Reexamining The Brown Sound

And... a Tasty Lick to Get Your Fingers Working

Eddie Van Halen is unquestionably one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time. But it's not just his showmanship and innovative techniques that have had guitar players attempting to emulate him since the 1970's. It's also his distinctive sound. Coined as 'the brown sound', Eddie created bright punchy tones with thickness and depth. What it made it so versatile was he had enough distortion to create walls of feedback, yet remained clean enough that individual notes rang out distinctly no matter how fast he played.

There was another guitarist with a similar sound before it was called 'The Brown Sound' - Jimi Hendrix. Like Eddie, Jimi played heavy music but did not overwhelm his tone with crazy amounts of fuzz. Instead he added just enough distortion to drive his notes, but keep them crisp and, for lack of a better word, poppy. Although both guitarists favored Fender Stratocaster style necks, and made good use of their tremolo bars, Eddie relied on humbucker pickups which give a thicker sound than the single coil pickups usually found in Strats. If you want to sound as 'brown' as Eddie, humbucker pickups are a must. So are tube amps - which helped create both artists' signature sounds.

Jimi and Eddie played through Marshall Amplifiers, albeit different makes, often opting to use the amp's stock distortion over fuzz or overdrive pedals. And both Jimi and Eddie's sounds were relatively unaffected. Eddie used a MRX Phase 90 to punch up his solos, and the occasional flanger, wah wah pedal, and delay. Jimi used more effects in the studio, particularly on "Axis Bold as Love" and "Electric Ladyland", but many of these effects were added as an afterthought by producer Eddie Kramer. The initial recordings were just straight guitar, and despite the notable (and appreciated) addition of the wah wah pedal, this is how Jimi usually played live as well.

It takes skill to play 'dry' as opposed to wet. In the studio Eddie and Jimi rarely doubled up their guitar parts - a technique guitarists often use to get a thicker sound (think Randy Rhodes) - but that can also be used to mask imperfections. When you play dry, every mistake (every finger scrape on the fret board, very poorly executed note, every idiosyncrasy) is audible. It takes courage to play so honestly. And if you're going to do it, you'd better have the chops to pull it off.

Here's a fun exercise that can get you tapping like Eddie and develop speed, and more importantly, limberness in your fingers. It's the tapping lick from Stone Mob's song "Murder Town." (You can find the video on youtube or hear the song at To achieve my version of the 'brown sound' I played an Ibanez Jem 77 wdp with DiMarzio Dark Matter 2 humbucker pickups. This is one of Steve Vai's signature axes. Steve of course has his own crazy sound which is heavily affected - and awesome - but we'll save that for another article. I played through a 50 watt 4 tube Bedrock Amplifier using its stock distortion, which sounds very similar to a Marshall. And, just for good measure, I stomped a MRX Phase 90 when I launched into the solo. The lick starts at 1:21 of the video.

Here's how to do it:

Start on the first string (the high E) with your index finger on the 12th fret (high E) middle finger on the 14th fret and pinky on the 16th fret. This can be a big stretch and you're going to have to move your fingers quickly while holding it so get ready to rumble. Here we go: Holding this triplet configuration, start by using the index finger of your right hand to tap on the 18th fret. Then immediately pull off your pinky, pull off your index finger, hammer-on/pull-off your middle finger, tap again. Repeat. This is the basic pattern and all you will have to do is move that entire pattern down one string (so now you are on the 2nd or B string with your index finger on the 12th fret (high B), middle finger on the 14th fret and so on. Again, play the same pattern on the B string twice, then jump back to the E-string for 2 more times, then back to the B for 2 more times. Now you're going to move that entire pattern down to the 4th and 5th strings and do it again, exactly as you did it before. Pattern x 2 on the G string, pattern x 2 on the D, then repeat. End by hitting the high E on the 24th fret. That's right, it's a long jump from your tapping-hammer-on-pull-off pattern on the A string but go for it. Being able to accurately make such large jumps will be a great weapon in your arsenal for future guitar solos. If you don't have a 24 fret neck, hit your 22nd fret D note and stretch it into an E. That's what I did in the "Murder Town" solo anyway because I wanted to give that high E some extra 'umph.' Hold that note a moment and then do an epic pick slide. Congratulations, you've just done some serious shredding!

Blaine Kaltman is a guitarist, song writer, film and music producer, director, actor, and author. He has a PhD in Philosophy, has written books and screenplays, has served as Foreign Service Officer for the US Department of State in Embassies around the world, and is also an Eagle Scout.

Kaltman is a self taught guitarist in the band Stone Mob who believes his virtuosity comes from "recognizing the maximum potential of your DNA and then exploiting it."

Blaine Kaltman

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