"There is a difference between being just loud and having what I call a warm, brown sound, which is a toney sound."
"Some people get a sound like an amplified AM radio. I like it to be like a nice home stereo, the difference between tone and no tone."
Eddie Van Halen refers to his guitar tone as the "brown sound." He says it's not yellow, pink, or blue. It's brown. All dirt and molasses. It's not just a tone, but also the incredible mastery of the guitar that Ed displays on each Van Halen track. Actually, the term "brown sound" was originally coined by the Van Halen brothers to describe the sound of Alex's snare. Ed has even said "I want my guitar to sound like Al's snare drum." That doesn't seem so strange compared to the low tech rig that Eddie was working with!
The Creation of the Brown Sound
Although Ed's homemade guitars and his tube-scorching Marshall heads had much involvement in the creation of his unique guitar sounds, the cheap analog effects pedals that he employed were also very important in shaping the brown sound. Eddie plugged into the following guitar effects units that were duct taped to a piece of plywood:
Eddie was actually began using the Phase 90 pedal for a sort of a signal booster for his solos, but it ended up being one of his coolest effects (it can be heard in the intro of "Atomic Punk," "Eruption" and the solo in "Ice Cream Man"). The Flanger is an effect that Ed tends to step on once in a while to twist and modulate just a small section of a riff or song ( A great example of this is the intro of "Unchained"). The equalizer was set up to give him that crunchy mid-range boost (with approximately +15db at 1kHz at the middle of the curve). Ed used two Echoplex tape units to give him that huge, live delay sound. The Univox tape echo was used to create the octave dive-bomb at the end of "Eruption". That's just about it!
Ed's sound remains fairly constant throughout the albums recorded with Roth, although it is evident that Eddie slowly backed off the gain for each subsequent record. It is clear that the guitar tone on the first Van Halen album is much more treble-boosted than, say, 1984. Ed has commented that he didn't particularly want his tone to be as trebley as it is on Van Halen, but he didn't really have any say in it.
"At that point in my career, I really didn't have any control over anything. I was just like, 'Yes, sir. Whatever. We barely had any input in the early days of the band. I mean, there are so many things wrong with those early records- the drums sound like shit on the first album and the bass is barely audible. We just played live, they recorded it, and it got put out."
* Author's Note: Regardless of the sound quality of the album, I believe Van Halen is one of the most important recordings in rock music's history and it remains my all-time favorite album.
Ed recording at Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood,CA
(*Notice Ed's other guitar, the Ibaneze Destroyer, behind him on the left.)