Technical Virtuoso Helps Shape Electric Guitar Sounds

Lindy Fralin spends his days working an industrial winding machine that looks vaguely like a 1960s-era lathe.

Fralin sells custom pickups for electric guitars and basses. Not the most noticeable or glamorous feature of a guitar, the pickup is nonetheless critical – a coil of wire around magnets that works like a microphone to collect the vibration of the steel strings. In the right hands, the result is music.

Photo: (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP
Repairing an electric guitar pickup in his Richmond, Va., shop.

And Fralin, 59, is something of a wizard when it comes to making the things.

Earlier this year, Guitar Player placed one of his designs among the biggest innovations in pickups since the electric guitar was invented in 1931. It is far from his first positive review.

“Over the 30 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve listened to every variable there is to see what it does,” Fralin said. “How many turns of the wire? What kind of wire? What kind of magnet structure? How tight is it? All those things matter.”

Fralin works out of a quiet, second-floor office in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond. To make a pickup, he loads magnets and a casing into his winding machine and punches in the exact number of rotations he wants.

The number of turns is part of his secret sauce that makes his products so good, he says.

To that end, halfway through, he stops the winding machine and dabs glue onto the coil specifically to make it impossible for anyone to unwind it by hand and count the number of turns.

The walls of his shop are lined with pickups in varying stages of assembly. At one end of the office, there’s a portrait of Jimi Hendrix painted on black velvet. Fralin says he thinks it’s a particularly nice likeness.

Fralin got into making pickups a few years after he got into guitars. He remembers hearing Hendrix for the first time at age 14 and persuading his dad to split the cost of a guitar with him.

Early on, he was frustrated that his instruments never sounded quite right. That’s when he started thinking about pickups. A friend in Richmond showed him how to wind them himself on a homemade machine. At that point, he was 21. “I was in a band, trying to be a full-time musician,” he said. “We weren’t very good.”

In addition to playing shows in the area, Fralin got into guitar repair, buying and selling used instruments through classified ads.

He said the bottom dropped out of the local music scene when the drinking age increased from 18 to 21. Demand for live music at bars plummeted.

His focus shifted to guitar repair and he started rewinding broken pickups, advertising his services through national guitar magazines.

He picked up a lot of repeat business.

“Pretty soon I knew almost every used guitar dealer in the country, because they were my customers for the rewinds,” he said.

That meant that when he started selling his own pickups, he had plenty of inroads to compete against other aftermarket makers such as Seymour Duncan, which had a 10-year head start on him.

An article in Premier Guitar magazine referred to Fralin as “one of the most knowledgeable pickup guys on the planet.” And in their annual gear guide, the magazine’s editors noted his products have been regarded as the “Cadillacs of aftermarket pickups since the ‘90s.”

His customers, he said, range from people who play for their church to Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry.

“They want a little more power, a little more clarity, a little brighter, a little darker – and we can help them with that,” he said.

Fralin said his life felt like it fell into place in 1993 when his business had started taking off and he settled down and got married – something he put off so he could live, in his words, like a pauper musician and not worry about the pressure of taking care of a family.

Things have only improved from there, he said. And he still has some ideas he wants to see through.

“I’m still inventing new pickups,” he said. “I’m not at the end of the creative process at all.”