Photo: Oakland, CA - Jim at Industrial Fabrication.
A New
The Jim Dunlop company has provided musicians with so many
amazing tools for so long that it’s hard to remember a time
when that wasn’t the case. It’s also easy to forget that this
corporation doesn’t just have a man’s name—it was actually
named after a man. And 50 years ago that man was perceptive
enough to see a need in the marketplace, smart enough to be
able to design and build a product to fill that need, and fearless
enough to think that he could sell that product to millions of
It was indeed that fearless and adventurous spirit that
brought Jim Dunlop to the US from Canada in the 1960s.
“I got a postcard from a friend of mine,” says Dunlop.
“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. To get across the border,
you had to prove you had $1,600 in your bank account. I only
had $600 in the bank at that time, so I went straight to the
credit union and borrowed $1,000. Then I went to the American
consulate general in Montreal, showed them the $1,600 in my
account, and they stamped my papers and said, ‘You’re free to
go.’ I went right back to the credit union and paid the $1,000
back in full, and we crossed the border with $600 and a final
destination: San Francisco.”
Photo: Las Vegas, NV - Dunlop's first trade show.
“...he told me there was
a need for a good 12-string
capo, and I decided I was
going to make one.”
Dunlop began working as a machinist by day to support his
growing family. Almost immediately, however, he started creating
products for guitarists in his spare time.
“The president of the company where I worked played guitar,
same as I did. He wanted me to make what we called a VU-Tuner. It
was placed on the top of the guitar and it had a reed that vibrated
sympathetically with the low-E string.” That product would evolve
into the Vibra-Tuner, which Dunlop would pitch to music stores and
guitarists on weekends. Despite the fact that there was nothing on
the market quite like it, it was poorly received.
“At that point, I was losing money. One day, I was in San Francisco
trying to sell it to a guy and he told me there was a need for a good
12-string capo, and I decided I was going to make one. So I came up
“Lundberg was one of the
leaders of the thriving
Berkeley guitar-building
community and was the
go-to guy for acoustic
guitar repair and history
during the ’60s folk
with the design and patented the overstretched
knee, or Toggle capo. I started making them
on my own, with my wife. That’s the capo that
became the 1100, as we call it now. Pretty soon
I decided that it needed more adjustment, so I
patented another capo with an adjustment at
the end of it. We called that the 1400, and it also
worked really well.”
The reactions to the first Dunlop capos, from
players and store owners alike, were immediately
positive. One particularly influential store owner/
luthier was Berkeley’s Jon Lundberg. Lundberg
was one of the leaders of the thriving Berkeley
guitar-building community and was the go-to
guy for acoustic guitar repair and history during
the ’60s folk explosion. He regularly purchased
capos from Jim Dunlop and, in a conversation
during one of those visits, Lundberg would say
something that would end up changing Dunlop’s
life forever. “He told me he wanted me to build
the old National metal thumbpick, because they
weren’t making them anymore. So I did, and he
bought them.”
Photo: Berkeley, CA in 1969.
© Steven Clevenger / Corbis
Photo: Apis Fuzz Face quas vendem sectur, sunte liti te Explandion
reiusap itatur? Ti reperov iduciae comniam cuscipide dolor repudae
culluptatur, in estiumium veni Line Boost driver volum, eumqui.
Discovery &
A seemingly offhand comment from a Berkeley
repairman would start a chain of events for
Dunlop that led directly to what we know as
Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc. today. More and
more prominent players began using Dunlop
products, allowing Jim to further expand his line.
Drawing on input from guitarists, a keen eye for
needs in the marketplace, and his machinist’s
sense of precision, Dunlop gave players greater
options than ever before in their choices of tools.
“I really just wanted to make something
that musicians would use. I got a patent on a
fingerpick that was rounded at the cuticle,
and I made that in six gauges. When that was
successful, I decided I was going to make
flatpicks, and I started by making punched
celluloid. You could only get heavy, medium, and
light in those days. I was looking for something
to set me apart, so I decided I was going to
make nylon flatpicks in six gauges, from .38mm
to 1mm—anything from a really light one to a
really heavy one. Nylon picks were a big success
and we still sell them to this day.”
“I really just
wanted to make
that musicians
would use.”
Dunlop would capitalize on the success of his nylon
picks and begin exploring different shapes, thicknesses,
and materials, and in the process transformed not just the
marketplace, but the music world as well. Ever the student
of players’ needs, and driven by a desire to evolve the
nylon pick, Dunlop continued to research how the tools of
the trade might be improved.
“I read every issue of Guitar Player Magazine and found
the parts where guitarists said what pick they used. I took
that information, which was mostly about the shape, and I
put it all together and came up with the Jazz I, II, and III. I
managed to hit a home run with the Jazz III, because we’ve
sold quite a few of them.”
Rather than sit back and ride the success of his pick line,
however, Dunlop forged ahead. The holy grail of plectrum
material, real tortoiseshell, was no longer available, and
no one had come up with a suitable substitute. Dunlop
began experimenting with a material that he would name
Tortex, and it would go toe-to-toe with nylon in popularity
until it became his top-selling pick in the late ’90s. Harder
than nylon, more durable than celluloid, flexible but with
great memory, Tortex was a game-changer. After the
pick’s release, world-dominating bands like Metallica,
Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and many, many
others would all use Tortex exclusively. If the Jazz III was a
home run, Tortex was a walk-off grand slam.
The Dunlop guitar pick line would continue to grow and
expand, with more shapes, colors, graphics, textures, and
materials. New additions include Delrin and Ultex picks, as
well as the Primetone series, which takes Ultex material to
a truly state-of-the-art level with hand-burnished, sculpted
edges. And every part of the line embodies the respect for
the player, attention to detail, and sense of exactitude that
Jim Dunlop put into his very first pick.
“I think one word that sums it all up is consistency,” he
says. “You’ve got to be consistent because when a guitar
player goes to a store and he gets a pick, he wants to get
the same pick he got the last time. If he went for 1mm, it
should be exactly the same as it was before, and I try to do
that. I try to build consistency into everything in the product
line. That’s the name of the game.”
Photo: Jim stands next to
the company's first overseas
shipment to Moridaira Musical
Inst. Co. in Japan.
Keeping an American
Tradition Alive
If you think about how Jim Dunlop approached
pick making—recognizing needs in the market,
applying precise manufacturing specs, providing
guitarists with more and better options, and
exploring the tonal nuances of various materials—
it’s clear that he followed the same M.O. when
he got into the slide business. After producing
pedal-steel tonebars for Ernie Ball, Dunlop heard
of a glass slide company that was for sale and he
acquired it. At the time, there were very few sizes
and thicknesses of slides available. That would
soon change.
“All the previous measurements were in
inches. We used millimeters for everything and
added a wider range in each category, including
different thicknesses of glass—thin, medium,
and really thick—and different gauges of glass
for different sounds. Like we’ve always done, we
tried to get to the heart of what the product is and
then expand in every area. We started with clear
glass slides and then went into brass slides,
stainless steel, concave, ceramic, and porcelain.”
Today, Dunlop Manufacturing is truly onestop shopping for slide players at every level,
with more sizes and materials to choose from,
plus signature slides for the world’s top players
such as Billy Gibbons, Derek Trucks, Joe Perry,
and more.
Photo: Jim presents blues icon
Stevie Ray Vaughn with a rare
gold-plated Cry Baby Wah.
Cry Baby:
Legacy & Innovation
Into the ’80s, Dunlop Manufacturing was primarily
associated with the folksy side of the guitar
market, offering slides, capos, and picks to
players. Driven to grow his business, Jim Dunlop
caught wind that the iconic Cry Baby brand had
become available. “The pedals had been off the
market for six months,” he says. “Dealers were
unable to get them in their stores. We wanted to
bring them back.” Dunlop sought out the right
people to contact, figured out who he should
make an offer to, and leaped into the deep
end of the guitar effects pool by acquiring the
hallowed wah wah pedal brand. That fearless
move forever altered the trajectory of the Dunlop
company, not to mention the entire music
business as well. Dunlop’s son, Jimmy, was on
the scene for the transformation.
“It changed the whole direction of the
company,” he says. “It was very uncharacteristic
of the products that we were working with at the
time. You’ve got this guy who was a machinist,
who made accessories like slides and picks
and capos, and he just jumped right into the
number-one-selling electronics product of all
time—the number-one pedal of all time. There
was no caution, no hesitation, and the word
‘failure’ was not in his vocabulary. He just said,
‘I don’t know what it’s all about yet, but I’m going
to figure it out.’”
Photo: Cry Baby housings drilled before final assembly.
“It changed the
whole direction
of the company.”
“Hendrix… would go
through six or seven Cry
Baby pedals before he’d find
one that sounded right…
because the inductors were
all different.”
That ability to see an opportunity and make it work
is a recurring motif in the history of Dunlop, and it
never proved more successful than with the Cry Baby
acquisition, although it wasn’t an easy transition. For
the Cry Baby line to grow into what it is today, there
were technical and logistical hurdles that would need
to be overcome.
“It was a great opportunity to introduce a level
of consistency that never existed before,” says Jimmy,
“and take the Cry Baby line to a whole new level. To
this day, we constantly examine every component—
whether it’s potentiometers, switches, inductors, you
name it—and look for ways to improve them. It seems
like a really easy product to make, but it’s actually very
tricky. You have to remember, when Hendrix used it, he
would go through six or seven Cry Baby pedals before
he’d find one that sounded right to him, because the
inductors were all different. It took a while to get it
right, but we never stopped working at it.”
Dunlop clearly got it right—by assembling a stateof-the-art engineering team and consistently securing
top-quality parts from vendors—and the results are
apparent on recordings and on stages in every style
of music. The Cry Baby sound is a crucial part of the
soundtrack to our life, and you need only look to
the Cry Baby signature artists—Jimi Hendrix, Buddy
Guy, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk
Wylde, Kirk Hammett, and Jerry Cantrell—to see how
important this pedal is to musical expression. In the
words of Jimmy Dunlop, “Cry Baby is it.”
Hendrix at Boston Garden, 1970.
Photo by Joe Cestaro.
Jimi Hendrix
The Voice of an Icon
The Cry Baby acquisition firmly established Dunlop
as an electronics company. Soon enough, an
opportunity would present itself that would not only
expand the pedal line, but also transform Dunlop’s
relationships with artists all over the world.
“We were asked to release a hot-rodded wah
pedal in Japan, and we decided it should be based
on Jimi Hendrix’s tone,” says Dunlop. “He’s the
most important guitar player to ever step on a
wah pedal, so we modified a wah to Jimi’s specs.
At that time, lots of people were putting his name
or likeness on products, but they weren’t properly
compensating his family. We didn’t want to do it
like that. We wanted to do it the right way.”
Jim Dunlop connected with Hendrix’s father, Al,
and informed him that Dunlop wanted to release a
wah pedal with Jimi’s name on it, and the company
intended to pay Al for every pedal sold. With that
relationship solidified, Dunlop’s natural curiosity
and resourcefulness led him to explore the other
elements in Hendrix’s tonal recipe.
“We figured, if the most iconic and influential
guitarist of all time used a product, that was a pretty
good recommendation. We initially set out to just
make a Hendrix-modded wah pedal, but that got
us looking at his whole effects chain. It led us to
the Fuzz Face, then the Uni-Vibe, and the Octavio.
Those products were all out of production. You
couldn’t get them, and they’re all amazing effects.”
Still motivated by a determination to grow his
business and meet musicians’ needs, Jim Dunlop
consulted and partnered with industry experts
who were intimately familiar with Hendrix’s tone
and the circuitry of his pedals to recreate these
famous products. Dunlop is now unquestionably
the caretaker of the Hendrix signal chain, and it’s a
role that the company takes very seriously. Players
all over the world have responded in droves, using
fuzz, wah, and every other Hendrixian effect to fuel
countless hits.
& Renaissance
With the famed Hendrix signal chain under its belt, Dunlop was now a
major player in the electronics game. After a brief time, the company
would take on yet another classic line that was lying dormant: MXR.
In the ’70s, it was virtually impossible to find a hit record or a famous
guitarist that didn’t have an MXR pedal associated with them. Led
Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Rolling Stones, and many others stomped
on brightly colored MXR boxes to power their classic tunes. But the
’70s turned into the ’80s, styles changed, and what had been cool
was suddenly out of fashion. MXR was languishing, but Jim Dunlop
recognized the legacy that MXR had built and saw the potential of
this storied brand.
Jimmy Dunlop remembers the situation at the time.
“The Phase 90 has a timeless sound, so it’s always been
popular,” he says. “But in 1988, nobody wanted a Dyna
Comp or Distortion +. People were into rack gear. Not
enough time had passed for these pedals to be nostalgic
or to come back around.”
It was only a short time later, however, that the line was
able to truly take off. Building on the foundation of MXR’s
classic offerings, Dunlop began expanding and innovating,
bringing new and exciting designs to the marketplace.
“Once we started coming out with our own designs,”
says Jimmy, “things started to happen with MXR. We
were the wah people, so we released the Auto Wah. We
introduced the Super Comp. Then, when Eddie Van Halen
came on board and we did the EVH 90 phaser, that was
really the second coming of MXR. It’s funny, because he’s
the guitarist people really associated with MXR in the first
Along the way, Dunlop would create many successful
pedals under the MXR label. “We designed pedals with
Zakk Wylde, Kerry King, Slash, and Dimebag,” says Jim. “It
was incredible to watch it grow.”
And grow it did, with dozens of stompboxes in the
line and more on the way. Classics like the Phase 90 and
Dyna Comp Compressor sit side by side with cutting-edge
designs like the Super Badass Distortion and the Carbon
Copy Analog Delay. Preserving tradition while forging
ahead—that’s the Dunlop way. The MXR line is so strong
“Once we started
coming out with
our own designs,
things started
to happen with
and vibrant today that it’s difficult to remember when spaceage digital gear residing in refrigerator racks was not only
the order of the day, but seemingly the wave of the future.
Fast-forward to the present day and those rack pieces have
not aged so gracefully, whereas these little multicolored
analog boxes are cooler and more popular than ever before.
“It’s weird to think about it now,” says Jimmy. “These
great old gems were just sitting there and nobody was
touching them. But they were all relevant sounds. We didn’t
know if analog would ever come back. Digital was king. It
was so clean and new, and it had become such a big part
of popular music. Then the Seattle movement came, and
that’s when all of the analog effects came off of the shelf.
All those bands were resurrecting and reimagining tones
that Jimmy Page and the Stones were getting back in the
’60s and ’70s. Once these pedals came back, they never
went away.”
The first half century for Dunlop Manufacturing has been
one of the most amazing, improbable, inspiring, rocking
triumphs in the history of the music business. From
impossibly humble beginnings, Jim Dunlop turned his
musicianship, technical know-how, and fearlessness into
a legendary company that musicians worldwide look to for
accessories, electronics, and more. Through it all, Dunlop
is still a family company, and our R&D and production
facilities are all still in Benicia, California, with a team of
more than 250 skilled and dedicated people who work
hard every day to uphold Jim’s commitment to providing
musicians with the tools they need.
The next 50 years will see Dunlop expanding on the
lines of picks, capos, slides, and stompboxes. Already an
accessories powerhouse, Dunlop is now branching out
into the string business, with state-of-the-art manufacturing
processes and support from top musicians such as
Marcus Miller, Jerry Cantrell, and Zakk Wylde. In the effects
world, Cry Baby and MXR have grown from a handful of
authentic reissues to expansive product lines with dozens
of new and innovative designs, and the Way Huge line is
delivering one unique pedal after another, giving players
more options than ever. Hailed by many as one of the last
true rock and roll companies, Dunlop understands and
reveres tradition while embracing the future—with the
vision, drive, and tenacity that the founder put into creating
his very first pick 50 years ago.
Thanks for joining us on the first part of this journey.
Stick around. We’re just getting started.