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Eddie Van Halen in his workshop (photo by Nigel Parry)

The legend didn’t just transform the guitar forever—he even patented his game-changing innovations. Here’s how he redefined rock and roll, in his own words.

Eddie Van Halen, the legendary guitarist and leader of the pioneering metal band Van Halen, passed away on October 6, 2020 at age 65, after battling cancer. Widely considered to be the greatest guitarist of his generation—and maybe of all time—it isn’t a stretch to say the rock god influenced every modern player who came after him. Van Halen’s wildly inventive innovations, including tapping, or the act of playing the guitar using both left and right hands on the neck, redefined what musicians could do with the instrument—and what rock and roll music could sound like. Van Halen even patented some of his game-changing techniques.

Van Halen wrote this piece for Popular Mechanics in 2015, discussing his patents, rebuilding his guitars and amps, and searching for his signature sound. To honor him, Pop Mech is reprinting the article in its entirety. May he rest in peace.

By Eddie Van Halen | I’ve always been a tinkerer. It comes from my dad. Growing up, we lived in a house in Pasadena that had no driveway. You used an alley that ran through the middle of the block, behind all the houses, to get to your backyard or the garage. Well, the neighbor behind us had a U-Haul trailer up on car jacks and loaded with cinder block.

One night my dad came home from a gig at three in the morning. He had a little heat going, he’d had a few drinks, so he says, “This thing is blocking me from getting in again.” So he got out of the car and tried to move it. As soon as he lifted the trailer, the jack fell over, and it chopped his finger off.

This was a problem. Besides the obvious reasons, he played clarinet and saxophone. On a sax, you don’t need to seal the hole with your finger. A valve closes over it. But with a clarinet, you have to seal the hole, so he took a saxophone valve cover and adapted it to work on his clarinet.

Another funny thing was later in his life, when he started losing his teeth. You need your bottom teeth to play a reed instrument. 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.

Stock Guitars
My playing style really grew from the fact that I couldn’t afford a distortion pedal. I had to try to squeeze those sounds out of my guitar. The first real work I did was in my bedroom. I added pickups, because I didn’t like the sound of the originals.
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I couldn’t afford a distortion pedal. I had to try to squeeze those sounds out of my guitar.
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The Whammy Bar
Vibrato bars (also called whammy bars or tremolos) just didn’t stay in tune. The problem was the nut—the string guides at the end of the guitar neck. On the first album I used a standard, nonlocking Fender tremolo. The string is angled down from the nut to the tuning pegs, creating tension that, after the string slides back and forth when you use the whammy bar, keeps the string from returning to its original slot. I made my own nut with really smooth indentations—big and round like the bottom of a boat. I put a drop of 3-In-One oil in there, too, so the string would be extra slippery.
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If it was movable, or turnable, or anything that resembled something that could go up or down, I would mess with it to make the amp run hotter. I opened the amp up and saw this thing. I found out later it was a bias control, which controls the power to the output tubes. I’m poking around, and all of a sudden I touch this huge blue thing and my God, it was like being punched in the chest by Mike Tyson. My whole body flexed stiff, and it must have thrown me five feet. I’d touched a capacitor. I didn’t know they held voltage.
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My first real guitar was a Les Paul Goldtop. I was a total Eric Clapton freak, and I saw old pictures of him playing a Les Paul. Except his had humbucking pickups, and mine had the soapbar, P-90 single coils. The first thing I did with that guitar was chisel it out in the back and put a humbucker in. When we were playing gigs, people kept saying, “How is he getting that sound out of single—coil soapbar pickups?” Since my hand was covering the humbucker, they never realized that I’d put it in.
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The Patents of Eddie Van Halen

U.S. Patent #388117. Guitar peghead: Placing the tuning pegs on the opposite sides of the headstocks helps the strings hold tension. It also obviates the need for string trees, guides that clamp down on your strings and hinder string replacement.

U.S. -Patent #4656917 -Musical instrument support: A bracket that swings down from the back of the guitar, supporting it at a 90-degree angle from your body and letting you play the instrument like a lap guitar.

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How to Play Like Eddie (Or at least look a little more like him when you do play.)

Van Halen started manufacturing his own equipment in 2007 under the brand EVH Gear. His newest offering, the Wolfgang WG Standard, launched in the spring. Named for Van Halen’s son, the entry-level guitar is made from extremely lightweight and porous basswood, providing the perfect resonance for musicians who are heavy on the treble and fade. The neck is maple, with a deliberately minimal satin finish.

“The more porous the wood, the more tone you’re going to get,” Van Halen says. “My guitars aren’t sealed, so they breathe. The sap can escape, allowing the wood to age.” If you get good enough to really wail, the specialty Floyd Rose bridge locks the strings to the body in two places instead of just one, so the guitar stays in tune, even when you hit a dive bomb—the high-pitched whine at the end of the song that you know you’re going to try.



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