Steve Vai has used various signature DiMarzio pickups over the years: the Evolution, the Breed, the Blaze, Evolution 7 and Evolution 2 (as well as the set made exclusively for the transparent acrylic 20th Anniversary Jem). And his pickups have something in common with his music: they all seem to be designed to explore and address a specific sonic question. The Evolution is bright, middy and somewhat hyper, for instance, while the Breed is warmer and more vintage. Steve’s new Gravity Storm set comes from a different place to the Evo, Blaze or Breed. Read More …
If you’re a fan of guitar music (and if you’re not, you’re probably not even reading this website to begin with), go to your CD collection and pull out a random assortment of, say, 10 CDs. You’re probably gonna find Steve Blucher listed in the thank-you section of about 8 of them. As head of research and development for DiMarzio, Blucher is partially responsible for some of the coolest guitar tones ever. Recently I tracked him down and asked a few questions.
I Heart Guitar: How did you get started designing pickups? What were your early experiments like?
Steve Blucher: I originally split my time between playing guitar and working in guitar repair shops in New York, but I knew nothing useful about pickup design until I started working for DiMarzio. I learned from Larry DiMarzio on the job, so to speak. My first experiment (for better or worse) became the X2N pickup.
IHG: Do you get much of a chance to play these days, or are you too busy being a legendary pickup guru?
Blucher: I’ve played since my late teens, and have never stopped. I’ve had a fair amount of experience both live and in studios. I’m sure it’s possible to design pickups without being a player, but, for me, an essential connection would be broken if I couldn’t play. It also feels important to be able to relate to current guitars, amps and effects. Pickups don’t exist in a vacuum.
I don’t feel like a pickup guru, legendary or otherwise. Anyone who has seen my workspace will have an entirely different view of my status, and possibly also of my sanity.
IHG: What styles do you play?
Blucher: My favorite style (if you can call it that) is improvised music with as few restrictions as possible. This may seem very vague, but having lived my entire life in New York City might explain it, in the sense of being exposed to many influences and a musical culture pretty intent on not being caught up in rules.
IHG: With regard to when you said pickups don’t exist in a vacuum, I imagine you seek feedback from various players from different genres when designing a new pickup? For example, Paul Gilbert was featured in an ad for the Tone Zone – did he have any feedback into its development?
Blucher: We sometimes seek opinions from players in different genres, but not when a pickup is being designed for a specific player or style of music. Paul Gilbert didn’t provide any input towards the development of the Tone Zone. The only player who did was Eddie Van Halen, in the course of doing the pickups for the MusicMan EVH guitar. My understanding is that the final choice for the bridge pickup was between the TZ and the pickup he actually chose, and it almost literally came down to a coin toss.
IHG: The wiring scheme for the Ibanez Jem, with the split coils in positions 2 and 4, has become an industry standard. Do you have any other tricks, designs, schemes, etc like that which you’d like to see in wider use?
Blucher: I suppose this is simply a logical offspring of the JEM wiring, but recently I’ve been liking Strats with 3 Area hum cancelling pickups (the middle pickup being reverse-polarity) and a multi-pole 5 way switch to split the pickups in the 2 & 4 positions. This wiring offers the possibility of using relatively warm-sounding pickups in all 3 positions–which many Strat players want–and still having the typical Strat “cluck” in the 2 & 4 positions, which they also want.
IHG: Steve Vai once said that in designing the pickups for the white Jem, he put you through hell and that you probably have a few white hairs that say ‘Vai.’ What’s it like working with someone like Steve Vai, who has such precise ears, and how do you translate the sound from their head into their pickups?
Blucher: I guess “hell” is a relative term in this context. Steve is a perfectionist, and that fact used to make me very nervous because I was afraid of the possible consequences of failure. That said, it is easier in many ways to work with someone who can clearly describe what he or she wants than with someone who has only a general idea of the direction to go in, and Steve has always been very specific about what he’s after. He usually describes what he wants in terms of frequency response. It’s not the way most guitarists visualize sound, but it offers a good idea of what he wants to hear.
IHG: Vai also said that when you were designing pickups for the white Jem, you went through several prototypes named after Harley Davidson engines. Do you remember the others and what they sounded like? And did the Breed have its origins in this period too?
Blucher: The nicknames were panhead, flathead and shovelhead. Most of these directly preceded the Breed models. In terms of performance, they were all intermediate steps between the PAF Pro and the Breed.
IHG: It’s been reported that in addition to the Vai/Harley Davidson prototype names, the FRED was named after Fred Flintstone. Are there any other surprising working titles for your pickups?
Blucher: Yes, but good taste sometimes must be maintained. Some of the names were just silly and would probably cause offense if they saw the light of day.
IHG: A few of my readers wanted me to ask you if there are any plans for a Paul Gilbert signature pickup. It seems to me that Paul likes to use lots of different Dimarzio models for different applications.
Blucher: Your observation is exactly right. It would be difficult to do a pickup for Paul, because he goes between a large number of guitars with different pickups. I don’t think he’d care to be limited to one model. [ed. note: Gilbert now has his own signature pickup, the Injector, and surprisingly it’s a single coil. Read my review here.]
IHG: When 7 string guitars took off again in the late 90s, were you all like, “Alright, now I get to design more 7-string pickups”?
Blucher: I’m afraid not. I reserve that attitude for pedal-steel pickups, which I do for myself. We all have guilty pleasures, I suppose.
IHG: What are the specific challenges of designing 7-string pickups, especially when it’s a version of an existing 6-string pickup?
Blucher: We’ve gotten pretty good at being able to make equivalent 7-string versions of existing 6-string models. We’ve done it for about 12 models, so it’s no longer the exercise in terror that it was in the beginning. Designing a 7-string pickup from the ground up can be fun – the increased length of the bobbins literally offers more room to play around with tone and output.
IHG: Has the advent of digital modelling amps/units had any effect on your work? In other words, do you tend to consider the signal chain a guitarist might be using with a particular pickup, or do you just concentrate on making the best pickup you can?
Blucher: Digital amps have had an effect. As I mentioned, I don’t believe pickups exist in a vacuum, and there cannot be a “best pickup” that we can all agree on. Pickups are one part of the signal chain, and I don’t believe it’s possible to ignore how they affect and are affected by the rest of the chain. Change any part of the chain and the performance of the pickup will change as well. If I know what a players signal chain is, it’s going to have a serious effect on the design of the pickup.