For many tone chasers, Jason Lollar is something of a god. And why not? The man who resembles an ancient Greek deity himself, with a thick beard and long, flowing hair effortlessly draped over his shoulders, exists on ferry-bound Vashon Island, miles off the coast of Seattle and is literally bringing tone to life. While he has a bustling, professional operation—he can claim nine full-time employees, including his wife, Stephanie, and his daughter, Terra—there’s this image of him that persists in the guitar world, of a solitary man hunkered over a winding machine, dedicating his life to the alchemy that first birthed rock n’ roll. His out-of-print book, Basic Pickup Winding, has become the bible for burgeoning builders and a literal collectors’ item, with rare copies fetching upwards of $250 on eBay. He keeps a low profile, and skips the NAMM booth. Even on the opening page of his website, there is an image of Jason, surrounded only by walls of guitars and a floor full of amps; he’s looking off into the distance at something, nothing. Indeed, it can be said that Lollar makes a bold statement without having to say much at all.
Of course, this near-deification isn’t unfounded; Lollar has designed and created some of the best sounding pickups on the market today, including—according to many guitarists—the P-90 to end them all. You’ll find his work in the top of the topend guitars on the market, from Collings to DeTemple to Fano. And unlike many pickup builders today, Lollar is not a specialist; he doesn’t spend all of his time studying the minutiae of a specific vintage model, hoping to unlock some great secret. He instead is a generalist, thinking in bigger swaths and applying well-honed concepts and years of experience to all of his pickups; it has resulted in an extensive range of choices for players, and has ensured that no one is left out in their search for tone.
We spoke to Lollar from his Vashon Island home about the perfect P-90, the fallacies of pickup design and the importance of technique.
How did you originally get into the pickup business?
I got really serious about it a couple years after I turned 30 – around 1992, kind of an early mid-life crisis. I had played clubs for years and was locally successful; we were always booked but it was a dead end financially, so I really started pushing my guitar making. I was building an archtop line and outfitting them with dog-ear P-90s and solid carved tops and backs with gorgeous, well executed curves. I was taking those around to shows, and when people heard I made the pickups, they were obsessed by it and promptly forgot about the guitar.
The rest of the story I have told before; around 1995, I wrote a book on making pickups with the idea it would be a big business card for my guitar making business. People started calling for pickups to the point where I had no time to do anything else. It was really being in the right place at the right time, but I took it seriously, recognized the opportunity and had the right skills to pull it off.
The first few years after the book came out, I was making a lot of purely custom items – 8 string, 13 string, hexaphonic, 16-inch long blade pickups, exact reproductions of thirties and forties pickups, and even pickups that were not guitar-related at all. I had been making P-90s in small quantities since 1979, but then I got introduced to the guys at National Guitar and they wound up being the first well-known guitar company to use my pickups as a stock offering in their guitars – my P-90 in their Resolectric. The P-90 has been and still is my flagship pickup.
When did you first fall in love with the P-90?
Well that was Semi Moseley, Bob Venn and John Robert’s fault. They use to teach students how to wind pickups at Roberto Venn. We’re talking very crude, rudimentary pickup designs similar to old Bigsby and Japanesemade pawnshop guitar pickups. One of the designs was a single-coil pickup which was a variation on a P-90, so I have made those since the beginning. Everyone probably remembers back in the seventies you would see LP Juniors and ES-125s in people’s basements, sitting in the corner; P-90s are an old design we all remember taking for granted.
I’ve been repairing and building guitars since the mid-seventies, but didn’t really get into any kind of quantity until the early-nineties. However, I made every pickup for every guitar I’ve built since I attended Roberto Venn. That said, I hadn’t perfected my method until the mid-nineties; everything I made before that was quite crude and I used whatever materials I could find. I’ve made and sold more P-90s than anything else; they started getting popular again around 2000-2002, so I was already there to supply a lot of that demand.