The "Secret" Edward Van Halen Pickup
Price as offered from Seymour Duncan Custom Shop: $140
I’ll admit I really lagged on doing a feature on pickups. It’s so much easier to just plug in a pedal, or play through an amp, etc. rather than having to go through the process of installing pickups with all the guitar dismantling, the soldering and even restringing of the guitar which isn’t something I’m ever thrilled to do. In any case, I knew that I eventually would have to take a look at some pickups so I made a call to premier pickup maker Seymour Duncan first.
When the gentleman from Seymour Duncan's support department answered, we went through the regular question and answer phase. I explained first that I was primarily looking for a replacement humbucker for the bridge position in a Les Paul. My Les Paul Classic came equipped with the 500T ceramic humbucker that happens to be the hottest output humbucker that Gibson makes. That is fine for flat-out gain, but I find that super high output pickups really sacrifice the tone and clarity of the instrument and are really a “one trick” kind of solution for helping overdrive some older amps. I told the support specialist that I wanted some versatility out of my Les Paul.
The Seymour Duncan support specialist then asked me, “What kind of sound are you looking for?”
“Well, this might sound a little weird,” I began to explain with a little hesitation. “I mean, I’m not trying to copy anyone directly in particular, but I really like the tone of Edward Van Halen in the early days. I guess I’d like to go something for that.”
The Seymour Duncan “Custom Custom” pickup was the one that was first suggested. As we talked on the phone, I went to the website and looked at the specs. I noticed the Custom Custom model had a DC Resistance of 14.4K. Based on my discussion with Victor over at Plexi Palace, a guy that’s got the “Brown Sound” nailed, he said a big part was to get a pickup that had a resistance of only around 8.5K.
“You know what,” I continued. “The Custom Custom’s resistance seems to be off a bit. I was told it needed to be a PAF style like your ’59 pickup. Something that had a lower resistance in the 8.5K range.”
I could tell the support specialist was smiling on the other end. “Well to be honest with you, we typically recommend the Custom Custom first for people looking for the overall feel and vibe of the early Van Halen sound. The ’59 is a great pickup but has a bit of a brighter top end due to the fact that it uses an Alnico V magnet, rather than an Alnico II.”
“I don’t really know much about that stuff really,” I admitted.
“To those people that really want to get the pickup that’s dead-on to the early Van Halen sound, when the Custom Custom just won’t do, we have a special pickup out of our Custom Shop available. It’s similar to the ’59 in that it is based off of a PAF-type of design, but uses an Alnico II magnet, wound just a little bit hotter then the ’59 and has a softer top-end response.”
This was intriguing to me for sure. “How did you get the design for this one? I mean, I thought Eddie’s stuff was always very top-secret.”
The support specialist then shared a story that Seymour Duncan himself had worked with Edward Van Halen in the late ‘70s when Edward brought him his favorite pickup and asked Seymour to work with it for a design for Edward’s use. Seymour wound a pickup based on that design and was interested in marketing and producing it as a special model for all interested customers to which Edward declined. As a result, it has been known as the Custom Shop pickup with an EVH wind and of course available only through Seymour Duncan’s Custom Shop.
After hearing about this pickup, this was the one I had to have. At $140, it’s a more expensive pickup than a regular production model (nearly twice the cost), but seeing that the pickup is such a critical part of the overall guitar tone, some may view this pickup as a bargain. After listening to this pickup, I certainly now feel this way! And I can understand why Edward didn't want to give away the secret - this is your "Brown Sound" right here...
Now mind you, I wasn’t looking for the exact copy of tone of Edward Van Halen, but after playing through plexi and metal panel vintage Marshall tops and other nice gear (vintage Voxes, Hiwatts, and Fenders as well as various new amps), I wondered why I just wasn’t satisfied overall with the tone I was getting. The area I had ignored too long was that of the pickup. The stock Gibson 500T screamed out with high output and resulted in heavy bottom end tone. What was missing was the sense of dynamics and clarity and a smooth lively "punch". Part of what made Edward’s tone on the early Van Halen albums so great was the fact that the overdrive was gotten from his aggressive attack on the strings – the corresponding harmonics brought forth a lively aggressive sound. It was a heavy sound too, but the Marshall plexi Edward used certainly wasn’t considered a super high gain amplifier. Edward’s attack on the strings in effect helped turn the amp into a higher gain sound and the pickup he used was a big part of the equation. I realized this myself after I installed the EVH Custom Shop pickup into my own Les Paul.
Listen to a current high-gain amplifier by “whoever-your-favorite-manufacturer-happens-to-be” and the problem that occurs is the added amounts of compression that make the overall sound seem sterile. In effect, when using too much gain from the amp itself from the preamp gain stages, the tube feel diminishes dramatically. Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy many of the tunes played on today’s rock radio stations. Good catchy hooks and tunes, but do you notice how the guitar tones for the most part seem to sound somewhat lifeless? I attribute this being caused by the amplifiers doing all the distorting and so the dynamics and overall feel are gone. The music that comes out of a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier is supposed to be "in your face aggressive" but you can tell that the guitarists just don't need to play their instruments aggressively to get the sound - just dial up the knob and the preamp tubes will just buzz away!
Edward dug into his strings and his overall vibe and tone feels aggressive because he WAS aggressive with the guitar – it’s a sound and tone that feels genuine, alive and present. A high-gain modern amplifier is convenient but I've yet to hear one that can produce the same "alive" sound. Some may argue - "it's in the player, Ed will sound like Ed on anything" - true to some extent, but I'll tell you that the newer Van Halen material recorded through Peavey 5150 amplifiers just doesn't capture the same kind of tone he used to have. You can tell it's Van Halen through the technique and his style, but it's again an entirely different tone now. And obviously this is the tone Edward Van Halen wants now and is happy with.
All stories aside, the EVH Custom Shop pickup from Seymour Duncan will help deliver the tone of the early Van Halen albums if that's what you're looking for. Even if that is not your goal, you may want to consider it for its lively sound and smooth midrange attack. Not only did it improve the tone of my Marshall amplifiers, it sounded great through my Hiwatt and Fender amplifiers as well. Unlike the experience with the stock Gibson high-output 500T pickup, it felt like I was actually playing through responsive tube amplifiers once again. This is a fantastic rock and roll pickup and well worth the price to have one built for you.
I then did a little “VH experiment” as well, using my bench Variac and lowering the voltage into my Marshall Super Lead to approximately 90 volts. With the volumes and tones cranked up and the channels 1 and 2 on the Marshall linked, the “Brown Sound” smooth Marshall tone with the extra “cut” came through. I plan to record some sound files for those that need to hear it to believe it. What a blast it was to play the riffs from Mean Streets, Unchained, and Runnin’ with the Devil! Even with the Variac off and running through a 50 watt 1968 plexi head, the Van Halen type vibe can definitely be gotten.
I used to think that Van Halen’s guitar tone was unattainable or that there was studio trickery involved, i.e., extra e.q.’ing, or modified Marshalls used. I’m here to tell you that the sound is available and there are no real tricks that were used. The basic ingredients are a Marshall Super Lead (it doesn’t even “have” to be a plexi), an EVH Custom Shop Humbucker from Seymour Duncan, and a Variac (to help take things easy on your amplifier’s transformers with everything cranked to the max). If you want better control and to elaborate on the system as outlined in the Van Halen artist profile, use a THD Hotplate to help tame some of the volume and then you’ll also gain the benefit of being able to use the line out if you’d like to into a second amplifier and speaker set. Note that VH II was recorded with a dry head to cabinet setup unlike the dummy loaded configuration on the first record.
If you’ve been attempting to get a similar tone and vibe as Edward Van Halen’s and have been missing out on "something" but not quite sure what (like I had for quite sometime!), definitely don’t ignore your pickup! Give Seymour Duncan a call at (805) 964-9610 or check them out on the web at www.seymourduncan.com. Tell them Dave at LegendaryTones sent you!
Special thanks go to Victor at the PlexiPalace (www.plexipalace.com) for his knowledge, insight and expertise about the Van Halen tone and also to Seymour Duncan for expediting and making the EVH wind Custom Shop pickup for us so quickly!