INTERVIEW: Seymour Duncan & Evan Skopp

Seymour Duncan is a legend in the guitar world. His pickups have been integral in some of the greatest guitar tones in rock history, and his company’s more recent forays into pedals and acoustic guitar processing are already attaining legendary status. I spoke to Seymour Duncan himself, as Evan Skopp, Seymour Duncan’s VP of Marketing and one of the brains behind the company’s new D-TAR brand of acoustic guitar sound solutions.

The D-TAR (Duncan-Turner Acoustic Research) company is a collaborative effort with legendary luthier and amplification expert Rick Turner. Their new Mama Bear processor is a revolutionary device which takes the signal from any acoustic guitar and remodels it to sound like other designs. “Rick has had a kind of legendary career,” Skopp says. “He started off as the guitar player in the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, then he was the soundman for the Grateful Dead. He pretty much invented the outdoor amplification concept, founded Alembic instruments, was president of Gibson’s West Coast R&D lab, and also had a guitar company, Turner Guitars. One of the most famous Turner guitars was the model played by Lindsay Buckingham. In a lot of ways Rick is to the acoustic amplification world what Seymour is to the electric amplification world. What Rick brought to this focus group was some really far out and amazing ideas. One of the ideas was that acoustic pickups had pretty much reached maturity in terms of the design, meaning using piezo film was not going to improve that much on the sound of the guitar. You can use secondary sources and EQS, but using current technology we’ve pretty much reached the limit of what we can do. Rick said the future is in the digital realm, because once you take the signal from an acoustic guitar and bring it into the digital realm, you can give it algorithms to do certain things. For instance, you can remove the artefacts that the pickup brings into the digital signal, and as long as you’re doing that you can do additional manipulation, for instance layer the sounds of other guitars.”

Over the years Seymour Duncan has learned from some of the best in the business, and is happy to pass on the knowledge he’s acquired. “When I was eleven or twelve I saw Les Paul in concert and I met him backstage,” he tells. “Les Paul actually explained to me what an electric guitar pickup was, and to this day he remembers that and I have a copy of an interview he did on talkback radio talking about me, this eleven or twelve year old kid that used to hang out and ask him about guitar pickups. When I first came to California I called Leo Fender up and asked him “why did you do this, why did you do that?” I was fascinated by the history of the pickups and how they were made. Here I was, a 16 year old kid asking him about the first Telecaster bass, the Esquire, Jaguar… I was very fortunate to meet people like Leo Fender and Seth Lover. Seth Lover was such a great mentor to me. I’ve interviewed him, and it was very interesting to find out how things were done. People like Leo, Les Paul, Seth Lover and guitar players like Jeff Beck. These guys gave me something and I like to be able to give it back.”

Seymour is the only ‘non-famous-guitarist’ to have a Fender signature model. “I’ve always loved Esquires, so it’s based on my old Esquire. It has a black pick guard, an Esquire maple neck. It had one of my early tapped pickups and special wiring. Jeff Beck has used it many times. It’s one of those guitars that, everybody that plays it loves it.” Skopp, who helped oversee the project, says the Fender Seymour Duncan Signature Esquire features a few of Seymour’s guitar set-up secrets, as well as a specially wound Seymour Duncan pickup. “Seymour’s a great player,” Skopp says. “Midway between Jeff Beck and Danny Gatton.”

One of Seymour Duncan’s most well-known pickup combinations is the JB model in the bridge and the Jazz in the neck. “That’s what I use in my “TeleGib,” Seymour says. “The first set I did for Jeff Beck. That’s neat that guitar, because he used it, Peter Frampton used it. A lot of other guitar players have played this guitar so it’s kinda neat to have a guitar with a conversation piece feel to it, so we give others a chance to play it too.”

This interview originally appeared in Mixdown magazine in 2006.

CLICK HERE to buy the Dtar Mama Bear Digital Acoustic Preamp from Music123.

CLICK HERE to buy the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB Humbucker Pickup (Black) from Music123.

CLICK HERE to buy the Seymour Duncan SH-2N Jazz Model Pickup (Black) from Music123.

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

Before you can take an honest look at ‘Chinese Democracy,’ you have to address and then dismiss a few key facts: Yes, the only original member left is Axl Rose; yes, it’s 17years since ‘Use Your Illusion 1 & 2’; no, it’s probably not going to live up to the expectations created by that 17 year wait; and no, you can’t get your free Dr. Pepper unless you’re an American resident. It’s impossible to listen to this album without being aware of its history – starts, stops, hirings, firings, postponement after postponement. But ultimately this context has to be put aside if you have any chance of listening to the album for what it is: 14 songs by the guy who sang ‘Welcome To The Jungle.’

Opening with an atmospheric, chattering soundscape (courtesy of Eric Cardieaux, who has done a lot of work with Joe Satriani), followed by a heavily processed but very much rock-approved guitar riff, Axl suddenly breaks through the din with that famous scream, and the preceding 17 years are all but forgotten. The high notes are still there, and so is the attitude, and sure, the vocals could have been pieced together from studio sessions dating back to 2005, but Axl sounds happy to just be singing again. The sound is updated, semi-industrial, and very, very polished. It sounds like every dollar of the rumoured $14 million or so was used on the recording process rather than private jets and bike shorts.

Track 2, ‘Shackler’s Revenge’ continues, and in fact enhances, the industrial vibe with a pre-chorus straight out of the NIN songbook and a riff which would be at home on Max Cavalera’s Nailbomb side project. Track 3, ‘Better,’ is my frontrunner for song of the year. I can’t get this freaking thing out of my head, and that’s okay with me. Processed guitars and falsetto vocals set up the mood, and some on-the-off-beat guitar rhythms give the verses a sense of propulsion. Wild sweep-picked licks cap off the choruses, and Buckethead throws in a typically unpredictable ear-candy solo. Then NIN guitarist Robin Finck kicks in with a soulful, lyrical solo which reminds me of Ritchie Kotzen’s Telecaster tones and clean phrasing. Compared to the virtuosity of Buckethead and Ron ‘Thal’ Bumblefoot, Finck’s solo is reminiscent of the bluesier spirit Slash brought to the band.

Bumblefoot has a few cool guitar moments scattered throughout the album, as does Buckethead, and Finck can be relied upon for more tasty blues phrasing before the album is through, but for an act that’s so much a part of hard rock history (and with 6 guitarists listed in the credits if you count Axl), there’s less guitar here than you might expect. Around the middle of the album, things get very ‘November Rain.’ There are 4 midtempo piano songs in a row, coloured with varying degrees of drum loops and synth pads, at times sounding like the Bowie-and-electronica-influenced solo album of Queensryche’s Geoff Tate, and at other times recalling the ‘right up-to-date when it was released’ sounds of Sting’s ‘Brand New Day’ album – which would have been great news if Chinese Democracy was released in 2000, but which makes it sound a little dated today. The melodies are carefully crafted and the mood ranges from intimate to epic, and the overall pacing has a bit of a concert vibe (albeit compressed into just over an hour).

Piano time draws to a close and leads to the Zep-ish ‘Riad & The Bedouins,’ which has an almost prog vibe and some crushing guitar riffs, topped off with some classic 70s glam. The proggy vibe continues with ‘Sorry,’ which has a kind of 90s Black Sabbath vibe. Then ‘IRS’ brings in a bit of classic G’n’R rock mixed with more of that Tate-ish vibe. ‘Madagascar’ is another big epic, and one of a bunch of Chinese Democracy songs played on tour over the last few years. ‘This I Love’ is almost contemporary musical theatre with yet more piano and overblown arrangement, and finally ‘Prostitute’ caps off the album with some uptempo drums, soaring vocal melodies, and finally a quiet, peaceful orchestral finish.

‘Chinese Democracy’ may not be the greatest album of all time, but it’s surprisingly coherent despite its eclecticism, and while it comes close to collapsing under the weight of not only public anticipation but also its own overdubbed bloat, it seems to remain on track and provide a compelling listening experience. Sure, it’s not the album G’n’R would have made if Slash, Duff, Izzy, Gilby, Matt, or even Steven Alder were around, and it has its flaws, but if you treat it as an Axl solo album, you may be very pleasantly surprised. Just don’t expect a hard rock album.

CLICK HERE for my interview with Bumblefoot
CLICK HERE to buy Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy from CDJapan.co.jp
CLICK HERE to buy the limited edition SHM-CD version from CDJapan.co.jp