Review: EVH Wolfgang Special is a catalogue of Eddie's brilliant ideas
Eddie Van Halen was more than just a keyboard player. He was also pretty good at guitar, and throughout his long career, he proved himself an extraordinary technical innovator. Frequently, these innovations were extremely violent. He'd attack a guitar with a chisel to try fitting a new pickup or moving one around, or lay into it with a chainsaw to make it look like a shark.
His most famous axe, the red, white and black "Frankenstrat" was a ragtag bitzer he built from parts, taking a humbucking pickup from a Gibson, coating it with wax to tamp down feedback, and sticking it on a Fender Strat body, which he then proceeded to mutilate and abuse in every conceivable way from 1977 until it was finally retired, looking like a stepped-on pizza, somewhere around 1997.
If I had to choose, I think I'd rather be the Strat that Jimi Hendrix held a viking funeral for at Royal Albert Hall, or one of the many axes Pete Townshend took great pleasure into bashing into splinters on stage, than to be Eddie's Frankenstrat – at least Hendrix and Townshend administered mercifully quick deaths.
Van Halen tortured that Strat and other guitars for decades, chopping and hacking at every part in search of perfect tone and harmonics, complete tuning stability (despite some of the most frenzied tremolo bar abuse the world had ever seen), and unimpeachable reliability through the considerable rigors of Van Halen world tours and David Lee Roth-grade backstage shenanigans.
After signature stints with Kramer, Ernie Ball Music Man, Peavey and Fender's Charvel brand, he started his own EVH brand in the early 2000s under the Fender umbrella. At this point, with some 35 years of fearless tinkering and butchering under his belt, as well as many decades reigning as the god of shred, Van Halen began work on his final guitar.
Eddie didn't design the Wolfgang for his own good, he'd say – he'd be just as happy continuing to hack together his own guitars. This was for everyone that heard his sound and desperately wanted exactly the same axe. He built it for you and I as much as for his own use. All his greatest ideas, incarnate in basswood.
The EVH Wolfgang Special I've been enjoying for the last month or so is a made-in-Mexico cheapie version of the flagship Wolfgang USA, coming in at a fraction of the price. Considering the enormous difference at the hip pocket, I'm impressed at how little changes on the spec sheet here. You lose the pretty flame maple top, the ebony fingerboard, and the 5-ply body binding, as well as the hair-thin special paint job, and you get jumbo frets instead of the fancier vintage stainless steel ones on the USA model, but otherwise, all the other key functional bits are, remarkably, the same.
So what is it? Well, considering the mangled elephant-man monstrosities of Eddie's early builds, the Wolfgang is surprisingly conservative and understated in design. With its rounded, classy-looking body in baby blue, you have to actually look to find hints this thing's built to melt face. But they're there: the subtly flame-shaped headstock, the businesslike cream humbuckers, the EVH-branded Floyd Rose tremolo bridge, and the telltale protrusion of an EVH D-Tuna.
The D-Tuna is a perfect example of Van Halen's practical inventiveness; you can find his patent for the idea here. It lets you flick the low E string down a tone in an instant, putting you in drop-D tuning for one-finger power chord chogging, and letting you pop back to standard E tuning so quickly you could do it while you're playing – that's easy enough on a hardtail guitar using the regular tuning pegs I suppose, but a pain in the butt on a guitar with a Floyd Rose trem and locking nut.
I won't lie, I was a bit afraid of the EVH Wolfgang when I pulled it out of the box. The late, great Eddie Van Halen's musical and technical wisdom, distilled into his final guitar design, and then put in front of a mug like me, who makes a pretty good drummer for a guitar player? I felt judged and sweaty.
This feeling went away quick smart when I tried to play the thing. Whoever had this press-fleet guitar before me had brutally munted the setup, and it took me the best part of an hour to un-munt it. By the time I had it set up, tuned up and intonated, with the D-Tuna tweaked to perfection, I'd had my grubby mitts deep enough in its guts to make it feel like an old friend.
So how's it play? Well, I think for this guitar it's better to get complaints out of the way first, because there aren't many. There's no arm cut, so the bound edge digs into your arm a bit like a Tele. There's no capability to split the humbucker coils for a single-coil tone, which would've been nice, particularly on the neck pickup. And between the raw maple fingerboard and the non-coated 9-gauge strings, things tend to get a little dry and tear up my callouses, so I've gone through more string lube spray on this guitar than usual.
Otherwise, the man's wisdom and demanding nature shine through. Whether it's the pickups, hard-mounted directly to the body, or the shape, or the bridge, it resonates and sustains notably longer than my Washburn N2, delivering a vocal and expressive tone. The trem is locked to dive-only, and in that configuration you can hedonistically dive-bomb it until the strings flop around like cooked spaghetti, and bring it back up to pitch with total confidence.
This thing stays in tune beautifully, and that holds true for extravagant bends as well – I'm pretty amazed that I can pull devil's-interval six-semitone bends on the B string and go straight back to chords without that familiar sinking feeling.
If you like harmonics, well, Eddie elevated those to a fine art, and they seem to leap out of this guitar. Tapped harmonics are aided by those nice, fat frets, bringing out some of those wild tap-and-bend techniques I first noticed in songs like "Poundcake" and "Dreams". (Yes, I was late to the party and a Van Hagar fan to begin with, sue me. I get the whole Diamond Dave thing now, but he was a tad too flamboyant and ... I don't know, calisthenic for me at 16.)
But it's not just the tapped harmonics, pinched squealies also erupt out of this guitar with wonderful ease. In this brilliant interview with Guitar World, Eddie gives a possible explanation for why – he places the magnetic polepieces of his pickups right underneath the points on the string where harmonics pop out. "I've checked other guitars and they just put the pickups anywhere," he says. "If it's underneath a dissonant harmonic, it's going to sound dissonant."
I've checked the Wolfgang – the polepieces of the four coils are positioned right under the major third, fifth, fifth and ninth harmonic points on the strings. Surely other folk would've figured out something like that? I take a look at the N2. The first coil is in no man's land, about half a centimetre back from a perfect octave, the second is a few millimetres forward from a major third, the third sits under an ugly fourth, and only the coil closest to the bridge sits right under the double-octave harmonic spot.
Now I don't know if there's any science behind this idea – Eddie strikes me as more of a sleeves-up tinkerer than a theoretician, and that Nuno N2 also spits out mean harmonics in its own right, but only when you hit them just so. Eddie's guitar makes them effortless. I've probably spent as much time making horsey noises as trying to make music.
It's no secret that Van Halen was a bridge pickup guy; a lot of his best-known axes never even had a neck pup on them, and even once he found one he was happy to stick on to the Wolfgang, he rarely used it – to the point where he wired the Wolfgang with the switch upside down, so if he knocked it on the way up while rocking out, it'd stay in the bridge position. Some Wolfgang Specials have this upside down switch fitted as well, this one doesn't, I suspect it's regional.
Either way, I have to admit I only really explored the neck and middle positions out of a sense of duty. They're fine, nice even, for humbucker tones, and you can get some nice slap out of the neck if you're running it through a bluesy sounding rig. I hear these guitars do just fine through clean amps on jazz gigs, provided your bandmates don't know what EVH stands for. But the neck position's just not really why I'm here, you know?
The bridge pickup's where it's at if you like to rock, particularly through a phaser and a big fat 5150-style hard-driving quad box. Or in my case, at least, a digital rig designed to model the same for far less money and without the neighbors murdering me.
Eddie threw no less than 80 pickups back in the faces of his designers before finding joy with these, and as a result, it just sounds right. Palm mute and it's percussive and chewy and nasty, let 'er ring and the lead tones just soar. Hit a big G or D chord and it's impossible not to grin. Most of Eddie's tone was in his fingers, but on this guitar even I can feel like I catch fleeting glimpses, between bung notes and unmuted strings.
There are other nice touches, like the low-friction speed knob for easy volume swells and the treacle-thick high-friction knob to make tone harder to poke out of place, or the rounded, semi-recessed heel joint where the neck connects, which makes it super easy to reach the highest frets. Or for that matter the neck itself, a slim but precise-feeling C-shape with a fingerboard that flattens out from a comfy 12-inch radius for chords at the low end to a flatter, bend-happy 16-inch radius as you go up into the widdly diddly zone.
But at the end of the day, I'm left with the impression of a super-solid, well put together and ferociously tested tool that really sings. For something an absolute master built for himself, it's extraordinarily approachable, friendly and easy to play. And I can see how it's going to remain a relevant and inspiring instrument for decades to come, despite the man himself leaving us care of throat cancer in 2020. I wince now every time I see him jam a lit cigarette in the headstock in those old live videos.
Eddie named this guitar after his son, and he named his son after Mozart. It's lovely to note that Wolfgang Van Halen is making his own way in the music business now, showing off a sky-high vocal range and rocking out with some solid chops on guitar too. Not this guitar with his name on it, mind you, he's working on some semi-hollow thing called the SA-126, named after his dad's January 26 birthday. It's all very sweet.
The one thing I didn't find in the EVH Wolfgang Special's gig bag was a single skerrick of the old man's talent. I spent a solid two days trying to learn "Eruption", much to the alarm of my poor family, but as it turns out, Eddie was special in ways that I am not. Who knew? I'm just happy to have ... er, fingered in his handsteps for a little while.
The EVH Wolfgang Special retails for US$1,149.99 in the USA, €1,349.00 in the Eurozone, AU$2,199.00 down under. It's a pleasure to play and you should do so immediately. Check it out in a video below – but if you're looking for a video review, I'd like to proclaim this one by Dagan from PMTVUK the definitive word on the matter.
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Is that friendly sarcasm or intentional understatement?
He was one of the greatest guitar players in history (#4 on GuitarWorld's list: https://www.guitarworld.com/features/the-100-greatest-guitarists-of-all-time)