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How I’ll always remember Edward.
One memory often triggers another, so, while writing about my experiences with Metallica over a crucial decade in their career for this issue, I kept flashing back on my sole encounter with Van Halen—the man and the band. It was during 1988’s Monsters of Rock, and I was on assignment for the tour’s two-day stand in Akron’s Rubber Bowl, a decrepit concrete pit turned convection oven by the summer heat, to interview all the guitarists on the tour: Kingdom Come’s Danny Stag, Dokken’s George Lynch, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs of Scorpions, and, of course, Edward.
For the first day I was there, Van Halen’s publicist kept nudging me aside. Nonetheless, I enjoyed their headlining set, save for the perplexing choice of a Sammy Hagar ballad about burying the placenta from the birth of one of his children under a tree. (If you know what that song is called, please let me know so I can more purposefully continue to avoid it.) Edward was especially brilliant, of course.
I was literally and anxiously sweating it out as Van Halen’s second-night performance neared, when the publicist finally ushered me back into the band’s dressing room, in the distressed bowels of the Rubber Bowl. Their green room was actually a casbah created within the area’s grim concrete walls. There were hanging tapestries, plush furniture, floor lamps, and other homey appointments, all cooled by giant fans at its edges. But the most impressive sight was Edward, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony plugged into a vertical-standing road case packed with practice amps, jamming out some blues. Alex had a practice pad atop the case, and pounded so hard he cut through the astonishing web of sound. They tossed me a few nods, and I sat on the couch next to a table with a bowl of M&M’s on it—I did not check the colors—and watched them wail on for a good 10 minutes. Edward, plugged into what I think was a Fender Champ, still sounded every bit like himself. I thought, “Well, even if I don’t get to ask a single question, this is worth the trip.”
But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees. They all raced toward me and piled onto the arms and back of the couch. I was surprised and surrounded. They answered my questions, but Eddie kept playing his unplugged 6-string, and nearly every reply came with a silly joke or a pun that left them in stitches. They all talked at the same time, sometimes completing each other’s sentences—always answering me but spinning off into all kinds of wild digressions. At one point, Sammy did a decidedly un-PC Ray Charles impersonation that put Edward, Alex, and Michael on the floor. And when I asked a guitar-centric question, Edward slid off the back of the couch and landed next to me to reply.
“But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees.”
It was hilarious—almost sketch comedy. But it was also beautiful, because it was obvious that at this point they were deeply connected by friendship and the joy of still discovering what this line up of the band, which had released OU812 a month earlier, could do. There was a tangible, open-hearted purity to them—at least about this music they were making and the experience of making it—and it wasn’t drugs, because Edward had recently been through rehab and not even beer was allowed in their green room. They were, in June 1988, truly a band of brothers.
Somehow, amidst all the crosstalk and antics, I managed to get all my questions answered, and spent a few more minutes hanging out with them, enjoying a cold cola and avoiding the near-100-degree outside temperature, as they bantered with each other and prepped for the stage. Then it was time for the publicist to reappear and throw my butt out, and for them to hustle theirs into the spotlights.
There were more troubles to come for Edward—struggles with addictions, divorce, and cancers—and a lot more music to be made, until he died, too young, in 2020 at age 65. But because of that day, I always think of him as happy-go-lucky, practically exploding with positivity and elation. And I’m very glad for that. Seeing somebody at their best and happiest is always a gift, and when it’s somebody like Edward Van Halen, it’s a treasure.
This reader’s onset health issues prevented him from building his guitar alongside his luthier friend, but in the end, his friend’s guidance helped produce the perfect headstockless guitar.
This guitar began a year ago as a concept to make a guitar with a luthier friend who was going to be moving away. So, I had a time constraint. He and I would frequently go mountain biking, design and build biking trails, and played in a band together—until, eight years ago, I started to have chronic health problems, which forced me to quit all of those activities.
A collaboration at my friend’s well-equipped workshop was nixed immediately, mainly due to my health, but also because his free time became limited, since his schedule was occupied with his full-time job and his project of building a house. As a result, the teamwork/consulting was going to have to take place via email.
My friend started me off with a very nice neck-blank sandwich of walnut and maple (from a tree that fell across one of our mountain-bike trails—bonus!) and a severely warped neck that was the donor for the fretboard and truss rod.
Ready for some headless hammer-ons.
I planned to copy a Traveler Ultra-Light Edge, which has an ingeniously designed tuning configuration and two-layer plywood body. But, by the time I finished carving the neck, I had decided that I would not be happy with a guitar body as small as the Traveler. I needed something more shapely and comfortable. The Ovation Breadwinner/Deacon shape won over a Klein Headless or Abasi Larada, both close runners-up.
The body took much longer to make than I anticipated. The in-body tuner arrangement is ideal for CNC fabrication, but it required a lot of planning and skill to make by hand. The body consists of two ¾″-thick pieces of plywood, so it was very convenient to chamber the insides before gluing them together. I mixed my own wipe-on polyurethane and added artist oil paint for a translucent tint. The finish was delayed by a month of frustration with inferior solvents due to new state VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) laws. My health limits my driving to only a few miles at a time, so I had to wait a couple of weeks until an anonymous helper could do a “moonshiner run” to a neighboring state for the good stuff (cue “Red Barchetta,” or more like “Blue Honda Fit!”).
“The body is lightweight, resonant, well-balanced, and very comfortable in both casual and classical playing positions.”
The circuit consists of a volume pot with a treble-bleed filter and a flush-mounted toggle switch for selecting single-, series-, or parallel-coils. The bare aluminum pieces (string-anchor headpiece, humbucker surround, string-roller mounts, and engine-turned neck plate and cavity covers) were made by hand using aluminum scraps. The volume knob is aluminum and zebra wood.
I am very happy with the result. The body is lightweight, resonant, well-balanced, and very comfortable in both casual and classical playing positions. It sounds great, and I love the translucent red color that accentuates the plywood contours. Although I didn’t get to make sawdust with my friend, he gave me plenty of advice during the process, and the neck is made from materials that he contributed, so I consider that a success.
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