JGT Contributor Jonathan Ross talks to DePaul University’s Bob Palmieri.
JR: A lot of people these days are building their own guitars and amps, and we don’t see a lot of people making their own pickups. They tend to stay with the usual pickup companies. When did you start making your own pickups and what made you decide to do that?
My interest in pickup design started in high school in the early seventies, around 1971. I guess it was because I had my first good guitar. Before that I had a couple of guitars that my parents bought for me from department stores. After a while they thought “the kid is getting serious about this. Maybe we should go to an actual music store and get a guitar.” It was a rosewood Fender Telecaster.
JR: Nice! Did you get that one because George Harrison had one?
There was just something about it that really attracted me visually. It felt good to play, and there was something drawing me to that instrument. At the time I was listening to a lot of Allman Brothers and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Those guitar sounds seemed to be more Gibsonian in timbres and responses and I wanted to figure out how to make my Tele sound like that. My first solution was to resonate the neck pickup with an internal shunt cap, which is a cool technique to bring the resonant frequency of the pickup down. Later on I decided to go with a beefier coil along with the same magnetics, on my telecaster. And it kind of went from there.
JR: What separates your pickups from the more mainstream brands?
I’ve been the primary electric guitar teacher at DePaul University in Chicago for 30 years, and sitting across from all these guitarists with their humbucking pickups, it started to occur to me that they all just sound like humbuckers, and there was something that was really starting to bother me about how the pickups were responding. There was something about how the students were playing that wasn’t being reflected in how the pickup interpreted what they were playing in terms of their picking actions and the string motion. And for me there’s something fundamentally specific about the character of all humbuckers; regardless of wire gauge or insulation, there was something that was really starting to annoy me. When I started digging into this I found that the way pickups respond to the player’s intent and string behavior is primarily a function of the magnetic architecture of the pickup. And all humbuckers share a common magnetic architecture. So for me, that’s what I decided to go after: different ways of orienting magnetic fields inside the casing so the pickups would have a fundamentally different response. To me, pickups don’t have a sound. What they really are is translation devices. And how they translate what you’re doing as a player, and what the strings are doing, suspended over that (usually) wood foundation, how they translate that language and send the message to the next device (computer interface, amp, pedal, etc.) that’s really what their job is.
In my workshop I have a pile of pickups that I’ve pulled from client’s guitars made by manufacturers that you know very well and replaced them with something that I really feel is a lot better. My pickups translate across all genres, and as you know, certainly most of us in the modern world aren’t pure jazz players. We play many styles and genres. There’s a certain amount of responsiveness that we’ve been looking for. So for me, pickups are more about the response than the sound. If you want something brighter or darker you can tweedle a knob.
JR: How long have you been teaching at DePaul?
About 30 years. I’ve been there a long time.
JR: In addition to teaching at DePaul, what does your current work consist of?
Right now at this very moment, my career as a pickup guy is kindof on fire. I get a call every few days for all kinds of interesting stuff. There’s this very cool thing at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute called the Electric Guitar Innovation Lab. They’re bringing me in because they got a grant from the Les Paul Foundation to try to produce a version of this pickup Les came up with, and got patented, but apparently was never made. When I looked at the patent, it looks like it would have been difficult to get it to work the way it was described. Even if he had done stuff differently, with the materials of the day it would have barely worked if at all. But with modern materials there is a way to bring this thing to life. So, I’ll be working with them in the first half of 2021 to come up with a working version of this very different kind of pickup that Les had dreamt up but wasn’t able to follow through on. In addition, my business partners and I at Duneland Labs, a company that’s been founded to commercialize some of my custom designs, are securing the second round of funding, which will go towards manufacturing and promotion.
Someone called a few days ago to ask me to make pickups for a wide range axe with a mix of bass & guitar strings. There are two pickup projects on the bench for Bryan Galloup of Galloup Guitars. And I just realized that there’s a design for one of my favorite major guitar companies that I seem to have dropped the ball on in these Covidian times… need to attend to that!
Musically, as of yesterday, I’m putting the final touches on a mix of a piece that’s the last one to be mixed for this cool project called The Drovers Unlimited Orchestra. It has a cast of stellar players. One of the tracks is a duo with Dave Liebman, and it was a first reading, first take. We kind of looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and went, “Well, I think that’s it!”, and that’s the take. One of the other tracks happened the same way…
I’m also about to start offering services through the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, related to what I’ve done behind the scenes for years. It’s not so much making pickups, but about making people really happy with their guitars. I try to analyze the resilience of the instrument and the string gauge, what’s happening in the control cavity. What cool wiring options are there? Should it be fully shielded? So it’s basically an electric instrument optimization service.
JR: What’s your opinion of “outside” playing? How would you tell a student about it for the first time?
My concept of outside playing is probably very outmoded at this point. I tend to sound like I’m stuck in the hard-bop era (and maybe I am!) There’s not much in music that I love that I can’t access through some period of Herbie Hancock. The way I play outside, or the way I like it when other people play outside usually has to do with how good their phrasing and time are. Musicians who have listened to a lot of records have an intuitive idea of how music works. That’s something you can’t really put into a formula. But the first step is to introduce something cadential. So if you have a tune like “Impressions”, where it’s one chord for a long time, introduce something cadential by sticking a 2-5 line in there. It’s more important where you do something rather than what you do. If you listen to McCoy Tyner, he knows exactly where his phrase is going to end. It’s 8 bars of outness, but it’s important where you do it, how you phrase, how good your time is, and sticking to cadential functions and 8 bar phrases is a really great way to do this. Having said this, I’ve heard people that knock me out and sound more modern than me, that really know something about phrasing. James Francies would be a really good example of someone who knows stuff about rhythm and phrasing that puts my jaw on the floor, and has literally proved he can play absolutely anything pitch wise. It’s not about substitutions or alternate changes. They know something about phrasing that’s so deep that they can play anything and I’ll buy it. Its’ a function of really internalizing what music is, and what linear music is. I don’t think there is a shortcut to that.
JR: I always say you have to listen to Jazz a lot to internalize the language. If you do a Coltrane thing like resolving to chords via Major thirds or something, but you aren’t phrasing it properly it’s not going to work.
It will sound boxy.
JR: Somewhere on YouTube there’s a Pat Metheny lesson where he talked about the articulation of things. He basically noodles around using the chromatic scale over the 12-bar blues, and it sounds great! He explains to the student that it sounds hip because of how he’s playing it and the dynamic arc of the solo lines.
That makes a lot of sense to me!
JR: I’ve noticed a lot of younger players get caught up in “what’s the hippest sounding chord substitution I can play” rather than “how can I articulate my lines better?” Why is that? Is that just because of lack of experience?
It is a little bit of an epidemic, I think. I just think lots of students aren’t focusing their attention in the right places, and I think that’s one of those things that as a teacher you’re in a great position to do. You get to focus their attention on things like that. They might hear a Clifford Brown solo and think “I’m just going to play a bunch of continuous eighth notes, so I guess I’ll pick alternately and do that. Somebody once told me what scale to use.” I sometimes say, “Does that feel good to you? Because it doesn’t feel good to me!” So you have to focus their attention on other things. I think they’re open to it, and that’s where teachers come in.
JR: As an experienced teacher and player, other than articulation, what are the main things that an aspiring player should learn?
I haven’t asked myself that question recently. The most foundational things are their aural skills, which go beyond knowing the difference between a major and minor third. It’s being able to hang with people who really understand this sort of thing, and someone can say “See how much he laid back on that?” And someone asks “Laid back? What is that?” Then someone can explain and demonstrate what “laid back” means, perhaps involving saying something like “See how it would feel if I wasn’t playing like that?” and then demonstrating it. They need to have their aural skills really developed by working with people who have much better aural skills than they do. It’s about SO much. With a fair number of solos it’s important to be able to play along with the recording and make it sound just like the recording. If there’s something that sounds really difficult, perhaps involving lots of moving chords and things like you might find in a Wes solo, no big deal. You don’t have to do all the stuff that’s way out of your reach. Take simple stuff and really make it sound like those cats sound on the record. Giving people permission to be imitative is really, really important for teachers. And I think that might be the more important thing. You’re talking about the epidemic of people not focusing on phrasing and articulation, and there’s also this epidemic of people saying “I’m not going to copy that!” It’s NOT a good idea to think that way. I was talking yesterday with the great bassist and teacher Steve Rodby, and we were talking about the advantages of breaking up play-along tracks into multiple tracks with a DAW. I thought a really great thing to do would be to get a backing track with real players, and have students play along with a rhythm section, piano, bass and drums, which gets them started. Then you start dropping instruments out like piano, so they’re just playing with bass and drums. Then you drop out the bass so they’re just playing with drums. Then you drop out the drums so they’re just blowing by themselves. That particular way of walking up to the really important task of unaccompanied soloing slowly, I think, could be one of the hallmarks of modern teaching. It wasn’t being done when we were doing most of our teaching. As far as teaching now, I think that could be a really valuable thing.
JR: You mentioned aural skills. What is your take on relying on the Real Book?
I am a huge fan of the 5th Edition Real Book specifically. The reason is because no one in their right mind trusts it! It’ll get you up and running, but then you need to do some deep listening. What I make students do in improv courses at DePaul is to pick a tune like maybe “You and the Night and the Music.” I have them bring in different recordings of the tune and to start with as many lead sheets as they can find. Then I have them correct the lead sheets with respect to the specific recordings they’re listening to. I tell them “you need to sign your name at the bottom of this if you agree with every note and every chord, but you’re going to have to defend them all to me.” I go through them and ask them if they really think this is the chord on the specific recording they were using and I double check their chords. I might have them sing the notes they hear to see if their chord is correct. So I don’t mind things that get them to a certain level. Sure, the goal is for people to play completely by ear, and maybe play chorus after chorus of great rhythm changes lines. I’m a big fan of giving people a lot of help in getting to places where they need to.
JR: You mentioned nobody trusted the fifth edition Real Book. The IrealB App is based on the 6th edition for “accuracy”. Do you see in the future a bunch of jazz musicians playing the wrong chords and the wrong changes that become accepted as gospel?
I don’t think Jazz could be ruined by people who don’t know stuff, because I think there will always be people who DO. I think it’s extremely important for students to know from a young age that there’s value in doing these things. That may not be the way they go, but that’s their call. And if they get burned for it, that not our fault as teachers, because we didn’t minimize these things.
For more information on Bob Palmieri try:
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