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 musicians.
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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 one-stop 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.
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.’”
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 state-of-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.”
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.
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 place.”
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 and vibrant today that it’s difficult to remember when space-age 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 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.