Get To Know Us: Co-Founder & CEO Cathy Carter Duncan

Posted on by Peter

Cathy Carter Duncan, Peter Stroud and Maricela 'MJ' Juarez

What is your earliest memory of music?

I was probably in a musical desert. There were two albums and I was the only person in my family who listened to them. One was Tchaikovsky and the other was a flamenco album with a red cover, and I would listen to that and pretend I was a dancer. Later I would buy promotional copies of albums like Neil Young for just a few dollars as a young college student. Music was precious to me and with a very limited budget, each one was very well treasured.

Take us back to the beginning of Seymour Duncan.

I was living in Topanga Canyon since about ‘72 or so and Seymour had come over from England where he’d been at the Fender Soundhouse. I happened to have had some friends who were buying a place up in Montecito and I’d been their nanny and gardener and that’s how we came to Santa Barbara from Topanga. We did that about nine, ten months after meeting up, so pretty early. 

At what point did this go from Seymour having this ridiculous talent to it being a company?

The word would be ‘slowly.’ First of all we had a couple of issues. He had no funds. I had no funds. In the beginning our very first product, which people don’t always remember, was brass bridges for Telecasters. We made those exactly like they were done in the old days and that involved us slowly going down to find sources in LA. You’d get in your car and drive down and you’d be there all day, maybe even sleep in the car on the way home.

Seymour Duncan pickup rewindsFrom there we progressed into rewinds. Again, we had no money. There’s an old ad where for $17.50 we would rewind a single coil: Strat, Tele, whatnot. For $30 we would rewind a humbucker. So that was what we did. It took some years until we had our money to have our first injection mold. I still have our first flatwork mold for Strats. In fall of ’79 we finally got our mold for a humbucker bobbin, and that really put us out there. We borrowed $2,000 from one friend, $500 from another friend. A piece of flatwork, a die for the top and a die for the bottom each ran about $500 in those days, so even for a Strat was fairly expensive. The injection mold was about $7,000 and we even borrowed that. And of course we took no paycheck. We were so immersed in what we were doing, we even lived in the warehouse. It felt so good to help musicians who were eating as much macaroni and cheese and living as hand-to-mouth as we were. In those early days that was when I formulated some of our very early concepts about how we need to take care of customers. 

One story that sticks out, someone once came into our first warehouse space. This individual came in and he’d already bought Dave Schecter’s pickups and he’d bought so-and-so’s and he’d spent hundreds of dollars and he still wasn’t happy. He still hadn’t found the sound he was looking for. We were making pickups by this point and we said “We’ll sell you this but if it’s not the right one you can come back and trade it again and again.” In other words if you’re not happy, the transaction’s not completed.

We started in a very bootstrap manner, neither one of us knowing business principals nor salesmanship. For Seymour it was for the love of making pickups, for me the love of taking care of people. 

In the time that I was raised – and I was a bit of a hippy – anybody in business was not a good guy and they didn’t treat customers well and they were just after money. My whole core is to make people happy and take care of them. So one, I wanted to take care of my boyfriend, and two, I had to climb on a rock and sit on it for a very long time and ask that question of whether I could be in business and support Seymour and touch money, and at the same time be the person I wanted to be ethically. That’s when I saw, having gone to the library and seeing there were no books, there were no hard, fast rules: I could do it any way I wanted.

So what did you see as the big early milestones, moments where you realized you just bumped up a level?

One that was really sweet was early, mid ‘80s. I went to pay for gas with a credit card that had Seymour Duncan on it and the person took it and said “Oh my gosh! Seymour Duncan?” That was so sweet that we had resonated so much with him. 

Cathy Carter DuncanAnd do you remember the first time you saw a player talking about the pickups in print? 

That always felt very good, of course. Billy Gibbons would be a very early person who did that. It was nice to see that. That felt good but not as much as from that young man, clearly a musician, and what he said.

Another early milestone in our career was we had a history of answering every single letter and we would get letters back and each and every one of them was amazingly meaningful. They would thank us profusely for taking the time of day to answer a simple question or help them out or give us praise over the quality of the pickups they’d had installed. We would post them on the walls. And you know why we answered all the letters? Seymour had had a bit of a tough childhood so music was his savior, so to speak. He told me – and he didn’t say it but I could see it on his face that it was really meaningful to him – he had written to Fender in the old days. Bill Carson, who was a salesman, answered him back. He was 12 or 13 years old at the time and I could see how this could have a profound effect on a person in their life and their feeling about themselves and their future investment in rewards from playing music. Musicians want a great product that inspires them to play and also they want to feel like a member of a community. 

How have you seen the industry change?

I’d say the online environment has probably in many ways allowed artists to own their careers like never before, but at the same time it makes it harder because people can get music in so many different ways, and pay pennies if at all. I think online has been the cause of one of the more meaningful things that I’m worried about and that we try to support, and that’s your small neighborhood music store. It may not have been the fanciest place and they may not have had everything you wanted but they were a meeting place, they were a place to put up your ad that you were looking for a drummer, things of that sort, pre-Craigslist.

The nearest music store to me was the next town over and it was always such a thrill to go in, see what was new, hear what other people were playing. I had no idea if I was good or not until I went to a guitar store and listened to other people to gauge where I was at.

Do you remember how it even smelled?

Of course! The smell of guitar polish and cardboard boxes.

Those can be very emotive, very connecting things. And many of those stores are no longer there. I really hope we can keep enough of these stores around in a tough environment.

Another big industry change would be tonal taste. It’s always evolving. There’s more diversity than there was before, partly because we’re building legacies upon legacies. What has stayed the same is that there are always people who think “this musician has the perfect tone and I have to sound like them » just as there are always people who say “I have my own sound in my head. » So there are those people that are on their tone quest. I’m not sure if those camps have materially shifted in ratio to each other. I think they’re about the same: those who aspired to sound like Jeff Beck or anyone, or those who have got something in their head. 

What are some of the memorable moments you’ve had in working with Seymour Duncan artists?

Seymour would have all the really good stories but one that I felt was so fun was early in our career when we were living in our warehouse, in comes Billy Gibbons with about six guitars, including Pearly Gates and five other guitars that looked just like Pearly Gates. I forget who the guitars had come from but the goal was to make every one of them sound exactly like Pearly Gates. What a nice, nice guy. Just country and down-home, and we’re trying to pretend we don’t live in our warehouse. Took him out to that four-dollar Mexican dinner, y’know? That was really fun. He’s really very smart and very, very fun to talk to because he has tons of interesting stories. 

Then there was the time we were doing some work for David Gilmour, and Pink Floyd were doing that wonderful tour for The Wall which didn’t have many dates. They gave us ten tickets, really great seats. That they took care of us so nicely. It was really great. We came to our shop that day and there was this guy who had driven down from Canada to get tickets – Seymour’s always talking to people and he knew we were going – and Seymour gave him a ticket. And since he was a lawyer-in-training he ended up coming back and working a summer job for us. 

For you personally, what do you listen to for fun?

I have my go-to things. I can listen to all kinds of stuff. Mostly I like a good driving beat, I like great songs, I like energizing music. You know this: you put the baby to bed and then you have to do your own work. I have been a mother and a business leader and so music was energizing for me. It would be Dokken. It might be Red Hot Chili Peppers. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Of course Jeff Beck, my old buddies Mudcrutch. I’ve never been a big metal fan, though I like Black Sabbath. I like Todd Rundgren. I like some esoteric music too. Pretty diverse.

Seymour Duncan and Cathy Carter Duncan

Written on August 22, 2016, by Peter

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  • Jeff LoggedIn

    Great article, great peek into how you got started. I really admire the company; wish more companies were started and run on founding principles like yours. – Jeff in New Orleans, LA (mostly keys / novice guitar, but have a Tele with SD mini-HB in bridge, that I really love the sound of!)