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Seymour Duncan - The Science Of Tone

Seymour Duncan - The Science Of Tone

Seymour Duncan’s JB pickup has become a major revelation for many players, myself included. It’s one of those "when in doubt" pieces of gear: if you need good tone, you can’t go wrong with a JB, and when you put one in your guitar, your sound improves dramatically.

[Note: for more on pickups specifically, see our guide on "The How, What, Why and Maybe Why Not of Changing Pickups" and "How to Build a Single Coil Pickup."]

A lot goes into a great guitar tone, and Seymour Duncan has been studying great tones all his life. A native of New Jersey, Duncan started out as a musician, he still plays guitar regularly, and he has new music available on iTunes. “Being a player myself, you use the products you actually make and you know how it responds,” Duncan says.

Like many in the gear industry, there was no big plan for Duncan to start his own company - he just started out pulling apart guitars to see how things worked and started experimenting. Whenever Duncan saw his favorite players, he’d make notes about what gear they were using, and as he explains, “We still keep records for everything we’ve done from day one. We have every spec from the pick-ups I’ve done for Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, Jerry Donahue, and more.” (Duncan was also mentored by some of the great pioneers of gear like Les Paul, Leo Fender, and Seth Lover, who invented the humbucker.)

As he mentions on his official website, the lead pickup on his telecaster went out, and Duncan rewound it himself with his record player on 33 1/3 RPM. A lot of gear companies also grew out of repairing gear, and it was in England that Duncan worked at Fender where he did repairs and rewound pickups for every great British guitarist you can think of: Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and of course Jeff Beck.

Gear companies need a great guitar player using their products to establish their name, and the player that put Duncan on the map was Jeff Beck. Duncan made two pickups for Beck that he used on his legendary Blow By Blow album, the JB and the JM.

The JB actually stands for Jazz Blues because they don’t have a formal endorsement with Beck for the pickup, but knowing Beck played Duncans on Blow By Blow had players flocking to get JBs in their guitars. It’s still the #1 selling replacement pickup to this day. “I tried something different for Jeff and he loved it,” Duncan says. “There was a lot of word out there because Jeff won a Grammy, and everyone loved the Blow By Blow album.”

Duncan took out their first ad in a guitar magazine in 1976, and he started hearing from Japanese companies who wanted replicas of vintage pickups. Then in 1978, he went to Hughes Plastic in Michigan, who molded the first pickups, bobbins, and hardware for Gibson. They made Duncan their first humbucker mold, which the company still uses today.

While he was experimenting and creating his own pickups, his wife Cathy Carter Duncan was helping building Duncan as a brand and a business. Like many gear companies starting out before the internet, it would be a treasure hunt to find the materials that Duncan needed, and as he remembers, “Cathy was doing all the purchasing. I would say we need to get this kind of magnet wire, then she would find sources for it.”

Today Seymour Duncan has over a hundred employees in a big Santa Barbara factory, and Duncan still comes to work every day and personally winds pickups for the custom shop. “I didn’t realize how big the business could get,” he says. “It just sort of grew and grew.”

As for understanding what a player wants, Duncan says this: “Guitar talk is its own language. You learn to understand where these guys are coming from, whether they need it brighter, warmer, blusier, gnarlier. Jazz players want real clean and full sounding pickups, blues players want something warm, so you work with the magnets and try different kinds of experiments.”

He often goes back to the old classic handwound pickups. Where Fender had a variety of single coil models, Gibson’s humbucker pickups were usually similar, and Duncan tried to make pickups that were more responsive to the player’s touch and the string gauge they were playing with. “The JB came about because if you were using lighter strings, you needed the pickup to give you more output,” Duncan says. “You either increase the magnetic fields, or use different coil winds to increase the output so the pickup responds to how a player plays.”

Evan Skopp, who is VP of Business Development and Artist Relations at Duncan adds more. “There’s a challenge when you’re trying to use language to describe what you’re hearing or what you want to hear. Then you have to translate the language into guitar tones. Where it gets more difficult is when you leave the realm of tone and talk about feel. It was very challenging working with Yngwie Malmsteen, because not only was he looking for specific tones, but the feel was just as important. In his case, we actually went through 22 different revisions of his pickups before we finally came up with the one he loves.”

Even with the recession, Duncan’s been holding up well. With the economy in bad shape, a lot of players want to experiment with their own guitars, because it’s obviously less expensive to change pickups than buy more guitars in the search for tone. Duncan’s been able to keep up with the many changes in guitar playing throughout the decades, and as Skopp says, “As long as popular music maintains the presence of guitar in it, we will have pickups that will address the needs of the player, no matter what music they play. As long as the guitar’s in there, we’ll have a say about how those tones are created.”

Image of Duncan with Slash from Gibson's website.

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