August 29, 2006 | Author: Greg Phillips
His name is as equally identifiable as the guitar heroes whose tone he helped to create. His knowledge of the guitar and it’s inner workings is nothing short of amazing. A crude definition of what Seymour Duncan does for a living is that he winds copper wire around a magnet … but it’s the way he does it in producing his famous guitar pickups that has made him the legend he is today. In his youth, New Jersey born Seymour Duncan had an insatiable thirst to know what made things tick, resulting in the disassembly of many house hold items including TVs and radios. However it was that inquisitive nature that lead Seymour to amass an infinite amount of electronic knowledge, leading to the establishment of one of the world’s most celebrated guitar pick up businesses. At the encouragement of guitarist friend Roy Buchannan, Seymour flew to London in the early seventies and found himself working at the Fender Soundhouse doing repairs for guitar greats such as Hendrix, Beck, Clapton and Jimmy Page. Armed with that vital experience, Seymour returned to America and in 1978, along with Cathy Carter Duncan, started their own pick up company. Ever since, Seymour Duncan has been at the forefront of guitar pickup technology working with everyone from Eddie Van Halen and Dimebag Darrell, to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grinspoon. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Seymour prior to his Australian clinic tour in September.
GP: What do you believe are that most important factors that got you where you are today?
SD: Probably listening to music growing up. I was an only child and my uncle, who worked for a famous band during the forties and thirties, had a guitar. I would tape record every show I would see on TV that had a guitar player. I’ve had so many great influences in my life and then being able to talk to someone is great. You know I can go and talk to the people that work in manufacturing, who not even so much as own a little company, but to the guys who work in the production line and the painters and the guys that fabricate or do the engraving. I mean for me, that’s what’s great.
GP: Growing up, you had a lot of help from some important people, like Mel Bay and Les Paul and Bill Carson, is that why you feel the need to offer advice to people?
SD: Well, yeah. I think that because these folks were so generous to me. To me those guys were rock stars. I enjoyed meeting and talking to these people and then over the years, writing letters to them. When I started doing all the music shows and some of the award shows, you meet the people that you actually wrote letters to, and it’s very cool. And they’re proud of you too, for what I’ve accomplished. Like I met Mel Bay several years ago. I told him
I was this little kid that used to write to him and he sent me all the Mel Bay magazines. And he just looked at me and said, “You’re that kid”. So for me it’s very neat, when you hear a national radio show and Les Paul talks about me as a little thirteen-year-old kid, coming up and asking “Mr Paul? What is that thing on your strings?” and he explained what the guitar pickup was to me and it really, just … I was so hungry for information about the guitar. I sent many applications to Fender while I was a little kid, wanting to work for them. That didn’t become (laughs), ‘cause I lived kinda far away I think. But, the people in the main factories like Ted McCarty was very helpful to me and he explained a lot to me growing up and stuff and I would visit him in Michigan. So it was pretty cool, you know.
GP: You mentioned taping music off the TV. You also turned the TV into an amplifier I believe?
SD: Right, yeah. I would hook into the actual TV and one time I hid it from my Mom and Dad, and all of a sudden I had this long cord into my bedroom and they’re out in the kitchen. All of a sudden they heard this guitar coming through the TV set and freaked out about it. But it was neat. I used to try to work like radios, and go into the pre-amp system of all your typical am/fm radio stuff. And a lot of world 2 bands too, which were really cool. You’d find the input, and you’d just separate the input from the radio signal, and do the input from the guitar channel, and sometimes it would distort really bad. I used to do funny things using my cassette players and stuff. When I was younger I used to put a guitar jack on the end of the player in the car, so you could actually play back on it. This was like the seventies and eighties when the 8-track was becoming very popular. Plug the 8-track into your car, and then run the wire to your guitar and you could actually hear it through your car system.
GP: Why do you think it is that vintage pickups are so popular?
SD: I think part of it is the quality of the instruments that were being made at the time, the materials that were being used. A lot of the time you can’t even use them anymore, like certain kinds of old lacquers. The newer lacquers have plasticisers in them, so they don’t wear the same, And everybody starts making guitars out of polyester because they can manufacture them a lot faster, and the paint would dry faster, and everybody just got into making so many guitars. At one time, you know, Fender was gonna drop the Stratocaster back in the sixties until Jimi Hendrix made it popular. The biggest thing is that people knew that things were handmade and the quality and the tone that people were getting from all these old guitars. Then a lot of the companies started changing their components over the years because the old stuff wasn’t available anymore, or they were trying to go with new technology. They were going into solid state amplifiers, which really didn’t make it that well in the eighties and people were still trying to find a tone. You listen to old records by Steve Cropper, Booker T and MGs … you listen to the old Jeff Beck stuff … you listen to Roy Buchannan and Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, you know, and all these guys are using older guitars. And then there’s that next generation of guitar players. We started having great players Eddie Van Halen, and the older generation was a second influence to the younger guys. We were all looking trying to find the old tone of all these old guitars. And then I started doing all this vintage stuff and that became a real mainstream for our company, ‘cause they knew that I was really listening to the tone, hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin and Roy Buchannan and guys, all these guys I had been affiliated with, you know. So that sorta really got us into developing a lot of vintage products and bringing it back to the public.
GP: You sometimes relate a story about guitarist Andy Summers at your clinics, could you tell me about that?
SD: Andy would ride on the London Underground tube system and he would get on the same area of the train. It was like his favourite spot, where he could put his guitar and everything after a gig. He realised that the place where he put his guitar was part of the transformer and engine system. The electromagnets in it degaussed the pickup in his guitar. He brought the guitar to me and he said, “Man, you know, the guitar is just so low, you know, there’s no output from it anymore.” And the pickup worked, the coils were working fine, and I said, “Oh man, you’re pickup checks out.” And then I recharged it for him and when I did it, it put it beyond what it was originally… where he liked it, like a sweet tone type of thing. So then I started degaussing and then I got into really changing the calibration on the magnet and that started a whole new area of Seymour Duncan pickups. And by changing the magnetic strength you can change the tone of the pickup and get it where it’s sounding really sweet, where it suits the player.
GP: I’ve been told that you have some pickups in jars of water that have been there for a long time. What’s that all about?
SD: Well, years ago Billy Gibbons said to me, “Would a pickup work underwater?” and I said, I don’t see why not, you know, ‘cause the insulation is pretty much shielded. So in 1974, we did a thing and then, there was another date somewhere…May of 1978, I put a humbucker pickup in just a jar of water. There’s all this mystique about what else was in the jar besides water, like Billy Gibbons’ urine and all this stuff. You know, all this insane stuff. You have to spice it up a little. But the pickup, it looks absolutely disgusting, ‘cause it’s been in there since 1978, and last time we checked it still worked. But every time Billy comes by, it’s still inside the jar. So it’s good to have it here. It’s called the Seymour Duncan Pickled Pickup by Billy Gibbons. The water, we call “tone juice”, ‘cause it’s inside the jar and it’s kinda neat.
GP: What advice would you give to a guitarist who for years has emulated his or her heroes, but now wants to find their own unique tone?
SD: I really think that it’s very important for these kids to realise that. I tell them at the beginning, so many of them come and want to buy Van Halen or Randy Rhodes or Alan Holdsworth or Jeff Becks or something, and I say guys … they already sound like who they are. So much of it is in the style of playing that I really try to teach them to find their own tone. That’s why we make so many pickups too, and so many different variations of that magnet and coil stuff, just so guitar players can stick something in and find that tone that he really loves, that’ll inspire him. Having a pickup that sounds the way you want to play or makes you play the way you wanna play is so important, and that’s why we do it. There’s some manufacturers that say, “Oh, all you need is one pickup and you can sound like anything,” and you can’t, you know, you really can’t. You’ve gotta match the pickup to the wood. We do seminars where we talk about the wood and the relationship between the coils and the magnets and how everything works with each other. And it’s important for kids to realise that.
GP: Do you think it’s necessary for the young people to know something about the electronics of a guitar?
SD: Oh I think so, I mean I’ve always been that way, because I remember somebody borrowed my guitar one time and they broke the lead pickup and they got the high E string stuck under the bridge pickup and there’s nobody to fix it. Nobody around where I grew up in southern New Jersey knew about guitar pickups or how they were made or anything. So, I dived into it and I took my pickup apart when I was in high school, and I put it under a microscope and decided to see how it was working. By having myself not really afraid to go in there and take my guitar apart, that started me as a guitar repairman growing up. I soon became the guy, the local guy, who was working on everyone’s guitars.
GP: Seth Lover thought he didn’t get much credit for a lot of the pioneering work that he did, but he was very happy with the SH55 pickups you created. It must have given you a lot of satisfaction to produce those?
SD: Oh, it was such a thrill to me because he was such a gentleman. He was only making a few dollars from the retirement from Gibson and Fender, and so to be able to make something for him and put his name on it, it was such an honour. He really took to our company. We really helped him a lot with wanting him to let us use his name and everything. So he was so good at being there for us, when we talked about how we wanted to do the pickup and everything. He was responsible for so many things, like working on a design for the Flying V, the Explorer, the Varitone in the amplifiers and everything and the varied tone on the 355 and the 345 Gibsons. He was a brilliant man and he was just doing his day to day job. Evan Skopp, my marketing guy, and myself went down to his house to talk to him about it and he was so thrilled. He didn’t really care about the money for himself, he just wanted to have it to show to his grandchildren, to give them money for education and everything, which I thought was wonderful.
GP: Likewise, you must have been proud when the Fender people decided to produce the Seymour Duncan Esquire model guitar?
SD: Oh right, yeah. That was through Evan too, you know, we were doing a lot of marketing things and Evan and the guys all talked and they thought it was a pretty good idea, so they sent them a contract, which I think was very nice (laughs). The Esquire, I have always loved because of the simplicity, and then also being able to get the maximum tone and output. So it has a tap bridge pickup, and it has unique wiring in it and I rewind the pickup and I do all the harnessing and everything for them. So it’s really kind of a neat thing to have that and I’m still honoured by it, you know, ‘cause I’m the only Fender artist that never had a record contract for guitar playing, but I’m very proud of that.
GP: You released a range of pedals. What made you diversify into that area?
SD: Well partly because at one time we were doing the convertible amplifiers, where we had some really unique designs and everything and, you know, the amplifier had modules in it for enhancing the tone or to change the output of the amplifier. We had actually like a Varitone variable power supply, Variac almost. One amp, that you could put it down to a ten watt amplifier if you wanted it or put it up to 100 watt if you wanted it. So, the pedal thing was sort of a fun thing for us to do to experiment. We have such great engineers and I said, ‘Man, let’s go for it’. So we came up with something unique. We got two stomp boxes and the SFX03 twin tube classic, which is an awesome two powered overdrive, which is really kinda unique too. We’re looking forward to come see you guys when we’re finished with it, so you can hear it, and the kids can hear it too, and it’s all education, you know, to get the kids out there. So, I hope I have the chance to see a lot of players and stuff and you know, young guys out there, ladies, you know.
GP: Ok, so what does the future hold for Seymour Duncan?
SD: Well, we’re still designing a lot of products and I still want to keep doing what I did for the past thirty years. Keep playing and trying to help young guitar players find the tone for themselves, developing products. And I still want to play with the band that I have in Santa Barbara here, do a lot of shows and going out to seminars and doing all the amp shows.