One of the most puzzling but fascinating photos I found was a lo-res black-and-white image that I, amongst many other Van Halen guitar fanatics, first viewed when it appeared on a handful of forums in 2014. The photo shows Ed playing a guitar with an unfinished Strat-style body, rosewood neck, “zebra” bobbin humbucking pickup and two control knobs. Inserted in the image is “A younger Eddie shreddin’ at the Whiskey (sic) A Go-Go 1977” and “courtesy of inertia graphics ©2001.” The stage lights in the background are consistent with those of the Whisky at the time, and, since Van Halen’s very first gig at the Whisky took place on December 3, 1976, the 1977 date seems accurate, albeit frustratingly vague.
The most convincing detail that suggested that the guitar body in the photo was Ed’s Frankenstein was the black pickguard. Directly below the volume knob is a notch that’s identical in shape and placement to the notch seen in numerous photos of the Frankenstein when it had the black-and-white striped finish. Although the photo is not particularly sharp, close examination of the body’s wood grain also reveals features consistent with those of a factory second, which is an attribute that Ed and others consistently mentioned about the body he bought from Charvel.
My efforts to track down the person behind Inertia Graphics to see if he or she could remember a more precise date or provide a hi-res version of the photo (or additional photos) were a dead end. However, as I searched for more details about that photo, I came across a YouTube video posted May 2020 by Johnny B Guitars titled “Bare Body Frankenstrat Mysteries Revealed” that led me far deeper down the rabbit hole than I could have dreamed.
In addition to the 1977 Whisky photo, the video also featured photos taken by Bo Shannon in 1977 of Ed playing the bare body guitar. Shannon’s photos showed several angles of the guitar in much sharper focus and detail. After viewing the video, I searched for more of Shannon’s Van Halen photos online and came across a handful of additional images that show Ed playing a white Stratocaster with a humbucking pickup at the bridge. This was the beginning of my own personal revelation (which several other online sleuths discovered before me) as Shannon’s photos and the dates he provided helped me answer numerous questions about when and how Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein came into existence. The puzzle pieces were all there, and everything started to make perfect sense.
I would like to extend a warm thank you to Bo Shannon for making his photos available and providing fascinating details about them. John Burgess of Johnny B Guitars also deserves kudos for his outstanding research and excellent YouTube videos, which also include highly recommended “How Eddie Van Halen painted the Frankenstrat” and “Black Frankenstrat?! 1977 Whisky A Go-Go.” Guitar World readers may already recognize Burgess as the builder of the hockey stick and stop sign guitars featured in the “It Might Get Weird” column back in 2013 and 2016. His meticulous, scholarly research and fastidious analysis are truly commendable, and he has proven to be an excellent resource for those of us seeking the truth and facts.
What follows is the background, development and evolution of Ed’s Frankenstein guitar up until and including the period just after he applied red paint to it in 1979. After that period, Ed frequently swapped necks, pickups and hardware in his ongoing quest to build the perfect beast and stay several steps ahead of his imitators. As the catalyst and prototype for the “super Strat,” the most popular electric guitar design to emerge since the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster designs of the Fifties, Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein was indeed a monster of a guitar.
THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
The origin of the Frankenstein guitar arguably begins in August 1969, when Ed and his brother Alex went with their father, Jan Van Halen, to Music for Everyone in Sierra Madre, California. Jan made a $143 down payment consisting of a $20 bill and $123 in trade-in credit for a Bundy flute and Ed’s Univox Custom 12-string guitar to purchase a $200 Cooper drum kit for Alex and a brand-new $400 gold top Gibson Les Paul Standard for Ed.
Although Ed finally had a professional-quality instrument in his hands, he soon discovered that the ’69 Les Paul’s single-coil P90 soap bar pickups didn’t deliver the same fat, harmonically rich tone as the humbucker-equipped Les Paul and SG guitars played by his hero Eric Clapton on Ed’s favorite Bluesbreakers and Cream albums. Instead of buying yet another guitar, Ed acquired a spare humbucking pickup, chiseled out a larger cavity at the Les Paul’s bridge position and installed the humbucker.
A few years later during the mid-Seventies after Ed graduated from high school, he further modified the Les Paul by painting it black, probably in either late 1974 or ’75. The Les Paul was stolen around this time, and it appears that Ed bought a brand-new Ibanez model 2387 Flying V copy to replace it. A photo taken during this period shows Ed playing the V at a gig with its stock dual cream-bobbin Hi-Power humbucker at the neck position and a replacement nickel or chrome-cover Gibson-style humbucker installed at the bridge.
Unfortunately, the V was stolen as well, but the replacement he bought during the second half of 1975 was an even better upgrade — a 1975 Ibanez Destroyer with Super 70 pickups. Ed finally found a guitar that satisfied his ever-discriminating taste for tone, and over the next two years he made only minor modifications to it, including refinishing it in white and swapping the control knobs and bridge.
Ed acquired two other important guitars around this time: a circa 1963-65 Gibson ES-335 and a 1958 Fender Stratocaster. The only known photo of Ed playing the 335 appeared in the 1975-76 yearbook for Don Bosco Tech high school. The photo quality isn’t the greatest, but details like the block inlays, vibrato tailpiece and sharper cutaway horns all confirm that the 335 is a 1963 or later model.
“It had one of those Maestro Vibrola wiggle sticks with the bent metal tailpiece like you find on an SG,” Ed said. “I liked it, but it wouldn’t stay in tune. I sawed the bent metal spring in half, figuring I could make the E, A and D strings solid and just have the high three strings affected by the wiggle stick. I did all kinds of crazy shit to that 335. I took a belt sander to it when I wanted to repaint the guitar white, but I ended up sanding a big hole through the wood.”
Ed’s fascination with the vibrato bar probably led him to the ’58 Strat next, but he quickly got rid of it after his bandmates complained about the thin sound of its single-coil pickups. Although his bandmates hated the Strat’s tone, Ed loved how he could perform deep dives with its vibrato bar and keep the vibrato reasonably in tune with a few custom tweaks.
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