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Reliving Frankenstein

Van Halen is a classic hard rock band responsible for some of the most prevalent popular hits of the 70’s and 80’s. Their 1978 album Van Halen, is widely considered one of rock and roll’s best debut albums of all time, despite negative criticism by contemporary music reviewers. The A-side of the album alone contains “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love,” and the famous finger tapping guitar solo instrumental “Eruption.” Their up-tempo compositional style is oft cited as the primary inspirational fount for the hair metal movement in the early 80’s and the arena rock genre of the late 80’s and 90’s. Van Halen still tours, classic rock FM radio stations play their songs to death, and the band still has a huge fan-base.

Van Halen album 1978

Exactly 10,117 of those fans are members of the forums on Halen, a website dedicated to Van Halen fan culture. (Using the link I’ve provided will allow you to bypass a low-fi flash introduction.) The website’s moderator and founder is Andres Dolan, who built and released the site in 1993 for public use. The average user on Halen is roughly within the 35-55 age range—which follows considering the band’s primary era of popularity—but there are some outliers to this rule.

A user called Redacted is a 20 year old guitar enthusiast who is an active member of the websites guitar replication circuit. Redacted is an Anglophile who specializes in replicating both the 5150 and Frankenstein guitars. These two guitars—especially the Frankenstein—are perhaps the most iconic guitar designs in rock and roll history. The red, black and white striped guitars will immediately recall the touring history of Van Halen for even casual fans. A fan created diagram outlines the developments in guitars that Eddie Van Halen, the band’s guitarist and most prolific member. The original white Frankenstein, which would later be replaced by a black and red version, appeared simultaneously with the debut of the “Van Halen” album in 1978.

It is a meticulous craft that can be lucrative. The Frankesteins are the most expensive replicas and can easily sell anywhere from 3 to 4 thousand dollars if everything is accurate. The 5150 guitars can sell for anywhere from 1 to 3 thousand. Redacted—who runs a small business in replicating the 5150 and Frankenstein guitars—supplied these numbers. He normally produces 3 guitars a month, with the occasional busy summer yielding a demand for 1 or 2 per week.

But Redacted is not alone in building these guitars. The members of Halen argue over low resolution photographs about whether or not a guitar was striped with a coat of silver or white. Then they set out to duplicate those colored stripes in their own workshops, where they build replicas so close to specification that only fellow builders can find discrepancies. Through forum discussion they create the most accurate replicas possible.

Eddie Van Halen, the guitarist of Van Halen, build all of the Frankensteins on the body of a Fender Stratocaster. The bodies that Halen members use are milled by self-described “luthiers” instead of Fender, who would charge a great deal more for a raw Stratocaster body. In this way the replica guitars are effectively user created from the ground up. They are a precise fan remix of the Van Halen touring models.

And that replication is a difficult job when considering most of the photographs of Van Halen’s tours come from fan photography in the 70’s and 80’s. They are primarily working with grainy imagery, and pixel perfection is not a luxury here. Then there’s an issue of perspective. Replicators are trying to create a geographically precise map of stripes and lines, but they are working from pictures taken at odd angles. Some speculation and creativity goes into every interpretation. And it is because of this photographic imprecision that users will frequently argue over the finer details.

One argument over the size of a logo between users BrianD and garbeaj turned into a personal contest between the two. User garbeaj claimed that a logo BrianD was using was the wrong size logo for his “Bee,” which is a black and yellow striped guitar similar in pattern to the Frankenstein or 5150. User BrianD responded to garbeaj’s claims by insisting that “the tone comes from the sticker,” a mocking conceit similar in nature to those who claim car decals bring out extra horsepower.

BrianD and garbeaj would also butt heads in an argumentative thread where users debated whether the “Shark,” which is essentially a Frankenstein styled guitar with its body hacked to pieces with a saw, used white or silver paint in its stripes. This is the same thread with the low resolution photograph linked prior. They would inspect a grainy photograph of the guitar with paint chipping. The chipped paint would allow replicators to view the different coats of paint applied in a soft of cross section. BrianD thinks that the paint goes black to white to silver, while garbeaj earnestly believes that the buck stops at white. One user named bricksnbeatles actually cited the definition of silver in his argument. Bricks claimed that the guitar used a metallic shade of white. Every time that garbeaj would insist he’d “closed the case,” BrianD would post an image of Kyra Sedgwick from TNT’s “The Closer,” which finished airing in August of 2012. The response from garbeaj was an eye rolling emoticon.

The intrigue doesn’t stop at seemingly petty argument. Two users called frankenstraat and divebomb built a steady and strong reputation for producing quality Frankenstein replica guitars in their workshops. They processed several orders, often as many as 10 a month each. In 2009 frankenstraat was banned from the site for disappearing with his customers’ deposits after misleading them with falsified progress pictures. Divebomb did the same thing in 2012. Halen members suspect that both of them have since created alternate aliases and continue to sell to this day. VERY REDACTED

Despite the precision of Redacted guitars, or the large amount of speculation that goes into photographic interpretation, these guitars will never be perfectly accurate. When Eddie Van Halen designed the Frankenstein, it was meant to be a monster. The stripes were laced haphazardly all over the fender body, long touring days left the paint with pockmarks, and gear from the pickups hung out. Characteristic details like the reflectors on the back of the guitar body, which Eddie would hold up to stage lights and blind audience members with, are difficult to purchase. The circular reflectors used originally aren’t sold in your neighborhood hardware store, and user Redacted had to source them from a user called Redacted up in Canada.

halen reflectors

It is worth mentioning that not even Fender could get the accurate reflectors for their official replica which retails for 25,000 dollars.

Everyone at Fender is super nice and great. Everyone should give the people at Fender money for riffing on the same tired-old designs they continue to resqueeze. We should just be happy that Fender chose to make a Frankenstein guitar available to us poor sods. Giving them thousands of dollars for a subpar version something they didn’t even design makes good sense.



Kevin Zebroski


About kzebski

FCRH 2016


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