What Happened When Eddie Van Halen and Brian May Traded Guitars
Even though Eddie Van Halen and Brian May built their own guitars to get the sounds they heard in their head, not much changed when they swapped instruments.
In a new interview at Guitar World, the Queen guitarist recalled them trading during the making of May's 1983 Star Fleet Project mini-LP. "I sounded like me on his guitar and he sounded like him on my guitar," he laughed, 'which reassured us that it’s basically all in the fingers at the end of the day. No matter what guitar Eddie picked up, it sounded like him. And I saw him pick up Phil Chen’s bass, and he sounded like Eddie Van Halen on Phil Chen’s bass! So, yes, it’s in the fingers.“
But May did have a bit of difficulty with the tremolo unit on the Frankenstrat. "It didn’t feel familiar, no," he continued, "because his tremolo is entirely different to mine, it’s loose and flops about. Mine is on the verge of being immobile, and wherever I put it, it stays. So that’s very different. I’m sure I could have got used to it after a while, but we just got on with playing basically.“
Still, the duo, who first met backstage in Munich early in Van Halen's career when they were opening for Black Sabbath, bonded over the technical aspects of guitars, and May realized that Van Halen's innovative approach to placement of the pickups helped Eddie get his unique tone."
"We talked about what he called ‘the brown sound,’" May remembered. "He said he’d been very influenced by the way my guitar sounded, the breadth of it and the way it spoke. And he wanted that. He said, ‘I wanted that brown sound.’ And it’s a question of where you put the pickup, at what point under the strings – it’s technical talk."
“He said none of the guitars he’d used had it in quite the right place, so he moved his pickup," May said. "His guitar looks very individual, but the thing that really made it so individual in sound is because he tuned where that pickup was – to like a hundredth of an inch – to get the right harmonics to make the brown sound. And he had to have the right amp, of course. So we talked a little bit about that. But to be honest, it was more about, ‘What shall we play?’“
In 2018, Ted Nugent recalled he had a similar experience when he and Van Halen switched guitars in 1978. Once Eddie figured out how to avoid the feedback from Nugent's Gibson Byrdland, he "started pulling these mystical licks, and it sounded just like him, but out of my rig. And I grabbed his Strat - his mutilated, bastardized Strat - and I started playing 'Dog Eat Dog' or 'Cat Scratch [Fever]' or something, and it sounded just like me. If music is anything, it's not only the universal language, not just the universal communication for people anywhere in the world at any time, but it's also a personal execution of the musician's sonic vision."