What’s the secret to an amazing P-90?
P-90s are about the midrange, but you can go too far and lose the detail and punch. You also need to build in a certain amount of microphonics and it needs to have some power for most people to like them, but a P- 90 also has to have some sensitive qualities or it becomes more of a caricature—meaning all midrange and no dynamics.

The boutique pickup market has absolutely exploded. What does “boutique” mean to you? Do you see yourself as one of the cornerstones of a fast growing sector of the industry, or do you prefer to remain outside it completely?

Obviously Seymour, Dimarzio and Bill Lawrence, maybe DeArmond/Rowe if you look back far enough, started the aftermarket pickup industry. However, boutique – I guess I can get along with that term – started somewhere in the late eighties, early nineties; people like Andy Marshall came along and started making copies of old Fender Tweed amps – guitar makers followed.

We are in the new Golden Era of music equipment right now. There have never been so many choices for the consumer and the climate is supporting it. People are generally way more educated about their gear and they are demanding more.

Boutique to me means a business that specializes in a product or service that is often ignored or is not replicated by big businesses for various possible reasons. Smaller shops can respond quicker to new demands, and are generally more experimental than big companies. The bigger companies can stomp on us with quantity and lower costs, but “boutiques” can be more unique and innovative. Boutique also implies the service is more tailored to the individual and generally better and/or more informed and current than you’ll find in, say, a chain store.

As far as being a cornerstone – that’s a pretty heavy word. I was ready to go at the beginning of this expansion, and I just kept my head down and worked along with everyone else. So I am in a position the newer guys are not. When I started playing blues clubs in the early eighties, the established guys were all 20 to 40 years older than me; I was the new kid. I am kind of in a reverse position now.

If you use the word cornerstone as meaning being integrated with many other companies at a level you might consider as fundamental, then yes, I could be considered a cornerstone. If you look at all the guitar ads in magazines for the medium-to-smaller size companies, I could go through any guitar magazine and point out one ad after another, “That’s my pickup, that’s my pickup, too and there’s one.” 

What matters more in recreating classic pickup sounds: having the correct materials or the technique that goes into it?

It’s both of those factors and, more importantly, it takes experience working with different designs, techniques and materials. I have seen guys get obsessed with finding materials that have closer resemblance to vintage pieces and still miss the mark, and I have seen other builders think that they had rediscovered some previously unknown technique and work that angle to death. Making pickups to me is much like playing guitar: the more you play and learn, the better you sound.

The Pickup Artist
Pre-War Rick pickup
You don’t see good players hiding their technique very often; on the other hand, if they told you how they do something, it may not make any sense to you if you are not up to that level yet. It took me years of trial and error and thousands of pickups to understand most of the variables involved. For instance, let’s say you specify a particular type and thickness of materials to be used for a metal pickup cover and you get some made. Six months later you order again but this time the batch weighs 30 percent more. Most likely your plater tried to get some imperfection out by laying on a thicker coat of copper than last time. If you listen to it on a pickup you’ll hear a difference, but how do you learn to even check for that? Sometimes to find a variable, you have to stumble onto it before you recognize it, meaning a lot of trial and error.

What is it about an Alnico magnet that makes it a near-standard for guitar pickups? Can you construct a great pickup with ceramic magnets?

Remember this is old technology, so before Alnico the magnets were these huge horseshoe or great big bars like you see on old Rickenbackers. The next “permanent magnets” were Alnico. By the time electric guitar design was really getting strong – the late forties to the fifties – Alnico was the primary magnet used. You don’t start seeing ceramics on guitars until the early sixties. So part of this is traditional; Alnico magnet pickup designs are what we have become use to as a standard of good tone.