Van Halen Brown Sound Introduction Notes
 

Jeff Fiorentino Image The Van Halen Brown Sound is one of the most sought after sounds in Rock guitar..  Many have the opinion that we at JFRocks.com have nailed the tone.  One of the key things about VH that I always liked was that they didn't take themselves too seriously.  And that's kind of my approach with the VH style song materials that I produced for the Van Halen style guitar lessons on my website.  It's all in good fun,  everything is recorded with a relaxed, leave the mistakes, who cares sort of nature.  Which in turn is my suggestion for you when approaching the VH Brown Sound.  Don't get too crazy with equipment.  In fact I've found the less fancy the better.  To be honest, the reality is if you're playing like Eddie plays you'll sound like Van Halen to people no matter what sound settings you're using.  Phase 90 or no Phase 90, Brown Sound or no Brown Sound.  Eddie can plug into any amp, play any guitar, and still sound like Eddie.  When teaching people this guitar style over the years here online, or using it as a learning tool to teach stiff students to loosen up, I've always said the Van Halen guitar style is a state of mind.  It's a way of approaching the guitar.  It's not really about the sound, it's about how you're attacking the notes and the techniques you're utilizing to do so.  The phrasing is far more important with Van Halen than the sound is.

All that said, the Van Halen Brown Sound is an awesome key element and obvious first step in sounding Van Halen'ish.  It's the sound that everyone wants.  So to that end let me first say that you don't need to go out and buy a bunch of expensive equipment or even have exactly what Eddie uses to get a really good VH Brown sound.  Just some basic equipment and some common sense analysis of what the Brown Sound actually is should be all you need.  Through some song examples (throughout the page) and some basic EQ formulas I'm going to share some tips with you for dialing in a good Brown Sound.  I'm going to keep this page very simple and to the point, you can elaborate on your own.

Now as a disclaimer let me just say that the best I can do is offer you how I get the sound, and ask you to keep in mind that there are many variables that affect one's guitar tone, such as, the climate you live in, the strings you're using, the room you play in, yada yada the list goes on and on.  Any settings I give are simply suggestions and should be used as a "GUIDELINE" only.  Some tweaking of these settings will more than likely be required on your part.  With that, let's begin.

Also please be sure to check out the Van Halen-style based guitar lessons on my main website.  In those lessons I teach you the style so that you can actually play like Eddie Van Halen, and hopefully incorporate some of his style into your own music and innovate off of it ideally.  It's not about actual Van Halen songs and you just playing VH covers, it's about the style.  As we've been proving for more than a decade at JFRocks.com, the Van Halen guitar style a great learning tool, it stands on its own and can be used to make your whammy bar attack, riffs, and solos even more expressive.  While the Van Halen style lessons are just one small part of the lesson content at JFRocks.comIt remains one of the most popular sections of the website, and that I think is because of its wide appeal and versatility.  But let's face it, Van Halen just plain sounds cool.  And that tone is what this page is here to help you with.

Written by - Guitarist Jeff Fiorentino (ASCAP), Founder of JFRocks.com & JFRocks Music Publishing. Hollywood, CA
 



Jeff Fiorentino's Brown Sound setup -
(Amp, Guitar, Effects)

 

Van Halen style guitar lessons with Jeff Fiorentino at JFRocks.com - Van Halen'izing Cover Songs Amplifier setup


I use a mixture of amps at JFRocks.com for the Van Halen-style guitar lesson tracks.  I use a classic Marshall JCM 800 for many track, but on most tracks, I also use the now very famous for its Brown Sound online, Crate GFX 212.  Now before you start laughing at the thought of that, let me state for the record that NOBODY and I mean NOBODY is more surprised than I am at the Brown-Sound this Crate amp kicks out.  I mean seriously, when I was a kid Crate amps were the amp you got when your parents screwed-up and bought you the wrong amp.  But mark my words, this amp cranks out an easy to dial in, serious Brown-Sound.  (as heard in many of the example tracks on this page).

As for usage and settings, please keep in mind the Crate GFX is a solid state amp which makes it better for the lower volumes used in recording, but not as great live as once you crank it much past 3 or 4 it loses a bit of its warmth.  Where as a tube amp like the Marshall JCM 800 performs typically much better when cranked to 10.  Yes there are things you can buy to lower the voltage and thus make the Marshall and other tube amps perform better at lower volumes, but they will still have the Tube amp problem of getting tired and hot after long hours of recording.  Where as something like the Crate is a god-send as you can record for 40 hours straight if you want to, and it'll still have the same sound it had when you started, and on top of that, it'll still be cool enough to store your drink on. 

Regardless of what type of amp you use, or the brand etc. the basic EQ settings given below should help to at least give you a good EQ foundation for your Van Halen Brown Sound.   Note that for the later Sammy era sound with Chorusing it's a good idea to raise up the mids a little bit beyond what's laid out below, which is more for the DLR era early VH tone and designed to be paired with the MXR Phase 90 and/or MXR Flanger.

Bass EQ:  4 to 5 out of 10 ;  Treble EQ:  9 or 10 out of 10 ;  Mid EQ:  3.5 to 6 (depends on amp & guitar. 4 is a good start) ;

Presence:  4 to 6 out of 10 ; 
Reverb:  Varies from 6 to 10 on most amps, the solos usually have more.

IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT AMPS:  I DO NOT like using amps that haven't got a good built in reverb.  I don't like using separate reverb pedals or processors if I don't have to.  Those units work best when enhancing an amp's already decent reverb.  Both my JCM and CRATE (especially) have excellent built in reverbs, and the reverb you hear on my VH style tracks is NOT ENHANCED.  It's straight from the amp into the mic.  My policy is I don't care who's name is on it, or who's endorsing it, if the amp doesn't have a reverb built in, or has a crappy one built in, I don't buy it.  A lot of players don't realize that reverb and the quality there of, plays a very important roll in any sound.  If you already have an amp and it has no reverb, you'll need to alter the settings given above quite a lot to compensate for what the reverb processor or pedal unit you're using is doing to alter the signal. 

Try also not to clutter things up too much with 10-band EQ's and stuff like that for the Brown Sound.  This is actually a very simple guitar sound that's quite ironically often over-thought by people, and over-processed by even more people.  Too many EQ options does nothing but convolute the whole dialing in process.  It's very pure, and what I call a down and dirty sound.  Early Brown Sound aside, even if you want the later Sammy era guitar tones, there's really no need to go all Mr. Spock on it and dig out some 10 or 20-band EQ.  If you insist on going that route, (maybe you're the type who just needs knobs to turn and levers to move), then I strongly suggest you hit Costco for the 2500 count family sized bottle of Advil.  You're going to need it.  lol

 

Van Halen style guitar lessons with Jeff Fiorentino at JFRocks.com - Van Halen'izing Cover SongsGuitar setup - (The most important aspect)

 

So many people overlook the guitar thinking this guitar sound is all about the amp.  Whether you want to believe me or not, the guitar is the most important aspect of this sound.  The wood its made out of, the strings you use, the pick-ups you have in it.  All very important.  Even though most of you are using solid body guitars, they still have a tone to them.  Each guitar sounds a certain way based on how it was made and how it's set up.  That said get to know your guitar.  Play it unplugged for a while.  Listen to it.  Is it warm like a Les Paul sounds unplugged??, or is a little punchier like a Strat typically sounds unplugged?? (depending on Strat wood type i.e. Ash, Alder etc.).  The characteristics of your guitar will enable you to figure out not only amp adjustments, but also effect setting adjustments as well. 

I actually record a lot of the tracks (about 33%) that you hear in my Van Halen-style set on SoundCloud with my Les Paul Studio.  No whammy bar on it, yet due to under-bend and slide-in techniques people comment about "the great whammy bar usage" all the time, which always cracks me up on some level.  Songs like "Full Shitter", and "Big Brown" were all recorded in full on my Gibson Les Paul for example and not the infamous White Kramer that's used as the main example guitar on this page. 

I only mention this as a factoid because the two guitars actually sound very similar unplugged, and are set up with the same kind of guitar strings.  Both guitars have a warm Brown Sound without even plugging them into anything.  So based on experience gained from decades of tinkering with equipment,  I know what settings will work for each guitar and what if any minor adjustments need to be made.  Such as for the Les Paul, there needs to be less REGEN on the Flanger (if used), and a pinch more Presence is needed on the amp (if using the Marshall).  You need to figure this kind of stuff out for your specific guitar.  So please unplug the darn thing and listen to it.  It'll help you figure out any sound setting you want because you'll know what you're walking in with as a base-line, i.e. warm guitar, punchy guitar, a guitar that hates low end, a guitar that needs more mids to cut through. etc. etc. etc....

All of the above being said, below are some guitar set up specifics to help you dial in that EVH Brown Sound you're looking for.  All tips are suggestions, and based on what I do, not necessarily what Eddie did.  All that matters in this world, be it guitar sounds, cars, dogs, spouses, etc. is "what works for YOU".  Take suggestions from other people, but ultimately success comes from finding what works for yourself in your given situation.  Even if you had Eddie's exact setup, guitar, amp, effects, and settings teleported to your home from 1978, I promise you if you plugged into it, you would not have a good Brown Sound right off the cuff.  It would sound nothing like your Van Halen albums.  Some tweaks would need to be made.  Especially for example if you live in a humid state like Florida.  Ed's stuff would be coming from Los Angeles.  It's not as humid here, so we use different settings because our air isn't as heavy in the south-west.  This is just one example, but others are room size, room shape, and room acoustics, etc. etc. etc.
 

  • Hum-bucker pickups
    I use Duncan JB at the bridge and Duncan Jazz at the Neck.  I've been using them since the 80's and I believe that if it ain't broke don't fix it.  Really the Duncan JB rules for the Brown Sound in my book.  Plus, you can do a lot of other stuff with it.  It can go from Brown Halen to Metallica and over to warm Jazz and do it all well.  As a session guitarist all around things are great for me.  But honestly I'm not being lazy, I kid you not, the JB is nothing short of awesome for all ranges of the VH guitar sound, from early Brown to later era more chorused tones.  I've tried other pickups on the market, including some touted as being designed for the VH Brown sound.  However, they just didn't impress me, nor where many of the others I've tried anywhere near as versatile in tone as the JB is.  Like I've said, this page is all about me telling you what I use.  People dig my VH'ey tones and write in and ask.  As always all of this is subjective, so as always try things for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.
     

  • Pure Nickel Strings (Don't cheap out!!)
    The strings you choose to use are so freakin' important.  It never ceases to amaze me the strings people slap on their guitars just to save a buck, or because they like the pretty colors the packaging has.  It's a bit like putting econo-gas in a Ferrari and expecting to the get the full performance of the car.  I use Fender 150XL .009 1st string .040 6th string.  There are two sizes of 6th string, stay away from the .042 size for Van Halen applications.  Whatever brand you want to use is fine.  If you don't like Fender then buy another brand, it's really about player preference, but as far as strings go and the Van Halen Brown Sound, I highly suggest that you use PURE NICKEL, NOT NICKEL PLATED..  This is very important for getting the warmth you need for this sound...  For my money the inexpensive Fender 150XL strings that I use nail the tone perfectly on any guitar I put them on.  They are as far as I know the strings that Van Halen himself used to use back in the early days of the band.  That said, that's what I use and have been using as my main guitar string of choice for any and all types of music I play from Blues, to Jazz, to even Country stuff.  As a session player I have to do a wide variety of things and they're a damn good string and a very useful tip for anchoring your Van Halen Brown Sound.
     

  • Floyd Rose (To float or not to float?)
    Or some sort of double locking whammy bar system.  I prefer Floyds, and I prefer them to float, however it's not necessary for Van Halen.  In fact on his old Red and White Franken-strat the bridge actually doesn't float.  Note that I said, "I" prefer a floating bridge.  Never a bad idea to throw some Vai tricks in with your Van Halen.
     

  • Remove the Tone Knob (Fact or Fiction?)
    Just a tip but I've found I get a fatter sound when I take away the load caused by the tone knob.  If you disagree or are not electronically inclined please DO NOT DO THIS!!  It's not a big deal or requirement of any kind.
     

  • Pickups screwed into body (Please don't misquote me)
    Now this is a myth that some claim I said many years ago in the JFRocks Guitar Forum that screwing the pickups directly into the body of the guitar must be done for a good Brown sound.  I was reading someone's forum or blog I got a Google alert about some years ago, and someone decided to misquote me, either because they didn't understand what I said, or they can't read.  In either case, here's the deal.  The reality is I do screw the pickups directly into the wood of the infamous JFRocks.com White Custom Kramer.  I DO NOT do this because Eddie did it, or because I think it fattens the sound.  I do it because I don't have the mounting plates for my White Kramer and never have.  When I first got the guitar it was just a body and neck with no hardware, the routed out pickup slots in the body were fairly shallow so it was just an easy process to grab a couple screws and drill them into the body.  I suppose I could buy the mounting plates if I wanted to, but again like I said about the pickups, if it ain't broke why fix it, plus I think the routing for the pickups is too shallow and was only begun, which means I would have to route the slots out deeper, and I'm a car guy, I'm not much for woodworking, nor am I very good at it.  Bottom line is the guitar sounds great, in fact I've had offers upwards of 10 Grand for it from JFRocks.com site fans, so other people obviously think it does too.  In the end my philosophy is always if it sounds good why screw with it.  The fact is screwing the pickups directly into the wood of your guitar body adds very little to the sound and isn't necessary, however it does tend to increase sustain a bit since the wood vibrations run through the pickup.  But as for fattening the sound, NO, not that I can tell..  I think the thicker than thick car paint and auto primer under layer that my White Kramer is painted with does more to fatten the sound than me having the pickups screwed into the body.  That thick paint adds a lot of warmth.  And this I know for a fact because I've played it with no paint, and a thin layer of paint, and in both of those instances it was nowhere near as warm as it is with its current car paint and primer setup.

    Guitar Detail of the JFRocks White Kramer I use for VH-style materials

     


Basic Bare-Bones Effects setup
- (Just what's necessary for a great Brown Sound)

First off let's begin this section with a little MXR Phase 90 101 for those wondering what to buy.  In my opinion the best MXR Phase 90 to use for the VH Brown sound is the "Script Logo" model from the 70's.  The Script model as it's known will give you the best VH sweep.  The re-issue model sweeps a little too high for a true VH Brown Sound tone.  If you can't track one of these classics down on EBay or where ever, I suggest going with the EVH model and selecting the script mode using the button at the top of the pedal.  That said, the photo I have of the Phase 90 on this page is of the re-issue model as I cannot show any VH stripes without permission because they're trademarked.  The "Script" model will have the MXR logo and phase 90 written in script handwriting text, and it's usually a more burnt Orange color than the re-issue.  Script model photo


MXR PHASE 90 Probably the most important effect for the early VH Brown Sound, a typical setting for the "Speed Knob" is either a 9 or 10 o'clock setting.  I typically will wire the Phase 90 into the FX loop of my amp so that it's after the pre-amp.  This is counter to what is conventionally done.  However, what this does is put the Phase 90 deeper in the mix of sound to give you the more authentic sounding Van Halen Phase 90, as opposed to putting it on the floor in front of the amp which gives more of a mushy sound which VH doesn't have.  Granted wiring the Phase 90 into the FX loop probably isn't how VH wired his up in the studio.  However, it's best to always keep in mind that at home you're trying to get the sound of a finished produced Van Halen studio recording..  That said, the real secret to the VH sound I get on recent JFRocks.com Van Halen style songs/guitar lessons is this little FX loop hookup suggestion.

As far as usage goes.  The Phase 90 in the early days of Van Halen was used as part of the sound for both rhythm and lead parts. However typically it was brought higher into the mix for the solos (leads) with additional reverb added to enhance the sound and effect.  When using the Phase 90 for VH rhythms be sure you don't turn the knob much if any past 25% of the way up, and also if possible for less mushy results for the home based guitarist who doesn't have a sound engineer standing by I highly recommend you try my earlier tip of running the Phase 90 through your amp's FX (effects) loop.  In my experience and as is proven on countless JFRocks.com VH-style guitar lesson example tracks it really does clean up the mushiness of sound often associated with those using the Phase 90 for VH application.  Either way you hook it up and which ever way works best with your setup, the Phase 90 is a MUST HAVE for a good early VH Brown Sound.


5 Classic Phase 90 VH tone examples
** Note: The first two songs utilize the Phase 90 plugged in on the floor in front of the amp.  This is typically the way we plug in our effects pedals.  The 3rd example utilizes the Phase 90 plugged into the amp's FX loop.  As you'll hear both methods of hook-up have their merits.  In a nutshell one is mushier than the other.  ** The 4th & 5th examples, are a rare blending of Phase 90 (in the less mushy sounding amp FX Loop) with Stereo Chorus.  I love the extra crunch this gives riffs, and the depth it gives solos.  I suggest all of you experiment with this blending at some point.

 

Van Halen Brown Sound Tips with Guitarist Jeff Fiorentino of JFRocks.com   VH Phase 90 Tone Example #1
 
Pedal on the floor (mushier tone)
 
Van Halen Brown Sound Tips with Guitarist Jeff Fiorentino of JFRocks.com   VH Phase 90 Tone Example #2
 
Pedal on the floor (mushier tone)
   
"I must be somebody" - written by Jeff Fiorentino "Suffer the Bitches" - written by Jeff Fiorentino
   
   
Van Halen Brown Sound Tips with Guitarist Jeff Fiorentino of JFRocks.com   VH Phase 90 Tone Example #3
 
Pedal through amp's FX Loop (cleaner tone)
Guitarist Jeff Fiorentino - ASCAP - Shut-Up and Play Guitar  VH Phase 90 Tone Example #4
 
A rare mixture of Phase 90 and Chorus
 
   
"Cynical Groove" - written by Jeff Fiorentino "Shut-Up and Play Guitar" - written by Jeff Fiorentino
   
VH Phase 90 Tone Example #5
A second example of using a blending of Phase 90 and Stereo Chorus
 

MXR Flanger:  The second most important effect for the VH Brown Sound.  Unlike the Phase 90 I DO NOT typically suggest Plugging the Flanger into your amp's FX Loop.  Based on my experience the Flanger seems to work much better plugged in on the floor in front of the amp as you would most other effects pedals...  The two main settings are the "Unchained" setting and the more standard setting used on tracks like "Amsterdam" and  "Hear about it Later"...  see settings below.  It should be noted that the Flanger is generally used for specific riffs or tricks and sometimes solos in the VH guitar style..  While it is used on some main rhythm parts of some songs, its primary use is to create a large fat flanging effect on specific riffs or song parts.  Early VH tab books show the Flanger on all the time.  What happened was the transcriber got it mixed up with the Phase 90.  The Flanger and Phase 90 can be used at the same time.  In fact for "Ain't talkin' bout love" the main intro muted arpeggio part has Phase 90 on it, and then the single note tie in riff uses Flanger.  For the best sound on that as far as sounding like the record I always leave the Phase 90 on and just kick the Flanger on for that little transition riff..  Aside from the stereo sweep which was added in mix-down on Van Halen 1, it'll sound dead on perfect. 

Now if you have an EVH model Flanger, it will have an EVH switch.  That switch is simply a quick pre-set for setting #1 the "Unchained" setting.  My settings below will match that pre-set nicely if you don't have an EVH model.  Setting #2 the "Standard Setting" is my choice for "Amsterdam" and "Hear about it later" type applications.


Setting 1:  The "Unchained" setting
Manual = 51%
Width =   48%
Speed =  52%
Regen =  60 to 75%  ( I usually just eyeball the knob, and it ends up being about 70%"ish" )



Setting 2:  Standard Rhythm playing setting
Manual = 51%
Width =   48%
Speed =  52%
Regen =  10% to 40% max. 
(Depends how deep you want the Flange whirl to be. )


5 Classic Flanged VH tone examples
** Note: Track examples 1 & 2, "Killing Popularity" & "Driving Amy" utilize the Flanger throughout.  The third track example below, "Big Brown" actually utilizes ALL 3 classic VH Brown sounds, i.e. Phaser, Flanger, & Chorused tone.  The song opens with a Flanged VH tone, then moves into a mixed Chorused & Flanged VH tone for the main rhythms of the song.  The song's guitar solo is an early era Phase 90 VH tone utilizing the Phaser through the FX loop hook-up method, as covered in the Phase 90 section of this page.  The fourth example "Jerk Weed", features Flanger setting #2, and a script logo Phase 90 plugged into the amp's FX loop for its solo.  While the 5th example, "Get a Room!!" utilizes Flanger, Chorus, & Phase 90, however the MXR Flanger is the primary effect on this track.

 

  VH Flanger Tone Example #1   VH Flanger Tone Example #2
 
   
"Killing Popularity" - written by Jeff Fiorentino "Driving Amy" - written by Jeff Fiorentino
   
   
  VH Flanger Tone Example #3
  See note in preview paragraph
 
  VH Flanger Tone Example #4
  Flanger setting #2, with a Phase 90 solo.
   
"Big Brown" - written by Jeff Fiorentino "Jerk Weed" - written by Jeff Fiorentino
   
VH Flanger Tone Example #5
Utilizes MXR Flanger, MXR Phase 90, & the MXR Chorus.
Flanger is the root rhythm guitar tone, guitar 2 uses chorus, and the solo is Phase 90.
I prefer using Flanger for rhythms with this style because it delivers more of a VH album sound.
Regardless of what Eddie actually used, it's about how can "YOU" get the sound at home.
 

 

MXR Stereo Chorus:  Though not really a Van Halen effect as far as one that everyone who's into Van Halen has, I've found through my own tinkering that the MXR Stereo Chorus is phenomenal for dialing in an amazing VH tone.  It's a great substitute even for the expensive harmonizer as well.  This is the ideal Chorus effect for the Van Hagar era sound and it doesn't break the bank.  As I said it also makes a great substitute for VH-style use of a Harmonizer.  I've found the MXR Stereo Chorus to be fantastic for getting those big later era Balance and even Human's Being-like VH tones.  For this type of sound omit the MXR Phase 90.  Like the Phase 90 though I also recommend running the stereo Chorus in the FX Loop of your amp.  But again to each his own, what works for me and my specific guitar and amp setup may not be ideal for your setup, so try both ways and figure out what works best for you.  Either way the settings below are a great guideline Chorus setting for the Van Halen tone, provided your amp EQ is set properly and your guitar is setup properly.

Standard setting:
Bass =        40%
Treb =         60%
Intensity =  25% to 60% - depends on the specific song sound
Width =       25% to 60% - depends on the specific song sound
Rate =        10% to 25% max.


 

Van Halen Brown Sound Tips with Guitarist Jeff Fiorentino of JFRocks.com   VH Chorused Tone Example #1
 
Uses a higher intensity setting
  VH Chorused Tone Example #2
  Uses a lower intensity setting
 
   
"Under Fire" - written by Jeff Fiorentino "Dodgy Bog" - written by Jeff Fiorentino
   
   
VH Chorused Tone Example #3
Chorused Rhythms (lower intensity), with Flanged guitar leads
 
 



** Obviously there are other effects that can be added such as some light overdrive if your amp's isn't great, or some compression, or even delay but I'm keeping it simple here.  What's laid out above is really the bare bones easy to configure recipe for a GREAT VH Sound, from early Brown, to Hagar Red.  What's laid out above is really how I and we at JFRocks.com get the sound on all of the VH style music tracks we produce for our guitar lessons.  There's no Van Halen style tone or sound in the tracks below or featured anywhere on this page that wasn't obtained using the exact equipment and settings I've laid out here on this Brown Sound Tips page for you.  Hopefully this page as been of some help.  But I'm always happy to answer your questions.  You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or SoundCloud.

--- Jeff Fiorentino (ASCAP) -
JFRocks.com



 


Jeff Fiorentino's FULL Van Halen style set from SoundCloud
**Scroll within player below to hear all tracks - or visit Jeff's SoundCloud
 

 


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JFRocks Fan Favorites - This week's TOP 5 most played


 
 
 


Van Halen Brown Sound Tips, Van Hagar Sound

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Van Halen Guitar Sound

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MXR Phase 90 and MXR Flanger