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An early-’70s script-logo Phase 90. Photo by Larry Kent
6. Eddie Van Halen's MXR Phase 90
Whole volumes have been written about how Eddie Van Halen achieved his archetypal “brown sound,” probably because he pretty much demolished the way lead guitar would ever be heard again in a hard-rock setting. Beyond his stupefying technique, it was the brash, hyper-articulated and subtly phased distortion on early Van Halen songs like “Eruption” and “Jamie’s Cryin’” that really changed the game. Amazingly, EVH relied on a combination of pure amplification and voltage reduction—no overdrive pedals—to get his basic distortion tone, using an Ohmite Variac variable transformer so his Marshall Super Lead would run more efficiently at loud volume.
Eddie onstage in 1980 with a Phase 90 in the center of his meager pedalboard. Photo by Neil Zlozower/atlasicons.com
At the heart of his pedal setup, which he connected after the amp via a dummy load box, was an Echoplex EP-3, an MXR Flanger, and the vital MXR Phase 90. Also known as the “little orange box,” the Phase 90 had launched the MXR brand in 1972 and was popular for its simplicity: one knob, labeled “speed,” was all you needed to approach a decent (and inexpensive) simulation of a rotating Leslie speaker. EVH maintained that the unit, set at slow sweep, actually didn’t phase too strongly, and gave his tone a treble boost so his solos could cut through more easily. When your drummer is the heavy-hitting Alex Van Halen, you need every advantage you can get.