Owen Duffy
O.C. Duff Pickups

Owen Duffy
Years Building: 9
Average Wait: 1–5 weeks
Starting At: $220/set
Is it just you behind the O.C. Duff name?

It’s just me. I pretty much have control over everything from start to finish. I do small batches, for the most part, and I talk with the customer from beginning to end. I make the product by myself, and all by hand.

How did you originally get into building pickups?

I’ve been building them for about nine years. I built my own guitars and my own amps for years and years, and it was just something that I started doing because I used so many pickups. I kind of got into doing it, and after a year or so, I started making a product that I thought was really good, so I started putting it out and there and it caught on.

How would you define your mission statement?

The way I’ve differentiated myself in the marketplace is with intensive customer service. That’s really what I pride myself on, and what keeps my customers coming back… I have a strong musical background and a strong interest in the history of tones. By and large, my whole mission statement is that I know Fender did everything on a day-to-day basis almost differently, so I try to replicate some of that inconsistency in some ways, too.

How does that process between you and the customer take shape?

We’ll exchange a couple of emails, and they can give me an idea of, “I want this; this is what I’m not getting.” I think that my real skill is not only the process of making the pickup itself, which is a skill on par with a lot of artisan kind of work—it’s not magic. I think a lot of pickup makers carry this trope of a magical, mythical process, and it’s really just a skill, but by and large the process starts with the customer. My success has been being able to interpret what they’re saying into a physical process. There’s really nothing proprietary about what I do. There are different winding patterns, different materials that I can use, different bobbin widths and heights, and all of these things achieve clearer, brighter, warmer or woodier tones.

You have three “base” models—the Traditional, the Special Stock and the Contemporary—which are sort of like launching pads, correct? If someone wants something different, they can work from those bases.

Yeah, exactly… I think those are sort of my bread-and-butter models. I have other models that are more specialized. I have the Nancy models, which replicate that early Blackguard kind of bright, open, articulate, somewhat microphonic tone, and then I have a Number 1 set, which is a replication of what was in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar—basically a set of classic 1959 pickups, warts and all.

I offer a Traditional series set—there was this trend about eight years ago where everything had to be hot. Everyone wanted overwound pickups, and I think the macro pickup makers were really catering to that. But if someone said, “Look, I just want a classic 1959 set of pickups,” they just weren’t available—the Traditional series filled that void for someone who really wanted an authentic, stock sound. I think a lot of people haven’t even heard that sound unless they’ve been around vintage guitars.

And the Special Stock fills that market demand for a hotter pickup?

The Special Stock would fit in somewhere between the middle to hot range. It has that vintage tone, but it’s pushing the envelope more towards a hotter stock pickup. Contemporary pickups are usually twists on old designs—to say that they’re contemporary is more for a player who wants vintage components with the best modern interpretations of those.

You use the standard complement of Alnico magnets, but you also use different diameter magnets. How does that affect the tone?

It’s incremental. Obviously, the larger the diameter of the magnet, the more string coverage it will have. And traditionally, Fender in the early 1950s was using larger diameter magnets—even the earliest Strats used Alnico III, in pretty much the largest diameter that was ever used on the Stratocaster. I’m able to find those unique sources where I’m actually able to get that same type of magnet, even from the original manufacturer of the supply. As Fender went on into the late fifties, they used smaller poles, and to me those are just like different palettes.

Every pickup that I make, to use a cliché, is a snowflake. Every one is different—if you unwound each of my pickups, there might be some similarities, but by and large, each one is going to sound a little bit different. The quality of tones is consistent, but if a customer articulates a need for a specific tone, I’m able to accomplish that through the pickup.

Who are your pickups generally designed for?

By and large, I’m the last stop for a lot of players who have tried other pickups, and I think that I’m designing for the professional player, obviously. I have some pretty highprofile players, and then I have the weekend warrior who will go out with their blues bands, and they’re all about tone. There’s even the bedroom players—I’m a bedroom player, but I still have a high appreciation for great sounds. A big part of the enjoyment for me comes from the auditory experience. I’m kind of catering to those who want the best, those who are savvy, and those who want a high-quality product.