Seymour Duncan

Story of an electric guitar guru
Story of an electric guitar guru

Seymour Duncan is one of the most unassuming human beings on the face of the Earth, bar none. His name is held in high regard in many circles, especially those musical, and his life is an extraordinary rock and roll tale.

Though he didn’t invent the electromagnetic guitar pickup, he has done more than most anyone to raise player awareness in regard to the critical elements of guitar tone and its many nuances. If you’ve been aware of electric guitars for any length of time, you have heard his name (and probably seen his face).

Born and raised in small towns in southern New Jersey, Duncan’s father worked for Dupont and the family lived in several area towns while Seymour grew up and developed a very deep appreciation of music. As he grew into his teens, his step-brother, Bernie Lane, played a special role in fostering that appreciation.

A major part in his overall guitar “makeup” came from listening to bands at local dances, sockhops, and later at nightclubs. It was in one of such establishment he met guitarist Rick Vito when both were teenagers. And one of Duncan’s favorite memories was spawned at a club called Dick Lee’s, where he’d catch Roy Buchanan playing live. When Buchanan was in the house, Duncan says it was a special time, and guitarists from a wide area would flock to watch him – and try to steal licks.

Duncan constantly reminds himself that he has achieved great things only with the help of many people. And he is quick to give credit where due. So despite his considerable stature, he is the rare creature who gives extraordinary amounts of his time and energy to help others pursue their dreams.

Vintage Guitar: Who got you started playing guitar?
Seymour W. Duncan: I would visit my uncle, Bid Furness, who lived near Camden, New Jersey, and was a big-band musician in the 1930s and ’40s. He played trumpet and worked with many well-known performers on the East Coast. Uncle Bid had an acoustic guitar in his attic that he brought down one day when I was about 13 years old. I haven’t let it out of my hands since!
I would also visit my dad’s brother, Howard, who played country guitar and taught me my first guitar chord – a D in the second position. He showed me how to pick the D and A strings while playing the chord. He gave a couple of 45 RPM extended play records – Two Guitars, Country Style, by Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, and one by Chet Atkins. That was in 1963, and I still have them.

How did you learn to play?
I remember going to a music store in Woodbury, New Jersey, and seeing the Mel Bay guitar course. I wrote to Mr. Bay, telling him I was a beginning guitarist and wanted to learn as many chords as possible. I drew chord patterns and sent them to him, asking the names. About two weeks later I got a package and “good luck” note from Mr. Bay, and inside was his Guitar Chord Encyclopedia. Many years later I met him at a music trade show and thanked him. He was glad I continued in the music business (laughs)!

What was the first guitar you got, and when did you get it?
It was Christmas Eve of ’63, while I was in bed I could hear plucking of an amplified guitar. I was trying so hard to go to sleep, with pillows over my head, even, so I could hurry and wake up the next morning. When I awoke and rushed to the Christmas tree, I could see two larger-than-life presents. I looked at my parents and kept saying, “Can I, can I?” and my dad said, “Oh, go ahead.”

When I opened the first package I saw a black case, and inside was a black sparkle Les Paul-shaped Silvertone guitar with two pickups, a black lever switch, and several volume and tone controls. It was a thin-bodied beauty, and I couldn’t wait to plug it in and play my first chords. Wow!

What kind of amp was it?
A Sears Silvertone with tremolo. I played for hours and didn’t even open my other presents. I was so thrilled.

Do you remember the brand of strings you used at the time?
The first strings I bought were Black Diamonds. Just about every guitarist in South Jersey used them. When I was 14 years old, Roy Buchanan showed me how to replace the bottom E string and use the standard A string in the set as my low E. I’d move all the strings over and use an A tenor banjo string for my high E.

What were some of the first songs you learned?
The first was “Tom Dooley” by The Kingston Trio. I learned to play along with the banjo part on the record. I remember playing along with it at my cousin’s birthday party, and was I nervous. Then I learned songs by Duane Eddy – he’s still one of my heroes, and a friend. At one of my first band auditions, I had to learn “Bulldog” by The Fireballs.

When you were learning, what was the hardest part about playing guitar?
I still dream about how hard it was to play the F bar chord. I had the hardest time trying to hold all the strings down at once with my index finger while keeping the chord clean. I remember my fingers cramping, and the day when I finally could play the chord perfectly. Then I needed to change chords quickly, especially when playing C, A minor, F, and G. There where many songs in the ’60s with that chord pattern.

What kind of music were you listening to at the time?
All kinds, especially country, rock and roll, and radio stations out of Philadelphia. I made a crystal radio set and used a long antenna hooked to my TV antenna to pick up distant radio stations, on clear nights. My favorite recordings, to this day, are “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos, “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starlighters, all the Duane Eddy recordings, Ricky Nelson with James Burton, Les Paul and Mary Ford, The Fireballs, and String-A-Longs.

My all-time favorites are The Ventures, and Santo and Johnny. I really liked instrumental albums by Al Viola, Tom and Jerry, Jerry Cole, The Chantays, The Astronauts, and guitar solos in recordings such as “Rock Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Kansas City,” “Peppermint Twist,” “Honky Tonk,” “Scratchy,” “Memphis” and “Wham” by Lonnie Mack and “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” by The Virtues, to name a few.

Did any guitarists on TV influence you?
Yes, they sure did. I’d watch the “Ozzie and Harriet” show, and at the end of the show Ricky Nelson would perform with James Burton. I also watched the Lawrence Welk show and saw Neil Levang and Buddy Merrill playing all kinds of stringed instruments, from old Fender Stratocaters and Jazzmasters to banjos and steel guitars. And I couldn’t wait ’til they stood up and played a solo!

Another influence was a guitarist on “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” show, where the artists would perform and an applause meter would measure the crowd’s reaction. I once saw a young guy in a cowboy outfit playing an instrumental version of “San Antonio Rose,” and he did a backflip while playing! I really wanted to play guitar after seeing that!

Did you have a tape recorder?
When I was about 14, during another Christmas my dad got a Voice of Music tape recorder. I used it to tape all the TV shows that had any music, and especially a guitar solo. I’d record it at 71/2 inches per second and play it back at 31/2. I’d then learn to play the solo slower without tuning my guitar. I recorded albums, too, and did the same thing.

Did you learn to read music?
I took a few lessons using the book Mel Bay sent. I learned all the notes and positions on the fingerboard, all the chords and positions, and basically learned to memorize the chord patterns, because it wasn’t cool to perform live rock and roll using sheet music. I’d listen to the recordings off the radio and have the chords for my band the next day. It was cool to play Beatle songs at school dances, while they were still on the radio.

Did you discover any secrets to learning guitar solos?
Using the tape recorder was great. In high school I’d write out the chord charts for songs on the radio, and sell them to the local bands for 25 cents per song. I’d then use the money to purchase more reel-to-reel tapes. It was probably illegal, but none of the bands cared as long as they had the chords.

What kind of songs did you listen to?
I enjoyed listening to keyboardist Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, and really liked what they were doing with the organ’s bass pedals. I was beginning to listen to the tone of the instruments and even though the musicians played the same style instrument, like the Hammond B-3 organ. I was always curious as to why they sounded different, and as I got older and listened to more music, I was able to tell who the player was by the tone.

I’d listen to all kinds of music, even while going to sleep at night. To this day, I sleep with an earphone, scanning the radio waves for radio stations to hear new and interesting tones. I’ve come to enjoy the incredible phrasing of bagpipe artist Davy Spillane and the soul of saxophonist King Curtis.

Who where your main guitar influences at the time?
Those I heard on records – Nokie Edwards, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, Santo and Johnny, and many of the session guitarists who did the solos on the early records I listened to.

My local heroes at the time where The Sterling Brothers featuring Joe Seddon and Mark Hutchinson, who played all over South Jersey. Others were Roy Buchanan, The Jaguars, The Fenderman, Levon and The Hawks – who later became The Band for Bob Dylan. Elliot Randall, who later recorded with Steely Dan, The Kit Kats, Pete Carroll and The Carroll Brothers, Tommy Cosgrove, Ray Coleman, Little Pal and The Profits, Bobby Jones who took Roy Buchanan’s place with Bob Moore and The Temptations, and especially one of my first groups called The Flintones, with Ken Bozarth, Mark Montemore, and Jim Sharp.

Were you into the blues much?
Yeah, I was getting into Freddy King, Albert Collins, and Buddy Guy. I was bending strings, and I liked the tone those guys were getting. One day in the the mid ’60s I was listening to a promo album by The Cream; it was given to me by Frank Woods, the owner of WEBN-FM radio, in Cincinnati. Eric Clapton’s work in The Cream was the best. Frank also gave me promo copies of Jimi Hendrix, and The Yardbirds, because he knew how much I liked guitarists and guitar playing.

Do you remember the names of some – or all – of the bands you were in?
Hmmm…the New Jersey bands were The Illustions, The Ad-Ventures, The Flintones, Ray Coleman and The Mints, The Mysterians – later named The Sparkle, who toured with The Shirelles. In Cincinnatti there was The Orange Noise, Surdy Greebus, Bloomfield, The Bottom Half, Midnight Sun, and I played solo gigs. In England, I played with Chris Rainbow, Druick & L’Orange, and solo. Then, when I came back to states, in Cincinnati I was in Punk, then I moved to California to do sessions and start Seymour Duncan Guitar Research.

Where did you perform?
School dances, sockhops, private parties, weddings, and nightclubs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. I remember sitting in with a recording group – Frank Link and The Bonnevilles, at a dance in New Jersey. With The Flintones, I traveled all over South Jersey playing in Wildwood, Avalon, Philadelphia, and nightclubs all over the place.

What types of guitars do you own?
A variety of Fender Telecasters, Esquires, Gibson Les Pauls, ES-335s, ES-345s and a beautiful Gibson ES-355. I have two beautiful Heritage guitars, and actually collect Fender Jazzmasters because I think they’re the most beautiful guitars ever made. I own several Jaquars, Duo-Sonics, Mustangs, Precision Basses, and several custom-made instruments, and two PRS guitars. I have a Roy Buchanan guitar given to me by Roger Fritz, and a few early Gibson SG Les Pauls. And a friend gave me my first Silvertone.

Are there any guitars you’ve gotten rid of through the years, and now wish you still had?
When I was 14, I bought a new ’63 Strat that had been sitting in a music store in Woodbury. When I started working with rockabilly artist Ray Coleman, I traded it to Tommy Cosgrove for a ’63 Fender Jaguar. I wish I still had that guitar. I realized over the years that even though the Jaguar cost more, it didn’t have the tone of the Strat.

Any gig horror stories?
Oh, yeah! One that really sticks out is the time I drove 60 miles to a club in Pennsylvania, then opened my case to find I’d forgotten to put my guitar in it! The club owner called all over the place to get a guitar for me. He found a jazz guitar with .012 to .060-gauge strings that I couldn’t bend! I dropped them down to D and had to transpose all the songs.

Ahh, yes. Usually among the horror stories is the one about how an overly imbibed bar patron wanted to get up and “jam.” Do you let other players borrow your guitars?
I normally don’t, unless it’s someone like Jeff Beck, Peter Frampton, Eddie Van Halen, James Burton, or other players who understand the value of an instrument…

You’re such a name dropper (laughs)…!
Well, I once let someone borrow my ’56 Telecaster – which I’d purchased from a student of Roy Buchanan’s. It was a great-sounding guitar. Anyway, during a jam session, I let a guy use it, and he was accustomed to playing an acoustic with heavy-gauge strings. I was using the A tenor banjo string for my high E, so the strings where pretty light. As the guy played, the high E string became lodged in the coil of the bridge pickup – obviously, he didn’t have the touch intended for the guitar.
On the bright side, that pretty much started my pickup-winding career. And I don’t worry as much now because I usually have one of my pickups in the guitar, so if it goes bad, I just make another (chuckles).

In the first part of our talk with pickup guru Seymour Duncan, we delved into some of the experiences of his youth in New Jersey. Whether it was getting letters from Mel Bay, hiding an AM radio in his pillow at bedtime, or sneaking into nightclubs to watch Roy Buchanan, in some way or another, the guitar and the music it helped create had an apparent and very deep effect. And everybody who has played an electric guitar in the last 20 years has been the beneficiary.

This time, Duncan discusses his emerging passion for the electrical minutiae of the instrument, and how his curiosity led to his status as the world’s preeminent pickup manufacturer.

How did you become interested in working with pickups?
It was the necessity of having a working guitar, because it was my bread and butter. I needed to keep my guitar in working order, as I was the lead player in the band, and I just couldn’t keep using the rhythm pickup on my Telecaster for lead work.

In the mid ’60s, I started finding all kinds of broken guitars in music shops around South Jersey that had great action and playability, but the electronics didn’t work. Folks were just throwing the guitars away – I even traded a Fender volume pedal to a player in Ohio who had a ’53 Fender Esquire that didn’t work because the knurled washer was shorting out the jack when the cord was plugged in.

I started doing all kinds of guitar work for local music stores in the ’60s. I hated seeing broken pickups thrown away.

So you started rewinding them…
Yes, when I was about 16. I was mainly trying to fix the pickup someone broke while using my Tele. I started gathering broken guitars from local dealers, then mixed and matched while replacing the broken ones from other pickups and assemblies. If I had five or six Stratocaster pickup assemblies where one or more pickup didn’t work, I’d make two or three assemblies where all the pickups worked. At times it might be a broken switch and others it would be a dead pickup. I started realizing that the early Stratocaster pickups – from ’54 to early ’58 – had a North Polarity and later, in mid ’58, all the pickups had South Polarity. This causes problems when I tried to combine pickups from different time periods.

What did you use for a winding machine?
You’ll laugh, but my first hand winder was made from a three-speed record turntable! It would rotate at 331/3, 45, and 78 RPM. I mounted a block of wood to the center guide, then placed some mounting pins to hold the pickup while hand-winding. The turntable worked pretty good, and taught me several lessons about winding speed, precision, and especially, patience.

How did you determine wire gauge?
I got help from my dad, who worked at Dupont, and an uncle who worked at Texaco. They had engineers who helped me determine wire gauge and insulation. I’d look at the wire under a microscope in biology class, and match the diameter of other known gauges. I’d also take the coil wire to a local motor winding shop at a nearby town. I ordered plain enamel, or PE, because it was common.

After trial and error, I realized that Fender and Gibson used mostly 42-gauge PE and Fender used 42-gauge Formvar insulation on the majority of Stratocaster and Duo-Sonic pickups.

I wrote many letters to Bill Carson at Fender, and he was very helpful, always answering my questions about various Fender instruments. He helped me a lot when it came to repairing pickups and working on instruments. I owe Bill many thanks for all his patience.

That was obviously before you had winders. So how did you count the turns on the pickups?
I’d look at the size of the coil I was be replacing. You could see lacquer or wax lines where the existing winding ended. You can also see if the coil was wound clockwise or counterclockwise by fine wire prints in the wax. Over the years, I’ve made special de-reelers to remove the wire and count the original turns. This works on most pickups, except those that have been butchered.

What are the easiest pickups to wind?
New bobbins or bobbins that have not been touched by others. I enjoy winding standard humbucking bobbins that are consistent in shape, along with new Fender-style bobbins that have been made with proper tooling.

What are some of the hardest?
Trying to wind a bobbin that has been modified by others or those that have been warped by excess temperatures while potting…or bobbins wound with the wrong traverse or too much tension, so they look like a banana.

If a bobbin is modified to the point where the traverse is not controlled, it can lead to loose flatwork, cracked magnets, and uneven or parallel traverse. Epoxied or warped bobbins are difficult, and so are the ones that have absorbed high amounts of moisture over the years.

How do you fix a pickup with missing or broken parts?
Mainly, I make parts either by hand or using my milling machine, lathe, or pantographs to fabricate the part. If the parts are missing, I try to locate a similar pickup and fabricate a similar part. It’s important to keep all the parts together, so the repairman can use the part as a guide or dimensions to make another. And I never throw away broken or worn parts, because new ones can usually be made to proper specs.

How about broken magnets?
There are some great adhesives made today that can repair broken magnets. I see broken rod magnets in Fender-style single-coil pickups where someone has tried to remove the magnet wire, and they snap the magnet in half. This can be repaired. Bar magnets can be repaired in the same manner; just look at the situation logically and you’ll come up with a good solution.

And I always let adhesive dry before trying to wind a coil around a repaired magnet.

What is it that keeps the passion for guitars and their guts alive for you?
I just enjoying playing and messing around with pickups because there are so many great sounds and tones to be had.

Making pickups and playing guitar has allowed me to jam with so many great players, including Bugs Henderson and The Stratoblasters, Cold Blue Steele, Anson Funderburgh and working with so many great artists such as Nokie Edwards, Brent Mason, Billy F Gibbons, James Burton, Albert Lee, Danny Gatton, Vince Gill, Jerry Donahue, Michael Landeau, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Swallow, Albert Collins, Gerry McGee, Bob Paxton, Adrian Belew, Arlen Roth, Steve Cropper, Rick Derringer, Leroy Parnell, Brian Setzer, Rick Vito, Tommy and Phil Immanual, Leslie West, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Lonnie Mack, Rory Gallagher, John McLaughlin and so many more. They all have their unique tone and playing technique and that’s why I enjoy them so much.

Are there any guitarists you didn’t meet, and would like to?
Oh, yes! I always wanted to meet Grady Martin and tell him how much I’ve enjoyed his playing with Marty Robbins on the song “El Paso” and all his other work and recordings. “El Paso” has always been a special song to me. Another is Amos Garrett, who did the brilliant solo on “Midnight at the Oasis” with Maria Muldaur.

Last year, I had the honor of meeting Johnny Farina, who wrote and played “Sleep Walk” with his brother, Santo. I really enjoy the playing of Jimmy Vivino and watching him perform on “The Conan O’Brien Show.” He has a great energy and style.

Who have been some of the influential people you have talked to?
There have been so many great folks over the years…Les Paul, Seth E. Lover, Bill Carson, Nokie Edwards, Leo Fender, George Fullerton, Ray Butts, Chet Atkins, Billy F Gibbons, Tommy Tedesco, Bob Bain, and longtime friend R.C. Allen.

Among modern guitarists, do you have any favorites when it comes to tone and technique?
I must say that Brent Mason blows my socks off, and I’ve enjoyed doing shows with him. I’ve always enjoyed Murial Anderson and all her wonderful performances and producing the “All Star Guitar Night.” And of course there’s Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Phil Keaggy, Jennifer Batten, Lawrence Juber, and the emotional playing of Ed Gerhard.

My real lesson in tone came from Roy Buchanan, and watching him perform all kinds of unique tricks and techniques. I still enjoy listening to early and modern surf instrumental music, Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore, Les Paul, Gene Krupa, and wacky music by Spike Jones And His City Slickers.

Where are some of the more memorable places you’ve played?
I’ve been just about everywhere they have bands with guitars. I’ve been to every state except Alaska, and I’ve been to Canada, England, Germany, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, New Zeeland, Australia, Tasmania, and Japan.

I’ve always believed music is a universal language. Playing guitar and building pickups has given me the opportunity to meet and travel throughout the world.

What would you like to do in the future, musically?
I want to continue to make pickups, and bring some new ideas to the guitar and bass markets.

Nowadays I enjoy staying at home more and focusing on my pickup ideas. I’m always making new tooling and fixtures for pickup modifications, and custom designs. I also enjoy engraving, and want to start making some personal products for musicians.

I am planning to do a solo recording project, and I’ve talked with James Burton about some projects along with Nokie Edwards and Jerry Donahue. And there are some book projects I’d like to get done.

What have been some of your more memorable projects over the years?
Touring with Jeff Beck and doing the ARMS Benefit with Ronnie Lane was exciting. Also, I was a guitar tech at Live Aid!

I enjoyed building the world’s largest guitar for The Guiness Book of World Records and hope to get the old crew back again to do another.

I enjoyed making the Cosmic Beam pickups used in Star Trek, The Movie and The Thin Red Line. And I’ve worked on sound stages during filming, watched Jeff Beck work on a project during the filming of Twins with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito.

I’ve enjoyed the visits to the G&L factory, hanging out at Gibson when they were in Kalamazoo, and meeting the crew at the Gibson factory in Nashville. I’ve enjoyed working with Fender, Heritage, Hamer, ESP, and so many other guitar companies, helping them with pickups or special projects.

And I really like meeting other pickup designers and winders. Through the years, I’ve become friends with a lot of them, including Joe Bardon and Lindy Fralin.

Oh yeah…playing with Joe Walsh during our days in Ohio, and opening for The Allman Brothers Band. Then later performing with them.

I’ve enjoyed playing with Eric Johnson, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Jessie Ed Davis, Elliot Easton, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Bramlett, Robin Trower, and Freddy King, and the best rock singer around – Paul Rodgers.

It’s especially satisfying to work with artists, trying to groom their pet project.

And I have really enjoyed working with VG, as it has given me a chance to put many of these thoughts and experiences on paper. The staff has been very helpful and supportive.
In closing, what nuggets of wisdom would you pass along to beginning guitarists and bassists?
Always take care of your instrument and make sure you understand it’s inner workings! Never let others borrow your guitar for extended periods, as damage can happen; parts can get changed or modified and if damage occurs, it might not be the individual’s fault. Always wipe the guitar down after shows and try to diminish the moisture content inside the case – high humidity can cause condensation and rusting. Keep the instruments out of extremes such as severe cold weather and hot, humid conditions. Periodically check for loose jacks, potentiometers, switches, cables, oxidation on jacks and switching components and contacts. Keep the keys lubricated and keep debris away from the polepieces and/or magnetic path!

Photo: Ward Meeker

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March and April ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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