Remembering Jim Dunlop

February 27, 2019 5 min read

Jim Dunlop Picks

An Influential Pioneer of Guitar Accessories Who Helped Shape Modern Music

In the history of modern music, few figures have been as influential as Jim Dunlop. An engineer by trade, Jim Dunlop worked as a machinist to support his family, but devoted his spare time to creating guitar accessories that would revolutionize the world of music. Over the years Dunlop has been credited with reinventing the finger-pick and the flat pick by experimenting with varying shapes, gauges and materials based on feedback from working musicians. Soon he branched out into to slides and kept the American tradition of slide guitar alive by creating a line of slides of varying sizes, thicknesses and materials. In the 1980‘s, Dunlop’s engineering background would pay off as his company branched out into effects, acquiring and refining the Crybaby Wah and MXR effects pedals, creating products that would inspire generations of guitarists.

Never resting on his laurels, the Dunlop company continued to grow as more and more noteworthy musicians used Dunlop’s products. The list of artists who use Dunlop products or have collaborated with Dunlop to create new products reads like a who’s-who of guitar legends, including Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Dimebag Darrell, Slash, Kirk Hammett, John Petrucci, Billy Gibbons, Derek Trucks, Joe Perry and blues legend Buddy Guy.

Recently, at the age of 82, Jim Dunlop passed away. As a tribute to Dunlop, we’d like to share some of what we’ve learned about his amazing career. Below you will find a brief overview of Dunlop’s achievement as a pioneer in the world of guitar accessories. Of course, if you want to read the entire store you should take a few minutes to read theJim Dunlop Story on the Dunlop website.

It All Started With The Capo

Dunlop and his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960‘s back when the folk music revolution that was in full swing, when there was a great need for acoustic guitars and all kinds of guitar accessories. Having heard of a need for good capos designed for 12-string guitars, Dunlop decided that he was going to create one. Soon he developed and patented the ‘overstretched knee,’ or Toggle capo and started making them on his own. It was well received in the Bay area and Jon Lundburg, a leading guitar maker and luthier in the Bay Area, began carrying them in his shop.

One day when delivering a batch of his capos to Lundburg’s store, Lundburg told Dunlop that the old National metal thumb picks that were so popular in the folk community were no longer being made, and he wondered if Dunlop would want to make those for him as well. Dunlop agreed and created a design that would revolutionize thumbpicks forever and lead Dunlop on a lifelong journey creating the most popular guitar picks in the world. Dunlop was soon selling his thumb picks and capos to Lundburg’s customers and by 1965 the Jim Dunlop company was officially born.

Guitar Pick Revolution

The key to Dunlop’s pioneering success was his ability to identify a need and use his ingenuity to fill that need with innovative products. It all began with Dunlop’s line of picks. After designing and patenting thumb and finger picks that were well received among folk guitarists in the bay area, Dunlop soon turned to flat picks used by rock and jazz players. He turned his attention to pick materials and created a line of Nylon picks that were wildly popular that still sell really well to this day.

To build on the success of his Nylon picks, Dunlop began to experiment with varying shapes, sizes and materials. He did this by listening to guitar players on what they wanted from a pick, and created shapes and gauges that literally transformed the world of music. To find out what players were looking for, Dunlop read issues of Guitar Player magazine and talked to guitar players in the community, always designing picks to suit the way guitarists approached the instrument. Building on the success of the first line of nylon picks, Dunlop designed the Jazz series picks and had huge success with the Jazz III pick, which continue to sell well to this day.

The Holy Grail of Picks

For years the Holy Grail of plectrum materials was real tortoise shell, but this material was no longer available and no one had ever come up with a real viable substitute. Dunlop began experimenting with a type of material that he would come to call ‘Tortex.’ By the 1990‘s Tortex would become the most widely used pick material in the world. If you’re like most guitar players, you have several Tortex picks in your guitar case right now. I sure do!

The crucial thing about Dunlop products is their remarkable consistency. In the world of music, where each detail adds to the performance and sound of the music, Dunlop picks are among the most consistent products on the market which is why so many of the world’s biggest bands use them, and the list of guitarists who endorse them reads like the who’s who of guitar music.

A Bold New Direction

In the 1980‘s new challenges and exciting new opportunities presented themselves. One of the most famous achievements of Dunlop’s career was the acquisition of the Cry Baby Wah. Cry Baby pedals had gone off the market and had been all but unavailable to dealers for over 6 months, when Dunlop decided to make a move to acquire the iconic brand. To make it work, however, he would have to learn a completely new type of product, assemble an entirely new team and then apply the Dunlop business model to making the product more consistent.

It took him some time and a great deal of experimentation, but by putting together an industry leading engineering team and securing the best components available, Dunlop definitely got it right! Today, Crybaby signature artists include giants like Eddie Van Halen, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammett and Slash. The sound of the Cry Baby Wah is a fundamental part of the soundtrack of our time. If Dunlop had not stepped in at that juncture, it may been lost forever. From this success, Dunlop Electronics was born and a complete line of MXR and Cry Baby products that are so widely used today.

Continuing the Culture of Innovation

In the history of music, few figures have been as pioneering and influential as Jim Dunlop. Never resting on his laurels, Dunlop’s method was to always to listen to guitar players and design products that would fill a need, creating an ever growing list of industry leading products made to meet the needs of musicians. Once Dunlop came up with a winning product, he would standardize its design, creating a consistency that would never vary, making his products the most dependable on the market. Even after inventing the game-changing Tortex pick, Dunlop didn’t stop there, branching out into slides, straps, strings, repair, care and maintenance products, and electronics and effects pedals under the MXR and Way Huge brands. He even saved the iconic Cry Baby Wah from obscurity, making the brand bigger than ever. If you care about music and love to play guitar, you owe Jim Dunlop a sincere debt of gratitude.

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