Eddie Van Halen Relives His Early Adventures in Guitar Hacking
As Eddie Van Halen told listeners during his Smithsonian Institution talk earlier this year, he started experimenting on his guitars as a kid because he couldn't afford expensive gear. In a new interview with Popular Mechanics, he offers a more in-depth look at how those early guitar hacks taught him that the sound he was looking for was usually just a modification or two away.
Van Halen credits his "tinkerer" spirit to his father, who was a musician himself — and whom he recalls coming home one night after a gig and "a few drinks" to find a neighbor's trailer blocking the driveway. Deciding to move it himself, the senior Van Halen ended up getting his finger chopped off after a jack under the trailer fell over.
Needing that finger to play clarinet, Eddie's dad improvised. Because he also played sax, he understood that he could use a valve cover to fill in for the missing digit he'd once used to obtain the necessary seal on his clarinet — and later on in life, when he started losing his teeth, he devised his own solution again.
"You need your bottom teeth to play a reed instrument," Van Halen pointed out. "Instead of going to the dentist, he made himself a perfectly shaped prosthesis out of white Teflon that filled the gap where his teeth were missing. He slipped that in when he had to play. Watching him do that kind of stuff instilled a curiosity in me. If something doesn't do what you want it to, there's always a way to fix it."
While perhaps chiefly of interest to guitar players and gearheads, the rest of the article offers a detailed account of the many ways Van Halen adapted his instruments to fit his style of playing — from relatively simple stuff like sanding down the necks to the more involved electrical surgery he'd later perform on his amps — as well as links to the active patents he has on file.
And even if you don't play, Van Halen's story offers an inspiring testament to what's possible if you refuse to accept the status quo simply because it's there. Remembering how hard he had to "try to squeeze those sounds out of my guitar," he recalled, "I was on a mission. I knew what I wanted and I just kept at it until I finally got there."
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