Frankenstrat Build

The Frankenstrat was [Eddie] Van Halen’s attempt to combine the sound of a classic Gibson guitar with the physical attributes and tremolo bar functionality of a Fender Stratocaster. In April 2019 the original red, black and white Frankenstrat guitar was put on display at The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the Play It Loud – Instruments of Rock and Roll exhibit.” – Wikipedia

Here’s the real deal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.

Frank at the Met Full

For this guitar, my goal was to make a reasonable replica that was also playable. With this project, one can go pretty deep reproducing every last nick and scratch and some people do. But, I already felt like I was teetering on the edge of obsession at times, so I limited myself on just how exact I was going to get. As it turned out, this guitar is probably more of a tribute than a replica, though it does have some accurate details.

Because the guitar went through numerous configurations, I decided to try to recreate the guitar as it was in 1982. By then it had become what I think of as the “classic” Frankenstrat. Some features of that guitar:

  • Eddie had replaced the original Floyd Rose with a newer model that intoned correctly. This eliminated the need for the 1971 quarter, which had been screwed to the body so it swiveled under the tremolo to help with intonation. Eddie kept the quarter but added another screw to keep it out of the way.
  • The neck had been swapped for a more modern strat headstock and there were cigarette burns on the headstock from Eddie placing cigarettes under the strings.
  • The body had a significant amount of road wear and one of the oval reflectors on the back had snapped off during the Fair Warning tour.
  • There was some blue paint on the back body and some of the reflectors from Eddie leaning the guitar against a freshly painted Van Halen banner. I skipped this detail.

I started with the following parts list:

  • Northern ash body
  • Maple 22 fret neck with Gotoh tuners and R3 nut
  • Chrome Floyd Rose Special with OFR 42mm Big Brass Block
  • Duncan custom clone PAF Alnico 5 humbucker
  • Red phenolic neck pickup
  • CTS 500K pot and Switchcraft 1/4″ jack
  • 5 way switch
  • Custom pick guard
  • 1971 quarter

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The 1971 quarter…not easy to find.

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I started with reproducing Eddie’s router pattern, which is pretty haphazard…great guitar player, marginal woodworker. He did it to make room for the humbucker and the switch, which he moved to the cavity where the middle pickup was. He couldn’t figure out the wiring so the phenolic pickup never worked. Here it is with the routing complete.

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After routing, I sanded down the body and then applied three coats of wood grain filler, sanding after each coat. After that it was pretty smooth. Since I planned to age the guitar there are some places where bare wood shows through, so I stained it golden oak to give it a more aged look. After the stain, I applied a couple coats of lacquer sanding sealer, which helps the top coats adhere to the body. Below is the body ready for its black coat.

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During the process of staining and sealing, I got to work aging some of the metal parts. I used muriatic acid, which is nasty stuff. I put the pieces in tupperware and then floated that in acid. I sealed it up and let it sit for about 8 hours.

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After it bathed in acid fumes all day, I neutralized the acid with baking soda and washed off the parts. And, they actually came out pretty cool…way older looking than they were. Because I want the guitar to be playable, I didn’t relic the Floyd Rose, tuning pegs, nut, or humbucker.

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The conventional wisdom is than Eddie used Schwinn bicycle paint. It was a two-step process which involved a pearlescent undercoat with a colored top coat. It’s not available anymore, so I used the next best thing…DupliColor.

  • Super Red II
  • Universal Black
  • Wimbeldon White

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The guitar started out as a white guitar with 3/4″ black stripes, so the first color to go down was the black. Eddie added pin striping, which he later removed before the red coat.

It’s the guitar he’s holding on the cover of the first VH record.

VHI

Here is the black coat drying in the spray booth I built out of PVC, plastic sheeting, and duct tape.

BlackFrankie

Because the guitar was used for a couple years in its black and white configuration, it developed wear patterns before Eddie re-taped it and painted it red. I used decals to reproduce some of the more distinctive wear patterns on the guitar at the time it was painted red.

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There is a lot of discussion about what type of tape Eddie used, but the consensus is he used mostly gaffer tape. That’s because on many of the stripes, one side has a clean edge and the other is rougher – just what you’d get if you tore strips of gaffer tape apart. Other, cleaner lines are assumed to have been console tape. For my project, I used blue painter’s tape. Another potential rat hole is trying to reproduce the exact widths of the stripes because they vary. I used 3/4″ for the white and black and 1″, 1/2″, and 1/4″ for the red ’cause F that S.

Here it is all taped up and ready for the white coat. They’re hard to see, but there are also black decals in addition to the blue tape.

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Lots of light coats is the key with spray paint…so easy to understand, so hard to have the patience to do it. This is about three or four coats in.

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Now, with black stripes!

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After drying for a few days, I did a little strategic sanding to prepare for the red coat.

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Taping up the body for the red coat was probably the hardest part of the project. All the errors in the black and white come back to haunt you. And, the examples online of other people’s projects are all a little bit different so, I found a couple I liked and used those as well as some hi-rez pics of the Frankenstrat to lay out the tape. It took a long time and I had to rework several areas. This is another part of the project where you can drive yourself crazy. In the end, I got it close enough.

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Here it is in the spray booth getting its red coat. The trick was to get enough paint on it to look good but not to completely cover the black lines. The red coat Eddie put on wasn’t particularly thick so the black lines showing through is key to getting it “right”.

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Taking the tape off was like opening presents on Christmas morning. The pattern is pretty close; there are some inconsistencies if you compare it side by side with the original but not many. And, you can still see the black lines under the red, which is what I was going for. All in all, better than I feared.

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I let it dry for four days and then used a high rez pic to add in some wear details. Eddie’s guitar was pretty beat up by 1982, but I decided to not try to get too exact…another avoidable rabbit hole.

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Once that was done, I wet sanded the whole thing with 2000 grit sand paper to smooth out the tape lines. And finally, I finished it off with a few coats of DupliColor Clear Coat to protect it.

While the body cured, I got to work on aging the neck. I used 800 grit sandpaper and some graphite powder. It took quite a bit of applying graphite and sanding to get it looking alright…it’s easy to over-do it. I’ve also heard brown shoe polish works well. The top is when it was new, the bottom is after some work.

Neck

One of the distinctive aspects of the headstock is the cigarette burns. Eddie often put his cigs under the strings between his tuning pegs and sometimes they’d burn down and mark the headstock. So, I got some smokes from my mom and replicated the burns.

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And, with that it’s ready to head off to the guitar builder to get set up!

While I was waiting, I got to work on the quarter. The quarter is a 1971 from the Denver Mint. There were also 1971 quarters from the Philadelphia mint, but they’re missing the D mint mark to the right of George’s pony tail. The quarter was originally screwed to the body to help keep the original Floyd Rose tremolo (without fine tuners) stay flush with the body when the guitar was drop-tuned. Eddie could swivel the quarter into place when needed. After adding the updated Floyd Rose that stayed in tune, he didn’t need the quarter anymore so he just screwed it into place. It ended up with one large hole in the center, three smaller holes, two of which have screws. Who knows what the size of the holes are, so after a little research I settled on 9/64″ for the large hole in the middle and 1/8″ for the small holes. There’s also a notch above the I in Liberty.

1971 Quarter

The guitar builder I chose (Mark at Arnquist Musical Designs) was introduced to me by a buddy of mine. As it turns out, Mark hails from the same Southern California stomping grounds as the Van Halens (and your’s truly) and actually worked on Eddie’s original Frankenstrat. Apparently Eddie was pretty much a hack and couldn’t really solder, so Mark cleaned that up among other things. He also had some cool stories about how the drop tuning came about and the music scene in LA in the 70s an 80s.

Here’s Mark in his shop when I picked up my assembled guitar.

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The only thing left to do was add the reflectors to the back and, finally, the 1971 quarter to the front. And, here’s the finished product…

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Mark nailed the wiring
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The quarter and tremolo
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Input jack and tone knob
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Headstock and locking nut

Thanks to Mark for the build and Viktor for answering all my questions…and, of course, to Eddie for a lifetime of inspiration.

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