Big, heavy, with muscular lows and singing highs, a.k.a. the “brown” sound. There are endless ways to describe Van Halen’s legendary tone, yet the color stuck as it best defines its ‘In-between’ nature – as pleasant as it is aggressive.
Eddie’s tone was a mystery back in the day – even now, most players still don’t understand the recipe and only follow ‘instructions’ that can get you so far; that is why this guide will first go through Van Halen’s personal amp settings, and then dive deeper into giving you the tools to get the brown sound even without owning any of EVH’s signature vintage or modern gear.
Upfront, you should know that even owning all of Eddie’s rig, the exact amp setting Van Halen uses will likely not work for you without any additional tweaking due to the nature of analog gear, guitar, and different playing styles.
Also, as a lifelong fan of Van Halen, I could not always afford a Marshall stack and figured out ways I’ll share with you to get the Van Halen tone on a budget.
Defining Van Halen’s Tone
To understand how to get Eddie Van Halen’s tone, first, we must define it as best as written words allow. It’s easy to say it’s ‘epic and aggressive,’ but more is needed, especially if you want to recreate it.
The way I like to describe it best is that the brown sound lies between the blue dynamic tone of classic rock and the heavy black sound of metal. What to keep in mind to get this blend are the following.
- The brown sound is mostly a rhythm rather than a lead tone. Eddie’s playing is based on his rhythm dynamic chops; removing those with too much gain will instantly get you into the black heavy zone, out of the brown.
- It’s full, with a lot of pick attack and upper harmonics, yet it’s not overly compressed.
- Van Halen’s sound is not a metal tone but a pure hard-rock one. It is distorted but must also respond to the touch and clean up when picking lightly.
- It’s fat, but there is a lot of presence to it as well. Eddie balanced the amp’s low end, treble, resonance, and muting technique perfectly to get the tone without ever sounding boomy.
- During the recordings of VH1, the reverb was panned to one side, keeping the other side’s guitar crisp. Nowadays, we don’t use reverb like that; if the sound shrills too much when you raise the effect mix knob, you’re either using too much or the wrong reverb delay settings.
The Brown Sound Origins
The guitar world was very different when young Van Halen was building himself into a guitar hero. The notion of ‘heavy guitar’ was not even born yet, with Tommy Iommi kick-starting it with Black Sabbath but still not engraving it enough for it to stick. High gain amps were ‘high’ only on the name. Thus, Eddie had to cheat his way into making the brown sound.
Like most things in music, it was an accident that started it. According to Eddie’s Interview for the Smithsonian, he used to work in a music store and dreamed about owning a 100w Marshall; yet once he got it, it was too loud to be played anywhere.
As he tried different amps, Eddie accidentally connected a UK 220-volt one into a US 120V socket; it didn’t work at first, but after warming up for a few, what came out was the Brown sound.
This little equipment does on purpose what Eddie did by accident. In technical terms, the Variac autotransformer is an electrical device that adjusts the voltage of the Amp. Using it with the Super Lead is the secret to having the extra gain while keeping the dynamics, squishiness, and harmonics that defined Eddie’s tone on the VH1 record.
You don’t have a variac for modern high-gain amps. An attenuator that works similarly and allows you to get the distorted amps sound even at a low volume could be handy for modern guitarists.
Classic Van Halen Tone Marshall Settings
If you’re into vintage gear and want to recreate the brown sound exactly like Eddie in the first VH record, you must have the amp that created the sound. The good news is that they are not that hard to find and not even the most expensive among vintage amps.
The tone I’m referring to here is one of the first VH records. Only some people realize that throughout the 80s, Eddie’s tone became cleaner, not heavier. Follow the instructions below, but go softer on the gain to achieve the VHII and VHII tone.
The Plexi Lead is a legendary amp that channeled the tone of Legends. Hendrix played one, Beck played one, and Clapton played one. It was only natural that Eddie would want to own one.
Beyond the tremendous clean sound and edge-of-breakup overdrive it’s famous for, I consider it the most ‘moldable’ amp in history, with countless records of all genres recorded with it. The one thing that it lacked and that Eddie needed was a gain stage beyond the amp and overdrive that the Marshall 4×12 cabinets with 20- or 25-watt Celestions offered when cranked up.
- Set the variac to around 89V, the sweet spot Eddie used. The lower the voltage output you set, the more sagy and spongier the sound becomes
- Set gain around ¾ (7-8) initially, with slight adjustments depending on your pickups’ output. My tip is not to crank it much too much if you play at a loud volume – the latter compensates for gain.
- Set The treble above the middle point. The logic is to take it to the point where the notes are defined but don’t sound harsh.
- The bass in the middle point, up to when it starts to muddy the sound. The secret is having enough to get Eddie’s pick attack when soloing and take out the boomy part that fights the bass guitar.
- The mid-range is very dependent on the guitar. The sound should be in between being scoped (without mids) and just at the point where things pop up. Around 4 or 5 of the amp is a good start.
Van Halen Personal 5150 Amp Settings
The 5150 is Eddie’s most significant contribution to the modern guitar sound and the amp that started a new wave of hard rock and metal in the early 90s. This is the decade when Eddie drifted off the classic Marshall for a heavier sound.
I have deeply reviewed it, but you should know upfront that you will never need to take the gain anywhere close to 10, no matter the genre. What the 5150 brings to the table is the extra dirt and bottom that gets you more into the heavier side of things; plus, no variac is needed.
When it first came out, Peavy had the brilliant idea to advertise it by offering Edie’s personal on the manual. Luckily, that information is still available, even though it is not what you would expect.
- Select the lead channel.
- Start with the gain of round the 6 – 6.5 points and adjust according to the guitar.
- Lows around 6 for passive pickups and much lower for active pickups. If you love your EMGs, lower the gain even more.
- Mids to 2 if you want to do it like Eddie and boost them with an EQ pedal. If not, start from 4 or 5.
- Highs to 5
- Resonance up to 4 for the extra shimmer to the sound. Balance the settings by adjusting the low end.
- Presence to 6 with adjustment based on how tight the bass sounds. Balance this by adjusting the low-end knob.
The 5150 II, III, and modern EVH amps are all based on the same design and follow the same logic; the difference is that they have even more gain and low end.
Read More: EVH 5150 Review and Buying Guide
Van Halen Studio Amp Settings
What you hear in a record differs from the guitar’s live tone. The venue, crowd, FOH engineer, and speakers make each show sound different.
As a studio musician, I see many players trying to replicate Eddie’s sound in the studio based on his live performances or what sounds good to them when paying level, yet when recorded, it’s almost entirely off.
In a live show, the sound is fatter and heavier, with the loud volume contributing to a bigger sound – in the studio, the sound is much more polished, taking up only its sonic space, leaving much room for the bass, keys, and vocal.
Take off a lot, possibly all the bass from the guitar. Guitar’s low-end and mixing engineers don’t go well together. Do the same with the mid-range, trying not to fight the vocal, record the cabinet loud, and use even less gain than live.
If you find you got the tone right but can’t make it stand out in the mix, layer a clean track mixed very low with the distorted one and see if this gets you closer.
Eddie Van Halen Guitars
You don’t need to own Eddie’s signature guitars to get his sound; if you can buy one, great; if not, learning more about them will guide you toward the right part to replace or the next best alternative.
The Frankestrat is Eddie’s experimental superstrat, made up of a Charvel and Stratocaster that eventually defined what the modern rock guitar would become. Almost violent looking and visceral sounding, it first had Gibson PAF pickups, ultimately replaced by more aggressive and heavier Seymor Duncans.
I was the lucky owner of one and explored its pros and cons in depth, whether you need it to get the EVH sound, what it’s like to play it, and similar alternatives.
Named after his son, the Wolfgang is the limit where a Superstar meets a Les Paul. Among all Eddie’s guitars, this is the heaviest sounding; I’d recommend it for anyone who leans more into the metal side of things rather than only hard rock.
The 5150 series is a more affordable modern Superstrat inspired by the Frankestrat, an equally solid Floyd Rose, a fast neck, a kill switch, a D-tuna to have fun, and the signature 5150 standard pickups.
If any guitars here are too hard to find, a quality Charvel, Ibanez, or similar superstrat with an aggressive bridge pickup will push the amp toward the EVH tone.
You might only need to replace pickups if you’re lucky enough to own an easy-to-mod guitar. It’s best if you don’t use active pickups and opt for a crisp, clearer one. The heavier the amps, the clearer and lower the output you want the pickups to get the dynamic EVH tone.
The Brown Tone on A Budget
The same formula applies if you want to get Eddie’s sound but want to spend on something other than his signature gear. It would be best if you had the following.
- Any solid-state or affordable tube combo amp with a quality high-gain stage
- Any EQ pedal with only a few bands
- Reverb and delay pedals
- A balanced distortion pedal
- An affordable guitar with tight passive humbuckers on the bridge and tremolo like the Ibanez JEMJR
What you will find challenging to get with budget gear is the tight low-end, the note clarity, and the ‘slippery’ sound.
The trick to getting the Brown sound on a budget is finding an amp with a good-sounding high gain stage and running it through a distortion pedal like a RAT with the gain almost at 0. The pedal won’t boost the sound but will tighten up the low end enough to give you the Eddie effect.
Now To The Hard Part – The Hands!
It might sound cliche, but Van Halen’s tone lies in his touch. The main reason players never settle for an amp setting is that they need to spend more time practicing the playing that goes with the tone.
Honing your ears, hands, and the tone come from the same place. If nothing works for you, the reason lies in the extra hours you need to put in.
The Van Halen low end will only sound tight if you’re palm muting correctly, and the pick attack will sound percussive if your timing is right. It takes time to get all this, so don’t immediately go for new gear until you can sound slightly like Eddie with only the basics.
Van Halen Amp Settings Guide: FAQs
Question: What Pedals Did Van Halen Use?
Answer: The most popular are the Phase 90, Flanger, and 5150 Chorus from MRX; The EVH95 Crybaby and Echoplex Delay from Dunlop; and the Univox EX-80 Echo box.
Question: Why did Van Halen Only Use The Bridge Pickups?
Answer: In the beginning, Van Halen only used the bridge pickup because he didn’t know how to soldier the neck properly. After designing his guitars better, Eddie added the neck pickup and used it mainly for solos.
Question: What Are Van Halen’s EQ Pedal Settings?
Answer: Van Halen left the EQ always on to boost the guitar’s mid-range. Play around the 500Hz-4Khz range, depending on what makes your guitar more present in the mix; alternatively, boost the mids on the amp and use the EQ to add more only for solos.
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