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Eddie Van Halen Explains the Legend: How I Built My Frankenstrat

Guitar icon Eddie Van Halen detailed the  building process of his legendary Frankenstrat guitar, telling Music Radar:

eddie

“Let me start at the beginning.

“When I first started playing guitar, I was at the local music store, which wasn’t even a music store, it was kind of like a Radio Shack that also sold musical instruments, it was called Lafayette Music.

“I fell in love with this hollow-body 12-string because of the neck, and the first thing I did was I took six strings off, because it was a 12-string, and I didn’t want 12! They didn’t have what I wanted in the store, so it had already started there!

“Then, I got a paper route; we didn’t have any money and my parents couldn’t afford to buy us equipment. So I saved the money from delivering papers for two and a half to three years, and bought my first real guitar, which was a ’68 Goldtop Les Paul with single-coil P-90 pickups.

“So what do I do? I take the chisel to it right away! Because I wanted a humbucking pickup! But in Pasadena, there were no Les Pauls with a humbucker in them.

“There was one store in northern Pasadena – a Les Paul came in and they called me right away, ‘Hey, we’ve got a Les Paul!’ I walk in and I go, ‘Ah, shit! It ain’t the kind Clapton plays!’ It didn’t have humbuckers.

“So, of course, I hunted down a humbucker, took a chisel and made the hole bigger and crammed it in there. I was lucky enough to solder it back properly, then I painted it black and added binding. I did all kinds of crazy shit to it.

“The funny thing is, I only changed the bridge pickup and left the P-90 neck pickup. Since my right hand was covering the bridge pickup, when I played people were going, ‘How the fuck’s he getting that sound out of a P-90?!’ Because that’s all they could see. Little did they know that I’d stuck a humbucker in there!”

Focusing on how Fender entered the story, Eddie said:

“From there, I bought a Strat, and the rest of the guys in the band hated the way it sounded! And I couldn’t really handle the hum, so it was just a logical marriage to – with the humbucker – cross a Gibson with a Fender.

“Because I loved the vibrato bar, and that was probably the most difficult thing; trying to figure out how to keep that thing in tune. This might take a while, but I’ll try to explain…

“Everything from the bridge to the tuning peg had to be perfectly straight. The only reason a tremolo goes out of tune is because of friction. When you bring the vibrato bar down and if the string angle is wrong then it’s not gonna slide back to its original position.

“A lot of it was through necessity and just mistakes. A lot of accidents. Like the one-pickup thing wasn’t intentional. I just didn’t know how to wire it back up to the five-position toggle switch, it was just too complicated!

“Even with what we call the Shark guitar – the Ibanez Destroyer that I cut a chunk of wood out of – it’s got two pickups in it, but I couldn’t figure out how to wire it to the toggle switch, so I just went straight to the pot and boom! I’m happy.

Summing up his approach to gear in general, Van Halen said:

“If you’re happy with what you have then fine, but if not then do something about it. I apply it to everything. Even if there’s something about my car I don’t like, or anything for that matter, I’ll change it, until I like it.”

You can check out the specific Frankenstrat components below via Wikipedia.

Body and neck

Van Halen bought the Frankenstrat’s ash body and maple neck for $130 from Wayne Charvel and Lynn Ellsworth, who sold Boogie Body bodies and necks. Van Halen was able to purchase the factory second body at a discount price of $50 due to a knot in the wood. The $80 neck had jumbo fret wire, and its truss rod was adjustable at the heel.

Bridge and pickup

The guitarist originally used the Fender tremolo system from his 1958 Fender Stratocaster, adding the Floyd Rose later. He equipped the Frankenstrat with a PAF (patent applied for) pickup removed from his Gibson ES-335, potting the pickup in paraffin wax to reduce microphonic feedback (an older technique).

He then screwed the pickup to the guitar in the bridge position, slightly offset from perpendicular to the strings, to compensate for the different string spacing between the Gibson’s pickup and the Fender’s bridge. This pickup was later replaced by a Seymour Duncan humbucker.

Controls

Van Halen removed both tone-control potentiometers, wiring the pickups in a simple circuit largely due to his limited knowledge of electronics. He placed a knob marked “Tone” on the volume-control spot, then used a vinyl record that he’d shaped into a pick guard to cover the controls.

This pick guard was later replaced by a real, similarly-shaped pick guard. Although it has five mounting holes (one drilled by Van Halen), it was installed with only three screws. A strip of double-sided masking tape was added near the pick guard, on which Van Halen placed a variety of picks. The simple circuit consisted of a single humbucking pick-up, an A500k potentiometer (the volume control) and a 1/4-inch output jack.

Finish

Van Halen painted the guitar black, and when it was dry he put strips of masking tape on the body and repainted it white. He repeated the process with red, creating the classic Frankenstrat. Van Halen put a Gibson decal on the headstock, emphasizing the “cross-pollination” between Gibson and Fender.

Because companies began selling guitars with similar finishes, and because he felt that the guitar was being too badly damaged from overuse, he stopped playing the Frankenstrat in public, instead using the black-and-yellow “bumble bee” guitar pictured on Van Halen II (1979).

In 1979, disappointed with the bumble-bee’s performance, Van Halen re-taped the body of the Frankenstrat and painted it with red Schwinn bicycle paint. According to the guitarist, “The Schwinn bicycle paint gives it pop.”

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