Back at the beginning of the summer I decided to clear some old stock parts and some wood that I hadn't used. One such pairing of pieces were a neck that had come in as part of a bulk buy and a large single piece Alder blank that was always going to be ideal for a strat. That had been allocated to a vintage Strat relic, but the customer then went for an ash blank that I had so this became a surplus body waiting for a project.
So in line with my policy of 'summer blowout' projects, I thought - let's make a superstrat. So I cut the body with a single pickup hole for a humbucker. But when I put the neck and body together, and was thinking about paint colours, I could just see that one guitar in my mind - Eddie Van Halen's 'Bumblebee'.
However, there are production models of that, so it didn't seem like a particularly interesting thing to build. But what if I could actually build it how it originally was, not the modern version of it that Fender currently produce? Now that would be interesting. What's more, what if I could actually make it work the way that Eddie originally did - a functioning standard trem with nothing but the tools and equipment that Eddie originally had? Now that was more of a challenge.
I looked into the history of it quite closely. Bumblebee, as everyone knows, is the guitar featured on the cover of Van Halen 2. But it isn't on the record. In fact, I'm not certain that it's actually on any Van Halen record.
The original guitar had a black pickup in it - I get the impression it was a Seymour Duncan pickup. It was apparently too hot according to old interviews with Ed, and he swapped it for an old Gibson pickup, which he rewound and potted. There's a picture of this which seems to be either a studio or rehearsal picture, which seems to show the original guitar as it was, with this one change.
You can see in the picture the changed pickup, but still the vintage trem and the original neck. and that's the guitar I tried to copy.
It was this guitar that was played on the second leg of the Van Halen 1 European tour mainly in support of Black Sabbath, but also at their first UK headline gig at the now defunct Rainbow Theatre.
So what happened to it? Because you don't see it again by the end of the VH2 tour. Firstly, the neck was swapped with with Frankenstein's neck. When we first see the 'red' covered black and white Frankie on the pictures from the VH2 tour in 79, then it has a black headstock. At the same time, the Bumblebee has a plain neck, no finish, with a locking trem (the original Floyd with no fine tuners) on it. By this stage it has a Dimarzio Super Distortion in it, and the zebra pickup probably just went back in the spares bin.
Then, following the VH2 tour, it seemed to be ditched in favour of the original Frankenstein, which then gains the full Floyd with fine tuners, and has the original neck restored to it with the locking nut. I can't find much evidence of Eddie playing it beyond that point, though it does appear on pictures in the early 80's.
When Wayne Charvel sold out to Grover Jackson, Jackson tried to make copies of the guitar and there was for a short time a production 'Charvel' bumblebee. This was nothing to do with Wayne Charvel himself, and Eddie apparently send desist notices via his lawyers. Jackson sent him several of the guitars as a peace offering, but I'm not sure they were ever used and may have been given away in publicity drives. The copies stopped being made commercially.
In the end, the guitar lay apparently unused for two decades, until the untimely death of Darrell Dimebag Abbott. The guitar was a favourite of his, and when a replica was requested for burial with Darrell, Eddie simply gave his family the original and it was buried with Dimebag.
Alder Body (1 piece)
Maple Neck (painted black on reverse and headstock)
Standard Fender Type tremolo with Heavy Steel block
Hand Wound Alnico II Pickup (Zebra), about 10k
9-40 nickel steel
As you can imagine, any guitar based on Van Halen's original designs will have the limitations that he suffered, and that caused him to take on the locking trem as a remedy. But it's also true that the fender vintage trem does sound better with its large block and increased body contact. It has more bottom end and better sustain.
The pickup, a hand wound one, mimics as closely as I could the sound from VH1 - as this is the sound that I have to reference at that time. Of course, there's no evidence that the bumblebee was ever recorded anyway - but there's no secret in that Eddie didn't like high powered pickups in the bridge position. We also know that he used a Gibson pickup, probably Alnico 2, from a 335 for his original Strat. He rewound it a little hot and potted it.
The setup is also pure Van Halen. 9-40 strings were his favoured gauges at the time, probably a result of Hendrix having used the same strings and that they were sold as a 'Fender' balanced set for strats in the 70's. The guitar is setup with these strings 1/2 a tone down at Eb, as Eddie did back then for David Lee Roth's vocal.
Keeping it in tune is fairly straight forward, so long as you don't ask the impossible of it. Eddie didn't favour the 'trem pull' trick - he set his tremolos flat to the wood. That means that if a string went sharp he couldn't pull back on the trem to release it. Another trick often used is to press the tremolo hard down and then tune the sharp strings back to pitch - but this causes a hard bend of the string to flatten it badly until the bar is depressed to create the friction again. Eddie couldn't deal with that due to the sheer amount of bending he used.
Eddie's rememdy was to try to keep all the components as straight as possible. 5 Strings were wound up the posts to reduce break angle and friction at the nut. The 009 sits under the string tree for which the 50's 'wing' style was always favoured, but the string wound down to reduce the friction across the tree. The nut was opened out a bit, not enough to rattle, but there was enough space to make sure there's no pinching.
At the tremolo end, all but two screws were removed, creating a two point trem, neither of which hold down the tremolo plate or reduce movement. The 2 springs are set so that the tremolo always returns to to the flat position with a certain force, so that the grounded position doesn't shift without positive pressure on the bar, even with a string break.
The final move was given away with the release of the new 'Fender Frankenstein' replicas (the £25k ones). Inside the case is a bottle of the original lube that Eddie used to use on his nut. Basically, it's cheap 3 in 1 oil. So that's what I did, and it works pretty well. I'm not going to say that it never catches, but it creates a balance where you can bend strings and use the bar heavily and yet maintain tuning, even at these incredibly low tensions.
So here is - the video: Van Halen's Bumblebee....