The tone that sets you apart
Seymour W. Duncan is a name many musicians associate with the manufacture of pickups, but he is actually a pretty mean guitarist and it was his love of playing, and a piece of ‘bad luck’ on stage, which led him to be the man who legends like Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Browne, Slash, Peter Frampton, Dave Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Gloria Estefan, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Eddie Van Halen, Pete Townshend, and Joe Walsh turned to when they sought to improve their sound.
As a guitarist Duncan has played alongside Duane Eddie, Adrian Belew, Talking Heads, Les Paul and David Bowie, but when he began playing in the early 1960’s he was, like a lot of novice guitarists, struggling with his equipment. At one show his Fender Telecaster lead pickup failed, which meant he had to play the rest of the performance on rhythm. Afterwards he went home and put his vinyl record player on 33 1/3 revolutions in order to rewind the cable. It was this moment that really awakened his interest in how guitars work and led him to believe that he could better his tone through improving his instrument.
This article is going to touch on Duncan’s youth, the story behind his globally renowned business, his relationship with Hendrix and Jeff Beck, his friendship with engineer Seth Lover (inventor of the humbucker), and his vision of the future. But it starts with Duncan’s own description of the most critical parameters about an electric guitar pickup, because these words provide a glimpse into what he sees when many others simply see a small oblong chunk under the strings:
“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,” says Duncan. “These are some of the many critical parameters that develop the tone of an instrument.”
Born on 11 February, 1951 in New Jersey, USA, Duncan began winding pickups in the mid-‘60s with Gibson’s Les Paul in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Fender Guitars in California. At around that time he also began to disassemble as many mechanisms as he could, tenaciously collecting information about different models, and making detailed drawings. On Paul’s advice he then moved to London for a stint working at the Fender Soundhouse where he repaired guitars for many of the top artists at the time. Specifically it was through his growing friendship with Jeff Beck that Duncan honed his pickup winding skills and then found that many of his unique tones ended up on Beck's early solo albums.
As Duncan says himself: “It was the design and tone that Jeff Beck got when he recorded ‘Blow by Blow’ and 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.”
It was the start of a lifetime friendship that meant that when Fender Custom Shop produced a Seymour Duncan 35 signature, Duncan gave the first one to Beck. “He deserves it,” he said, “he is the guitar player’s guitarist; he’s fantastic.”
On his return to America, specifically on 28 March 1968, Duncan went to see Hendrix perform at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fortuitously he took with him a set of Strat pickups he had chanced upon at his local music store and had rewound on his record player. Hendrix warmly invited Duncan backstage and asked enthusiastically about his work, upon which the pickups the luthier had brought were installed on a Strat that Hendrix used that same night. “You don’t forget when you work for somebody [like that]”, explains Duncan, “he said: ‘carry my guitar for me’, so I had his white Strat and I carried it up on stage for him … and my guitar buddies in the audience were shouting ‘Seymour!’; for me that was a real thrill.”
As Duncan’s reputation grew, in late 1978, together with Cathy Carter Duncan, he started his own company, Seymour Duncan Pickups, a manufacturer of guitar and bass pickups, and effects pedals, in Santa Barbara, California.
The company has over 120 employees but in our accompanying video selection you can see how it remains a friendly and supportive environment to work in. All organizations have their issues, of course, but Duncan clearly values investing in quality long-term relationships: “It is a great thing to have employees and watch them grow up, have families and to support them; it’s just a good feeling,” he says.
One of his key members of staff and obviously a real character is Maricela Juarez (or “MJ”), who began as a production floor pickup winder. Her generous personality and growing technical know-how meant that when Duncan opened his Custom Shop, she was chosen as manager and took charge 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,” explains Duncan. “We wind pickups from Gibson, Fender and other competitors’ models.”
In Duncan’s search for that vintage tone - and look - over many years he describes, for example, leaving magnets on rooftops so they would rust, or going to the corner of a factory in Santa Barbara to cover them in ‘old dust’ so that the pickups have character, which he says ‘adds soul’ to them.
Another telling anecdote about the company is that every morning and afternoon work stops for a while so that all the staff can dance together. “this helps make the connection between music and what we are doing,” says Paul Davis, VP operations. “It wasn’t really planned that way, but it has such a benefit to stop what we are doing and have some fun…”
Seth Lover, the inventor of the Gibson humbucking pickup was a great friend of Duncan before he passed away in 1997. Their shared passion for, and long conversations about pickups in Lover’s Californian home would leave many cold; but those days were like gold for Duncan. In June 1978, for example, Duncan conducted a detailed interview with Lover, where they discussed his early interest in radios in the 1920s; move to work for Gibson in 1941; the famous “Patent Applied For” tone; and his technical progress on the humbbucker for guitars and the Fender Rhodes Piano and Bass Piano used by, for example, the Doors. The two later worked together to develop the SH-55 Seth Lover Model humbucker and Seth passed on a large number of files, parts and original drawings that Duncan hopes will someday fill a museum.
Aside from the museum project, Duncan also imagines developing his Antiquity range further, as well as his line of boutique quality stompboxes. Now in his 70s he could easily retire, but he is a man who continues to be highly driven to helping his customers sound better.
“I like messing with stuff,” he says. “I have some new ideas that I’m going to be coming out with soon and I’m excited about it you know…”