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The Legendary Seymour Duncan on the Secret to Slash’s Tone

Published: Fri March 07, 2008  News Feed

Seymour Duncan is a guitarist and guitar repairman, but is perhaps best known as the man behind Seymour Duncan Pickups, the world’s leading manufacturer of guitar and bass pickups located in Santa Barbara, California. A good portion of Seymour’s life has been devoted to studying and helping to create some of the world’s most identifiable guitar tones.

Seymour Duncan

Born in New Jersey, Seymour grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when electric guitar music grew into greater acceptance. His teenage passion was focused upon guitars by a great uncle who introduced him to the music and legend of Charlie Christian, Chet Atkins, and Les Paul. Seymour quickly progressed from strumming in his bedroom to jamming in packed clubs where his talent was unquestionable. While he developed his playing skills, Seymour’s knowledge of how guitars work developed at an equally prodigious pace. He took every chance he had to talk with players about guitars, tone, and electronics. After spending time with musicians such as Les Paul and Roy Buchanan, he realized that it was his guitar, and not his playing, that prevented him from producing the tones that defined great players. Suddenly, and forever, Seymour was hooked on the dynamics and character differences of pickups.

Seymour’s dedication to music has always been focused on helping musicians achieve the tone that sets them apart. Today, his regular appearance at clinics and conventions is part of this on-going commitment to help players. He’s made pickups for today’s most discerning and diverse players, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top and all points in between. Now, Slash has selected Seymour Duncan’s Alnico II Pro (APH) pickups to come standard on each of the new Gibson Slash signature models.

“I first started working with Slash during the Guns N’ Roses days,” Duncan says in an exclusive interview with Gibson. “I think it was on Appetite. Slash has always been consistent with his look, his playing style, and his tone. It’s always been the APH. Over the years, we’ve sent lots of pickups to him try out, and he always keeps coming back to the APH. At one point last year we were working with Slash to develop a signature pickup. A lot of prototype pickups went back and forth. But in the end Slash just went back to the APH. When we asked him about it, Slash said, ‘Let’s forget about the signature pickup. You can’t mess with perfection.’ You have no idea how good that made me feel.”

Seymour Duncan and Slash

Why does Slash put your Alnico II Pros in all his Les Pauls?
There are two schools of thought on how to achieve distorted electric guitar tone. One says, use a high-output humbucker and drive your amp harder. The late, great Dimebag Darrell used this method. The folks that use my JB humbucker are using this method. Slash comes at it from the other end. He uses a moderate output pickup and then calls on his amp to dial in the “dirt.” Both ways are right. But the advantage to using Slash’s method is that a moderate output pickup is going to clean up better and give you more pleasing and more articulate cleans tones than a high output pickup. The folks that use my Antiquity or Seth Lover pickups—or APH humbucker—are using this method. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s what works for you. And the APH works for Slash.

What’s your take on Slash’s playing style?
Slash is a great player. I’ve always been impressed with the amount of music he has in him. He always gets the hook, and he never lets the guitar get in the way of the song. That’s so important and it was missing for so many years when players were all trying to cram as many notes as possible in a measure. Or when rock was all about playing three chords sloppily with too much fuzz. Or worse, when it was all about keyboards and turntables. You gotta take your hat off to Slash [laughs]. He’s an original. And he’s been doing what he does for over two decades, always with the hat, the hair in his face, and the low-slung Les Paul playing music that, to me, is what rock and roll is all about. I can’t tell you how honored I am that he’s always relied on my pickups to give him his tone. And I think it’s really cool what you guys at Gibson are doing with Slash. And it’s even cooler that you’re bringing us into the project. Thank you, Slash, wherever you are. And thank you, Gibson.

Seymour Duncan Alnico II ProsWhat is the tone and output of the Alnico II Pros?
The APH-1 is a moderate output pickup that features traditional humbucker construction and, obviously, an alnico II bar magnet. The lower output means you get a full tonal spectrum from warm lower-mids all the way up to articulate and present highs. Alnico II is my favorite magnet material for a vintage-voiced humbucker. I call it the “musical magnet.” The tone is warm and sweet with a soft attack character and spongier distortion than other magnets.

What is the build process?
Like all Seymour Duncan pickups, the APH is made in my Santa Barbara factory. One of the coolest things about the APH is that it’s wound on our Leesona Model 102 winding machine, which has the nickname “The Green Monster.” I bought two of these in 1984 when the original Gibson Kalamazoo plant was auctioning off some of their machinery and tooling. So when you buy an APH, you’re buying a pickup that was wound on the same winding machines Gibson was using from the early-’50s up until the mid-’80s. We added digital counters with automatic stops to make them more consistent. The bobbins are polycarbonate, which is a very durable plastic. We wind the APH bobbins with 42-gauge plain enamel magnet wire, just like the original P.A.F. pickups. The bottom plate is nickel silver and the hookup wire is four-conductor. Each pickup is hooked up and soldered by hand and is then wax potted in a vacuum chamber for elimination of microphonic feedback. After the wax gets wiped off by hand with a lint-free cloth, the pickup gets thoroughly tested and then packed up to send to the customer, whether that’s a guitar shop or the Gibson factory.

What pickups were they modeled after?
The pickup was basically modeled after the classic Gibson P.A.F. humbucker. But the voicing is a little more modern and smooth thanks to the winding specifications and the alnico II magnet. In the early ’70s, I worked with Jeff Beck to come up with the JB and Jazz Model humbuckers. The APH is similar in many ways to the Jazz Model humbuckers, but obviously, using an alnico II magnet.

What tone does the Alnico II magnet provide, as opposed to, say, an Alnico V?
Well, like I mentioned, the alnico II has a softer, rounder, more musical tone to it. The string pull is less and that gives it more sustain. When you step up to an alnico V, you get a little more attack on the note, a little more output, a little more brightness with tighter low-mids.

How does the Alnico II Pro complement the sound of a Les Paul?
When a guitar is bright-sounding, like a Les Paul with a thick maple top, or one with an ebony board, the softer magnet of the APH will add some warmth and balance the tone. It’s all about balance. And getting you the tone that works best for your guitar and the tone you’re trying to get out of it. That’s why I make so darn many pickups [laughs].

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