While other kids were dissecting frogs in his high school biology class, Seymour Duncan was using the microscope to repair a broken guitar pickup.
“I took the pickup to school,” Duncan said. “We were dissecting a frog in high school, and I could see all the frayed wire that looked like broken hairs, and if you break one strand it won’t work. So I started taking turns off and that’s when I had to make a coil machine.”
His Goleta-based company, named Seymour Duncan, is best known for manufacturing pickups, or magnetic strips that capture a string’s vibrations and converts them to electrical signals that can be amplified. It’s the heart and soul of a guitar that can completely change a guitar’s tone, said Evan Skopp, head of artist relations.
A disassembled phonograph record player spurred Duncan’s globally recognized business.
“I wanted to know why guitars worked and how they worked,” he said. “I started finding old radios and would collect old wax capacitors in TV sets.”
In his high school days, Duncan bought a 1956 Fender Telecaster for $40 in his New Jersey hometown, but the pickup was broken. So Duncan had to repair the broken coil by taking apart his mom’s record player and mounting the pickup on a block of wood to wind the wire.
Pickups have magnetic pole pieces, one or two for each string. Thousands of turns of thin copper wire are spun around a body, which acts as a transducer.
Duncan first started winding the wire at 33 1/3 rpm, but adjusted it to 78 rpm to speed up the process. But the higher speed launched the block from the player into the wall and broke the pickup’s plastic flatwork. So Duncan carved out an inch-wide piece of vulcanized fiber from around his friend’s drum casing.
“Every band I would see I would look at what the settings were on the amplifier, what guitar they were using and walk around with rulers to measure how far strings were from the pickup,” Duncan said. “They knew I was a little geek trying to figure out this stuff.”
After several trials and tribulations, Duncan repaired his first pickup — but he made a mistake. He put more turns on it than the original pickup. This caused a “fatter sound that was more sustained,” Duncan said.
He ended up moving from New Jersey to Santa Barbara, renting out a warehouse on Yanonali Street that doubled as a repair station and a home for him and his then-wife.
“We had a loft (we slept in), but the downstairs area is where I could wind and repair pickups,” Duncan said. “We would work and then go up and watch M*A*S*H.”
After about a year, Duncan moved to an apartment closer to the beach and expanded his staff. He brought in engineer and bass player Kevin Beller and a few others to expedite the tedious process 32 years ago, Beller said.
“We would cut all the little pieces of flatwork out by hand and punch the holes with a puncher,” said Beller, vice president of engineering. “It was a laborious process. If we would make 20 or 30 pickups, it was a big week.”
Now the company makes up to 40,000 of the specialized, handcrafted, high-end product a month, Skopp said. While the output may have changed, the process hasn’t, Beller said.
“We’re still mostly building everything by hand. It’s a product that lends itself to being hand-built,” he said. “You still see a lot of people twisting wires and soldering; you don’t see big assembly lines. It’s a good way to maintain quality and keep the product way it should be.”
On site, the location employs more than 120 workers. Two-thirds of that group construct many types of pickups and pedals that are sold globally. The walls are adorned with musical greatness, featuring pictures of a young Duncan with Jimi Hendrix, to name one.
“We find enthusiastic Seymour Duncan customers all over world,” Skopp said. “I was in Poland last week working with a guitar manufacturer, it’s extraordinary to find where these pickups find themselves.”
Duncan has done repairs for such artists as Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Hendrix, James Taylor, Les Paul, Peter Frampton and Seymour’s guitar hero, Jeff Beck. Duncan has had a chance to play with most of them as well.
“To be a little kid in south New Jersey and to see these people playing on TV, like Ricky Nelson, and to one day be on stage playing with them — I never in my life thought I would playing with them,” Duncan said.
Seymour Duncan Guitars will celebrate its 35th anniversary with a benefit concert, featuring the Steve Miller Band, on July 19 at the Lobero Theatre for Notes for Notes, a local nonprofit that supports youth involvement in music.
“We love what Notes for Notes is doing for Santa Barbara,” Skopp said. “And who knows; maybe the next generation’s Steve Miller is in the Musicbox right now learning how to play guitar and record music.”
Duncan also will be releasing its first guitar called the “Seymour Duncan 35” in commemoration of the anniversary. Only 35 will be made in Oxnard.
“So much of it is I really love the guitar and want it to improve and re-create some of the sounds that people forgot about,” Duncan said. “I was the guy trying to make it the way it was because it did sound better.”
Skopp said the company has been around for more than three decades because manufacturing suffered in the ‘70s and Duncan established a reputation for precision and dependability.
“I was paying attention to things others weren’t,” Duncan said. “When a manufacturer would come out with a new guitar, they would wind all pickups the same way and put them in all the guitars. You can make them sound so much better with customized pickups.”
The economic recession didn’t make a significant impact in sales. Skopp said an accessory like a pickup was recession-proof because it was cheaper than buying a new guitar and served a similar purpose.
“When big-ticket items like guitars are down, accessories like pickups will be up,” he said. “The reason is you may not have money to buy a new guitar, but you can buy a Seymour Duncan pickup and customize your existing guitar and have all new tones at your disposal like when you buy a new guitar.”