Brown Sound: the secret of Van Halen’s tone, myths and truths

Brown Sound: the secret of Van Halen’s tone, myths and truths
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Brown Sound: secrets, myths and truths of the raw tone and setup of Eddie Van Halen, the guitar genius.

What is the Brown Sound?

Brown Sound is what the legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s audio is called on his first album. The Brown Sound is basically a Stratocaster type guitar with a PAF humbucker on the bridge plugged into a 100-watt Marshall Plexi from ’67 fully cranked connected to a 4 x 12 speaker cabinet with Celestions G12M Greenback. But there are a few more secrets behind this iconic sound that we’ll tell you about here.

How did Van Halen’s term Brown Sound come about?

In an interview that Guitar Player conducted with Van Halen in 1978, Eddie, when asked how he would describe his audio or sound, replied “it’s a brown sound”. From there, the term Brown Sound would catch on and today it is a trademark of the raw audio of Van Halen’s early stage.

Eddie Van Halen Frankenstrat single pickup guitar, inventor of Brown Sound.

Myths about Eddie Van Halen’s Brown Sound: Variac and Echoplex EP-3

It is believed that behind Eddie’s tone with his Frankenstrat plugged into his ’67 Plexi and a 4×12 cab, there is something else that is the Variac. In addition, Edward also used a lot an Echoplex EP-3 echo tape to achieve the legendary audio.

The Variac is a device that allows you to vary the voltage with which an electrical device is powered, in this case, Eddie’s Plexi amplifier.

What is the Variac used by Eddie Van Halen for?

Varying the supply voltage of an amplifier produces changes in tone and volume. Thus, the higher the voltage, the less the amp saturates and vice versa, the lower the voltage, the more it saturates. In addition, the lower the tension, the sound becomes a little more round and spongy. In a test performed on a ’67 Marshall Plexi Super Lead, lowering the voltage to 95V, instead of the normal 110V voltage, results in a slight decrease in the deep bass and a slight decrease in volume, and the attack is slower as Rhett Shull explains in the following video with Rick Beato.

Why did Eddie Van Halen start using Variac on his Plexi?

As you all know, the Marshall Plexi sound unbearably loud. Eddie loved how his 100-watt Marshall Plexi sounded at full drive and volume! Which was extremely loud. When testing a Marshall 220V, he discovered that this connected to 110V from the US, the amp sounded much lower. So Edward looked for how to control the supply voltage of his 100-watt Marshall, he got a Variac. Soon the Variac became the “master volume” for his amp.

What is the magic number that Eddie Van Halen set the Variac to?

Eddie explains that when he played in small pubs he would put the Variac at 60V, when he played in bigger places he used it at 80V, and for recordings, the sweet spot was at 89V.

So is it a myth or is it true that a Variac is used to achieve the Brown Sound tone?

As we mentioned before, while Eddie used the Variac as a sort of master volume, this not only affects the volume, but also the tone. Therefore, although it was not his intention, its tone is shaped based on the use of the Variac at 89V.

Eddie explains everything about the Variac and debunks myths about why he used it in a 2015 interview by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Zócalo Public Square. The interview was called «Is Rock ‘n’ Roll About Reinvention?» in which Edward Van Halen was interviewed by journalist Denise Quan.

The Variac story as told by Eddie Van Halen himself

I worked all summer to buy that amp (’67 Plexi) and we were already too loud as it was and now I had a 100-watt Marshall! It was so dam loud I did everything from facing it backwards to facing it down to the floor … I was just too damn loud! So I saw an ad in the paper for another Marshall amp and thought “maybe this one will be different”, well it certainly was cuz when it showed up I plugged it in and it didn’t work … but, I left it on and what I didn’t realize was this thing was from England and it was 220-volt, and I plugged it in and I didn’t look at the back and see it was set on 220; it took a long time for it to warm up at half voltage, and when I picked up my guitar I was like “it sounds incredible!”… but incredibly quiet. It dawned on me “I could control the volume of the amp with the voltage, so I proceeded to hook it onto the light dimmer of the house, and blew it out and so on. So finally I went to this place called Dial Radio and asked “do you have any kind of like an industrial variable voltage transformer that I can use like a light dimmer” and he said “yea I got this thing called a Variac”, I said “ok cool”, and I take it home and plug the amp into it and I’d lower the voltage from like 110 slowly down to 100 and… the lowest I ever went was like 60. Depending on the room we were playing I’d set it anywhere between 60 and 100 because the only way the amp sounded good was with everything all the way up, so that became my volume knob. If we were playing little bars I’d set it to like 60 volts; somewhere a little bit bigger I’d crank it to 80 and for recording the sweet spot seemed to be 89-volts.

Eddie van halen

The Brown Sound and the Echoplex EP-3

The Echoplex EP-3 was an old Tape Echo that became legendary because its preamp colored the audio signal in a very pleasant way, enriching and enhancing the tone. So many guitarists used it even without the Tape Echo effect, just with the preamp. So much so, that today Jim Dunlop produces an Echoplex preamp pedal based on the original FET circuits of the old device.

Eddie Van Halen died

What is the difference between the Brown Sound and the Plexi sound?

There are several major pedal brands that offer Plexi amp-in-a-box, as well as from Brown Sound pedal. But isn’t the Brown Sound tone you get with a Plexi? Yes, the Brown Sound is obtained using a Plexi, but as you know, there are many different amps that fall into the Plexi group. While all have the classic Marshall tone, each has its own characteristics. The current Plexi audio is the post-’69 one with more presence and treble, and a lot of gain. While the first Plexis, up to 68, including that of Edward Van Halen have a rounder and warmer tone. Thus, the Brown Sound sound is an early 1967 Plexi, with more mids and lows, and rounder highs, which complemented with the Variac and Echoplex Ep-3 complete the iconic Van Halen audio.

What equipment did Edward Van Halen use?

In addition to his Frankenstrat, his Marshall 100-watt, 4×12 cabinet with Celestion G12M, Variac and the Echoplex EP-3, Eddie also counted other components in his setup. One was the MXR EQ that he used to boost the mids and as a Booster depending on which guitar he played. He also used the classic Phaser MXR Phase 90 pedal. Finally, the MXR Flanger.

Leave us your comment on what you think of Van Halen’s Brown Sound.

If you are interested in a Plexi, visit the Marshall website.


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