Friday, July 31, 2009

Seymour Duncan -- Pickup Tonemeister

Seymour Duncan started playing the guitar in bands in 1963, but it was meeting legendary guitarist Les Paul that fired his interest in guitar electronics. Little did he know at the time that, like Les Paul, his own name would also become part of electric guitar history.

Duncan also befriended the late guitarist Roy Buchanan, turning up at his gigs to hear the Tele-master in action. But because Duncan was underage, he would hide behind the bar at Buchanan’s gigs.

Stumped by the tonal difference between Buchanan’s ’53 Telecaster and his own ’56 model, Duncan started writing to Bill Carson at Fender. Carson was a gigging western swing guitarist and fellow Telecaster player who worked with Fender on an ad hoc basis, acting as road-tester for Fender’s new guitar and amp products.
Duncan made several important discoveries by tinkering with his guitars and trying to make improvements.
For example, frustrated with the microphonic squeal from the pickups on his Telecaster, he disassembled the pickup on an older guitar and found paraffin wax encasing the windings. Paraffin wax, he discovered, held the windings of the pickup solidly in place, virtually eliminating microphonic feedback. Duncan had found a critical element that he was to faithfully implement in his own line of pickups later on.
One night during a gig, the lead pickup on his Tele suddenly stopped working and, out of necessity, he rewound the pickup using a record turntable the following day. Experimenting with the different tones that different windings could produce he started rewinding pickups with a machine he had built, using a sewing machine pedal to control the speed of the turns.

He inadvertently set the machine to wind in the opposite direction, an error which led to another discovery – reverse winding also reversed the pickup’s polarity and when used in combination with a regular wound pickup both became hum-cancelling. This was an important discovery especially when applied to single-coils.

In 1968 Duncan took a job at a television station where he managed to meet and talk guitars with celebrity guitarists like Glen Campbell, Jerry Reed and Cal Collins.

A four-year stint in England followed, where he immersed himself in studio recording at night while doing repair work at the Fender Soundhouse R&D and Repair Department during the day for Peter Frampton, Marc Bolan, The Who, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck.
Upon returning to the States, he began manufacturing pickguards, bridges and knobs and selling them to Schecter, Charvel and Mighty Mite who were pioneering the guitar replacement parts industry.
In 1976 Duncan moved to Santa Barbara to set up a pickup rewinding service which soon blossomed into a replacement pickup business, hot on the heels of a certain Larry DiMarzio.

As mentioned above in the Seymour Duncan ad from 1979, Duncan’s business was also based on creating pickups built to his customer’s specifications, in addition to selling his own stock line of custom pickups.
Feeling that he had more to learn, Duncan started consulting with Leo Fender, Seth Lover, the inventor of the Gibson humbucking pickup, and Doc Kauffman, Leo’s early business partner and fellow tinkerer.

Seymour Duncan keeps meticulous records of every pickup he has ever taken apart and scrutinized – electrical readings, number of windings, layer patterns, magnet types – and he keeps one of each of these pickups in the company’s archives for future reference.
As he puts it, “I’ve just looked at a lot of small details that other people might have overlooked.”

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