Serving as Chicago’s DePaul University’s primary jazz guitar instructor for the last 28 years, Bob Palmieri has also maintained a busy performing and recording career that has included electric guitar work for the Rochester & Florida Philharmonic Orchestras, the Columbia, Windham Hill and Blue Note record labels, Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Brian McKnight, Lyle Mays, David Foster and many more. As a technical wizard in the field of guitar pickups and studio gear, he has also designed and built dozens of transducers and analog audio devices for well known musicians & recording studios. Bob questions the way things have been done, seeking to make improvements on designs or completely reinvent them when necessary.
1. In regard to your company’s Blackpole Project, what can you tell us about the special characteristics of “the 42” internally and externally that set them apart from standard pickups?
Heck of a good question! Externally, they are distinguished by the – surprise, surprise – black poles! They’re in standard sized metal covers that were acted upon by craftspeople we brought in; jewelers, metal workers, knife makers. The idea was that this is the surface that people will see, so I asked them to make it as beautiful as they could, while also seeming appropriate to their musical purpose. However, the whole thing ended up being extremely expensive, and in the end needed to be limited to a run of 42. That’s the outside. Inside, things are quite different! There are two coils, but the coils are treated very differently, even though we managed to achieve a much higher level of hum-canceling and much more output. One thing that I’ve often said to the question of “how is this pickup different from the one that I have in my guitar?” is that the pickup you’ve got has a magnet in it; this bridge pickup of mine that you’re considering has 17 of them. And this is because my strong feeling is that the advancements that need to be made are not so much in the field of coil winding specifics, but in the issues of basic magnetic architecture, which is, in fact, the element that defines the response and envelope of the pickup. These are the characteristics that govern what it does when you pick hard or soft, how the attack relates to the sustain, and much more.
2. For a modern archtop guitar, what’s the sweet spot for you in terms of number of coil winds for higher output versus flatter frequency response from a pickup?
So far, my experience with archtop instruments has been focused on a number of very specific applications. One of them was the bronze-strung archtops that Ken Parker made, and in that case we could not find a good, self-powered pickup that could really “hear” the bronze strings in a way that made sense to the player and the listener. There was a very good active solution that required having a preamp on the guitar, but the idea of having a preamp on a very high end archtop was not that appealing. Plus, they were going to place at least one sample of this guitar in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the feeling was, “look, we want this thing to be around and be playable for 100 years – we don’t want to have to be popping little coin cell batteries out with a Swiss Army knife. We would like this to be an instrument that requires no onboard power or electronics.” So for me, having the benchmark of what I considered to be a great pickup that required a preamp and batteries, trying to match or exceed the characteristics of that device with a self-powered device that needed no help was extremely challenging, and took me a couple of years. I hope I never have to face something that challenging again, but I sure did learn a lot! Turned out that because I really needed to keep the resonant frequency way up and the inductance way down for very high bandwidth I needed to keep both the turns count very low. Plus, the magnetic strength at the string also had to be very low, so maximizing efficiency was the key design principle.
Another pickup that I made was for Nels Cline, for whom I’ve done six previous projects and am working on the seventh – among them, putting one of the Blackpoles in his early ‘60s Gibson Barney Kessel. We replaced the stock pickup, and he’s ecstatically happy. And this pickup actually has a very high output, but has the warmth and response that people normally attribute to lower output pickups; it has a beautiful envelope. Then we did another pickup for another archtop he had that he wanted suspended off the neck in sort of a mini-humbucker format. In that case I used a different architecture, and it, too, is higher output than most of the usual suspects, but it has the warmth and friendliness that people usually associate with lower output pickups.
Aside from these two specific projects, there are also the Comini pickup on Bill Comins’ latest oval hole archtop, the Texas Sidewinder on Tony Nobles’ delightfully different archtop, which you can check out via the clips on the Duneland Labs site, and an adaptation of the Bronzeville design for Bryan Galloup’s new archtops.
So, I guess I always go for higher bandwidth and high output simultaneously, and this can involve a sometimes shockingly higher or lower turns count than normal, depending on core structure and magnetic architecture.
3. What’s most important to you in an amplifier?
Well, it depends on what I’m using the amplifier for. To me, one thing that’s very important is that I’m able to achieve flat response from the electronics of the amp, aside from the driver and the cabinet; to get to a place where, really, the EQ is flat. This is one of those things that has hurt so many people when they’ve rented Fender amps, and they’re all sucked out in the mids via the confusing Fender tone stack… it doesn’t make them happy and they’re frustrated and they don’t really know why. So for me, the ability to have tone controls that really make sense is important, such as with Peter’s EQ layout and all the frequencies being kind of where you want them to be; that makes a lot of sense for guitar amplification. And of course, the controls are also set up on the Henriksen so that they’re cut AND boost. That’s important to me; reliability is very important to me; light weight is very important to me; consistency is very important to me.
4. What’s happening right now for you as a player?
I continue to play live and occasionally in recording situations with one of my favorite new musicians, Kandace Springs, who is a terrific pianist and singer on Blue Note. Most recently I’m finishing up a project with a very interesting composer, Mike Kirkpatrick, who has decided that Irish and Scottish music and free jazz need to be brought together. Unfortunately, the night before a session I was booked on for this project, I was using a vegetable slicer and did the thing that none of us should ever do – which is to cut off a section of my thumb. So at the moment, I’m not able to play guitar for at least another couple of weeks, but I’m really liking Mike’s project and I love playing with Kandace, and that’s what’s on the plate for the moment.
5. How did your relationship with Henriksen begin?
It was through my role as the jazz guitar teacher in the DePaul University jazz department. I wanted amps that I could use for my students to really understand what they were doing, and for them to become more educated about what more advanced amps could do for them. So I ordered one for my studio at the school, and had the students play through that while I used something else, and then I got jealous so I got another one so that I, too, could be playing through a Henriksen! Peter & I seem to have discovered we’re kindred souls; we share the viewpoint that if something’s already being produced, we don’t need to develop a product. We’re motivated by the need to bring things to market that might not exist otherwise.
6. As a player, what do you feel like you need to hear from both the pickups and amplifier in an electric scenario to be at your best?
Interesting you should ask that, because I happen to be a complete tone-weenie. There are many guitar players who I respect a great deal that don’t care what the circumstances are; if this sounds bad and that sounds too bright, it doesn’t matter – they still play well. Me, I need a really good sound to be coming back at me or I really play badly. I have to say that I just decided to make lemonade from the lemons, and figured that if I am that dependent on response characteristics, maybe I should pursue things in a way that maximizes my ability to play well, and also my awareness of what makes people play well or badly in a number of situations.
Here’s an obvious example: if my amp is too loud, I wimp out on the picking, and then things sound weak. If the amp is too soft, I pick too hard and things sound a little clumsy. So it’s very important to me to feel like I have good balance in respect to the context, for which I tend to use volume pedals. There are many characteristics that go together for me; a sound that has a big, broad presence in the midrange is a beautiful thing to pick softly with and use a lot of left hand attack, whereas a sound that might be softer and might be more open, with a lot of 5kHz or even 10kHz boost, makes me want to dig in and play very rhythmically acutely. One of the things I really like about the Henriksen amps is that they have enough headroom. I feel like I can play cleanly, as loud as I need to play, without feeling like I’m restricted by the amp deciding it’s going to go into crunch mode when I really don’t want it to – sometimes I need that transient. I like Watts!
7. What projects, releases, or other info would you like to inform our readers about?
I tend to play as a sideman on numerous projects for other people and I never know where they’re going. However, on this upcoming Mike Kirkpatrick release there will be a first take duo with Dave Liebman, who was monstrously important to me as a musical influence, that I recall being something special.
Regarding gear, for Duneland Labs I’m working with Collings Guitars on a pickup for an artist model flattop intended to be a signature model for a very famous guy who should probably remain nameless at this point. We’re also putting together a seventh pickup system for Nels, which will involve some very radical onboard controls. After playing Ken’s personal Bronzeville-equipped archtop [link below], the terrific guitarist Adam Miller has inquired about the possibility of adapting that system to 2 of his instruments. And Bobby Broom, whose playing I just love, asked me last week about the possibility of making a pickup for him. Also in the Duneland news is the possibility that our first patent may have applicability in the fields of medical devices, industrial quality control and solar energy, so we’re setting up a second round of funding, which will also enable us to get more pickups and guitar-related devices into production and distribution. Anyone who wants in on this feel free to contact me directly and I’ll put you in touch with our funding director.
In terms of personal tech pursuits I have a magic onboard module for electric guitars that has received an “I GOTTA HAVE ONE!” response from literally everyone who’s experienced it, and once again, no batteries or external power required. Currently rounding up supplies & subcontractors; hope to have some available this summer.
Learn more about Bob and his projects at www.bobpalmieri.com
Adam Miller on Ken Parker’s Archtop with Duneland Bronzeville pickup: www.fretboardjournal.com/video/adam-miller-habit/
Duneland Labs website (featuring The 42 plus Bob playing guitars with various Duneland pickups): www.dunelandlabs.com