“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”
So Frankenstein recalls the moment of his creature’s birth in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. 160 years later a young Eddie Van Halen crafted his own creature; “I tricked it out,” he would later say in interviews. Well, he’s a guitar player, not a Gothic novelist, after all.
Old Victor would have recognised his methods, though. He bolted factory reject parts together. Took a chisel – a chisel – to the body. Potted his own humbucker pickups (scavenged from a dead Gibson) in surf wax and set them at angle to match the Fender bridge. At one point he fitted a fake pickup and three-way switch.
If the thing had sounded like a dead horse being dropped into jelly rock history would probably have overlooked it, but as he put it, “it took on a life of its own.” His creature (dubbed ‘Frankenstein’ by the fans – like his fictional co-creator, EVH never named his monster) had a warm tone and deep sustain that allowed young Eddie to fully express his musical ideas. A legend was born: suddenly, this was the sound all aspiring rockers needed. Copies popped up everywhere, prompting the guitarist to re-jig the paint job and make further modifications.
The fictional Frankenstein toys with forces he doesn’t understand for the sake of vanity and unleashes devastation. EVH was no tech-head and his trials and errors were in pursuit of the perfect tone, but the effects were as shattering as a beast in your bedroom when they came out of the speakers – just listen to ‘Van Halen’ if you’re in any doubt. And then if you want to get close to the real thing? Fender will sell you a tribute version so detailed that they even jam a 1971 quarter onto the body, just like the original.