“I don’t know really what it was, but to me, even some of the lead stuff just sounds kind of like a JB sounds, and it’s possible [that it’s] a custom, probably. It could be anything, but it was different. Definitely different than the ‘Van Halen II’, which is my favorite.”

But no matter how many components you add or remove from the rig, or modify, you’re pretty much always stuck with yourself. But according to Dave Friedman, despite the fact that he’s one of the most respected tech guys in the world of guitar, the magic was in Eddie’s hands.

Van Halen - Full Concert - 06/12/81 - Oakland Coliseum Stadium (OFFICIAL)

During the chat, Friedman recalled audio interviews that Eddie did with famous music journalist Steve Rosen back in the day where you could hear him playing his electric guitar unplugged. And although unplugged, you could still hear the foundations of Eddie’s tone. Dave commented:

“You heard those old Steve Rosen audios, where he’s sitting there talking about the ‘Van Halen II’ album, and Ed showing him it clean. He’s playing totally clean, but he has all the harmonics and sustain and everything that he did into an amp.”

As Dave recalls, Eddie had particularly strong hands, allowing him to be in full control of what he was doing:

“He had incredibly strong hands. If he shook your hand, it was gonna hurt. Yeah, like really strong hands.”

“Song By Song” with Edward Van Halen - by Steve Rosen - Part One

When the interviewer reminded him that Eddie didn’t have long fingers but rather thick hands, Dave replied:

“Yeah, thick hands and strength. Big-time strength. I remember that.”

“But when you think about that, he’s playing clean in those tapes, totally clean. You’re hearing all the pinch harmonics and everything. And it’s totally clean.

“So they didn’t need that much stuff or that much gain, no! Obviously, he could do it clean — at that point in time, at least.”

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Another interesting thing that Friedman touched upon is how Eddie, apparently, didn’t really like the guitar sound that everybody was expected to hear from him. He offered:

“The thing is, the sound that we all love, I don’t think he liked. I think he was always searching for something more.”

Nonetheless, people are still searching for that tone even to this day. But according to Friedman, there’s no way you can get it, simply because you’d need Eddie’s hands to get it:

“But the thing is like the ‘Holy Grail’ sound — to this day, people are still asking for it, ‘How do I get that?’ Well, first of all, you need his hands. [Laughs] So that’s the first problem. But yeah, I think it had more of an organic kind of nature to it, as opposed to the latter, which wasn’t as organic.”

Eddie Van Halen - Catherine ( 5150 Studio )

Photo: Abby Gillardi (Van Halen-8611 (20022175423))


  • 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.