Are you still searching for your perfect guitar tone? The story of how Eddie Van Halen created the Frankenstrat and the sound that made him famous shows you that it’s worth to keep searching!
Since my guitar teacher showed me “Eruption” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” I am hooked on Eddie’s sound. He has made an immense impact on my taste of music. If I were a better guitarist, he would have also made a tremendous impact on my style of playing… 😉
And I’m certainly not alone: Eddie Van Halen impacted many music genres with his unique and flashy playing style. I hope his influence on your taste of music is the reason you’re reading this article right now!
To create the sound that made him famous, he built the “Frankenstrat,” an iconic guitar that embodies fast guitar solos and 80s metal. A copy is housed in the National Museum of American History, which shows you how significant the Frankenstrat is for modern music history.
Is the Frankenstrat a Superstrat?
Eddie Van Halen’s famous Frankenstrat is a unique model of Superstrat.
Maybe you heard of other Superstrats before, or you even own one yourself!
A Superstrat is a guitar with an S-style-body (as made famous by the Fender Stratocaster) but features modified hardware more specific to Rock and Metal music.
Features you can find on a Superstrat are:
- More aggressive looking neck and body design
- Increased cutaways for better playability in the higher frets
- Increased number of frets
- Humbucking Pickups for louder signal output
- A locking vibrato system (e.g., a Floyd Rose)
Another famous example of a Superstrat is Steve Vai’s signature guitar, the Ibanez JEM.
How Eddie Van Halen built the Frankenstrat
Did you already swap the pickups, the nut, or the tremolo on your own guitar? Or maybe you even painted an instrument yourself? If so, then you already have a thing in common with Eddie Van Halen!
Eddie Van Halen had been modding his instruments since he first picked up a guitar. Still, the story about how Eddie Van Halen built the Frankenstrat is as crazy as the face-melting tapping solos he played on it.
Eddie Van Halen used spare parts for the Frankenstrat
Between 1974 and 1975, Eddie Van Halen wanted to add a Stratocaster model to his guitar collection. His primary motivation to using a Stratocaster was the tremolo, as known from Fender models. However, Van Halen had just started in 1972, and he was short of money.
Eddie bought the body in Wayne Charvel’s shop (later founder of the guitar company Charvel). At that time, Charvel was selling necks and bodies as spare parts.
He found a body marked as “second” because it had a knothole and other optical flaws. Eddie Van Halen didn’t hesitate and bought the body for 50$. He paid another 80$ for a neck.
How Eddie Van Halen modified the Pickups of the Frankenstrat
However, when he started to play the first Frankenstrat model with the other Van Halen members, the band didn’t like its sound. Also, Eddie had problems handling the hum of the single-coil-pickups he put in the original guitar.
So he swapped the single-coil-pickup with a PAF-Humbucker he took out of his Gibson ES-335. To fit the double-sized Humbucker in the single-sized pickup-slot, he had to use a chisel to enlarge the slot.
Fun fact: Dealing with imitators
When Van Halen started to gain popularity during the late 1970s and the early 1980s, many guitar companies began copying Eddies Frankenstrat.
To confuse the imitators, he added a single-coil pickup in the neck position of the Frankenstrat and put a three-way switch into the middle pickup position cavity.
How EVH modified the Tremolo Bar of the Frankenstrat
Eddie is best known for using a Floyd Rose tremolo. But when Van Halen started playing in the early 70s, there was no locking-tremolo yet!
How Eddie modified the Fender Vibrato
That’s why in the club days, through the first Van Halen record and the following live tour, Eddie used the original 1958 Fender Vibrato on his Frankenstrat.
To eliminate any friction causing the strings to get out of tune after using the Tremolo, EVH made various adjustments to his Frankenstrat:
- He wound the strings up instead of down
- He used a brass nut with larger groves
- He put oil on the nut
- He removed the string retainers
Although these changes increased the tuning stability, the open strings would pop out of the nut if he hit them too hard. That’s why you can see Eddie holding his index finger over the nut in the beginning years of Van Halen!
Even the guitar god himself had shitty gear back then! 😉
How Eddie and Floyd Rose created the modern locking vibrato
Maybe you already know the end of the story. Maybe you even played a Floyd Rose yourself. But what I didn’t know is: When Eddie Van Halen got introduced to the Floyd Rose vibrato, he didn’t like it as much as you would think!
In the year 1979, at a show in Seatle, Eddie first met Floyd Rose. He put his prototype vibrato on one of Eddie’s guitars for him to try out.
But when he tried it for the first time, he wasn’t impressed. In an interview, he said: “It was a pain in the ass.” The main reason was that he had to unclamp the strings and tune. Also, the system was still too fragile for Eddie’s taste.
When Eddie met Floyd Rose again a year later in Seatle, he told him to make the whole system more stable. After this improvement, there was no longer the danger of entirely breaking the vibrato. But the tuning stability was still unsatisfying.
There was only one problem left: To tune the strings between songs, you had to unclamp the whole system. Eddie proposed the use of fine tuners he knew from violins and cellos. This left the problem of quick tuning during live shows.
However, Eddie was not keen to find out that Floyd Rose patented the fine tuners he proposed behind his back. Nonetheless, he now had the robust, easy to tune vibrato system he used the rest of his life!
How EVH painted the Frankenstrat
You already know what the unique features of a Frankenstrat are. Now it’s time to find out how Eddie Van Halen gave it it’s signature look!
Here’s how to paint your Frankenstrat as Eddie Van Halen did:
- Paint the whole body black
- Let the paint dry
- Put stripes of gaffer tape on the body
- Paint it white
- Repeated the process with red
For the first paint shop of the Frankenstrat, Eddie used low-quality paint. After Eddie played the Frankenstrat at a mind-boggling amount of shows, it looked pretty beat-up. That’s why he started playing the “Bumblebee” in public.
However, after painting it a second time with “Schwinn bicycle paint,” he used it for live shows again.
The process for the “Bumblebee” is similar.
Where is the original Frankenstrat?
After playing the original Frankenstrat for more than 30 years, it was too beat up to use it at live shows. In 2006 Chip Ellis, a master builder at Fender, recreated every aspect of the original Frankenstrat in the “Frank 2” or “Frankenstein Replica.”
This replica was given to the National Museum of American History in 2011.
The original Frankenstrat was gifted to the Hardrock Cafe in 2004. It was stolen from the Hardrock Cafe in San Antonio but safely returned in 2007.
The original Frankenstrat was valued at 100.000$ back in 2017, but its price will sure have risen after the death of the man who made it famous.
What’s the moral of the Frankenstrat-story?
I hope you enjoyed this article on the history, hardware, and optic of the Frankenstrat! Maybe you even learned some new things on the way!
I certainly had a lot of fun reading up on this legendary guitar. If you have any information to add, please leave a comment!
As you can see, the Frankenstrat has a crazy history, both in possession of Eddie Van Halen and the public!
I learned from this inspiring story of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat and his search for the perfect tone: If the guitar you want doesn’t exist, then build it yourself!