"I know in my heart, I want to hear that sound in my head" – Joe Satriani is having a custom 3rd Power amp built for the Van Halen tribute tour and it's based on Eddie's 1986 live choice

Joe Satriani performs at Wiener Stadthalle on April 8, 2023 in Vienna, Austria
(Image credit: Mario Skraban/Getty Images)

Joe Satriani is really up against it for his Best Of All Worlds US tour this year with Michael Anthony, Sammy Hagar and Jason Bonham; imagine having to play the Eddie Van Halen songbook onstage with the world's guitarists judging you in the audience and on social media? We've already seen some of that with the challenge of playing Mean Street with very little prep on the Howard Stern Show, but even with rehearsals, there's more challenges; how do you recreate Eddie's sounds? And which era do you go focus on?

He knew that in order for him to play those parts, he had to have his gear tweaked a certain way; otherwise it wouldn't work

Well, Satch has been given it a lot of thought already. "What I learned from The Howard Stern Show, besides it's still important to rehearse and you can't do gigs without rehearsals," Satraini told  Australian Musician in the video below. "But what it confirmed was a couple of things I was thinking about, which was that Eddie had specific gear. He didn't play with the gear I used or Steve Vai or Slash or Tom Morello or any of his contemporaries. He actually had a very specific setup. 

"And you ask yourself, 'Well, why?' Well, it's because, besides he was a genius, as we know, he knew that in order for him to play those parts, he had to have his gear tweaked a certain way; otherwise it wouldn't work," continued Satriani. "So, like when you go to play the beginning of Mean Street, if your setup is not allowing those harmonics to jump out, it's gonna sound like you're not hitting them. You've gotta get the setup right."

But what setup? Satch confirmed he'd tried – and still has – contemporary EVH heads even before this year's tour was discussed and he was approached for the original Van Halen tribute with Alex Van Halen and David Lee Roth that fell through. 

"Now I learnedhttps://3rdpower.com/that because of those two amps right there," continues Satriani. "I got those back when Alex and Dave called and asked me to do the Eddie tribute tour, and I thought, 'Well, I've gotta figure this out.' So the first thing I did was I got a couple of those and I thought, 'Well, this is great. You get all the harmonics, but, man, this is really small-sounding…

"If I was 20 years old and I was playing modern rock, those would be the best amps ever," notes the guitarist. "But I'm not, and I still wanna hear sort of the body of the guitar and I wanna hear a more dynamic mix. So I started to think, 'Well, what's my favorite Van Halen section?' And I did find that period in '86. And I did talk to Sam quite a bit about it and he said, 'Yeah, that first 5150 [tour], he was still using Marshalls. In Sammy's view, his favorite sound that Eddie ever made. It wasn't small and then [it was] stereoised. So I reached out to Dylana Scott at 3rd Power Amplifiers, and she is building me what we believe is going to be the amp that does it."

"I know I need it," continues Satch. "And this goes back to what I said earlier that the gear is so important for the performer. I know that when we step out onstage, and whether I'm talking about Aint' Talkin' 'Bout Love or 51510, I'm gonna need to hear and feel that sound to keep going. And if it's not working then I'm gonna say, 'Well let me have my solo rig.' 

I want to be able to feel it

"But my solo rig is designed… it probably has a little too much gain and is designed to make the high strings really fat sounding – because I play all the melodies. I play very little rhythm guitar all night long… and I can't play the Hagar set like that, it's just the wrong sound. In Chickenfoot it kind of worked, but for the Van Halen stuff to really pop, and we're doing Montrose, we're doing Sammy Hagar solo stuff, we're doing my stuff, we're doing Chickenfoot – it's a really fun setlist – but I know in my heart, I want to hear that sound in my head. That mythical Eddie Van Halen sound that we all hear in our minds, and I want to be able to feel it. So I've been getting these clips from Dylana every week and that stuff that she's building is really amazing."

I don't wanna go too processed

Satch confirms that the plan is he will have a dry/wet system with one dry cab and two stereo wet cabs. "But I don't think I'm going to try to replicate stereo chorusing from the stage so much," he told Australian Musician, suggesting it won't be completely authentic to Eddie's 5150 tour approach. "He likes it loud and rough," Satch says of Hagar, "so I don't wanna go too processed." 

The front-of-house engineer will then assume the role of adding some digital effects, including chorusing. "I'll probably try to keep it as simple as possible," adds Satch. "I'll have a couple of pedals on the floor – I'll have a wah-wah, you have to have one of those momentary flanger pedals. But the main thing will be, can you have that one sound that will carry you through? And that's what I learned from the Live Without A Net [live recording] – most of the stuff sounds similar [amp-wise] and Eddie is just having the time of his life, he's running around like crazy. And he was such a solid player, he could do that, and it didn't bother him that he wasn't representing each song as it was recorded." 

Eddie was using his Kramer signature and Steinberger during the 1986 5150 tour with what is reported to be a Bob Bradshaw wet-wet switching system and rack effects including two Roland SD3000 delays, Eventide Harmonizer, Rocktron 300 Compressor and RX2H Exciter/Hush. The key to all this is the mix of the components and the guitarist hadn't yet begun his amp journey via a Soldano SLO  on the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album in 1991 before the 5150 amp with Peavey. 

He was still using the late '68 Marshall Plexis (Super Lead) with a Variac transformer (to lower the voltage). Were his amps modded? According to amp tech and designer Dave Friedman in the video above – who worked on Eddie's amp personally – a 'fat cap' was added to his key original Plexi at some point, and the mid pot on it read 50k. Stock should probably have been 25k - but who's to know it didn't leave the factory with a 50k pot. The heart of Eddie's 'brown sound', an attempt to emulate the favoured EVH Plexi in the digital realm can be found most recently on the Universal Audio UAFX Lion '68 pedal in its Brown mode. 

That's not necessarily the spec Satch is going for as there's no full confirmation on what the Plexis were on the 5150. It's never been conclusively confirmed. But in terms of the amp most prevalent in classic era Van Halen, it's a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.