Who orders a Custom Shop pickup and why? It could be someone who is seeking a particular tone or somebody who would like to have their own ‘signature’ pickup done. Sometimes people want to spend extra for the Custom Shop touch: they’ll say ‘I want a JB but I want it done by MJ.’ It varies. It could be a well-known artist or it could be the little boy from the corner.
One thing we deal with a lot is making a pickup to make a lighter guitar sound like a heavier vintage one. We account for the woods, the changes in lacquers. This all affects how you make the pickup. You might have to wind the wire differently to deliver the same tone out of a different guitar. That’s what happened with the Slash pickups not too long ago. Every single pickup story has a moment of joy for me, whether it’s Steve Miller or a local kid. I learned from Seymour, and Seymour has always said ‘Who can tell whether that kid will be the next Eddie Van Halen?’ So we treat everybody with love and respect.
One example is the Pearly Gates for Tele, which I made for Billy Gibbons. We already had the BG1400, and it’s a great, great pickup, probably one of my most popular Telecaster pickups. And I knew that Billy was already in love with it. But when I knew he was coming to town and wanted to go out to lunch, I wanted to have something different, something unique for him. So I decided on a Pearly Gates for Tele. To achieve the same sound as the humbucker I had to change a lot of things. I gave it to him and a few days later he called me and said ‘MJ, what did you do to that pickup?’ I asked ‘Why?’ He said ‘I didn’t need to change any of my settings at all. I plugged it in and everything sounded exactly the way it’s supposed to sound. It’s fantastic!’
When I go back to my boxes of spec notes from all the old pickups we’ve examined or repaired or made, I think ‘I haven’t made this one in a long, long time. Let me go ahead and make one of these.’ I have so many different notes for different tones and I like to go to the old boxes of notes and make something I haven’t made for a while. It’s relaxing and fun. There are certain pickup models that I really love to make. My number one pickup is the ’78 Model, but one that is really skyrocketing is the Greenie. It’s very vintage, very P.A.F-y but a very unique tone. When I made the very first Phat Staple pickup, after I finished it I looked at it and thought ‘Damn, this looks cool!’ Seymour saw it and said ‘MJ! Let me try it!’ Seymour is never the kind of person who says ‘Let me try it’ straight away but he put it right into a guitar and went into the sound room and loved it! Having him be the person to try it and approve it for me was a very, very joyful moment.
I’ve learned so much from Seymour. Often he would sit beside me while I was taking notes on a phone order and writing down how to get the tone – maybe ten thousand turns of this wire with this magnet, wind it this way – and at the same time, Seymour would listen in and make his own notes. Then when I hung up the phone we’d compare our notes on how we’d achieve that sound. That helped me to learn a lot.