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This article was originally published in issue #26
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As he tells Stuart Bull in our video interview, Seymour Duncan's first brush with pickups came about as the result of an unfortunate accident to his Telecaster, which necessitated a lengthy - and very experimental - attempt at a repair.
Seymour Duncan virtually invented the replacement pickup market. Stuart Bull meets Seymour and his wife, Cathy, for one of the most important stories in the evolution of Rock guitar sounds. Gary Cooper provides the words.
Sometimes there is just one place in the world where you have to be and for a lot of guitarists, London in the late 1960s was that place. From the UK, the trinity of former Yardbird guitarists, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, were reinventing the sound and potential of the electric guitar, while from America, Jimi Hendrix was more than upholding the USA's honour. Another American was a pivotal part of that era, too, though despite being no mean guitarist, his most famous contribution lay elsewhere. He was New Jersey born Seymour W Duncan, who can claim to have more or less invented the replacement pickup industry.
As he tells Stuart Bull in our video interview, Seymour Duncan's first brush with pickups came about as the result of an unfortunate accident to his Telecaster, which necessitated a lengthy - and very experimental - attempt at a repair. It may seem incredible from here in the 21st century that he couldn't just go online and find out how to fix his guitar but that's how it was - not least because there was no Internet! Worse, there weren't even any books telling you how to go about this fiddly process. It's significant that the careers of many of today's most revered guitar makers, including men like Bill Collings, Bob Taylor, Paul Reed Smith, George Lowden and Fylde's Roger Bucknall, all had to learn, not out of books, nor even by being shown how to do it as an appreciative to a master, but simply by taking guitars apart, finding out how they worked and fixing them. That's just how it was back than and, you can't help wondering if it may be, in part, why they are all such creative spirits. No one showed them how to do something in ways they would slavish follow thereafter. They had to work it out from first principles for themselves. Seymour Duncan was in good company on his self-taught path.
Working on guitar pickups back home, he was soon learning from no lesser (im)mortals than Les Paul and Roy Buchanan.
Seymour Duncan didn't really come to London in the late 1960s to be a guitar repairman but like all struggling musicians, he needed to earn a living and ended-up working in the Fender Soundhouse, then in London's Tottenham Court Rd and a stone's throw from a then thriving studio scene. Interestingly, he credits the idea of his moving to London to Les Paul.
The Soundhouse was one of the hottest guitar shops in town and as its resident guitar man, Seymour got to know all the top players of the day - and usually ended-up working on their guitars. Notably, the trinity of former Yardbirds guitarists who were creating new sound - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. There were a few other guitarists whose instruments received the increasingly recognised Duncan treatment - Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Peter Frampton among them, but it was Duncan's work for, and friendship with, Jeff Beck that was probably the high point of his time in the UK. Among other things it led to the 'JB' humbuckers, discussed at some length on our interview, and which many say created the definitive Jeff Beck guitar sound, back on albums like Blow By Blow.
Running out of visa, Duncan moved back to the USA and in 1978, having met Cathy Carter Duncan, who is a vital part of the Seymour Duncan business. The two of them set-up a pickup repair service. The rest, as they say, is history - but it's history worth paying our respects to. The list of guitarists and leading guitar brands that either use or have used Seymour Duncan pickups is astonishing and that is really the word for it.
Along the way, Seymour Duncan has also produced some hugely respected amplifiers, but the company has let that business drop in recent years, due to the increasingly costly and onerous regulations and component supply issues that dog small electronics manufacturers, as Seymour told us. What he hasn't dropped though is his growing line of effects pedals. Though he is from a generation of players that doesn't personally use many stomp boxes, he has a team that does and the work they are doing is quickly establishing SD as a major name in the quality effects market, too.
Interestingly, rather than turn his business into a mass production facility (or, worse, just have his products made in the Far East, while he sits back and collects the royalties), Seymour Duncan's Santa Barbara factory in California not only produces pickups but has a thriving Custom Shop where Seymour, Cathy and Maricela Juarez (the ''MJ' Seymour refers to in our interview and who has been winding pickups with him for 30 years) repair vintage pickups and create new custom ones, aiming to create the sound in a customer's head. However successful the business is, nothing fundamental seems to have changed.
Still working with Cathy and a team that is now in excess of 100 workers, Seymour Duncan doesn't just make great products - he is, personally, a part of the history of modern Rock guitar, with a wealth of experience and anecdotes that few can match.
So get yourself a cup of whatever brew appeals and settle down to listen to one of the industry's few real masters, while he takes us on a lightning tour from his first broken Telecaster pickup, to today's latest effects. It will, I promise you, be time well spent.