July 25th, 2011 | Published in Interviews
In 1975, Eddie Van Halen created a new guitar in order to realize the sound he had in mind for his music.
No one had ever seen – or heard – anything like it before. Originally black and white-striped, the look was immediately copied by others upon Van Halen’s initial rise to prominence, which caused Eddie to shelve it for a short time; he later repainted it red-black-and-white-striped with some bicycle paint, and the rest is, in fact, history.
Fans later nicknamed the custom creation “Frankenstein,” or “Frankenstrat” (even “Frank 1”).
“Frankenstein” represented Eddie’s attempt to combine the sound of a classic Gibson guitar with the physical attributes of a Fender. The guitar cost $130 for Eddie to make; it’s now valued at well over a million dollars but, in reality, the one-of-a-kind instrument is priceless.
After years of touring, “Frank 1” was retired, for a variety of reasons, as Eddie headed into an era of partnerships with various guitar manufacturers.
In 2006, Fender teamed with Eddie to create the “Frankenstein Replica,” or “Frank 2,” a replica created by master guitar builder Chip Ellis. Fender issued a “Frank 2” limited edition in 2007, which were selling at $25,000 a guitar.
In February 2011, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History announced that it had acquired a Van Halen “Frank 2″ guitar through a partnership donation with Fender. The axe will be part of the museum’s Division of Culture and the Arts, which preserves a large and diverse collection of instruments.
Smithsonian magazine recently corresponded with Eddie via email about his decision to give up his cherished guitar.
Smithsonian: You donated Frankenstein 2 to the Smithsonian, but tell us about the original Frankenstein.
EVH: The original Frankenstein was a result of me tinkering and experimenting with different elements of electric guitars that I liked. The thing was that some guitars had elements that I liked, but at the same time had certain elements that I didn’t care for either. If I could combine those elements into one guitar, then I could have an instrument that enabled me to create and play what I heard in my head without any restrictions.
Smithsonian: You’ve said that you hated “store-bought, off-the-rack” guitars, because they would not do what you wanted them to do. What did you want from your guitar?
EVH: I wanted the electronics (humbucking pickups) of one manufacturers guitar, while I preferred the body, neck and tailpiece of another manufacturers guitar.
Smithsonian: And how did you achieve that?
EVH: I combined the 4 elements into Frankenstein, which resulted in a guitar that did what I wanted it to do, more than anything I had ever played before. In addition, I created an instrument that wasn’t offered as an “off the rack” guitar by any manufacturer at the time.
Smithsonian: What became of Frankenstein 1?
EVH: I retired it from regular use. It took so much abuse from endless touring and recording; I wanted to pay some respect to it and let it survive and not let it get destroyed completely. At the same time it became something so well known beyond my wildest dreams that it’s value made it a target for theft and I wanted to protect it. I still play it every now and then. It’s priceless to me.
Smithsonian: What did you think of Frankenstein 2, the first time you played it?
EVH: I was blown away. We did a blindfold test and it took me a while to figure out which one was the original and which one was Frank 2. The aesthetic accuracy was astounding.
Smithsonian: And how did the Replica Frank 2 compare to the original?
EVH: From a playability stand point Frank 2 was actually easier to play and fought me less than the original. Frank 1 was something I built around 1975, so it reflected my experience in building guitars at that time.
Smithsonian: How could you part with it?
EVH: What better home for it than the Smithsonian Institution where it could be on display for the rest of time so others can appreciate it. It’s the highest honor I could imagine for something so dear to me.
Eddie and VH are currently in the studio working on a new album, their first with David Lee Roth since 1984.
Watch: Eddie Van Halen