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Van Zandt Pickups
I’ve been building since my uncle died in 1997, which was about 12 years ago. Were you interested in building pickups, or did you get into it more by necessity? I ran an auto repair shop for years, and I was kind of interested, but he wanted to slow down a bit and do some traveling, and spend more time doing things with my Aunt, so he brought me in and started training me on the process. That’s how I got into it—it’s something you’d never think about unless you did it.
How did Van Zandt Pickups originally come about?
Van Zandt pickups started with W.L. Van Zandt doing rewindings for friends and players around Dallas, and he did it in a little corner of his garage. And everybody liked the tone so much better than their original sound that he decided he ought to begin building his own pickups. And he started handwinding—all of our pickups are handwound—and then he built steel guitar pickups for builders for a long time. And then he decided to start building his own, and it just took off from there. We’ve been doing it for about 21 years now.
Was it tough transitioning the business after his passing?
Oh, a little bit. A lot of people tried buying up the stock that we had, because they thought that what we’d start building would be different. But it wasn’t at all—I was building some of that, so the stock they were buying up was actually from me. There’s no difference; we build them to the same specs that he built them to.
Tell us about Van Zandt’s approach to pickup building.
We want to give guitar players and builders the very best sound and product they can get, including vintage sounds they wish to replicate or custom sounds of their own. If somebody’s looking for something specific—and nearly everybody is looking for something—we try to build it for them and get them to where they want to be. We do that by mixing various pickups in a single guitar. Quality is our big thing, and for a small shop, I think we’ve done a good job with that. I guarantee it, stand behind it, and hope people will buy it and pass it along to others who might be searching for one of the best sounding pickups on the market today.
Can you take us through the differences between your single-coil sets?
Yeah, we make five different kinds of single-coil pickups. The True Vintage is kind of a country sound. It’s a little brighter, with a vintage tone—it was W.L.’s favorite. We make a Vintage Plus, which has a little more to it. You can play country and rock with it, depending on how you turn your guitar up and down. We make a Blues set that’s really attack sensitive; it’s good for blues and rock. And then we make a little bit hotter pickup called the Rock pickup, and it’s good for all kinds of more aggressive tones—you can even get it to distort, because it’s fat enough.
What kind of magnets are you using in these pickups?
We’re using Alnico Vs, unless we get a request for Alnico IIIs. Most of our standard pickups are Vs.
How would you compare your products to other boutique pickup builders?
I don’t try to compete with anybody; I just try to do my own thing. I’m sure people love their pickups, and if that’s what they’re looking for, that’s what they oughta buy. I was at a guitar show and this guy came up and played some of our pickups, and he turned to me and said, “Well, I can’t tell any difference between these and the Fender pickups.” And I told him he’d probably oughta buy the Fender pickups then, because they’re cheaper. [laughs]
How do you zero in on what a player is looking for?
I just listen to the tone and style of music the players are trying to achieve and offer one of our pickups that I feel best suits their need. If somebody wants something custom wound, such as for a hotter sound, I try to accommodate and build what they’re looking for.
That seems like a pretty laid back philosophy.
It is, it really is—it’s a Texas thing, I think.
What are your plans moving forward? Is it just business as usual?
It is. We don’t really want to get too big, because that way we might lose that quality. We try to stay small, and we have a pretty good lead time on our pickups. If you notice, everybody who talks about us really only has good things to say. I don’t really ever hear any negative stuff—at least I’ve gotta look for it. [laughs]