FTV: Equipment Blues
Wolfgang Van Halen Releases New ‘Mammoth WVH’ Video for “Don’t Back Down”; Plays All Instruments Himself [VIDEO]
It was interesting to read how the guitar / amplifier company EVH founded by the late Eddie Van Halen has evolved since its inception. The roots of the venture go all the way back to 1990-1992 when the Peavey company began working with Eddie on a signature model amp (the EVH 5150). The company wanted an amplifier that guitar players at any level could afford but would give them the same tone quality they could hear on Van Halen records. The original EVH 5150s shipped to stores in 1992 and proved to be a hit, but the Electro-Voice PA company took exception and filed a cease-and-desist letter. They felt the ‘EVH’ logo would be confused with their longtime moniker ‘EV’. Peavey dodged the problem by changing the EVH from block lettering to a script version.
The change in the logo alarmed consumers and rumors flew that Peavey had changed the design (which was not true). In fact, Peavey had taken steps to keep things just as they were in the original design. Each amp used four Sylvania 6L6 power tubes and when it was announced the company was going to stop manufacturing them, Peavey bought nearly a half a million dollars worth to insure an adequate supply remained. Unfortunately, this stockpile of tubes began to dwindle about the same time the ‘block to script’ logo change happened. The tone changed slightly when Peavey began using Chinese made Ruby 6L6 tubes so the original EVH amps suddenly became the Holy Grail sought after by scores of tone purists. Peavey and Eddie maintained a relationship for the next fifteen years and the market saw a host of EVH amps in various configurations released with the guitarist’s stamp of approval.
In 2007, Eddie took the brand to another level when he started his own company under his now iconic EVH logo. Fender would take care of manufacturing and distribution while Eddie’s team would oversee research and development. They hit a homerun on their first swing when they achieved an amp capable of producing the tone Van Halen had been chasing for his whole life – the EVH 5150 III. The logo problems with Electro-Voice were cured by making the ‘V’ twice as big as the ‘E’ and ‘H’, all of which now were located in an oval. Like the Peavey collaboration, a multitude of amp styles were produced and having Eddie himself use banks of EVH speakers and amps on tour provided more than enough advertising punch.
When Van Halen (the band) first began making noise in the music world, Eddie’s playing certainly caught everyone’s attention. Equally eye-catching were his ‘Frankenstrat’ guitars he had pieced together and decorated in search of his perfect guitar. Signature models were eventually manufactured by Kramer, Ernie Ball, Music Man, and Peavey but some didn’t meet Eddie’s specs. He had been working with Peavey on the guitar that would bear his son’s name. When the deal to work with Fender came along, the Wolfgang design also migrated to the newly incorporated EVH. Now that Van Halen is no longer with us, Eddie’s long time guitar tech/design partner Matt Bruck and son, Wolfgang Van Halan, have been left to carry on the legacy. Reading their extensive interview in Guitar World (Vol. 44, NO. 01, January 2023), it hit me that Wolfgang grew up with the world’s greatest guitar player to show him the ropes. He was surrounded by guitars, amps, and assorted gadgets that gave him a slight edge over the everyday garage band musicians who do not happen to have a G.O.A.T. rock star in the house.
The other striking fact that pops out of this interview? Wolfgang isn’t some spoiled, silver spoon-in-mouth, over privileged musical snob. Elsewhere in the same issue, Wolfie finds himself listed as one of the 19 guitarists who left their mark on the year 2022. Wolfgang’s reaction to the honor? “I’m not a ‘guitarist of the year’ – I’m just a dude!” He grew up with resources but has worked hard to become a remarkable musician, songwriter, and business man. This does not diminish what 90 percent of the wanna be rock stars go through so they can pursue their rock ‘n’ roll dreams. One would have a hard time being jealous of Wolfgang’s path simply because he has paid his dues, developed his talents, and remains remarkably humble.
The best way I can explain the whole process of equipping a band is by examining how the three of us ended up becoming a band called The Twig. Playing paying gigs was the culmination of two solid years of work, but each of us had our own path to follow before we became a unit. Mike was interested in electronics and had some background in guitar before we met. Gene’s brother had a beautiful Gibson SG guitar and an amp he let Geno borrow. I contracted drum fever in fifth grade and when my folks fronted me the money to buy a Ludwig drum kit in seventh grade, I hit the ground running. Gene and I actually jammed a few times during our freshman year in high school, but it was at his house. I would bring my snare and one cymbal there because his brother would not let him take the guitar from their house (yet).
The three of us were all involved in our high school’s production of Bye, Bye, Birdie during the spring of our sophomore year. I was playing drums in the pit orchestra, Mike was playing an unamplified acoustic on stage during some of the numbers, and Gene was part of the backstage crew. The bass player in the pit orchestra, Ron Caviani, and I got into the habit of playing snippets of pop songs warming up before rehearsals. Mike would occasionally sit on the edge of the stage with his guitar and plunk along. From these sessions, we started thinking about doing more serious jamming in the future. Somewhere in the discussion, Mike mentioned he was thinking about getting a bass guitar. The first time we played together was at the cast party held at the Chalet Supper Club after the play had wrapped. The next summer, we began meeting in my basement to see if we could put together a trio.
Our first jams were done with piecemeal equipment. Of course, I had my drums but had to borrow one of the two microphones Mike brought along. Mike had a nice Fender bass he had bought but was playing it through an amp he had built from a kit powering a speaker box he had fashioned from a large, wooden box that used to be a TV. Gene had the better equipment – but it was still his brother’s Fender amp and Gibson SG guitar. We had no PA so we plugged in the vocal mics through the guitar and bass amps. Not ideal, but it got us started. Halfway through our junior year, we knew we were on to something so we began the process of upgrading our equipment.
First up was Gene scoring his own guitar. He found a used Ovation semi-hollow and a Fender amphead and speaker cabinet. The cabinet was a two person hauling job but we noticed the fullness of the sound he could get right away. Mike liked the Fender amp/bottom combo and soon found his own. We were still working on a set list but suddenly the matched amps on either side of the drum set looked impressive. Mike found another used speaker cabinet that matched the bass and guitar set up so we put that to use as a one speaker PA for rehearsals. Next up came microphones. Mike the electronics geek had run the specs on an Electro-Voice 664, which he assured us was the gold standard for live bands.
We visited the electronics shop on West Washington Street and I recognized the salesman; he had played in the band at our one and only JH dance back when I was in eighth grade. While we drooled on his countertop while looking over the mics, he mentioned that he was now with the Joe Arkansas Band (named after a member from Arkansas named Joe, but even he didn’t know Joe’s last name). He said his band had begun goofing around singing songs in a UP-Finn accent on nights when the gigs were really slow. He said they had almost a whole set of ‘Finn-rock’ songs and were thinking about recording some of them. Sound familiar? If you guessed this was the beginning of the band The Yoopers, then you know how that turned out.
Mike and Gene snapped up two E-V664s and stands but they were big units. I asked the salesman if he had any ideas of a mic I could use on a boom stand playing the drums that would not give me a concussion if I hit my head on it. He reached into the display case and hauled out a cool looking E-V 627 B Dynamic Cardioid Hi-Z mic. He asked if I sang lead at all. When I said, “Yes, and most of the high parts,” he said, “Perfect. This mic’s frequency response on the low end will make your voice sound full and it is a great size for a boom stand.” I wasn’t sure what all that meant, I really liked the cool black color and slim design. Once Mike agreed it met our needs, we added a six channel mixer so we could have individual volume control for the PA we didn’t own yet.
I do not know what happened to the old TV set bass bottom. It sat in our basement for a long time and the last time I saw it, members of Mike ‘Cub’ Coda’s band were hauling it out our front door. Their bass player Kim French had a tendency to blow up speakers and they were on an eternal quest to borrow speakers for the next gig. They must have been desperate because when they called, Mike didn’t offer to loan them his new speakers, just the old homemade TV box. I never saw it again – maybe Mike made them a deal and he didn’t bother getting it back?
We played a few unofficial gigs where the lack of a PA was not a problem. Playing in a living room for the Red Owl Grocery store’s Christmas party didn’t require more than our one speaker bottom PA set up. Same with a couple of ‘anyone is invited’ dances we held in the recreation room at Messiah Lutheran Church. As the summer before our senior year was coming to an end, we ended up playing an outdoor dance for Northern Michigan University’s Band Camp. We set up on the front steps of the Forrest Roberts Theater facing the Hedgecock Fieldhouse. We ended up playing our entire set list twice. When we were done, we agreed that, A) we had a month to put together more songs before our first post-football game high school dance and B) we needed a real PA. My mother questioned the need for more equipment when she said she could hear us just fine over the half mile that separated our house from the dance. Mike assured her it was about the sound quality, not the volume.
Mike the electronic whiz found a reasonable set of speaker columns in a mail order catalog and a new D-I-Y amplifier kit which we all pitched in to pay for. It sounded great in our basement but after the first set we played in the high school gym, it became apparent that at the volume needed for a big hall, they sounded terrible. Mike sent them back and we headed straight down to see our buddy Gene Peterson at Marquette Music. We explained what we needed and he was more than happy to sell us two speaker cabinets each containing two twelve inch speakers. Gene P warned us we may need some treble horns to help them project in larger places, but Mike had that covered. He had two very large ones similar to what one would see hanging from the light poles at a football field. They sat nicely on top of the speaker cabs and we were now in business. This was the second time we shared the cost for band equipment, but it was more than well worth our while to upgrade our sound. We were all set . . . almost.
The other thing we learned at the first high school gym gig, was Mike and Gene ended up pointing their speaker cabinets toward the middle of the stage so they could hear each other better. Mike had recently seen another trio and noted they solved the problem by putting an extension speaker for the bass behind the guitar player and a guitar cabinet behind the bass player. Our first couple of band wages went into more speakers but I noticed the balanced sound was even better for me sitting between the four cabinets. The one thing we never did invest in was stage monitors so we could hear what was coming out of the PA better. At the volumes we played, I never had any trouble hearing the vocals and back then, very few garage bands used monitors.
When Mike and I played together again three years after The Twig was no more, we built our two massive folded horn enclosures and monitor speakers in my dad’s workshop. We were pretty proud of those and when we had a chance to use E-V Voice of Theater PA speakers at a dance at Lakeview Arena, we actually preferred the sound of our home-built cabinets. Our new band, Sledgehammer, used a lot more vocal harmonies covering the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and the Eagles so I was more than happy to have stage monitors for that band. When Sledgehammer went our separate ways, I bought the monitor speakers and used them for my home stereo and for DJing the JH dances in Ontonagon when I first started my teaching job here in 1975.
The only thing we needed to round out our highly professional stage equipment for The Twig were lights. Rather than build boxes to hold colored flood lights, Mike looked around and found a cheaper alternative. He picked up two fluorescent light fixtures and two colored bulbs – one red and one green. With those set on the stage just in front of and on either side of the drum kit, they cast a cool red and green glow. They not only looked cool reflecting off my silver sparkle drums, they lit up the walls and ceiling around the stage no matter how large or small the venue.
As you can tell, Wolfgang Van Halen got his start in the music biz without resorting to scrounging equipment or making D-I-Y speakers. He did learn a few tricks of the trade from his dad, however, when it comes to designing new amps, speakers, and guitars. Eddie made it his habit to take new equipment prototypes on the road and use them. He would come back from the concert trail with detailed notes on things he liked and didn’t like about what he was test driving. Wolfie has teamed up with Eddie’s old guitar tech / business partner Matt Bruck. They are still working on designs Van Halen Sr left behind when he left this mortal coil. In fact, as of this writing, Wolfgang is road testing a new EVH 5150 III 100S amp and a new SA 126 electric guitar. The EVH brand lives on and Wolfgang is living proof the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For those still woodshedding away on the garage band front, one thing remains – equipping a band is a fun process that comes in a close second to actually learning enough songs.
Top Piece Video: Eddie’s boy Wolfgang showing what can happen if your dad is the G.O.A.T. guitarist and you pay attention growing up (and a nice little hint that he played all the instruments on his debut MAMMOTH WVH album)