Two days ago we have lost a true legend that revolutionized the music industry. There isn’t a guitarist in the world that have never bought anything by Jim Dunlop whether a pick, a strap or a pedal. In memory of Jim we compiled this list of 10 interesting facts about the life of one of the greatest innovators in the industry.
Although for the most part of his life he lived in California and before that in Canada, Jim Dunlop was born and raised in Scotland. He left the country in the 50’s to seek new opportunities in Canada. There he met his future wife Bernice with whom they lived until her passing in 2001.
While Bernice was pregnant Jim decided to move them to California, where the sun was brighter and overall weather was better than in Ottawa.
I got a postcard from a friend of mine, it had a picture of a bikini-clad lady and said it was 90 degrees in Muscle Beach. It was 12 degrees below in Ottawa. I decided I’m getting the hell out of here. So we packed up. My wife was seven months pregnant at the time.
He had a 1000$ less than was needed to cross the border at that moment. That didn’t stop him though. He borrowed a 1000$ from the credit union and gave it back right after getting his papers done. That had left him with 600$ in his account and a new country to live in.
Back then in San-Francisco he worked as a machinist to support his family, but in his spare time he used his engineering skills to invent guitar hardware, using the machines at the place he was working. Both he and his employer played guitar, so he was motivated to engineer new accessories like VU tuner. That was not successful though and Dunlop was losing money.
Jim Dunlop was personally selling his tuners to people, and while the sales were bad, he did get an insight into the needs of professional guitarists. One day he was told that there was a need for a 12-string capo, something that just wasn’t available on the market.
He got to work, patented the overstretched knee and created one of the first properly working 12-string capo. He later modified the design to achieve better results.
That’s when things started to look a little better for the Scottish engineer.
Precision is the key
As with the capo, an idea to produce a pick came from outside. A Berkeley guitar repairman Jon Lundberg told Dunlop that he should make a metal thumbpick in the style of National. They weren’t producing them at the time, so Jim Dunlop got to work once again. He patented a new design and produced 6 gauges of the pick. At that time inches were used for measurement and you only had three options - light, medium or heavy. Jim decided that it was inefficient and gave little freedom of choice to the player. So he switched to millimeters and began doing wider range of thickness, each made with the precision that he was accustomed to as a machinist.
When that was a big success he switched to flat picks with the same principles of precision design - a move that helped him create one of the biggest empires in guitar accessories world.
Continuing his experiments with gauges and materials (he used nylon instead of more common celluloid) he tried to gather as much information about the real needs of guitarists as possible. He poured all that knowledge into creating the Jazz series plectrums. The Jazz III turned out to be so good it was a centerpiece of a three-page long article.
In an interview for NAMM Dunlop says:
Jazz III a pick that we make has actually had an article, three-page article written on it. The heading was: “Do you need to have one of these in order to be a good guitar player”. Well, you don’t. But I really became overwhelmed by the success of that particular pick.
When the tortoise shell, that was used as the material for the best picks, became unavailable Jim Dunlop began experimenting with synthetic materials and created a kind of plastic he called Tortex. Later this pick will become number one in the world and stay there to this day. The material that was created in the process was more durable than traditional celluloid and harder than nylon.
In the 90’s many bands like Metallica, Alice In Chains and Nirvana were exclusively using Tortex picks.
Having a firm foothold in the pick department Dunlop began branching out. As with early types of picks there was a poor selection of slides available to players. Of course, Dunlop saw an opportunity in this. He acquired a little slide manufacturing company and incorporated the same principles he used with picks there. It resulted in creating a wide variety of glass, metal, porcelain, ceramic and concave slides of various sizes and thickness. This allowed guitarists around the world to achieve the exact sound they want from their slides.
Saved Cry Baby
Back in the 80’s Cry Baby experienced some financial troubles, their pedals were out of market for several months and the future looked grim. Along came Jim Dunlop and bought the company. He was adamant to continue the tradition of great pedals but with same kind of attention that all the Dunlop products received. It was a bit of technical hurdle to introduce the kind of quality control and consistency that Dunlop demanded, but in the end it resulted in creating the number-one pedal in the world and adding even more to the legacy of Jim Dunlop.
The famous MXR pedal company had the same fate. When the business was not good and all the major musicians were switching to rack effects, Dunlop swooped in and bought MXR. Having previous successful experience with Cry Baby, he knew exactly what to do. He revamped the technical side of things, introduced a couple of new solutions and, as always, coupled it with the support from major guitar players like Eddie Van Halen and their insights.
Jim Dunlop has left an everlasting legacy. We use his innovations to this day, without thinking how amazing is that at one time a small-time Scottish machinist introduced so much to the world. Do you have a favorite Dunlop product ar a story about it? Share it in the comments. Via UltimateGuitar