Special Interview with Pickup Guru : Seymour W. Duncan
Hi there folks, Baris Sahin is here. The interview that you are about to read is one of my proud&joy jobs. The most significant reason of this is the guy, Seymour W. Duncan who is one of my heroes about pickup making business. Making an interview with him for me was something like having an interview with Santa. It was an ultimate pleasure for myself and i hope you like it, too. And as a note, this interview has been published on September 2010 issue of Sound Magazine. All rights reserved.
First of all, I would like to ask you Mr. Seymour W. Duncan. Many people know you are the one who began to start winding pickups for an old Fender Telecaster pickup’s on a modified record player and designed many wonderful pickups for legendary artists. But who is there behind it? Can you tell us please?
Thank you for the interview and hope to answer your questions... I started making and winding pickups back in the mid-‘60s with the help of Mr. Les Paul of Gibson in Kalamazoo, Michigan; and the Fender Guitar Company in California. I would write and ask questions about all the guitar models and pickups. I began to take many pickups apart to see how they were constructed and made many drawings of how they were constructed. I worked for the Fender Soundhouse in London, England during the early ‘70s and worked and repaired guitars for many artists such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, The Who, Robert Palmer, Supertramp, Golden Earring, Free, and Thin Lizzy, to name a few. We’ve wound pickups for many artists such as Slash, David Gilmour, and Eddie Van Halen and then they would become a signature model or an OEM model for various guitar companies.
You have quite unique, strong and detailed approach to PAF class pickups. What made you interested or bonded to these PAFs?
I grew up during a time of so many great and innovative guitarists such as Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. I was attracted to so many blues players and rock players during the British Invasion of the mid-‘60s, starting with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and groups like The Yardbirds. I was really attached to the sound of Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, and Peter Green who all later played Les Pauls with Gibson P.A.F. humbucking pickups. Eric Clapton was using the Les Paul in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and I loved the tone created by these great players. I’ve always had that traditional P.A.F. tone in my ears as a tone standard. I still do love the tone of Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, but for the Les Paul sound it was the “Patent Applied For” tone of the humbucking pickup designed by Seth E. Lover. Over the years I have played many of the famous instruments by Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, and Stan Webb of the British group Chicken Shack. I began to notice that each instrument sounded slightly different and made detailed notes of the differences for my pickup research.
What’s your pride & joy of your standard mass produced pick up line?
My pride and joy hand’s down are the JB Model and Jazz Model neck humbucking pickup. These were designed for my friend Jeff Beck during the mid-‘70s when he was starting to record the Blow By Blow album with George Martin (The Beatles). I made Jeff the guitar I called “The Tele-Gib,” which is a Fender Telecaster that was modified with two rewound “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickups. They were out of an old black Gibson Flying V that once belonged to great blues player Lonnie Mack in the
Cincinnati, Ohio ( ) area. They were the first pickups I wound using a sewing machine as the “JB” and “JM Neck” pickups. USA
What was the first moment of glory that you felt yourself successful & said “Yeah! I did it!
It was the design and tone that Jeff Beck got when he recorded Blow by Blow and used the guitar on his Grammy winning song “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” He used the volume control on the Tele-Gib to do volume swells during the intro of the song and his tone and unique playing style made the pickups sound great! I was so proud of Jeff and his accomplishments and incredible guitar playing.
How have you met with Maricela Juarez and how was her process to become custom shop manager?
Maricela Juarez (“MJ”) started as a production floor pickup winder. She was so helpful and really understood the winding process on the production winding machines. She adapted so well that when I started the Custom Shop, she was the first choice as that had the leadership to follow my winding directions and take control of the Antiquity line of pickups. She not only helps me wind and prepare Seymour Duncan pickups but every type of pickup made from every country in the world. We wind pickups from Gibson, Fender and other competitors’ pickup models. We have file cabinets filled with pickup specs and winding information along with detailed drawings of all the various models made. We have many photos of pickups and can see when other pickup builders are using the same pickup components as their competitors. It’s funny to see how many pickup builders are using the same bobbins, bottom plates, magnets, covers but with different names.
Who are your most favorite musicians?
I have so many favorite musicians and here are a few. I have favorite players in all different styles of music. I love Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Ventures, The Shadows, Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, Jerry Donahue, Joe Pass, Al Viola, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Brent Mason, Chris Rea, Snowy White, Steve Cropper and especially James Burton to name a few.
Who are your most favorite luthier and pickup makers?
My favorite builders are guys at Fender, Gibson, Bill Crooks (Brad Paisley), Bill Asher (Ben Harper) and Bill Collings and Paul Reed Smith. I’m friends with just about all the pickup builders such as EMG, Lindy Fralin, Jason Lollar and the many small boutique builders.
What was your most toughest/hardest pick up project that you made you so mad?
I haven’t really had a hard pickup project but at times you get components to make a pickup that are not to specification or just don’t work. I’m always looking for suppliers and have learned not to put all your “eggs in one basket.” With the current world economy it’s getting more and more difficult to find companies that can make the parts you need. I also find that there are so many companies all over the world making replacement parts and are not made to a standard specification or measurement. That makes me mad when trying to use a screw and it doesn’t fit the standard pre-existing tread.
In tone and sound-wise, what are the most critical parameters about an electric guitar pick up?
Bobbin shape, magnet wire diameter and insulation, magnet material and gauss, number of turns, coil pitch, coil tension, pickup placement and height to the strings and bridge, string gauge and body material, neck type and material, and volume and tone control values. These are some of the many critical parameters that develop the tone of an instrument.
Is there any pickup by another label or stock pickup that was made by guitar companies which you wished to be made by you?
At Seymour Duncan and the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop we’ve made so many replica pickups that have been made for decades. I’ve made just about every type of pickup out there, and I wasn’t even born when some of the first pickups were made for electric guitar and bass. I wish I made more EBO Gibson bass pickups. There hasn’t been a great demand for this type of bass pickup but they are unique in tone and design. Our injection mold that makes humbucking bobbins was made by the same company that manufactured Gibson’s during the ‘50’s.
You had a nice bond with Seth Lover. How deep an inspiration did he have on you?
Seth E. Lover who invented the Gibson humbucking pickup was a great friend with so much knowledge of making pickups. I would visit with him at his home in
and spend day’s talking about pickups. He gave me his original drawings and pickup notes for existing and new design pickups. He designed the piano pickups for the Fender Rhodes Piano and Bass Piano as used by the Doors. He gave me file cabinets of schematics and boxes of pickup parts. I hope one day to open a guitar pickup museum and display many of the components he has given me. Todd Money at the Gibson Guitar Warranty Department gave me Les Paul’s original pickup and guitar neck off of his Les Paul Recording guitar. Garden Grove, California
Who are your inspirations on pickup making?
There are many such as Seth E. Lover (Gibson humbucking) Leo Fender (Fender single coil pickups) Ray Butts (Gretsch Filtertrons), Rowe-DeArmond pickups, Danelectro pickups and Rickenbacker and the many who have experimented with guitar and bass pickup designs.
What are your biggest regrets about Seymour Duncan pickup company or pickup making?
I don’t really have any regrets but thankful for all the musicians that have used and tried our products. I wish I could wind all the pickup but that would be impossible due to the amount that we make. I wish I could open other Seymour Duncan Custom Shops all over the world but with the economy would be hard. I wish I could get out and meet all the bands that use our products and hear them perform. I get so many requests to visit music shops and sit in playing guitar with bands. I’d love to do it but I’m busy in the shop actually making the pickups along side Maricela Juarez.
What do you think about real PAF pickups with extremely high prices?
It’s like anything with the price being affected by supply and demand. Many collectors value and put high prices on the old P.A.F. pickups but in reality some of them don’t sound that great. Because it’s a P.A.F. and has the mystique many buyers will spend the high money hoping if they own one they will sound like Jeff Beck, Peter Green or Paul Kossoff (Free). I get upset when folks make fake P.A.F.’s using decals, modifying bobbins and components to make it look real. You really need to be aware of the fake ones and talk to a qualified collector of such high valued items.
In my personal opinion, I’d rather go to Seymour Duncan Custom Shop instead of paying a fortune to them.
I’m proud to say that we have made some really great sounding P.A.F. replicas. We have the same materials, magnet wire, magnets, and in some cases the pickups are aged to sound and replicate the old ones. We are doing special pickups for Steve Miller using my special recipe.
About single coils, what makes them so special, what do you think?
In the custom shop I enjoy hand-winding or scatter-winding pickups. Why? Because that how winders like Abigail Ybarra hand-wound the pickups for Fender. It has a unique tone quality and mystique associated with the early pickups. From Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Roy Buchanan to The Fendermen, the tones of those guitars relied on hand-wound pickups. The single coil pickups have a tone quality and clarity when you hear them. Each hand-wound pickup has its own voice. This is due to the winding tension, winding pitch and tension as the magnet wire is being wound thru the fingers of the winder. I love the tone of Fender Jazzmaster pickups. Listen to “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures. That was Bob Bogle using his Fender Jazzmaster with its smooth and unique tone.
How did you design & build your first pick up for mass production? It is a ’59, isn’t it?
My first production pickups were fabricated Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster pickups. I would cut each piece of flatwork, punch and drill each pole piece and eyelet hole; bevel each magnet and hand-assemble each bobbin before being wound. My first production winding machine was a knife sharpener with the grinding stone removed with a fabricated fixture to mount the pickup being wound. As the handle was rotated one turn, the bobbin would turn four times. So if I wanted a bobbin wound with 8,000 turns, the crank would need to be turned 2,000 times. It was very basic in the beginning and sold an old guitar to buy my first automatic winding machine. It would have a controlled pitch or traverse but I would still use it to wind my early single coil pickups.
Personally I really don’t like active pickups. But your “Blackout” pickups get impressive reviews as far as I follow. What’s the story behind them?
(This question was replied by Evan Skopp, not by Seymour himself)
We had heard a lot of opinions from artists and other players that the active pickups on the market offered by our competitors were not meeting their needs. They liked the boosted output for aggressive metal styles, but they found the tone to be sterile; or they made all guitars sound the same. With Blackouts, we designed an active pickup that has a more organic tone that lets the player sound like themselves, and Blackouts sound different in different guitars depending on the tone woods. Also, with Blackouts, we use balanced inputs going into a differential preamp. Our competitors use unbalanced inputs, which is not as effective for canceling hum. In addition, we un-scooped the mids and widened the dynamic range; so in effect, Blackouts have less hum and noise, but more lows, mids and highs. Or, you can say, more tone. Blackouts have been a success story for us. We’ve expanded the original Blackouts line to include Blackouts Metal, Blackouts Singles, Blackouts for 7 and 8 string electric guitar, and Blackouts for Bass, and our first signature Blackouts, and the Mick Thomson (Slipknot) EMTY Model. Gus G., Ozzy Osbourne’s new guitarist, used all Blackouts to record Ozzy’s latest album.
What do you foresee about electric guitar pickups for the future? What will future bring, what new improvements do you wait to happen?
That’s really hard to say. Most of the technology we use has been around for a long time. But we’re always trying to innovate with pickups like P-Rails and Blackouts. And, of course, our line of stompboxes is all about innovations like combining analog and digital circuits in the same box. Digital isn’t going away, but how it affects pickups, we’ll have to wait and see.
How do you evaluate the past, present and future of Seymour Duncan Company?
We’re just coming up on the 35th anniversary of the company. I would say most of the first 35 years have been about growing directly in response to the customers’ needs. We started off as a pickup re-winding service and eventually grew to becoming the world’s leading supplier of high-end, USA-made pickups. We forged relationships with all of the top guitar companies in the world. We launched a line of amplifiers and then discontinued them after a few years. We learned from our mistakes. We created Antiquity, the first cosmetically and sonically aged guitar pickups, which started the whole “relic” craze. We spun off D-TAR to meet the needs of acoustic musicians. And now we have a very successful line of boutique quality stompboxes designed and priced for working musicians. For the next 35 years, you’ll see more of the same; that is, responding to the needs of customers by giving them products that make them sound better and play better.
Does Seymour Duncan Company have plans or new strategies for Turkish pick up market? Up till now, there was no endorsement or something like that but how about after that?
We’re always looking for up-and-coming artists regardless of where they come from. One of our hottest artist endorsers, Gus G., comes from
. I think it would be great for Greece Turkey to spawn a guitar hero like did with Gus. Greece
Do you know anything about Turkey and Turkish Guitar scene?
I love listening to players from other countries and I’m open to music played on all kinds of instruments. One of my all time favorite musicians is and Irishman named Davy Spillane who plays uilleann pipes. I’ve travelled to a lot of countries, but I haven’t been to
yet. I hope to go there someday and learn more about the guitar scene there. Perhaps you can give me some recommendations of Turkish players to listen to. Turkey
What do you think of Joe Satriani uses your Pearly Gates pick ups on some of his guitars while he is endorsed by another company?
There are a lot of players who publically endorse other pickup companies but actually use our products for recording. Joe Satriani is a great player. He’s so creative and he has an amazing sense of time. According to Guitar Player magazine, Joe recorded his great album Surfing with the Alien on a Kramer Pacer that had a ’59 Model in the neck and one of my first JB Models in the bridge. Years later, he was often seen with Seymour Duncan pickups in one of his chrome guitars. I heard that that guitar was stolen. I really hate to hear about guitarists getting their gear stolen. I hope Joe gets that guitar back someday.
This year, Seymour Duncan transferred Yngwie Malmsteen who is known as a strong endorsee for his former company. How did it happen?
Evan Skopp is Vice President of Artist Relations. He met with Yngwie in
Southern California a couple of years ago and the two of them started a friendship. With Yngwie’s former company, he didn’t really have much involvement in the development of his signature pickup; it was basically an off-the-shelf model with a different magnet stagger. Yngwie and Evan started to discuss ways that Yngwie could design a pickup that was created from the ground up to work with his unique playing style and his extremely critical ears. They went back and forth with our R&D engineers making round after round of prototypes. Yngwie was very much involved in the process calling Evan at all hours to talk about how the prototypes were behaving using different playing techniques and different amp settings. Yngwie eventually settled on the pickups that are now the YJM Fury model and he is really happy with the results. Those pickups are now the pickups Fender is installing in his signature Strats. And we’re very happy to have Yngwie as a Seymour Duncan artist. In January of this year, Yngwie and his family visited our factory in and we got him on the winding machine making pickups. He was so excited about that. Actually, we auctioned those pickups to raise money for earthquake relief in Santa Barbara . A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of playing on stage with Yngwie at a concert in Haiti . I’m sure you must know that Yngwie’s wife is Turkish (Authors Note: Yep, i know Ebru Solmaz Malmsteen). By the way, today is Yngwie’s birthday. We sent him one of our Tweak Fuzz pedals, because he loves Hendrix, along with a card signed by all the Seymour Duncan employees and a bunch of Ferrari stickers. You know he’s crazy about Ferraris. Bologna, Italy
Does the Seymour Duncan Company invest to other areas of guitar business? Making custom guitars or amplifiers maybe?
Sure. Our sister company D-TAR is making some of the finest amplification tools for acoustic musicians. C.F. Martin and Guild Guitars are using 18-volt D-TAR pickups as original equipment in some of their high-end models; and the off-board D-TAR preamps like Mama Bear and Solstice are big news with acoustic guitarists. If you’re not familiar with Mama Bear, you have to watch the videos at dtar.com. It’s an amazing piece of gear. We have recently launched a line of high-quality stompboxes designed for working musicians. We have 11 so far with more in development. We just released the Triple Shot which is a humbucker mounting ring with “stealth” switches that allow for series, parallel and split switching with no mini-toggle switches or push-pull pots. We’re not just pickups anymore.
Here I’ll ask you some technical questions; First of all, what is your favorite insulation material for making single coil and humbucker pickups?
This is confidential and proprietary information to my manufacturing. I have spent many years researching and having developed specific materials for my manufacturing process. The basic materials that are commonly used are Plain Enamel (PE), Formvar and Polysol as the standard in winding pickups. There are many variations of materials used.
What are your opinions about alternative magnet materials like Samarium Cobalt or Neodymium like rare earth materials and their alloys?
You’ll get an alternative sound using other than standard magnets like Alnico 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7, etc. I don’t like the tone quality you get with rare earth materials and the effects it can cause on the string vibration. I like using traditional Alnico magnets for the tone I enjoy. We do experimentation with all kinds of rare earth magnets and I always come back to the Alnico’s for the tone I like. I guess I’m a Vintage kind of guy! Ha! :)
Do you make R&D projects using new magnets including rare earth elements?
My Engineering Department, headed by Kevin Beller, is always experimenting with different magnetic materials and I am working with Cunife magnets at the time. Different types of magnets produce different energy and output of a pickup. Stronger magnets can make for brighter pickups with more edge and output. I like weaker magnets for a smoother tone and for those with a sensitive touch and playing technique.
Scatter wound... Why does it matter whether a pickup is scatter wound or not?
I like scatter-wound pickups because of the individual unique tone and character it can produce. I feel I become part of the tone and player. It’s a cool feeling to hear someone using your product and to know you personally hand-wound it for them. I like hand-wound or scatter-wound pickups because of the early tradition at Fender. It seems more personal when you wind a pickup by hand and it’s in a player’s guitar. I collect old Indian arrowheads and when you find one in a farm field, it makes you think when was it made and who’s hands made it. It’s like that with an old guitar and I think about the person spending his time to make this device that creates a unique tone for the player. It’s important to machine wind humbucking pickups to obtain the best quality out of them. If the coils are hand wound and miss-matched then they can’t efficiently reduce hum as they are made to do. I haven’t seen two hand wound pickups that measure the same and thus if you want another to sound the same in the guitar: good luck!
And the covers... To what extent does the material used for pickup covers affect tone?
The traditional material used for Gibson humbucking pickups is a certain grade of Nickel Silver or German Silver. It has a specific quality that’s used for shielding out RF interference. Other cover material can be used such as brass, stainless steel or aluminum but they will alter the tone of the pickup. It’s up to the pickup builder to decide what aftermarket product he is using. Often plated pickup covers can be brass or aluminum without the user knowing the quality of the product.
What’s your advise on discovering new sounds from pickup swaps?
A pickup in one guitar will sound different in another guitar due to the materials used in another. The weight of the instrument, potentiometer tolerances and value differences are some of the sound changes when changing pickups from one guitar to another. Sometimes you hit the jackpot getting the tone you really like or that sounds best to your ears. It’s great to experiment and I love to see players and builders doing it. They become familiar to the different pickup voices and character.
Ok Mr. Duncan. I’ve come to the end of my story. It was a great pleasure to communicate with you, a great master luthier. I deeply thank you a lot for your kindness and care. If you like to add something or give your contact information to the Turkish readers of Sound, now, it is the time.
It’s an honor to have the time to talk to the many Turkish players out there and try to give them a little help in understanding what pickup building is all about. Making pickups for me is helping the player achieve his unique tone that other guitar players will want to achieve. You will be the next Jeff Beck, Yngwie Malmsteen, or Eddie Van Halen of the future.
Good Luck… Seymour W. Duncan 6-30-10 Santa Barbara, California USA