Decoding "Little Guitars"

If you ask any Van Halen fan to rank their favorite albums, Diver Down likely ranks near the bottom of the DLR-era records. It's half-baked feel is the result of a hasty push from producer Ted Templeman and Warner Brothers records to take advantage of the band's quick rise in popularity. In an effort to get something out the door over half of the album was cover songs. But amongst the original numbers there are some real gems like Hang ‘em HighSecretsThe Full Bug and, my favorite, Little Guitars.

The song was written on a David Petschulat-built mini Les Paul and its unique feel must have served as some kind of inspiration for Eddie Van Halen when he wrote the song. While it sounds like a Van Halen tune, it doesn’t really play like one. Over the years I’ve tried to deconstruct this tune to figure out how to play it but I always knew that my solution was, at best, an approximation.

Fast-forward to 2015 and after a twenty-five year lust for a similarly-diminutive Erlewhine Chiquita guitar, the Federal Express man shows up with the tiniest of packages. I bought the guitar as a portable practice axe I could take anywhere. When I unpacked it and held it in my hands for the first I couldn’t help but wonder if playing this guitar wouldn't help unlock the secrets of Little Guitars.

 Sure, it comes in multiple colors, but if it's called a "Chiquita" why wouldn't you pick yellow?

Sure, it comes in multiple colors, but if it's called a "Chiquita" why wouldn't you pick yellow?

With my Chiquita in-hand I decided I was going to figure out this damn song if it was the last thing I did. My first stop was YouTube to see if I could find any kind of live footage to help crack the code. Sometimes just the smallest visual clue can unlock the mysteries of a song and in this case Little Guitars was no different.

The first step was matching what I was seeing with what I was hearing. The opening riff sure sounded like an open-E kind of riff so I figured it must be played something like this:

 My first pass at the opening riff

My first pass at the opening riff

Unfortunately none of the clips I could find showed any good up-close footage of Eddie during the opening riff. I was going to have to look further into the song for clues. After the riff comes the opening staccato triads. Given what I was hearing on the record I assumed that they must be played like this:

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The blurry YouTube videos only offered a quick glimpse but it was an important clue that what I was hearing and what I was playing were different. In this quick frame we see Ed’s fingers up around the third fret and fretting shapes that are decidedly different from what I assumed I was hearing:

In this shot we see what appears to be a C triad rooted at the third fret that looks like this:


Thinking back to what I was originally playing, I assumed this was an D triad (after the chord shifts down). But as I thought more about it realized that what I was hearing on the record was actually closer to F and E♭. At first I was willing to overlook this small detail originally for the sake of simplifying things. For many of those early Van Halen records Eddie and Michael Anthony just tuned with each without any other reference. I also knew that sometimes the final mix is sped up a bit to regain some high-end sheen to the final EQ.

But if we compare what we see in the video with what we're hearing we can only conclude that, at a minimum, the top three-strings are also tuned up a step and half. At this point I was ready to assume that the entire guitar had been tuned up 1½ steps. Taking a look at what Michael Anthony is playing we seem him fretting a note low on the neck. It's further evidence (but not proof) that the real pitch of the root note is F, not E. As crazy as it sounds it was the only explanation that reconciled what I saw and what I heard left it as the only possibility. 

There's only one problem with this theory: during the opening riff there’s a pedal-tone note at the bottom. In the mix with the rest of the band it’s difficult to tell if both the bass and guitar are playing it together. This led to my third important resource which was finding the isolated guitar track (yet again on YouTube). 

When the guitar is isolated by itself it’s pretty clear that in the middle of the riffing Eddie’s also hitting a pedal tone in the bass. But with the entire guitar tuned up a half-step, this note is lower than the open sixth string would normally be. That can only mean that that the top five strings are all tuned up a step-and-a-half and the bottom string only tuned-up a half-step (a sort of “drop-F tuning”, if you will) for a bottom-to-top tuning of F-C-F-B♭-D-G.

Two data points are good for a working theory, but three would be better. Fortunately the next clue was on the horizon as we enter the third movement of the introduction, which are the heavily-chorused arpeggios. With a guitar in standard tuning I assumed it was playing something like this:

Here again the video evidence didn't match the fingerings I came up with:

But if we try to play the same arpeggios using our newly-discovered "drop-F" tuning we get something much simpler and, more importantly, symmetrical:

 With the right tuning, all is revealed…

With the right tuning, all is revealed…

OK, now I was onto something here. Eddie is known as being a "visually-oriented" player. The crazy-looking fingerings I came up with seemed much less likely to be the right ones when compared to this version. This was a good reminder to me that when given the choice between two solutions, the simpler one is usually the correct one.

At this point I was pretty confident in the tuning and it only grew as I continued to pick apart the remainder of the song. In particular the staccato plucked-chords of the verses became much easier to play and sounded more correct in this tuning:

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Moving just a little further into the video it becomes pretty obvious that this how Ed plays it too. Look at the chord shape in this shot—that is a classic D cowboy-chord shape:

 Even in a blurry shot like this, that chord fingering is unmistakable.

Even in a blurry shot like this, that chord fingering is unmistakable.

I knew that the plucked chords moved a full-step down. What I had previously played as E and D now looks more like D and C (ignore the actual notes due to the tuning). The lower chord of that progression was always one that mystified me. There was some extra little note in there that made that chord sound cooler.

In standard tuning I couldn't ever get it to sound right, but in the new tuning the chord magically revealed itself:

 A classic Eddie Csus2 chord

A classic Eddie Csus2 chord

It was the Csus2 shape that Eddie loves to play. Suddenly the plucked-chords sounded right and were much easier to play.

However, there are a few places in the song that still raise my eyebrow. One is the quick power chords in the refrain section ("catch as catch…catch as catch…"). I can hear the movement in the upper-notes pretty clearly and it's easy enough to play on the second, third and fourth strings. But you can also clearly hear a bass note mixed into the phrase. Given this tuning the only way I could see playing this is to making a somewhat awkward stretch.

But remember that this is played on a little guitar which means that difficult stretches on a normal-scale guitar are quite a bit easier on the shorter-scale neck. So I figured that it wasn't unreasonable that Eddie's ear guided him towards this solution:

It wasn't the simplest thing to play, but it sure sounded like the record. Given all of the other data-points I was pretty confident that the funky tuning was the key to getting the song right. That faith was reinforced by the fact that the shorter-scale neck made the wider stretches more feasible.

 Big stretches are quite manageable on little guitars.

Big stretches are quite manageable on little guitars.

Moving further along into the song I got to the heavily-chorused arpeggios. Given the tuning and what I heard, I was pretty confident that this part was played like this:

 Such dreamy arpeggios. Stomp on your chorus box and sway to the music.

Such dreamy arpeggios. Stomp on your chorus box and sway to the music.

This seemed like a reasonable solution. I couldn't back it up with any video because the editing cut away from Eddie during this part of the song. But this arpeggiated chord is very similar to the bridge. When I got further into the video this A7sus4 shape (C7sus4 in our funky tuning) popped right into view.

What was trickier was the second chord. My ear told me that the root moved down a full-step. With an open fifth-string normally we'd play at the third-fret on the sixth-string, but with this unusual tuning that note moves up two frets. Hmm, back to the odd stretches. Is that really what Eddie's doing?

 Big stretches on little guitars aren't so big anymore.

Big stretches on little guitars aren't so big anymore.

Look at Eddie's third finger on his fretting hand. It's almost the same hand-position and shape that we used for the catch-as-catch chords. With this visual evidence it was clear that the dreamy bridge section of the song was played like this:

Once I'd decoded the bridge, the rest of the song was really just a repetition of the other parts. After twenty-five years I'd finally cracked the code of Little Guitars!

Cracking the Rationale

After playing the song about a hundred times with my new solution a new question in the back of mind started nagging me. I had figured what Eddie was doing, but I hadn't figured out why. Other than a handful of drop-D songs (Unchained for example) and Top Jimmy, Eddie hasn't done much with alternate-tunings. Why would this song be different?

Then I happened to look at the back of the headstock on my Chiquita, and saw this:

 Don't string your Chiquita with slinky .009-gauge strings

Don't string your Chiquita with slinky .009-gauge strings

Let's imagine that being a world-famous guitarist, you probably have loads of strings in your favorite gauge around in your studio. You get this new toy guitar and you need to string it up, but all you have are your normal strings.

If you put .009-gauge strings on a super short-scale neck like this and tune them to concert pitch, they will flop around like a turkey's waddle. But if you tune them up higher to, oh, gee, I don't know, maybe a minor-third higher than normal they'll start to feel like a normal guitar does. Now maybe this makes the sixth-string sound just a little too high-pitched for rock and roll so you drop that sucker a full-step like you did for most of Fair Warning. Suddenly you have a very playable little guitar albeit with a pretty funky-sounding tuning.

So despite the warnings on the back of the neck, I pulled off the heavy-gauged strings it came with off and put lighter ones on. I tuned them up to match Eddie and lo and behold they felt and sounded just right. Of course!

Playing Little Guitars on Big Ones

Now most of us don't have little mini-me guitars lying around to restring with non-spec strings. So you have a few choices. You can simply put your guitar in drop-D (D-A-D-G-B-E) and play it down a step and half from the record. It might sound a little weird, but it will work. You could also put your guitar in drop-D and then put a capo on at the third-fret to match the recording.

One solution I cannot recommend is simply cranking up your strings on a normal guitar and tuning them up a minor-third. That is a significant enough increase in tension that it's going to affect your guitar pretty seriously. At a minimum it will alter the guitar enough that it will be difficult to tune the guitar without completely changing its setup. At worse you'll break a string or even damage the guitar.

Performance Tips

While no one would accuse Eddie Van Halen of being a country shredder, he has done a surprising amount of hybrid-picking in his career. This combination of flat-pick and using your middle, ring and pinkie fingers is a key component to playing Little Guitars like the man himself.

In the plucked-chords section the top four strings are all covered by the bare fingers of the picking hand. The pick is only used on the bass-notes on the fifth and sixth strings. Use your fingers to "snap" the upper strings and then stop them quickly with a combination of both hands. Your fretting hand needs to let up its pressure on the neck the same time your fingertips come down to silence the strings on your picking hand. Together these will help you get that short, bursty sound that Eddie gets.

Getting the Tone

Recreating any guitarists sounds is a tricky proposition, particularly one as iconic as Eddie Van Halen. Little Guitars is an odd tone for Eddie—it isn't really like anything else in the catalog. A big part of it is the guitar itself. That little instrument just produces a different sound than a full-scale axe.

Amp-wise, he isn't playing with that much gain. The arpeggiated chords are relatively clean which he's accomplishing by backing off with the pick attack. For the staccato plucked chords or the "catch-as-catch" section, he's attacking the strings with a lot more force to get more "bark" out of the amp. Playing through a Marshall I found that putting the gain at about 11 o'clock was just about right. 

A teeny-tiny bit of pitch-shifting also helps replicate some of Eddie's original sound. Often what we hear as chorus is actually pitch-shifting. The difference is that pitch-shifting often sounds a little brighter than chorusing since the pitch-offset remains constant. When it moves (like it does in a chorus pedal) it tends to cancel out certain high frequencies.

Where Ed does seem to use a chorus pedal is for the arpeggiated chords. If you listen to the isolated track it sounds really obvious where the effect is switched on and off. It's a pretty deep chorus sound with a slow rate so twiddle your chorus knobs accordingly.

So here, for your viewing enjoyment, I present Little Guitars