Copping the “Brown Sound” of Eddie Van Halen

While there are many famous guitar tones in electric guitar history, few are as noteworthy and immediately recognizable as Eddie Van Halen's legendary “brown sound,” first heard on Van Halen's debut release in 1978.

There are many lessons electric guitarists can learn from Van Halen, but his mature and nuanced use of effects pedals is one of the biggest contributions he's made. This component of his sound and style offers a sonic blueprint and a point of reference for those looking to shape their own sound.


Fender EVH Frankenstein Replica

To begin your quest to bottle some of Van Halen's magic, be sure you are using a guitar equipped with at least one high-output bridge-position humbucker.

You don't have to opt for a locking tremolo unit, but it's a good idea to have a standard tremolo to accommodate some of Van Halen's signature dive-bombs and pitch-dipped natural and artificial harmonic licks.

Although Van Halen is known for extended soloing, tapping, legato runs, and tremolo picking, his tremolo bar use and abuse is an important facet of his unique and over-the-top playing style.


1959 Marshall Plexi Super Lead Head

As far as amps, Van Halen used a modified mid-1960s Marshall Super Lead head in the early days and various Marshall 4x12 cabinets.

While Van Halen dials-in a moderate amount of overdrive from his amps, if you listen to his classic recordings carefully, you'll discover that he didn't use as much gain as most people realize or remember. To get your tone setting closer to his, roll back the highs from any amplifier EQ or additional tone shaping, and give the lows a gentle boost. The mids are adjustable to taste, but be sure not to scoop your mids, as Van Halen prefers a decent amount of mid-range with getting his sound truly brown.

Effects Pedals

If you don't have access to a Marshall stack (or a later 5150 amp from Peavey or the EVH brand for that matter), you would do well to check out the new EVH 5150 Overdrive from MXR (which you can see in action in the video above). This pedal, which was designed in close collaboration with Van Halen, offers a versatile range of tone-shaping tools to bring in the classic brown sound as well as other tones heard on later recordings.

Beyond achieving the right amount of drive, one of the most important ingredients in copping his tone from the first Van Halen album is the inclusion of the classic MXR Phase 90 pedal. Much like the practice of using a ‘cocked’ wah pedal as a tone filter, Van Halen preferred to set his Phase 90 rolled off, a.k.a. “zero o'clock,” and would turn the effect on during solos and fills.

This provided a subtle but noticeable tonal shift and gave him an instantly recognizable sound. You can hear him shredding with the Phase 90 during the entire “Eruption” solo and on other Van Halen classics such as "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" and "Ice Cream Man."

The practice of using effects maturely can be heard throughout Van Halen's career. You can hear traces of flange coming through certain sections of the classic anthem "Unchained," not the mention the flange swirls coating the clean opening riff to "Hear About It Later." To mimic these flange effects, you should rely on the same pedal that Van Halen used, the classic MXR Flange. Van Halen also made good use of delay effects, including his interesting volume swell solo piece.

"Cathedral," which reveals Van Halen sounding more like a cello and less like a guitar during this epic guitar solo. To chase some of these delay repeats, I would steer toward an analog unit such as MXR's Carbon Copy Delay.

As you will find during this challenging and adventurous tone quest, you should find that you can get pretty close to Van Halen's basic sound, but the real magic is in his fingers and creative spirit. The majority of what you hear coming from your headphones or speakers when listening to Van Halen is coming from his hands, and not necessarily from his equipment.

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