Maricela "MJ" Juarez
MJ and Seymour Duncan

Like a Prayer
Under Seymour’s tutelage, Juarez soon learned every aspect of pickup engineering so well that she could tailor units to any customer’s request. Once she knows what kind of guitar you have and the sound you’re seeking, she can prescribe the right magnet type (rough cast, sand cast, or ground smooth), its ideal strength, its wire and bobbin materials, and everything else needed to make the concept a reality.

She throws out a hypothetical: “Suppose I’m talking to someone with a weird request, like, ‘I want a DynaSonic-style pickup to fit into my Gretsch Filter’Tron.’ I have to clear my mind and connect with the caller. Even if we’re talking on the phone, I’m there with them. I might put them on speakerphone while I look for bobbins and calipers, and then measure to see if I need to cut the bobbins or make them taller so I can have enough windings. Finally I say, ‘Yes, I can do it.’”

Though the Duncan Custom Shop has been referred to by that name only in recent years, Juarez contends that custom pickups have always been part of the picture. “I started off with the Antiquities,” she says, referring to Duncan’s highly regarded line of cosmetically accurate vintage pickups. “For Seymour and me, the word ‘vintage’ is like a prayer your grandma taught you. The reason it’s grandma’s ‘prayer’ and not grandma’s ‘recipe’ is because the word ‘vintage’ is holy. You have to go down to the details and keep those things as original as possible.”

She returns to the DynaSonic scenario as an illustration: “If you compare a new DeArmond DynaSonic to an original, you’ll see that it doesn’t have the little soldered line connection that’s supposed to be on the bottom. They don’t take the time to find the parts to do it the original way, but we do. Seymour and I try to make the pickups the way they were made. We tried to find the right little brass pieces for the DynaSonics, but they don’t sell them anymore. So we had to find someone who could tool them up and make them for us.”

You can see why Seymour trusts Juarez—she gets tone freaks. “When you guys have your guitar, you treasure that instrument like it’s part of you,” she says. “It’s part of your heart. It’s part of who you guys are.”

Clone Wars
Considering Seymour Duncan’s roster of famous users, it should come as no surprise that the Custom Shop must sometimes recreate its own past work. For instance, Slash recently requested a recreation of the Alnico Pro II pickups in his legendary Les Paul replica when a new Les Paul he was breaking in didn’t have the sound of the original.

Juarez took the call. “The first thing I asked was, ‘What are the woods in the new guitars?’” she recalls. “Then I knew how to do it.”

Asked how she knew so quickly, she replies, “We know the guitar components and we just have to play with them. The finish might not be the same, the wood might not be as dry or as old, but there are ways to complement the magnets. I was able to deliver him the old tone from his old Alnico Pros using current technology.”

Another recent challenge came when Joe Bonamassa requested replacements for his ’59 Gibson Les Paul. “We took those pickups apart in order to rework them,” she explains. “When we made the replica, the neck position had to be weakened so much that Seymour called it ‘the Weaky.’ We ended up using alnico 3 magnets for the bridge pickup. When we presented those pickups to Joe, he was amazed by how close we came to the tone of the original.”

It probably didn’t hurt that Juarez and the Custom Shop team have an original Leesona winding machine from the Gibson factory at their disposal. However, so much has changed since the early days of the famed PAF pickup that there’s far more to the equation than the right machine. Juarez provides an example: “Without us knowing, manufacturers change the plastic we use for bobbins, or change the material used for spacers.” Even slight changes to the small components sourced from third-party manufacturers can alter a pickup’s sound, so the Duncan crew must constantly listen and take stock.

Thankfully, for many cloning projects the Custom Shop crew can simply consult their file cabinets. Next to the ones filled of notes are others full of duplicates of every pickup made for famous clients. They’re encased in Plexiglas boxes bearing names like Rick Nielsen, Richie Sambora, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, James Taylor, Allan Holdsworth, Peter Frampton, David Gilmour, and Carlos Santana.

Pulling one out what looks like an old Gretsch pickup, Juarez says it’s one she recreated for George Harrison. She indicates a small screw on the faded gold cover, “It’s rusted right there—this screw is a little more rusted than that one.” Another box holds the prototype recreation of Eddie Van Halen’s original Frankenstein humbucker. “The original pickup has this dust,” Juarez says, pointing out the grooves from the strings bottoming out on the forward bobbin. “We had to deliver all that because it was expected to look exactly like the original. But the original tone has to be there too.”