Jersey legend: Eddie Van Halen’s unique connection to the Garden State
Rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen died this week and anyone paying attention to the music of the 1980s likely recognizes the unique guitar that he played on stage and in Van Halen music videos. It is a guitar that has a unique connection to New Jersey.
As Van Halen’s career skyrocketed in the 80s, Van Halen was a regular presence in Asbury Park and Neptune, thanks mainly to the Kramer guitar factory in Neptune where for a decade his patented red, black and white guitars were made.
“He would spend three or four days and come to the factory, and you know, ‘I like this paint job, I like this neck,’” says former Kramer owner Henry Vaccaro. “He would actually supervise the making of the guitar the way he wanted. He would even go in the spray room and spray it.”
It starts like a lot of New Jersey stories, with a real estate developer. Vaccaro became the principal owner of California’s Kramer Guitars in the late 1970s and moved operations to New Jersey.
Van Halen, meanwhile, was rising to fame playing his Frankenstein guitar – so called because he built it himself with parts from various types of guitars. He'd had never done an endorsement or been associated with a particular brand. And he was looking for a guitar with a tremolo bar that wouldn't throw the guitar out of tune.
In 1981, Vaccaro’s partner happened to meet Van Halen’s guitar tech on a flight and told him that they could build the guitar Van Halen was looking for.
“So, he convinced Eddie and Eddie liked it,” Vaccaro says. “Eddie came to the factory and the rest is history.”
A partnership was born that would see Van Halen play Kramer guitars from 1983 to 1991, often coming to Neptune to help with the construction himself. Van Halen’s endorsement would inspire thousands of fans to pick up Kramer guitars made in Neptune - like the Kramer 5150 Baretta, Van Halen’s first signature model with the quintessential red, black and white paint job.
“Eddie was for Kramer what Babe Ruth was for Louisville Slugger. I mean, our sales took off. Uncontrolled growth. We just took off,” says Vaccaro.
Other rock bands like Kiss and Cars used Kramer guitars. By the early 1990s, new investors came in and the company faltered, winding up in bankruptcy. The brand is now owned by the Gibson guitar company and is no longer made in New Jersey.
Vaccaro sold his interest in Kramer Guitars in 1993.