When you think of Eddie Van Halen, you think of the Frankenstein.
His heavily modified Stratocaster is an icon. Probably one of the most important guitars in the history of rock and roll, it’s synonymous with Eddie, and his fabled early “brown sound.”
But, what if I told you that Eddie didn’t use the Frankenstein for half the songs on the band’s landmark self-titled debut?
Super-Strats became Eddie’s guitars of choice by the 1980s. But, in the early days of Van Halen, the Ibanez Destroyer was the king of his rig. And, it’s the guitar that he played for some of VH’s defining early moments.
So what’s the story of the Destroyer? When did he use it? And how come it isn’t a mainstay of his rig today?
Let’s dive in and find out.
As I noted in my previous Gibson Explorer article (LINK), the Ibanez Destroyer was a revelation when it dropped in 1975. For heavy guitarists craving the sound and aesthetics of Gibson’s long out-of-production axe, the Destroyer was a viable, and affordable alternative that didn’t sacrifice the tonal qualities of the original.
It’s believed Eddie bought his Destroyer in ’75 or ’76. And, for a while, he played it as was. But, by January ’77, as photos from a gig at the Starwood Nightclub in Hollywood show, he’d made some minor mods.
The Destroyer shipped in a clear, light amber finish, intended to make its Sen (Japanese ash) body look like the Korina wood of the original Explorer. But, never one to shy away from visual flare, Ed had the entire body, back and headstock painted white. He also replaced the Gibson-imitating “top hat” knobs with Strat knobs and, for some further added pizazz, switched the chrome bridge for a gold-plated one.
Recording ‘Van Halen’
So, exactly how much use did the Destroyer get on ‘Van Halen’ numero uno? Quite a lot, as the man himself revealed in a Guitar Player interview:
“I played it on every song that doesn’t have any vibrato-bar parts on it, like ‘You Really Got Me.’ I can’t remember what pickups were in it when I recorded the album—I was always changing them*—but that was before I cut that big chunk out of it.”
*Note: photos of the instrument from ’77 – ’78 show the stock, chrome-covered Maxon Super 70 humbuckers intact, suggesting that Eddie didn’t switch them out before recording VH1.
To break it down further, that fat, in-your-face Destroyer tone is also heard on ‘Runnin’ with the Devil,’ ‘Jamie’s Cryin,’ ‘Feel Your Love Tonight’ and ‘On Fire.’ And, Eddie used the instrument to create some startling sound effects that he couldn’t achieve on the Frankenstein. As Guitar World (via Van Halen News Desk) noted in a 2011 Feature, those included:
“…the high-pitched metallic scrape on the ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ intro (performed by swiping the strings between the bridge and stop tailpiece) and the stuttering effect on the solo to ‘You Really Got Me’ (produced by setting the neck pickup volume to “0” and flicking the pickup selector switch).”
“The Shark” surfaces…
The Destroyer was integral to the early Van Halen sound. So, why didn’t it stay in Eddie’s rig in the years that followed? Unfortunately, this was one instance where the guitarist’s famed tinkering tendencies got the better of him.
Shortly after the recording of the first album, Eddie made some heavy mods to the Destroyer. All were cosmetic, and most were pretty standard fare: he painted it in red and white stripes – the classic VH color scheme, added some Les Paul -style volume knobs, filled in a hole for the missing middle knob and removed the pickguard.
Then, in a more drastic move, Eddie took a chainsaw to the instrument and cut a large v-shaped hole out of the body below the bridge. Rechristened “the Shark.” he loved the dramatic look. What didn’t hold up so well, however, was the tone.
…and loses its bite
As he found when out on the road, losing a huge chunk of mahogany from the body didn’t do wonders for “the Shark’s” sound. The fat, ballsy Explorer tone that defined the first VH record was lost. The mod made it look like a deep-sea predator. But, in the sonic department, it clearly lost its bite.
And so, the Destroyer was ultimately retired, though, not without a final send-off from Eddie. While he doesn’t actually play it on the album, it’s the instrument he’s posing with on the cover to 1980’s “Women and Children First.” It was testament to EVH’s continued affection for the guitar, and the impact it had on his mighty sound.
Do you play an Ibanez Destroyer? What’s your favorite Eddie moment on the first Van Halen album? Share your stories in the comments.
“I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”