Lynn Ellsworth had just sat on his couch after a trip to the dentist when his wife, Diane, came in to ask him if he had heard Eddie Van Halen died. His first reaction was disbelief.
“The first thing I said was basically, ‘Yeah, right, sure.’ Then I realized she wasn’t kidding and I just about hit the floor. I couldn’t believe it. I was just absolutely floored.”
Lots of music lovers across the world reacted the same way to news that the legendary guitarist had died Tuesday after a long fight with cancer. One of the most influential and revered guitarists of his generation, Van Halen’s flashy innovations inspired a generation of rock players to focus on the fun of rock music, all with a technicality that had not previously been seen. Or heard.
His band, which shared his famous last name, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 after selling more than 57 million albums, including four that topped the Billboard charts.
When Van Halen’s passing was announced by his son, Wolfgang, social media lit up with messages from fans, as well as other rock stars.
But Ellsworth took the news a little harder than most.
He was friends with Eddie Van Halen.
Ellsworth played an integral part in building one of the most famous guitars on the planet, Van Halen’s completely beat-up, red-and-white-striped guitar named the Frankenstrat. This is a guitar that is so famous that a copy of it is in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. The original is considered a priceless piece of art, and was even put on display at The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in April 2019 in an exhibit of the most important instruments in rock ‘n’ roll history.
So how did a former furnituremaker with a background in science end up making custom guitars for some of the biggest rock stars in the world, everyone from Pete Townsend to Eric Clapton to Joe Walsh to Billy Gibbons – all members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? More importantly, how did he end up in Spokane?
Ellsworth grew up near Tacoma. As he got older, his business trips often brought him to this area. He told himself when he retired, he was going to move to the Spokane area. In 2012, he did just that. And he still loves it here.
The story of how Eddie Van Halen built one of rock’s most iconic instruments is the stuff of legends. It starts with a guitar body built by Ellsworth here in Washington state. One of Ellsworth’s friends was a renowned guitar builder in California, Wayne Charvel. One day, Charvel asked Ellsworth if he could make a copy of a Stratocaster body using more exotic woods. Or at least different woods than Fender was using to build Strats.
The body that eventually became Eddie Van Halen’s guitar was made of Eastern Ash and it was super heavy. Too heavy. And there was a knot in the body. Both Charvel and Ellsworth agreed it was good, but not good enough to use.
Then one day, an up-and-coming local guitarist from Pasadena came into Charvel’s shop. He asked about the body and was told it was a reject. Same with the corresponding neck.
About $130 later, including $50 for the body, Eddie Van Halen left the shop in Azusa with both and began tinkering.
Fast-forward to Van Halen’s 1978 debut album. On the cover, Eddie is holding a white guitar with black stripes that looks a lot like a Stratocaster. Except it’s not. It’s the guitar body Ellsworth had crafted. It was also played on the album.
Then there were multiple paint jobs – and lots of other experimentations by the guitarist – before it ended up primarily red with black and white stripes. The guitar became synonymous with Van Halen, being used on all of the band’s albums and tours through 1998’s OU812 album.
And, yes, Eddie Van Halen played the guitar in 1988 when the band played the Monsters of Rock tour at Joe Albi Stadium.
Ellsworth and Eddie Van Halen continued to work together on other innovations, and would touch base in person whenever the band played in Seattle or Portland. He said he was blown away by the guitarist’s welcoming nature every time Ellsworth would show up backstage with friends or family.
“He was just always so nice to us and so genuine,” Ellsworth said. “He would talk with my kids and make sure we all were fed and give them all several of his guitar picks. Eddie always was so gracious to us.”
Does Lynn have any favorite Van Halen songs? Of course. He loves the first album, especially “Running with the Devil” and Eddie’s groundbreaking “Eruption” solo work. He also always loves to hear “Panama” from the 1984 album.
“When I hear him play that guitar, I really get into it and am proud that it was my guitar,” Ellsworth said. “It was such an honor to have him play something I made. To hear the music he made on it is a really cool feeling that’s hard to explain.”
In recent years, Fender worked directly with Eddie Van Halen to offer an almost perfect recreation of the Frankenstrat guitar that Ellsworth’s initial creation was at the center of.
“Their focus on detail was amazing,” Ellsworth said. “They were weighing the body and all of the other parts, and measuring everything and putting a lot of care into making it right. They did a great job.”
Which is a good thing, because the guitar’s price starts at $1,700. So, is Ellsworth upset that he doesn’t get any of that?
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I was copying the Stratocaster’s body when I made that original version that ended up with Eddie, so we’re probably even.”
Besides, he’s not done making guitars. He’s coming up on his 78th birthday and is still building new guitars. His new instruments have him just as excited – if not more – than when he first started building them.
And he can’t wait to see if someone else will take his creations and change the guitar world just like his friend Eddie did.
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