Does Eddie Van Halen See Colors When He Hears Music? The Guitarist Addresses the Rumors

Peggy Sirota
Eddie Van Halen photographed by Peggy Sirota on May 29, 2015 at his home in Los Angeles.

For years, it’s been rumored that Eddie Van Halen has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which senses are entwined. In the guitarist's case, his description years ago of his guitar's "brown sound" led to the idea that he was able visualize colors when he heard certain tones of music. When asked about it during an interview with writer Chuck Klosterman for Billboard's latest cover story on the legendary guitarist, Van Halen spoke about the statement that inadvertently spawned a long-standing misnomer that's been misapplied for almost 40 years. Read on for an exclusive online-only excerpt from Klosterman's interview with Van Halen.

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Billboard: Do you have synesthesia?

Eddie Van Halen: I think I read something about this. What is that, exactly?

It’s the ability to see sound, which is supposedly why you call your guitar tone the “brown sound.” You supposedly see the color brown when you hear that specific tone.

That’s funny, because people took that whole “brown sound” thing totally out of context. I was never talking about my guitar tone. I was talking about [his brother and Van Halen bandmate] Alex’s snare drum. I’ve always thought Alex’s snare drum sounds like he’s beating on a log. It’s very organic. So it wasn’t my brown sound. It was Alex’s.

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Then how did this confusion happen?

It happened years ago. People would ask me about his drumming, and the only way I could explain it was that it had a very brown sound. I’m glad you brought this up, actually, so people can finally understand what I was talking about.

But even so, you must realize that this was a weird way to describe a sound. You thought his drums sounded like a log, so you describe the color of the log itself? Why didn’t you say it was a wooden sound, or a log sound?

I don’t know. It’s an organic sound. Brown is an organic color.

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This makes me suspect you do have synesthesia. Does sound always have a color to you?

Alex’s snare drum does, definitely. Otherwise I wouldn’t have called it brown.

Do you see colors with other sounds?

I guess I’ve never thought about it. To me, music is all about feeling. But in terms of trying to visualize the feeling? I don’t know.

Read more about Eddie Van Halen's relationship with David Lee Roth, overcoming addiction and more in this week's Billboard cover story.