Master of Pickups: A Conversation with Seymour Duncan

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Seymour Duncan, the innovator behind the aftermarket electric guitar pickup talks about the players, the materials, and the obsession that led him to electromagnetic magnificence.

Anyone who has even a passing interest in guitar tone knows the name Seymour Duncan. He essentially invented and created a new market by designing and manufacturing pickups that evoked the sounds of some of the most revered vintage electric guitars. Our wide-ranging conversation took place at company headquarters in Santa Barbara, California.

The HUB: What was your earliest involvement with music?

Seymour Duncan: I grew up on the East Coast and as a teenager I started hearing a lot of rock ‘n’ roll—Bill Haley and The Comets—bands like that. My uncle, Howard Duncan, taught me a few cowboy chords on a little Martin guitar he had. My uncle was a trumpet player who played in a lot of bands around Philadelphia including Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. He saw that I really loved guitar; I used to watch The Lawrence Welk Show with Neil LeVang and Buddy Merrill playing guitar. They were the first live guitar players I ever saw. Then it was Ricky Nelson on the Ozzie and Harriet show with James Burton playing guitar in the background. There was something about that guitar tone that was kind of neat.

My uncle told me that he knew this guitar player and he took me to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and they put me in the front row; it was a Saturday matinee. All of a sudden I hear [vocalizes introductory notes as played on electric guitar] and it’s Les Paul and Mary Ford! I was in awe seeing this—I was 12 years old. Afterwards, they took me backstage to talk to Les Paul. I noticed this thing on his guitar, and asked, ‘Mr. Paul, what’s that black box on your guitar?’ And he says, “Son, that’s a Paulverizer.”

He explained that with it he could control an Ampex tape recorder backstage, so he could record a rhythm part [vocalizes guitar rhythm], hit the button, rewind the tape, hit the button again and record another track over the first track. The first track would play back and he would play multiple lead parts over the top of it. He’d do that three or four times, then at the end, he’d do his own solo [vocalizes guitar lead]. He was controlling his guitar and the tape deck with this Paulverizer.

I then asked him how it was that I heard two voices coming from Mary Ford. “How do you do that, she’s not hooked up to a tape recorder?” He pointed out a woman backstage and told me that was Mary’s sister who traveled with them. She sang harmony backstage. Seeing this intrigued me and then Les told me about how the pickups on his guitar worked and I thought it was so cool. When I got home, I wrote down everything he told me. Growing up, he was always just a gentleman to me—I’ve been so proud of that. 

Years later, as a guitarist I’d be playing Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Wildwood all the time. I used to play Tony Marts—a very famous club where Roy Buchanan used to play all the time. I was on the same bill with Levon and The Hawks [later to become The Band]. Also a guy called Elliott Randall who did the solo on “Reelin’ in the Years” with Steely Dan.

At a Sunday jam this country singer borrowed my Telecaster—it was the only guitar there. Her name was Sally Starr and she had a country and western TV show out of Philadelphia. When I got the guitar back, I saw that she had lodged the E string under the bridge pickup and it had gouged the coil. I was sick about it but I had to play that night at Tony Marts and I only had the neck pickup. I was talking to Robbie Robertson, the guitarist for Levon and The Hawks — he had a Tele also. So he pulled off the control plate of his guitar to see if it looked the same as mine. Then he tells me, ‘You’ve got to fix that bugger!’

That Monday I looked at the pickup under a microscope in biology class. I was taking the turns off it and this black wax was coming off so I couldn’t get to the beginning of the wire. The singer had gouged it almost through to the magnet where the pole pieces were. I took it to my uncle who worked with Texaco in the engineering department. He looked at it and said, ‘This is 42PE magnet wire, I’ll get you a roll of it.’ So I had to figure out how I was going to wind it, get it back on the bobbin.

I got a record player that played at 33-1/3, 45, and 78 rpms, and I mounted a block of wood on it and put in three little holes for the bottom plate of the Tele so I could spin it on the record player. At first I tried the 33 rpm speed, but it was too slow; my arm got tired feeding wire. I tried 45 rpm and it was okay but… So I turned it up to 78 and the block of wood, that wasn’t balanced, flew off and hit the cement basement wall cracking the top lid of the pickup. ‘Aw man, now I’ve got a busted pickup!’ I’m trying to fix this thing and I’ve got to play the next day. Then I noticed my drummer’s drum case. It was the same vulcanized fiber as on the top of the Fender pickup. So I’m wondering how the hell I can get a piece of it off the drum case without his noticing.

So for an hour and a half, I used a hacksaw to cut a thin, one-inch piece from around the whole drum case lid. It was like a four-inch lid that ended up being three inches! Then I sanded it down so you couldn’t tell. So I had this long strip of vulcanized fiber on which I traced the shape of the broken pickup and the part that had broken off and made all the hole marks. Then I got it nice and round, and using a hand drill, I drilled out each hole for the 3/16” pole pieces. So I got the bugger made, pressed it onto the magnets and then went back to winding at 45 rpm. It took a lot of time, but I eventually did it. I put more turns on it than it had originally had, and it was a lot fatter sounding. So that was my first pickup winding—around 1966.

The HUB: This was done intuitively? You clearly had a technical aptitude at that time…

SD: My dad had a sporting goods shop—he worked for DuPont. I used to make all the arrows for him; I put the feathers on and painted them. We made this fixture from a sewing-machine motor. It would spin the arrows so I could paint them with specific color patterns for different customers; with it we could paint them for each brand. One guy’s might be red - red - blue - green and another’s might be red - red - red - red and so on. 

I’ve always been hands-on though. I had Erector sets and always worked on my guitars — all that stuff from day one. Nobody else could do it. We didn’t have repairmen.

The HUB: There certainly were no YouTube videos showing you how to wind pickups.

SD: No, nothing. Les had mentioned spinning the bobbin, and that’s how I came up with the record player idea. Then years later, in England, I actually made a bobbin winder machine using a sewing machine with a variable speed DC motor on it and a foot pedal so you could slow it down and speed it up. 

The HUB: You weren't mimicking a process, you were coming up with one that made sense to you, and in the process, you were, to some extent, inventing it.

SD: Pretty much. It was out of necessity; I had to figure out how I was going to spin this bobbin.

But playing that first pickup I rewound the following night, it squealed microphonic feedback like crazy. Then I remembered all that black wax that had come out of it. I found out later it was a black paraffin wax that Leo [Fender] would use to cut down on the microphonics of the pickup. But I potted mine with candle wax, including the bottom plate and I had no feedback problems whatsoever. I used my mom’s vacuum cleaner to pull the bubbles out that came up during the potting process.

This was around the time that overdrives showed up; the Maestro Fuzz Face was one of those fuzz tones that was out there in the sixties. Keith Richards used it on “Satisfaction.” It was a lot of fun experimenting with stuff like that.

Pickup Winding at Seymour Duncan

Pickup winding at Seymour Duncan HQ, a far cry from Seymour's original homemade setup. 

The HUB: Did your biology teacher spot you using the microscope in class?

SD: Yeah, but she told me to come after class, which was kind of neat. But I was always experimenting, I was working with so many cool guitar players back then. I worked with Joe Walsh, Cal Collins, Robbie Robertson, Roy Buchanan… We were always mucking around with our guitars, adjusting bridges and all that.

The HUB: It sounds like a pretty organic community that fed off each other?

SD: Exactly. And some guitar players aren’t that qualified to work on their guitars. Some are afraid to touch their guitars. But I’d always dive in. I’d find guitars, old radios in the trash and pull them out and try to fix them up. I’d take out the speakers, the old wax capacitors. Robbie Robertson and I talked about how the old capacitors made guitars sound better. I tried all kinds of stuff.

The HUB: So you said you had a pretty strong relationship with Les Paul after meeting him. Are you the type who might pick up the phone book and say, ‘I’m going to call Leo Fender’? 

SD: I did! I actually caught Leo Fender in his office—he answered the phone. I asked him why he wax-potted his pickups. I also wrote to Bill Carson. He was a mainstay at Fender from day one. I’d ask him when was the first Tele made; the first Strat? Many years later I saw him at a NAMM show like in ‘76 or 77. This was after I had started making pickups, trying to make a name for the company. I said, ‘Mr. Carson, I don’t know if you remember, I used to write to you at Fender and ask you all these questions.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re him! You’re the one that made me do all that work, but you were ahead of everybody about the history. Now look at everybody doing this vintage stuff. You had me back in the files trying to figure out when these things were made. In the end, it helped us with our company history as we got more and more requests from people writing books and articles.’ So that was neat. I did a eulogy for him—he was always a great friend.

In 1966, when I got to Cincinnati, I went to this shop in Norwood, Ohio called Hughes Music that Lonnie Mack had talked about it in some article. He had a tremolo bar put on his Flying V there — Mr. Hughes was the one who did it. I walk in and there’s this refrigerator box cut in half and it must have had 150 Fender maple guitar necks in it. I said, ‘Mr. Hughes, what are you doing with all these guitar necks?’ He takes one of the necks, steps over to an old band saw and cuts it into the three pieces to feed the pot belly stove he had in there. I swear to God.

I had a new ‘66 Tele neck and I asked him if he’d swap it for an old Tele neck—he could resell my new one. So I got an old ‘52 or ‘53 Tele neck. People would trade them in because the lacquer was worn off the fingerboards and they looked dirty. A lot of people were going to the rosewood fingerboards because you couldn’t see the dirt. I also got a bunch of Patent Applied For pickups that he gave me because he knew I was always working on guitars. He was a great man and had great help working there.

The HUB: So this is in 1966 - 1967? 

SD: Yeah, I was touring with a band from New Jersey and we ended up in Lima, Ohio. And the manager of this band called Orange Noise came down from Cincinnati to get me — they were doing stuff by The Byrds and The Yardbirds, all this great new progressive music where the guitar was really playing a lot. In this band I was into wah effects, playing behind my head, on songs like “Heart Full of Soul.”

After the band broke up, I stayed in Cincinnati and I ended up giving guitar lessons. I was working at Don’s Music Center and this kid comes in and says he wants guitar lessons. I told him I could give him lessons at my house if he wanted to come over. So I was giving him lessons, and one day he says, ‘You look bummed out Seymour, what’s the matter?’ So I told him, it was because the band that’d broken up, some of the guys had gone to college, got drafted. So he says, ‘Well, I can get you a job. My dad has a bunch of TV and radio stations — Scripps Howard Broadcasting.’

So his dad invited me over for dinner and me and Charlie — Charles Scripps Jr. — are playing guitar before dinner. Because I liked making things, his dad told me he could put me in the property department building sets. I said that’d be fantastic and that’s how I got a job at the TV station. Then I started working with Nick Clooney, George Clooney’s father. We were doing a variety show during the day that was pretty popular. Then Jerry Reed came into town and he needed a guitar and amplifier and I loaned him my Deluxe Reverb. Around 1973 I went to see Roy Buchanan who was playing in Dayton, Ohio. His first Polydor record, Sweet Dreams, was about to come out. He told me he was going over to England to tour and he invited me to meet up with him there. So I went over there, and Roy introduced me to Wayne Bickerton, a Polydor A&R guy. He asked if I wanted to do some sessions and I told him I’d love to. 

That led to Rory Gallagher and I doing harmony guitar parts on backing tracks for Slade — you know the band who wore big heels on their shoes? So one day I’m at this park, near the swimming pool when I meet this girl and she was from South Africa. A real nice girl. She says, ‘You know, my roommate is getting signed by Polydor Records, and he’s looking for a guitar player.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding!’ Roy was getting ready to go back to the U.S., so I met up with this singer, Chris Harley. His stage name was Chris Rainbow because there was another Steve Harley in Cockney Rebel, another band over there. So we began recording at night at Polydor. Chris and I were writing all kinds of cool songs. I was doing harmony guitar parts for like “Mr. Man” and “Solid State Brain.” We did like 40 songs at Polydor Records. Then we started putting the records out. 

After my British visa expired, I came back to the U.S. and started playing with a band in Topanga called Slam Hammer with a guitarist called Jamie Shane who I’d met touring with The Doobie Brothers in England. After Chris Rainbow went back to England, I stayed out here and met this lady named Cathy who’s my partner here — Cathy Duncan. We started the Seymour Duncan company together. That’s how it all began. I was making 5-way switches in England for guys like Chris Rainbow. I was working for Robert Palmer and doing stuff for Maggie Bell, a very famous artist over there. I did a lot of stuff for Jeff Beck — I made the first Tele-Gib for Jeff Beck. I put two humbuckers in it. He used it for Blow by Blow on the song “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” that won a Grammy. So that was my first JB.

The HUB: I don’t know if scale is the right term, but can you speak to what kind of business you were doing in the late ‘70s with aftermarket pickups? 

SD: I was mainly doing rewinds. When I was at the Fender Soundhouse [in London], I was working for a guy called Ron Roka and we did a lot of repairing — so many bands came through there. But when I got over here I started doing the rewinds. 

When I began producing my own pickups, I’d get a big sheet of the vulcanized fiber, I’d band-saw it, then I’d drill holes in it and route out each piece of top and bottom flat work. Talk about work, man. I had a little fixture case-hardened for the drill press so I could drill out each hole. Then we got a big order from Japan. They came over and said they wanted us to make vintage Strat pickups. And I said, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’

The HUB: Were you relying on word of mouth for advertising?

SD: I was still doing work for artists like Supertramp and they would talk about this American guy who works on your guitars. So a lot of it was word of mouth.

I ran an ad in Guitar Player though. It showed me with a bucket with hundreds of pickups in it and it said, ‘Is This Where Your Pickups Wind Up?’ People weren’t doing much rewinding back then. DiMarzio was doing it back then, but he was working for another company. I was doing all the vintage guitar shows. You’d see a lot of guitars from the ‘50s and ‘60s coming from areas with high humidity, with what I call ICPC—inter-coil pole corrosion — where the magnets would actually rust inside, even though it’s a nickel-ferrous material. The rust would cause the magnet to expand and break the insulation on the magnet wire and it would eventually short out. They would break from the inside out. 

The whole vintage thing was going on; people were pulling off their pickup covers to see what they were like inside. They’d get screwdrivers and pry the covers off humbuckers and make them look like an early Jeff Beck Les Paul with exposed coils. As they did that, they’d gouge the coil and all of a sudden, it’s busted. And we were the only ones doing the coil rewinding.

The HUB: And reverse engineering, indirectly. 

SD: I did a lot of that. I’d count each turn as I pulled the wire off. Even though the outer coil was fine, it was broken somewhere inside, and 95 percent of the time it was that inter-coil pole corrosion. But if somebody gouged the coil taking the cover off, you could get to that and repair the coil.

The HUB: Getting back to that Japanese order, they say, ‘Here’s what we want to accomplish.” What’s your approach to that? Do you go to old books or notes, or do you say, ‘I’m going to go find 10 great examples’?

SD: I always had guitars that were great examples that I could examine and measure. When I was looking at Strats, they all read differently. This one has a stronger magnet than this one — there were all these variables. Then there was the weight of the body. The same pickup would sound different in different guitars. With Teles, I noticed that heavier guitars were brighter and harsher where a very light one would sound very smooth and sparkle in the high end. So I made drawings and notes using calipers. Then with any money I’d make, I’d go out and buy a new tool —router bits or something.

I found a Roper Whitney punch. We had a plate on it where we could put guides in which we’d put the flat work. We’d punch out the three holes, flip it over and punch out the other three. Sometimes the holes would be misaligned. We learned every way to not make a pickup. There were no books, no YouTube, nothing.

We discovered that sometimes the insulation could give you false readings; we’d have to strip the insulation off to find the actual diameter of the magnet wire. Because it could have single or double layers of insulation, and that would change everything. You also have to consider the wire tension, the way it’s put on. When I hand-wind I have a certain technique — a timing thing. If you go too slow it’ll bundle up and flop over and you get loops. So you have to keep it constant. I’m winding the Hendrix pickups now that I’d originally done for Jimi in 1968 with Roger Mayer. I’ve wound many dozens of them so far, and luckily, I haven’t broken one yet.

Everybody winds differently. It’s like guitarists: they hold their picks differently, play or bend notes differently. Winders are the same. Abigail Ybarra from Fender and I did a show together in Arizona years ago. We were sitting next to each other winding and telling stories. I said, ‘Do you realize how many pickups you’ve wound and who has played them?’ And she says, ‘I know, I did them for Buddy Holly,’ which is so cool.

We each have our own technique. Some people magnetize them after they’re wound; some people before. Also when the hot wax is applied it can degauss the magnets a little. There are dozens of variables, and when you multiply them together, you have thousands of variables.

A look inside the inner-workings of Seymour Duncan's headquarters in Santa Barbara, CA.

The HUB: When you’re designing a vintage-style pickup, you can approach it in a very scientific manner. But thinking about the end user, everyone has had their own specific experience with their particular guitar. Things like the gear aging, playing through a specific amp, all of that changes things and colors a player's experience and expectations. So how do you as a designer who, to a certain extent, is reverse engineering, account for all these different factors for the end user once they receive your pickup(s)? How do you strike that balance?

SD: A lot of it is communication. Often times we’ll have them weigh their guitar. So we’ll get an idea of the weight and the wood and they’ll also send photographs so you can see the physical characteristics.

Another big variable is potentiometers. A guy will take his guitar into a shop and say, ‘My pots are scratchy.’ So the repair guy gets a potentiometer and puts it in there. The new pot may have a different tolerance. You get a pot and it says ‘250k audio taper’ on the bottom of it, but a lot of the older pots were like 210, 220k. So if you have a 210k pot in your Strat, it’s really going to knock off the high end. If he puts in a new potentiometer, and it’s like a 270k, you’re going to hear a lot more brightness. 

You hear people saying, “This guy ripped the pickups out of my guitar because they didn’t sound like they used to’—and the guy actually just changed the potentiometer. I always tell people with vintage guitars to use the last tone control and use that as a volume control because it’s hardly ever used. It still has a lot of the carbon on it and it’s not going to be noisy or cut out on you. That way you’ve got the same aging. A new one can drastically change the sound of the guitar.

I had a guy with a Tele that I made pickups for and I told him to get two 250k pots. After he got the pickups he complained they sounded dull. They should have been bright enough to get the cats down the street yowling. I made him more pickups using 41 wire that should produce very bright tone, and he still complained they were dull. I asked him to bring in the guitar, and it was then I found that he had not put in two 250ks, but instead, two 50K potentiometers in it. It was like breaking glass. It was my fault for not making the values clear. That was a big realization for me — how big a difference potentiometers and good communications can make. 

The HUB: People will buy this Marshall Hendrix stack and think, ‘Therefore I’ll sound like Jimi Hendrix.’ And they’re not thinking about the mic Jimi used, going into what desk. So while you might get the sound of his pickups as they were, you’re not necessarily going to get his overall sound. You’d have to have the right amp with the right electrical sag, factor in the type of tape that was used…

SD: And everything was analog back then.

The HUB: So, it’s more about expectation-setting.

SD: But I know what I did [for Hendrix], and he liked it. But when I make something, I want it to look like an old pickup, smell like an old pickup, have the quality, the ambience, the mystique of the old pickup. I hate it when people say they’re making a vintage pickup and they’re not using the right materials like a vulcanized fiber phenolic. To me, it’s not vintage at all. I’ve never bought a re-fretted guitar because I don’t like the way some folks would re-fret it—I wouldn’t buy it, especially if it were a Les Paul or something where someone had mucked up the fret job. 

So I critique a lot of things, but I’m very simple when it comes to music. When I record I use my Deluxe Reverb. I maybe use a little overdrive that we have here. I’d rather have a dry sound going into the recording then put the effects on it later. If you get a weird glitch or pop with the effect, you can’t really take it out. I always respected that principle, which I learned from Jimmy Messina.

The HUB: You come from a very specific school of playing and sound. As the company’s grown, you’ve supported all kinds of players. How do you take yourself and your staff out of your wheelhouse and say, ‘We can design this pickup that’s great for music that none of us here would play’? Do you listen to records or …?

SD: I think we all do that. I’ve made pickups for a guy who talks to dolphins. I made a lap steel pickup. [emulates dolphin sounds]. I listened to dolphin recordings to try to find the frequencies that are particularly bright, so he could do this talking to Dolphins thing. I made a special pickup for [electric violinist] Jean Luc Ponty. I’ve also done effects for movies like The Thin Red Line and Star Trek: The Movie. I did the effects for the cosmic beam. It was 15 feet long and had eight or 10 steel strings on it and it was played with an aluminum bar. There were five pickups in it. When you slide the bar to the right, the right-channel frequency would go up. But on the left channel it would be [vocalizes descending electronic sound].

The HUB: So they came to you and said we want it to make this kind of sound?

SD: Yeah. We had to make special winders for the pickups. If you listen to The Thin Red Line soundtrack, you’ll hear this real low rumble in the background that’s the bar being rotated on this cosmic beam.

But working with guitar players, often times they’ll bring the guitar or ship it to us and they’ll want a certain sound out of it. One guy wanted a Roy Buchanan sound. So I said, ‘Okay, I know what Roy’s pickup was’ and I went ahead and made it. He then gets in touch and says, “This doesn’t sound like Roy Buchanan’s guitar.’ So we had him send the guitar in and discovered it had a stainless steel bridge on it. I told him ‘That stainless bridge is not going to surround the field like a traditional steel bridge.’ Because it would pull the magnetic field out and expand it. I knew Roy’s guitar intimately.

The HUB: So some of these seemingly innocuous little changes can have a big impact?

SD: Exactly. He put one of those adjustable-intonation bridges on it and it doesn’t give it that nice mid sound. Years ago, a guy came to me whose dad had given him a 1957 Stratocaster. He says, “I want to put three humbuckers in it.’ And I said, ‘Man, go out and buy a cheap guitar you can do that to. This is a valuable guitar; someday it’s going to put you through college.’ Later I saw him playing in a club and he had chiseled it out with a hammer through the pickguard and the edge of the wood on this ‘57 Strat. He had put three DiMarzios in it and I wondered how he could have done that. And he says, ‘Well, you wouldn’t sell me pickups.’ I told him I was trying to sell him on some advice. It was sad, but stuff like that happens.

The guys who work at the Fender and Gibson custom shops also tell stories about guitars that come in. Roger Fritz at the Gibson Custom Shop talked about an L-3 that came in where the guy’s wife had taken a shotgun to it. A Les Paul came in that had been stabbed like a hundred times. Ry Cooder, I think, brought in a 335 he had hacksawed putting in extra holes for different pickups. He wanted to make the back like a Gretsch, so he had hacksawed this 335 and they were trying to restore it.

When I first started doing NAMM shows, I enjoyed talking to Leo Fender and George Fullerton, but it was the craftsmen — the guys who routed out the bodies and so on that would tell you stories about how they do things. One guy talked about buffing a 335 when the f-hole got hooked on the buffing wheel and shot the guitar across the shop. These things happen when you manufacture. 

Bill Carson came up to the factory when we first started. And I’m grinding magnets by hand, turning them around at 2200 rpms. And he says, “Nah, we didn’t do it that way.’ He says, ‘We’d get a stick and put surgical tubing on the end of it and slide the magnet into the tube then grind the magnet by turning the stick. It was so much easier and you would be more consistent in how you ground them.' 

I always carried a camera around with me so I’d be taking pictures and making notes. I have some great photos — Danny Gatton and I playing up in Canada — all kinds of great stuff.

The HUB: Well, thanks Seymour. It’s been quite an education!

Tags: Electric Guitars Pickups

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