SEYMOUR DUNCAN

SEYMOUR DUNCAN

INTERVIEW BY JAMES O’MAHONEY
INTRODUCTION BY JAMES O’MAHONEY
PHOTOS BY JAMES O’MAHONEY AND ROBERT KNIGHT

 

Doing an interview with Seymour Duncan could easily end up as a book. His tally of major life experiences would create volumes. Here you’re just getting a taste of S.D.’s resume; this multi-faceted individual is best known in the music industry for his guitar pickups and related guitar products, and also as a player. Every project that he undertakes, he takes to the top, and if it doesn’t have a top, he makes one. This is what happens when you have the genius gene. S.D. is also a baby boomer that was able to keep his boyhood ideals alive. Besides his business and music, he still is a cowboy, Indian, explorer, mad scientist and occasional pirate. He was one of the spearheads that got our skate park built at the beach in Santa Barbara. If he isn’t 4x4ing the canyons, searching for an ancient Indian site, unearthing prehistoric remains, trading licks with Jeff Beck or making the world’s largest guitar, he will be creating a new page in the book of life.

“I FIRST MET JEFF BECK IN ’66, WHEN HE WAS ON TOUR WITH THE YARDBIRDS. JIMMY PAGE WAS IN THE BAND WITH HIM. WHEN I WENT TO ENGLAND IN ’72, WE MET UP AND WENT TO HIS OFFICE. WHEN I WAS WORKING AT THE FENDER SOUNDHOUSE, I MADE THE TELE-GIB FOR HIM, AND THAT GUITAR BECAME A VERY HISTORICAL GUITAR.”

Seymour, it’s been hard to nail you down because you’ve been so busy. What’s been going on?
We just did the Slash guitar for Gibson. It’s a tobacco burst Les Paul.

What pickups did you put in it?
I used my Alnico Pro Humbuckers.

You did a gig with Fender, too?
We did the Eddie Van Halen guitar with Fender. It’s an exact copy of the original that he put together and played in ’77-’78. It’s got a hockey headstock red and white stripe. I put a single coil in the neck position and Humbucker in the bridge. It’s really a great guitar and sounds exactly like the original. They made 300 of them.

I hear that they all sold at $25,000 a pop.
That’s right.

Let’s go back to day one. You were born where?
I was born in South New Jersey, back in the ’50s, February 11th. I’ve always been interested in music. My uncle played for Paul Whitman’s orchestra. I remember him playing a little guitar when I was 9 or 10 years old. My dad’s brother, Howard Duncan was a country guitar player. He showed me my first D chord in the second position.

And your dad is Wayne?
You met him a few times.

He’s a really cool guy. You guys were out on the sandbar one day when I was surfing breakwater.
Yeah. My dad and uncles were my early influences. They introduced me to Les Paul and Mary Ford when I was 13.

That’s an early age. What kind of mischief did you get into as a kid? Did you throw rocks at cars?
No, I didn’t do that too much. I used to squirt cars. I had a propane torch filled with water, and the stream would go 50 feet. We’d hide in the bushes and squirt cars. I remember this one car squealed to a stop and the guy came running back. He was yelling, ‘I can’t see! I can’t see!’ It scared the crap out of us, so we took off through the bushes.

[Laughs] Did you ever hitchhike?
I was hitchhiking when I was 12 years old. One time, four guys picked me up and wouldn’t let me out of the car unless I gave them money. I didn’t have any money on me, so they took me 40 miles from where I lived and put me off on this backcountry road. I had no idea where I was. I saw a farmhouse about a mile away and went over to it. This guy started yelling, ‘Get out of here! What are you doing ?’ I told him I was lost and needed to call my dad. Of course, my dad was mad at me because I was hitchhiking. It was scary.

Knowing your gun lust, were you a good shot as a kid? Did you do any hunting?
My family were all sportsmen. There were a lot of sportsmen around where I lived. It was a common thing, but I never went hunting, because I was too young. You had to be 18 to get a license to hunt. I did all kinds of target shooting. I loved target shooting and I loved collecting old lever-action cowboy guns and rifles. I loved the great old cowboy shows like ‘Yancy Derringer’, ‘Bat Masterson’ and ‘Rawhide’.

Cowboys were our heroes.
When you’re a kid, you wanted to grow up to be a cowboy. When I was a kid, I met Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. For me, that was a real cool thing.

Did you go to the beach much?
Every summer, our family had a beach house in Wildwood/Seaside Heights. That’s when I first saw surfing. I remember this one guy, Moyer. He was an airbrush artist. I’d always see him on the beach with a surfboard. He would just stand there with a surfboard and about 20 babes hanging around him.

[Laughs]
He had a shop along the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ where he did airbrushing.

Was it Von Dutch type stuff?
It was cool stuff. He was doing t-shirts and hats for people, but he did a lot of other cool things, too. I don’t know whatever happened to him, but he used to come and watch me play music. I started playing in the clubs in Wildwood when I was 15 years old. The Fendermen was the first band I ever saw playing Jazzmaster Strats and the blonde P-bass. They had the old blonde amplifiers leaning back with the blonde reverb unit on top. For me, seeing that was such a great thing. Then I met a group called the Carroll Brothers. They used to back up Chubby Checker. They were also in some movies with Chubby. Pete Carroll was a unique guitar player. I loved that band. They were a big influence. We did gigs with a band called The Circle and Bobby Comstock. He had a record called ‘Hey, Baby, Come Along, Let’s Dance.’ He was playing in the same club we were. The Four Seasons would be playing at the club across the street. That’s where I started seeing Les Paul and Mary Ford. One of the big influences was Roy Buchanan. He was the local hero. I didn’t realize how much other people around the world loved his playing.

We heard him play.
I used to take lessons from him. He got me my first 1956 Telecaster. Watching and hearing him was a big influence on my playing style. The band that influenced me the most was The Ventures. Nokie Edward, Don Wilson, Bob Bogle and The Fireballs were a great band, too. They did a song called ‘Bulldog’, which is one of the first instrumentals you’d play in any band.

Those are classics.
I recorded at Frank Virtue’s studio where The Virtues did a record called ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle’. He was a great guy. He showed me how to mute the strings with my palms.

That’s a big deal.
You’d hear it on ‘Diana’, by Paul Anka. Then you’d hear it muted. He was one of the guys working all of those sessions back then.

When did you see your first skateboard?
It was about 1964. I was playing at Tony Marts in Ocean City, New Jersey. We’d have a room over the top of the club. Tony Marts was a very important club to play. That’s where I met Elliott Randall, the guitar player who did ‘Reeling in the Years’ with Steely Dan. Another band there, Levon and Hawks, became the band for Bob Dylan. My band was called The Mysterians, and we had another band called Sparkle. We were playing all these clubs around there. Across the street was the Dunes and another club called Bay Shores. The Bay Shores was where a band called The Monkey Men with Roy Buchanan was playing. One morning, I heard this noise outside the club. We had played until 3 o’clock in the morning and we were all tired. I heard this noise going down the sidewalk, so I went out and saw this guy with a handmade 2×4 with roller skates nailed to the bottom of it.

It made a racket, huh?
Yeah. It had old metal wheels from the clamp on skates. I asked the guy, ‘What’s this thing? It looks really cool.’ It was a long board, 5-foot, balanced on this little 2×4. That’s when I saw my first handmade skateboard. That’s when I first saw surfboards, too. I have a photo that I took of a guy down there that had a surfboard that was at least 15 feet long. It was a big, old heavy board. Two guys had to carry it in order to get it to the water. It was cool seeing that.

When did you start getting into electronics?
When I was 13 or 14.

Crystal radio?
I had an old cat whisker short wave radio and I’d put it to the radiator in my house. I started hearing radio stations from all over. I got the radio from my Uncle Bid Furness. Uncle Bid also taught me about wood and the grains of wood and how to sand and use a rasp with balsa wood. He’d make decoys, so he showed me how to paint and shape them.

Did you use a draw knife?
We used all the different knives. They looked like a primitive X-acto knife, with the curved blades. My uncle showed me how to sharpen knives, too. He had a bunch of pocketknives. He would show me how to get them razor-sharp. He would use those to do carving. That was really unique to see. One guy – Kenny Bozarth, in one of the bands I was in called The Flintones – was into ham radio – him and his dad. We started working on amplifiers when we were little. If we had a blown speaker, we’d fix it. I was about 15 when I really got into it. When I was 16, someone borrowed my ’56 Telecaster that I’d gotten from Roy Buchanan. She was a TV personality from Philadelphia named Sally Starr and she came to sing a song at the club that I was playing at. She got the high E string hooked and lodged into the coil of the lead pickup, so it was ruined. She was used to heavy acoustic guitar strings and I had banjo strings on my guitar, so I could do the bending. After it was broken, the pickup sounded real tinny with no output at all. I was in high school, in biology class and I was using the microscope to take all the wires apart to see the breaks. Then my uncle got me a spool of 42-gauge plain enamel magnet wire from Philadelphia. That’s what I used to wind my first pickups. I used a record player as the coil winder. I used the turntable and it would go 33-1/3 rpms, 45 rpms or 78 rpms.

Did you count the lines?
I just filled it up to the old wax line that was around it.

You had to hand-make the vertical ones?
Exactly. Normally you’d do it side-to-side when you’re hand-winding, because the machine is either top-coming or top-going, but this way the turntable was going to the right.

Did you have it on 33-1/3 rpms or 78 rpms?
I started on 33-1/3 rpms, but it was very slow. Then I went to 45 rpms. It was taking forever, so I took it to 78 rpms. That was going pretty quick. The block that I had sitting on top flew off and hit the wall and broke the lip off the top of the pickup. Then I had to figure out how to fix that, too. I took my drummer’s drum case and cut a piece of vulcanized fiber – a one-inch thick strip – all the way around the lid. The lid was four inches, so I just made it three inches.

[Laughs]
He never knew that I cut the strip off, but that’s how I made my bobbin. From then on, I figured out how to do it. I learned how to trace, use measurements and a drill press. My first soldering iron was a screwdriver under a gas stove: heat it up red and then get some acid core solder that they used for plumbing.

Do they still use acid core today?
They probably do for plumbing. It digs into galvanized pipe. Now we have to use ROHS compliant. We can’t use lead solder for anything going to Europe. The technology has changed. The military and the medical industry are exempt from the restriction. They can still use lead, because they know that works best, but for us, anything going to Europe can’t have lead, because they’re trying to clean up their landfills. I’m trying to fight it because I don’t know of any guitar that gets thrown into the dump that someone wouldn’t grab.

That’s true.
As a kid, I’d ride around on my bike on Saturday morning before the trash came. I found an old Silvertone guitar. I’d always take the guitars out of the trash. Pretty soon everyone else found out what I was doing, so everyone was running around grabbing guitars out of the trash.

What school did you go to?
I went to eight grammar schools, four high schools and two universities.

[Laughs]
I went to the NY Institute of Photography. I took different photography courses. I enjoyed all the different high schools. I went to Woodstown High School in New Jersey.

Did you ever go to the prom?
I was usually the guy playing the prom. I took a gal to the prom, but she sat on the side of the stage while I played.

Who was it?
I don’t remember her name.

Was she hot?
I think she was my cousin.

[Laughs] Did you ever ditch school?
Not really. I enjoyed school. It was very unique. I’d play music every weekend and get my teachers at school to come and watch me play. The teachers for my first period classes on Monday mornings knew I’d been out playing until 3am on Sunday night, so they let me come in late. It was really cool that they’d do that. They’d help me with my tests and let me do work in advance. I had some nice teachers that really helped me.

That’s cool. When did you work at Fender?
I worked at Fender Soundhouse when I went to England in ’72. In the early part of ’73, there was an ad in the Melody Maker Magazine that the Fender Soundhouse was going to be opening and they were looking for a tech that could work on guitars. At that time, I was recording at Polydor Records with a guy named Chris Rainbow at night. He was a great singer. During the day, I had off. My manager, Norman Vandenberg, wrote Fender Soundhouse a letter and told them about me. He told them that I was an American guy over there recording for Polydor. He told them that I was an excellent guitar repairman who knew Fender better than anyone he’d ever seen. So I went over and met with Ron Roka, who was the manager of the service repair area. I went in one day and repaired 13 guitars, just like that.

Wow.
So I got in. I was working there for some time. It was really neat. I was working with Rick Gretsch, who used to be in Traffic. He was one of the sales managers. There was a guy named Collin Pincott who was a great guitar player for Big Jim Sullivan and Tom Jones. His brother Roger Pincott was the bass player with the Nashville Teens, who had the record ‘Tobacco Road.’ I was working with Jack Bruce and doing Robin Trowler stuff. I made the first Tele-Gib for Jeff Beck that he used on ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.’

Then you did some tech work for Jimi Hendrix.
I spent time with him when he was in Cincinnati playing at Xavier University. I gave him rewound Strat pickups that I made for him.

What was the name of the group?
It was The Experience. He had all the same guys in his band then. Soft Machine was actually opening up for him. I was backstage and we took a bunch of photos. I had rewound some vintage pickups that I had at the music store where I was teaching. I’d been collecting guitar parts since the ’60s. There was a place called Hughes Music in Cincinnati and they had boxes of stuff, from broken warranty work they were doing. They had a refrigerator box filled with P-bass necks, Strat necks and Telecaster necks. I was like, ‘Mr. Hughes, what are you going to do with all those old necks?’ He didn’t say too much. He just walked over, grabbed one, started up his band saw and cut one in three places in order to use it for starter firewood. I couldn’t believe it.

Thankfully, you caught him in time.
Yeah, I started getting lots of parts from Hughes. That’s when I got this old guitar that belonged to Lonnie Mack. I had the pickups with me when I went to England. That’s where I wound the first JB, which is still my top-selling model, and the Jazz model neck, which I originally named for John Milner in American Graffiti. He’s the one that had that yellow high boy ’32 Ford racer.

When did you first hook up with Jeff Beck?
I first met Jeff Beck in ’66, when he was on tour with The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page was in the band with him. When I went to England in ’72, we met up and went to his office. When I was working at the Fender Soundhouse, I made the Tele-Gib for him. That guitar became a very historical guitar. After I made that guitar for him, he did the second BBA [Beck, Bogert and Appice] record. Then he did ‘Blow by Blow’ with it in ’74. One day, his road manager, Ralph Baker, brought in a duffle bag with three or four guitars in it. It had a ’54 Strat, a ’51 Telecaster and the ’54 Esquire that Jeff Beck used in The Yardbirds. Ralph was like, ‘Take your pick. Jeff loved the guitar you made for him.’

That’s insane. Back in the ’60s, what other major names did you work with?
I did a lot of stuff with Joe Walsh. We were both into ham radio. I met James Burton and I’d go to his house and he’d show me old photos of Elvis and Ricky Nelson. I was always trying to find out about guitar players that did certain songs. I was hanging out and seeing all these bands. Then I started working with a band called The Sidekicks that had a record out on RCA. We travelled all over on tour with The Shirelles. We did a tour through the South and ended up back in Ohio. That was really good. I remember playing ‘Soldier Boy’ because their guitar player got drafted.

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1 comment

  • Ken Miller October 7, 2013

    Pretty neat article. I am living in Woodstown, NJ, and never knew that he went to high school there. However, he has the location for Tony Marts and the Bay Shores night clubs in the wrong town. They were in Somers Point, NJ, not Ocean City, which is a “dry” town. Also, the Dunes was a few miles away, not across the street. But hey-who really remembers much about the early 70’s and late 60’s?

    Reply

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