Chasing Tone with Joe Bonamassa

 

 

Joe Bonamassa is very particular about what he wants in his gear. He has an incredible collection of vintage and new instruments and he knows a lot about everything he owns. He can talk tone for days, and he knows the language to communicate his ideas and sonic needs from a technical perspective as well as from a guitar player’s perspective. And when it comes to PAF-style humbuckers, he’s looking for two things: he wants enough output to generate some decent overdrive in the amp’s preamp tubes, and also enough clarity give each note the detail he demands. But he doesn’t like an overly bright high end: he prefers a sound with a slightly rounded edge to the treble, and this is why he likes to use non-true bypass pedals instead of using a buffered signal. What he likes about the early ’59 PAFs in particular is that they have a good combination of output and clarity, and they’re not too bright but not too dark either.

 

Testing with one of Joe’s ’59 ‘bursts.

The Joe Bonamassa Custom Shop pickup set came about because Joe found that he was drawn to a particular set of PAFs in his 1959 sunburst Les Paul, and he caught himself wishing he could have a clone of these exact humbuckers on more of his working guitars. Keep in mind that this is a guy who knows this particular guitar so well that he goes so far as buying an extra plane ticket to make sure it doesn’t leave his sight when he’s travelling. You don’t rack up all those air miles and all that stage time with an instrument without learning a thing or two about it. So the idea was to create a pickup that would make some of his reissue Les Pauls sound consistent with his ’59 sunburst, as well as with each other.

 

You can’t just decide to make a PAF-style pickup and then just make it. You have to figure out which specific PAF sound you’re after first. There was a lot of variation between individual PAFs, because everything was done by hand. Some if them sound very bright, some are quite dark, and some have more output than others because the specs weren’t set in stone back then. I once asked Seth Lover about how he figured out how many turns of wire to use on the original Gibson humbuckers he designed. He said they used #42 plain enamel magnet wire, and they put on as many turns as was needed to fill the space available, then they stopped! It was as simple as that. They weren’t counting specific numbers of turns at all, and that’s a big part of the reason why there’s so much variation between those old PAFs.

 

MJ, Joe and I.

Like all our other ‘vintage’ pickups, such as the Seth Lover, the Pearly Gates and the ’59 model, we wind these on the Leesona machine that Gibson used to make humbuckers in the 50s and 60s. We use butyrate bobbins, lightly antiqued nickel covers and a wooden spacer just like the originals. But we control the process a lot more closely than Gibson was able to back in the 50s, from testing every spool of our wire, to closely controlling the way the wire is wound onto the bobbins. This allowed us to match the sound of Joe’s favorite PAFs in the research and development phase, and then to reproduce this design exactly in the Custom Shop.

 

Between our Custom Shop manager MJ and I we’ve taken apart literally thousands of PAFs for rewinds, and we’ve always noted down the variables such as what kinds of magnets they have, what kinds of winds they use and what type of wire they use. So when we need to recreate something we can go back to the library of specs we’ve gathered over the years to zero in on the specific combination of factors that will get a specific response. And this goes for other pickup types too, not just PAFs.

 

More testing.

 

We made four different sets of prototype pickups for Joe based on the PAFs in that ’59 sunburst of his, and he installed them in a test Les Paul which he’d selected as the closest match to the neck shape, weight and natural tone of his actual ’59. Joe played each set through a Marshall Bluesbreaker combo with a range of different tones, from clean to dirty to dirtier. What Joe found was that he preferred one pickup from one set and one from another, so he took those two, put them in the test guitar to see if they got along with each other, and that was that. He actually played that guitar with those prototype pickups on stage through his live rig that night, alongside the ’59. The final formula involved using an Alnico 2 magnet for the neck pickup and a stronger Alnico 3 for the bridge one, along with vastly different winds between the two. Joe says these pickups give him 99.9% of what his six-decade-plus pickups give him, right down to the texture of the feedback.

 

 

Because these pickups are a tribute to the ones in his ’59, Joe was also really particular about getting an accurate recreation of the way they’d aged as well as the way they sounded. As a player and collector who’s had his hands on a lot of original PAFs over the years, he had some really definite ideas about just how scuffed up and aged this signature pickups should be. Some of those old PAFs aren’t actually as weathered-looking as you might expect, or as roughed-up as some reproductions might imply.

 

Signing the baseplate after Joe

After talking it over for a while, we got the idea to offer only 1,959 sets of these pickups, in tribute to the birth year of the guitar that inspired them. We also had some fun with the sticker on the back of the pickups. Instead of saying ‘Patent Applied For’ like the old PAFs, Joe’s pickups have a sticker in the same typeface and dimensions but it says ‘Bonamassa.’ Joe and I each hand-sign every pickup, and each set includes a USB flash drive with video interviews, special features, and more.

 

The response to these pickups has been outstanding. We’ve heard – and I know Joe has heard this too – that there are even folks out there buying them without actually owning the guitar they’re planning to put them in yet. Joe has even had people tell him they aren’t fans of his music but they still love his pickups. I think part of the reason people are responding so well to this set is because whether you’re into Joe’s music or not, nobody can deny his ear for tone, or the thousands upon thousands of hours he’s racked up on some of the finest vintage guitars in the world. So when someone with that frame of reference gives his stamp of approval to something, that means a lot to me.  And that’s one of the most rewarding things about what the Custom Shop does: being able to provide players of all levels with the exact sound they’ve been chasing.

 

The first neck and bridge set. Note the serial number: #0001-B on the bridge pickup.

The packaging, including the USB stick with exclusive content.

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Tone Seekers

 

Seymour met with Jimi Hendrix on March 28, 1968, at Xavier University. The two spent hours together trading tips on getting tone and Seymour supplied several pickups for Jimi to use on his Strat.

 

 

 

 

This was taken in 1975 when I first knew Seymour and lived in Tuna Canyon (right near Topanga Canyon). He was relaxing in front of the trailer, which at the time had neither electricity nor indoor water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seymour and I sit in our landlord’s office space in our first real factory at 721 Yanonali St. in Santa Barbara, California. In order to help pay the rent, I would cut loofahs for the landlord.


 

 

 

 

 

Seymour with his TeleGib based on the one he built for Jeff Beck.

As business started to grow we decided to run our first advertisement, titled “The Science of Sound.” Here Seymour can be seen practicing for the photo holding his TeleGib and wearing his white lab coat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was our second factory, located on Bond Avenue in Santa Barbara, California. It was about 2,000 square feet, and this is where we started doing more than just rewinds. We lived in the upstairs loft and it had nice big roll-up doors. Kevin continues to work for us to this day as our Vice President of Engineering and New Products. Martha was our long-time production supervisor until 2001. Many artists came by this building searching for tone.

 

This was one of our early NAMM Shows, back in 1982. In the background you can see an early version of our pickup selector chart. Pictured are tone seekers David Lindley, Seymour, and Eddie Van Halen.

 

 

 

 

And here is Seymour with Eddie Van Halen and Allan Holdsworth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This photo shows Seymour with the late Jim Marshall. We had friends throughout the music industry who shared our desire to create great tone for musicians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Albert Lee, Seymour Duncan, and Eric Clapton. This was during Eric Clapton’s wedding.

 

 

 

 

 

Seymour, Billy Gibbons and Tony Dukes in 1979. This was in front of our second building, on Bond Avenue. Billy was about to go on tour, and he wanted identical guitars with the sound of his Pearly Gates. He brought us the guitars, and we built pickups with the precise tonality he wanted. He has continued to be a good friend of the Duncan family.

 

 

 

 

 

Kramer was the first guitar company we let use our pickups in their guitars. This was a hang tag that was put on Kramer guitars in ’81/’82.

It’s always been an honor to be a place musicians can go when they are looking for a particular sound. Over the countless artists have turned to us, and it’s always exciting when we hear back from musicians who have used our products to achieve a tone of their own.

 

 

 

 

 

Want to check out one of our original newsletters? Click the picture below to download our June/July edition from 1982.

Click to download the June 1982 Newsletter

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The Way of Wire

By Kevin Beller

Seymour Duncan’s VP of Engineering & New Product Development explains how this crucial component shapes your sound.

 

There aren’t many parts in a traditional guitar pickup: magnets, wire, and a bobbin or coil former to hold them together. But these simple components form a complex interactive system, one in which small variations in materials can have a huge impact on your sound.

Take wire, for example. During my 33 years at Seymour Duncan, we’ve spent countless hours listening to and documenting how different types of wire affect a pickup’s sound. The gauge (or size) of the wire, its insulation type and thickness, the purity and suppleness of the copper — they all influence the tone in subtle yet important ways.

Pickup wire is as fine as a hair on your head.

The thick and thin of it. We use a wide variety of wire gauges in our pickups, most frequently in the 41 to 44 AWG range. This wire usually starts out as a big, heavy spool of 6-gauge wire as thick around as your pinky. They draw it through metal dies again and again until it’s approximately the thickness of a hair on your head.

Over the years we have determined which gauges are most conducive to certain tone categories. Here’s an example: Two pickups can have an identical number of turns and identical magnets. But by using a different gauge of wire, we can make one a little fatter sounding while having a smoother on the top end.

Aside from tonal considerations, we sometimes choose a thinner wire for space reasons. The more winds a pickup has, the hotter the output, so if you’re winding a pickup that has to be very compact, that may call for finer-gauge wire. For example, a customer who had some challenging requirements for a custom Dobro pickup recently approached us. He wanted the output as high as possible, but the overall height could not exceed 0.210”. Using a fairly fine gauge of magnet wire and a special magnetic structure, we were able to create a powerful and very compact pickup that could slide into the tight space beneath the strings.

Different insulation materials yield types different tones.

About insulation. There are at least 18 different types of wire insulation. There are polyurethanes, nylons, poly-nylons, polyester, and Teflon, to name a few. The insulation has a major effect on a pickup’s sound, and over the years we’ve learned how to use different types of insulation to refine a pickup’s tonal response. For example, we often use wire with heavier insulation to maintain more high-end detail.

While not strictly a type of insulation, bondable wires are also available. These have an adhesive overcoat that can be activated by heat or chemicals. With proper tooling, it’s possible to wind freestanding coils without having to use a bobbin structure of any sort. This can be useful in certain specialized applications, but we have avoided bondable wires because the winding and layering characteristics are inferior to conventional magnet wire.

The right stuff.Whatever the wire type, we use vendors who care as much about quality as we do, and we don’t mind paying extra to obtain wire that exceeds industry-standard tolerances. Beyond that, we test every case of wire that comes in. We measure the overall thickness to make sure it’s within spec, and we measure the resistance per foot down to three decimal places.

We measure all wire for consistent thickness and resistance.

Of course, we use period-accurate wire in all our vintage-style pickups. One popular vintage-style insulation is Formvar, which was used on old Strats and on some Jazz Bass pickups. But the insulation vintage buffs know best is plain enamel, with its blackish-purple coating. Plain enamel wire was common in the ’50s and into the ’60s before the new insulations had been invented. It was used in all the old Gibson P.A.F.s, and many of the earlier Fender instruments.  We use plain enamel wire in such pickups as the STL-1 and STR-1 Tele pickups, vintage-style PAFs like the ’59 model and Seth Lover, many Antiquity models, and of course on many Custom Shop models.

Plain enamel wire must be sanded prior to soldering.

Finding quality enamel wire. Today there is little demand for plain enamel wire — except for those of us who are passionate about tone.  You have to sand the wire by hand before you can solder it, and not many companies want to add that extra labor. As a result, there are only a few companies who still make true plain enamel wire.

With so few manufacturers, quality control can be a real problem. There’s one particular vendor I won’t mention whose wire is so full of voids, it’s almost unusable. Then there is a lot of wire that looks right, with that nice blackish-purple color, but it’s not even real enamel. So we buy in large quantities from a company that we have determined is the best at providing void-free, well-annealed wire. (Annealing is the process of heating and cooling the wire under controlled conditions to restore flexibility and suppleness and remove work-hardening stresses. It’s hard to wind a nice, controlled coil and get that critical layering right when the wire hasn’t been annealed properly.)

Beyond copper. We use silver in our new Zephyr pickups. Silver is the only material that has a lower DC resistance per unit length than copper.

We use silver wire in all our Zephyr pickups.

Unfortunately, it’s brutally expensive these days, but there’s a remarkable difference between the sounds of silver and copper. Pickups wound with silver wire have powerful dynamics, explosive attack, and a complex, harmonically rich sound while producing superior individual note definition and detail in chords. Silver is more supple than copper, so it winds a very nice and regular coil. I use silver when a customer requests it, or when someone wants to extend the pickups’ response at both ends of the sonic spectrum.

Not just the wire, but the way you wind it. Voicing a pickup isn’t just a matter of selecting the right wire, insulation, and number of turns — how you lay the wire is at least as important. Among other things, this determines the pickup’s distributed capacitance, which refers to the capacitor formed between the layers as the coil is wound. This property affects the resonant frequency of the coil and dictates the high-frequency roll-off point, so it’s one of the factors that let us fine-tune a pickup’s high-end response.

The winding techniques also help determine each pickup’s “voice.”

Over the years we’ve developed some very interesting ways to get a variety of tones from our pickups, whether it’s hand-winding, or precisely controlling the winding pitch on our CNC production machines. Every SD pickup, whether it’s from Custom Shop or our production floor, is designed with these considerations in mind.

Crafting the perfect pickup. Voicing a pickup is a delicate balancing act of tonality, a constant give-and-take. But thanks to all those years of listening and analysis, we can control the complex interaction of wire type and winding technique. We choose the materials and production techniques to deliver exactly the sound you’re looking for.

Kevin and Seymour in the early 80S’

A lifelong bassist, Kevin met Seymour through a local music shop where Seymour did repairs. “I used to take my Gibson bass to him all the time,” he remembers. “Like me, he was obsessed with getting the right sound.” Kevin joined the fledgling Seymour Duncan company in 1979 and became head of engineering a few years later.

According to co-founder and longtime company president Cathy Duncan, Kevin had the right talent at the right time: “As we started growing, we needed someone with Kevin’s level of precision,” she recalls. “A lot of technical standards were pretty loose back then, but we wanted to aim higher. They say vintage pickups vary like snowflakes, which is only okay if you’re lucky enough to get one of the good ones. Thanks to Kevin’s persistence and precision, we can give musicians a perfect snowflake every time.”

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