The Real Mastermind Behind Eddie Van Halen’s Iconic ‘Brown Sound’
Eddie Van Halen was a musician and songwriter who is hands-down one of the most influential guitarists of all time. He rose to prominence as the primary songwriter and guitarist of the band Van Halen, which he co-founded back in 1972 with his brother Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth, and Mark Stone. As one of the greatest guitar players in rock music history, Eddie popularized the tapping guitar solo technique and made outstanding contributions to rock music with his guitar playing style.
Primarily known for his guitar sound in Van Halen’s 1978 instrumental guitar solo ‘Eruption,’ Eddie Van Halen is still considered one of the key influences of most guitarists. When asked about his guitar sound, the guitarist once made an interesting remark saying it sounds ‘brown.’ This eventually led to rumors that Eddie has synesthesia, but was it really the case? Let’s delve into the details.
Did Eddie Van Halen Really Have Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a disease that causes a person to associate stimulation of one sensory pathway with a second sensory pathway. In other words, it causes individuals to hear colors, see sounds, or perceive letters and numbers as colored. Following the rumors about Eddie Van Halen describing his guitar sound as ‘brown,’ fans started to speculate that the guitarist has synesthesia.
During an interview with Guitar World magazine in 1985, Eddie said he has a ‘brown sound’ and described it as a tone and feeling he had always worked on. He then stated that one needs to know the tone he was talking about to work towards achieving it, which ‘comes from the person.’
As reported by I Love Classic Rock, Eddie Van Halen told Guitar World the following:
“[The brown sound is] basically a tone, a feeling that I’m always working at… It comes from the person. If the person doesn’t even know what that type of tone I’m talking about is, they can’t really work towards it, can they?”
After this remark, fans started to believe that Eddie has synesthesia, and this brown sound is seen on the first records of Van Halen. Besides, they assigned meanings to this statement and tried to find explanations for this ‘brown sound.’
Some believed that Eddie created this sound with ‘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.’ Others thought Eddie achieved this ‘brown sensation’ using Variac on his Plexi. However, it turned out that Eddie wasn’t the one who had a ‘brown sound’ in the first place.
According to Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen Had The ‘Brown Sound’
According to a 2015 Billboard interview, Eddie Van Halen revealed that this ‘brown sound’ was created by his brother Alex Van Halen. During the conversation, Billboard host Chuck Klosterman asked Eddie whether he has synesthesia and described the disease to the musician. Following that, Klosterman mentioned the rumored ‘brown sound’ remark.
As a response, Eddie Van Halen said people took the ‘brown sound’ remark out of context, and it’s actually funny. He revealed that he wasn’t talking about his guitar tone while making that remark. Instead, he was referring to Alex Van Halen’s snare drum. According to the guitar icon, he made this statement because Alex’s snare drum sounded very organic like he was beating on a log.
Following that, Chuck Klosterman asked the musician the origin of the rumors. Eddie stated that the confusion happened years ago when he explained Alex Van Halen’s drumming as it had a very brown sound. Moreover, the musician said he is glad to talk about this issue as people can finally understand his remark.
During the interview, Billboard‘s Chuck Klosterman asked Eddie Van Halen:
“Do you have synesthesia?”
Eddie Van Halen responded:
“I think I read something about this. What is that, exactly?”
Klosterman described the disease as:
“It’s the ability to see sound, which is supposedly why you call your guitar tone the ‘brown sound.’ You supposedly see the color brown when you hear that specific tone.”
Eddie then stated:
“That’s funny because people took that whole ‘brown sound’ thing totally out of context. I was never talking about my guitar tone. I was talking about Alex’s snare drum. I’ve always thought Alex’s snare drum sounds like he’s beating on a log. It’s very organic. So it wasn’t my brown sound. It was Alex’s.“
Upon hearing that, Klosterman asked the musician:
“Then how did this confusion happen?”
Eddie Van Halen explained:
“It happened years ago. People would ask me about his drumming, and the only way I could explain it was that it had a very brown sound. I’m glad you brought this up, actually, so people can finally understand what I was talking about.”
Although it’s uncommon to describe a tone or sound as a color, it seems Eddie Van Halen’s ‘brown sound’ was only a myth. The musician used ‘brown’ to describe Alex Van Halen’s ‘organic’ sound as brown is an organic color. So, the long-debated ‘brown sound’ actually characterized Alex Van Halen’s drumming.