The Wolfgang Saga: How 3 Brands Built Eddie Van Halen's Signature Guitar

Eddie Van Halen (2015). Photo by: Ethan Miller. Getty Images.

Eddie Van Halen's famous Frankenstein may be his most iconic instrument, but he's played Wolfgang-style guitars for longer. The enduring Wolfgang design has survived for nearly 30 years in a series of different guises, and this is the story of its development.

The guitar originated with an Ernie Ball Music Man model introduced in 1991, followed by a Peavey version that first appeared in 1996. And since 2009, the Wolfgang has been part of the line of products for Eddie's own EVH brand, created in collaboration with Fender. So let's get acquainted with Wolfgang.

Ernie Ball Music Man: 1991–95

Eddie Van Halen teamed up with Ernie Ball Music Man in the mid-'80s, endorsing his 5150 string sets. Then he began talking to them about a guitar, following Music Man's introduction of the Silhouette and a Steve Morse signature model a few years later. The result was a surprise for anyone who expected to see something along the lines of Ed's famous striped home-assembled concoctions. "I endorsed the guitar I used to play," Ed said in an ad. "I designed this one... Big difference."

This time, after the demise of that '80s guitar endorsement deal with Kramer, he wanted something designed from the ground up, with quality as the main concern. On board for the quest at Music Man was Dudley Gimpel, who had designed the impressive Silhouette. Ed said it was a huge help working with someone like Dudley, because he had the perfect combination of technical and creative skills.

Ed had some rough drawings of a cross between a Telecaster and Les Paul he wanted to try. Together, Ed and Dudley developed the design, deciding how the neck should join the body, figuring out a comfortable placement of the single volume control and pickup switch, selecting the right woods, and so on through the rest of the details.

Ernie Ball Music Man ad from 1991

They opted for a relatively lightweight basswood body with a flat maple top. Ed said the old idea that a heavy body meant a good body seemed backwards to him. "We're talking about sound here," he told Tom Wheeler in Guitar Player, "not how beautiful it looks—and the maple top actually adds a nice crispness." The headstock was virtually the same as Dudley's earlier Silhouette design, an offset four-plus-two with straight string-pull.

Two pickups was something of an extravagance for Ed, as he'd been used to just the one—mainly because he could never get a pair of pickups to both sound good. Steve Blucher at DiMarzio worked with Ed and Dudley to create a custom balanced pair that did the trick: a fat, warm neck pickup, plus a punchy, slightly louder bridge unit.

1991 Ernie Ball Music Man EVH Quilt Top. Photos by Kansas City Vintage Guitars.

There was an Ed-style joke with the single control knob: It was a volume, but it was marked "Tone." Ed said: "When you turn it up, you get volume and you get a nice tone. How many people do you actually know that even touch the tone control on a guitar, anyway? On a bass, maybe, but not on a guitar."

Another of Ed's foibles found its place on the new Music Man model in the setup of its Gotoh-licensed Floyd Rose vibrato. He'd only ever used his trem to lower pitch, so that's what he wanted here. It also fell in with his theory that the more things were connected on a guitar, the more tone and sustain would result. Hence the pickups screwed directly into the body. And no floating vibrato for Ed. "This one is like a stop tailpiece," he told Tom Wheeler, "except you can bring it down. When you're not pushing it down, it's totally connected to the body."

Eddie playing his Ernie Ball Music Man signature model live in 1992.

The Music Man Edward Van Halen model first went on sale in 1991. It had a basswood body with flat maple top, various translucent color finish options, a licensed Floyd Rose or hardtail bridge, 22 frets on a 25 1/2" scale, an oiled maple neck with 10" radius board and five-screw fixing to the body, Schaller tuners, a neck-end wheel truss-rod adjuster, two custom DiMarzio humbuckers, a single volume control, and a three-way selector. Ed used an amber flame-top example, one of the earliest prototypes, as his main guitar for several years.

Peavey: 1996–2004

Eddie Van Halen switched allegiance in the mid-'90s, starting afresh with Peavey as his deal with Music Man ended. (Music Man continued to make the Axis, very similar to the Van Halen signature model.) Ed had already teamed up with Peavey to produce his 5150 amp and cabs in 1992 and a combo version in '95.

Jim DeCola was supervisor of guitar design engineering at Peavey, where he'd been since 1988. He'd worked on Peavey's Steve Cropper signature model, introduced in '95, along with a number of regular instruments for the product line. Jim first met Ed back when Peavey was courting the Van Halen guitarist for the amp deal, at which time Jim made a guitar—a one-humbucker Strat-style with a Floyd—to show what they could do in that department.

In fact, when Ed visited the plant in 1990 to talk amps, the guitar he seemed more taken with was the firm's new Peavey Odyssey, a sort of hybrid Tele–Les Paul model. Anyway, the idea went no further because, as we've seen, Ed decided to go with Music Man for his first signature guitar.

Come 1995, however, with the Music Man deal at an end, Jim made a copy of the Music Man to show they were capable of producing an instrument at the quality level Ed would expect. In March 1995, he showed Ed this guitar during rehearsals in Florida for Van Halen's Balance tour. Ed agreed to go ahead with Peavey on a new signature guitar.

Jim went back to the Peavey plant and mulled over the various ideas he wanted to incorporate in his design and present to Ed for approval. They began to-ing and fro-ing on the details, a process that lasted most of '95 as Ed took protos out on the road to test proposed features.

Peavey EVH Wolfgang manual cover, 1998

An early decision was to continue with a basswood body but to make the maple top contoured, in contrast to the flat, thin Music Man top (and perhaps harking back to that carved maple–mahogany Odyssey that Ed had liked). "Basswood does sound great," Jim tells me, "but sometimes it can be a little lackluster, and I think the hybrid basswood–maple really shined."

Jim made the body shape somewhat more asymmetrical, which meant the neck could be pushed a little deeper into the body, in turn improving balance. "It didn't neck-dive as much as the Music Man, because the tip of the horn was closer to the 12th fret," he says. "And because the neck was deeper into the body, when you're reaching for an open E or an F chord, it didn't feel as far out. It almost felt like a shorter-scale guitar, but it was still a full twenty-five-and-a-half."

Peavey continued with a maple neck, too, adding carbon fiber reinforcement rods, which Jim had tried already on a couple of Peavey basses. "I thought it had a lot of virtue," Jim says, "benefitting the feel and tone of the wood with the added harmonic potential and sustain of the carbon fiber, as well as extra stability. I put the rods in the first prototype I sent to Eddie, and he liked it, so we ended up keeping that feature."

Ed wanted a small version of a Flying V head, but Jim told him that was impossible, because it still counted as a copy of the Gibson original. Jim remembered a three-and-three staggered headstock on a guitar he'd built for himself, so he shrunk that a little, added a Peavey-like tip, and showed a rough to Ed.

"Hmm," said Ed. "I see where you're going—but I still like the V." Jim repeated his Gibson warning. Ed then made a drawing of a sort of V-notch idea, which Jim said was too close to a Washburn '70s style. Another drawing. Any good? Nope, too Dean-like.

Then Jim told Ed to give him a few minutes while he went off to the workbench. "I took my headstock I'd done, which had a black-painted face, went out to a spindle sander, and sanded a scoop into the tip of the headstock. I took it back to him, said why don't we do that? It had the V shape he was thinking about, and the scoop thing, and it still had the Peavey profile on the outside. And he's like, 'Oh yeah, I kinda like that.' We tried to honor Eddie's vision while keeping the Peavey identity."

1999 Peavey EVH Wolfgang. Photos by Thunder Road Guitars.

The Music Man guitar had featured a wheel adjuster for the truss rod, a feature that Ed was keen to continue with, but Jim felt it protruded too far and potentially weakened the neck pocket. So he recessed it into the end of the neck, improving stability.

For the pickups, Jim started with one from a Frankenstein that Ed liked, and duplicated it accurately, right down to the shorted-out coils. Ed said he liked it but wanted it without the shorting. Prototypes were made, then rejected in favor of something a little warmer. And so followed several months of back and forth. A frustrated Jim felt he was close to exhausting the possibilities. "So finally I sent back the original set of pickups I'd given him—and then he said, 'Yeah, this is it!' So it went full circle."

The Peavey pickups had a high-ish output, though not, Jim says, to Super Distortion level. "Some people were confused, because there was a higher DC resistance on the neck pickup, lower on the bridge. But they were two different wire gauges, so that's why they had two different voices, and they balanced out in terms of output."

Controls were a single volume and tone—a prototype with two volumes didn't last—where the Music Man had just volume, and the two knobs and switch were placed in a line, providing what Jim felt was a pleasing look within the body outline. The vibrato was a licensed Floyd Rose, made by Ping. "Ed just felt it sounded a bit better," Jim says, "because Floyds tend to get a bit bright and thin sounding. So we settled on a brass block, and that helped the tone."

The bridge had a D-Tuner that Adam Reiver introduced to Ed. It was a barrel-shaped switch on the low E-string's clamping screw for instant drop-D tuning: left pushed in for regular E (or whatever your preferred low-string tuning); pulled out when you wanted D. Jim made some refinements to its fine-tuning capabilities and Ed gave the go-ahead for its inclusion on the guitar.

The Peavey Wolfgang was introduced at NAMM in January 1996, with Ed there to show it off.

"Our collective efforts in designing the Wolfgang guitar have resulted in a versatile, quality-crafted guitar that feels great, sounds great, and is truly inspiring to play," he was quoted in the official blurb. "I've already put mine to the test in the studio and on tour, and now it's your turn."

A basswood-only option was added, and a flat-topped, single-knob Wolfgang Special appeared in 1998.

"The toughest thing about working on Ed's guitar was going up against the Music Man," Jim says, "because they were just fabulously crafted guitars. We really had to step up our quality at Peavey to make sure we didn't look foolish going up against them. And the way I look at it, the Wolfgang was my life's work. I had so much involvement in it, and even though it was Ed's model officially, it was really my model. I like to say: I designed it; he approved it."

EVH: 2009–Present

After Eddie Van Halen broke with Peavey in 2004, he began a working relationship with Fender, officially announced at NAMM in January 2007. (Peavey later made some HP models that were very similar to its Wolfgang guitars.) Fender had decided the way to attract Ed was to go beyond the Peavey deal for guitars and amps, and to furnish Ed with his own product brand, EVH, made and sold by Fender. The deal followed a run of Ed's Art Series guitars around 2004 with the Fender-owned Charvel brand.

The first EVH products were amps, followed by a limited-edition detailed re-creation of Ed's Frankenstein. Next, in 2009, came EVH's revised take on the Wolfgang, and Chip Ellis at Fender collaborated with Ed on its design (he had already worked on the Frankenstein). Chip started by compiling a list with Ed of everything he didn't like about the previous incarnations of the Wolfgang.

"I'd say a good 90 percent of the features were changed, even very subtle things," Chip tells me. "About the only thing we kept was the silhouette, and the materials were pretty much the same, but we played with top thickness, we played with different finishes, we had nicer aesthetics—nicer woods, nicer binding—and we spent over a year just testing pickups, trying to land on the right ones. I've never worked so hard to get approval on a guitar for production."

EVH catalog cover, 2009

One of Ed's main gripes about his earlier Wolfgang-style guitars was durability. On the road with Van Halen, neck and jack-plate screws would strip out, hardware would get mangled—everything would get tested to the limit and often beyond. All this had to be attended to. And then there were the pickups.

Chip had worked with Seymour Duncan for pickups on the EVH Frankenstein replica, so that was the obvious first stop. "They were dialed in to the sound Ed was looking for at that time, and we spent probably three months testing variations of custom pickups from them. I would receive a set, load up a few guitars so we could test 'em, go up to 5150, Ed would plug in, and we'd try them out."

Chip is referring to Ed's studio complex, known as 5150. "We could only go about an hour at a time testing pickups, because you tend to lose your ears at that point. Everything starts to sound the same."

They got close with the Seymour sets, but not quite. Same thing with DiMarzio. Finally, an engineer at Fender started making samples, and his second set made the grade. "Working in-house at Fender on the pickups helped," Chip says, "because we had the ability to do everything real-time, stand over the engineer, work with him, get a better understanding of what's going on."

As usual, Ed was taking out prototypes to test on tour. To identify a range of different finishes they were trialing, the guitars had large numbers stenciled on the front. The one Ed played a lot on the 2007–08 Van Halen tour was Number 4. As they got close to selecting the in-house pickup set as the ideal, Ed wondered if the final tweak might be to do with placement.

"I didn't have a router with me to enlarge the pickup cavity on the day we decided to look into that at 5150," Chip says. "So Ed went into his garage and grabbed a crowbar and a hammer. We went out in the driveway, and basically he chiseled this huge pocket so we could move the pickup around in it. If you look at pictures of Number 4 guitar on that tour, it looks like a dog chewed the pickup cavity. But it did the trick! I believe we ended up moving it a thirty-second of an inch, and we found the sweet spot."


EVH Wolfgangs

Another consideration was the effect of aging. All along, Ed had been comparing brand-new test guitars with instruments he'd been playing for years. Chip mentioned how some violin makers would blast violin tops with classical music in an attempt to speed up the process. Ed seemed unconvinced.

A week or two later, Chip visited 5150 for another testing session, and as he opened his car door, he could hear a strange howling noise that seemed to be coming from the studio. He couldn't work out what it was. Ed came along and opened up the studio door, and the howling—now a raging, deafening feedback—was clearly coming from inside.

"After we'd had that conversation about the violin tops, Ed decided he'd try that idea," Chip explains. "So he just turned up a prototype 5153 half stack, dimed everything, leaned the guitar up against it, and left it sitting there feeding back for a week. When we walked in, I said, 'What on earth are you doing!' He turned back at me with a smirk and said, 'I thought I'd try your idea.' And I think," Chip adds with a smile, "he settled on it making no difference at all. But it was a fun experiment—and for the amp, too, to see how long it could do that before it blew up."

They sampled eight finishes with the numbered guitars. There was one rubbed with simple gun stock oil, one with only sealer, one with only lacquer, and another with a combination of sealer and lacquer.

"I'm constantly putzing around with it. You go on tour and you realize what works and what doesn't work. It's an endless pursuit."

"We also tried something that was new to me," Chip says, "which was an acrylic urethane sprayed thin like a lacquer. Then we tried a polyurethane sprayed thin, we did a thick polyurethane, and we did a thick polyester. And we ended up landing on the thin acrylic urethane."

Chip emphasizes that everything they put on the EVH Wolfgang was completely intentional and there for a reason. "It got to the point, about six months into it," Chip says, "when we really started working as a team: Ed, myself, and Matt Bruck, Ed's tech. Instead of just designing Ed's perfect guitar in his mind, it started to become a group project, where we just wanted to make the most durable, most reliable, most playable, most versatile thing we could."

The vibrato system was a case in point. After problems with German Schaller-made Floyd Roses, including a tendency for the saddles to move a little under string tension or dive bombing, they settled on the imported Floyd, made in Korea.

"It sounded better," Chip recalls, "and we figured it was because Korea was going old-school, using a bent steel baseplate, where at the time the Schaller had a cast plate. Another thing we noticed was that there were pretty sizable gaps—probably 40 to 50 thousandths of an inch, almost the gauge of an E-string—between saddles on the German one, whereas on the Korean they were butted right up to each other. It just seemed more attention to detail, I guess."

They selected Gotoh's tuners, which were rock-solid and stood up perfectly to Ed's attempts to break or bend the various tuners they tried, along with a cut-out version of the scoop headstock. Stainless steel frets—trialled at Peavey for their version of the Wolfgang but rejected—turned out to be the favored variety on the EVH Wolfgang.

Eddie talks about the creation of the EVH Wolfgang in this 2011 video.

"One of the first guitars I put those on was one he immediately took out on tour," Chip says. "I think I got it to him about a week before he went on tour, and after the tour was over it looked as if the frets had just been dressed the day before. That was the deciding factor to go with stainless steel fretwire."

Another tweak that came from Ed touring with prototypes concerned the volume and tone pots. When Ed tried to play "Cathedral," he found the volume pot a little too stiff to manipulate, an essential for that piece. So the team designed some volume pots with a very low easy-to-spin friction. Then Ed started noticing if he accidentally bumped the tone pot, it could roll back a little without him knowing. So the next step was to develop a tone pot that was harder to rotate. For the knobs themselves, they moved from a Fender-style tone and volume on the early prototypes to Ed's favored MXR/Jazz Bass-style knobs.

After all the work, the first EVH Wolfgang model was finally made available in 2009. Other variants have since been added alongside, including set-neck and hardtail variants, and cheaper models made offshore. Looking back now, it's worth noting again that the original model at Music Man was first sold in 1991. That means it won't be too long before the Wolfgang design celebrates its 30th birthday—a remarkably long lifespan for any electric guitar.

"I seem to always be refining the design," Ed told The Hub in 2017. "I'm constantly putzing around with it. You go on tour and you realize what works and what doesn't work. It's an endless pursuit."

"This guitar is starting to settle in like a classic," Chip concludes. "And I tend to get so hands-on, almost controlling with it, because I have an obligation to Ed. It's got to meet his expectations. Anything that we produce has got to be as good if not better than that prototype he signed off on. I take that very seriously."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, The Fender Electric Guitar Book, and The Ultimate Guitar Book. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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