I recently had a great late-night chat with Tim McNelly, a new dad and impeccable craftsman from Ontario, Canada. Tim makes solid pickups, which are really worth checking out. I can’t say enough about the McNelly split coils that I recently installed into my Jazz bass.
Cordtangler: Let’s start with how you got into building pickups.
Tim McNelly: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in how things work, so I used to take things apart and put them back together. I guess I got into guitars at about age 10.
In high school, I had an idea to build guitars, but I didn’t get around to doing that until about five years ago, when I was doing construction work in this guy’s guitar shop. Being in the shop felt amazing. It totally ignited a passion in me, so I asked the owner if he could teach me. He loaned me a bunch of books, which I devoured. And then I just really went for it. A lot of guesswork at first, tons of reading, and of course trial and error.
Once I started making guitars, I also explored pickups. I knew what I wanted so I reached out to a company about some of my ideas. They weren’t interested, so I decided to do it on my own. I made a winder and a few months later I started selling them. It took off fast. A year into it, I stopped taking guitar orders altogether and just focused on pickups.
CT: Do you think you’ll ever go back to making full-on guitars?
TM: As a hobby, yes. Or for friends or a special project. But other than that, full-on guitars aren’t part of the plan for the business.
CT: First guitar you owned?
TM: I still have it. It’s the Yamaha Pacifica 721.
TM: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a bit of a shredder. But it was my only guitar for 10 years and it’s actually quite nice. I got it about 23 years ago, used, so I’m not sure how old it is. I think it has DiMarzios in it, humbuckers in the neck and bridge, and a stacked single coil in the middle. It’s very “strat-like” but also kind of “Ibanezy.” I have a real connection with it. As uncool as it may be to some, I still love that guitar.
CT: That’s awesome. What kind of music first inspired you?
TM: I know this sounds strange, but I’ve never been a huge music listener. I’m still not. I enjoy some stuff for sure but I have a hard time pinning down a specific artist who’s been inspirational to me. I like John Mayer’s style… I was never a classic rock fan.
CT: Aside from the Pacifica, what’s your Holy Grail guitar?
TM: I don’t need anything too crazy. Generally, I’d say a Tele. I don’t like how they sound, but I really like the feel of them. They’re comfortable to play with the right set up. I think that’s what led me to want to change things.
CT: Do you have a pickup you’re most proud of?
TM: I’d have to say the Stagger Swagger. I like how it sounds, especially the neck pickup, which is quite popular.
I started making the Stagger Swagger in reaction to a cease and desist order I received related to a single coil I was making in a Humbucker size. (I guess this rather large guitar company had a patent on a design they felt I was infringing on…)
So I needed a replacement, and the Stagger Swagger became my focus. I had an idea for it, made a prototype, and it ended up being better than the original. In hindsight, the cease and desist was good because it pushed me to make it versus always having that idea on the back burner. I don’t know if proud is the right word but I’m glad that people like it. It’s a nod, like “Good job.” (Laughs)
CT: What inspires a new idea for a pickup?
TM: So many different things.
I do a lot of custom work so sometimes someone will make a request and it sparks an idea. They’ll describe a tone or a combination of things that don’t currently exist and I try to think it through and then come back with an offer.
I’m not very nostalgic. Even if something has a revered design, I’m okay changing it if it doesn’t work for me. I think it’s okay to step out of the box and tweak a classic if need be.
I also come up with ideas late at night. I don’t know if our brains work differently then but things will come to me and I’ll start experimenting in the shop. I’ve made a lot of prototypes – some things suck, and other things turn out to be gold!
CT: How do you know when you’ve got a good idea?
TM: I don’t! Not until I try them out a bit. I’ve had some ideas that I thought were great, but then when I tried them out, they weren’t.
CT: Are there products you’ve always wanted to make or develop?
TM: In fact, yeah. I think 2016 might be the year that I develop some new products. One is an acoustic pickup, which I posted on Instagram last summer.
CT: Amazing! Can you say more?
TM: I’m still working on it. Ideally, I’ll be able to offer it as its own as a standard acoustic pickup, with the option of buying a pedal separately to split the signal. If I can get it to work right, the pedal will be an option or if someone just wants to use the pickup in a more standard way – I don’t want them to have to buy both.
CT: Very cool. Any other ideas you’re developing?
TM: Yeah, I call it “The Bean.” It’s another pickup I’ve posted on Instagram. It’s oval-shaped and has offset 3 and 3 poles, kind of like the Stagger Swagger.
I haven’t created the finished version of it yet but it’s a cool design that won’t fit into a standard vintage guitar model, so I have to get traction with builders. My fingers are crossed. I’m hoping to develop it with uncoated brass covers. If I can pull these off, they’ll look super unique.
The Bean will still have single coil tone, and I think it will meet the needs of what many people tend to want. It sounds a little bit like a Smokey Strat pickup, but more ballsy. It’s instantly recognizable and I find people tend to like that.
CT: Have you approached a builder?
TM: I approached Walsh Guitars with it and made several custom versions but without the brass covers. I’ve also talked to Nick from Prisma Guitars. I’m not pushing it too hard until I can fully have the look I’m going for. It always seems like production and design take 10 times longer than I think going into it.
CT: Have you ever thought about developing a stereo pickup? I have an old Ovation Preacher with stereo pickups. I know other models were floating around in the 70s but they never seemed to take off.
TM: I’m not sure why they never took off. I’m not sure if it was the players or the guitar companies? It’s funny, in talking about staggered poles, those could easily be wired to be stereo. So if someone wanted to try it, they could do so with some of my pickups.
CT: Would you ever think of offering it?
TM: It’s a cool idea but it comes down to marketing it right. You could send the different signals to different pedals and have a lot of possibilities.
CT: Well, there you go.
TM: (Laughs) See! This is where the ideas come from.
CT: By the way, how did you hook-up with Nick from Prisma guitars?
[Note: Nick has helped create Prisma versions of McNelly pickups and also offers them in his guitars.]
TM: I saw his stuff on Instagram. His guitars are really unique. The second you see one, you know it’s his. There are other skateboard guitars out there but he does it on another level; his craftsmanship is amazing. His stuff really got my mind going. I had already been making some pickups with wood tops and reached out to him immediately. We hit it off and we’ve been working together ever since.
CT: Any other guitar builders out there catching your attention?
TM: Off the top of my head, David Ayers. I think his real passion is acoustics but he ends up building more electrics because of demand. He was one of the first guys to jump on board when I put out the Stagger Swagger. I really connect with his aesthetic. He used my pickups in his guitars and made them look amazing.
CT: How about any “best kept secret” Canadian guitar builders?
TM: Jordan McConnell of McConnell Guitars in Winnepeg. His acoustics are at another level and his inlay work is pure art. He’s one of those guys I felt honored by when he bought my pickups.
CT: Any pedal builders?
TM: Actually, the guy I’m working with on the acoustic pickup is Jeremy Spencley from Tribute Audio Design. He’s great guy to design with. He has good ideas and knows how to make them happen.
I probably shouldn’t admit this but I don’t use pedals that often. I just got a pedal board last year mainly for use in demos. I’m most comfortable plugging straight into an amp… it’s just what I grew up doing. Most of the time, I don’t even know what pedals people are using. (Laughs)
CT: Do you have an all-time favorite amp?
TM: I’d say a Fender Princeton, but only if it gets sent to a 12-inch speaker. I don’t think Fender ever made that combination but I love how “chimey” they sound. And when you push them, I love the way they break up. It’s beautiful. I wish I had one!
CT: Aside from me (hilarious joke…), are there musicians using your pickups that you’re excited about?
TM: When I first started, the idea of a famous musician playing my stuff was exciting, but I don’t find that as fulfilling these days. The non-celebrity person-to-person interaction gives me the most satisfaction – the people who’ve saved up their money, talked through details with me, and end up being really happy and appreciative in the end: that’s why I do what I do.
CT: Have you had the chance to meet any famous musicians?
TM: Do you know the band Hawk Nelson? They’re a pretty big Christian band. Daniel, the bass player, lives in town and is a friend of mine. He helps me in the shop sometimes, when he’s not on tour.
CT: You know, I have to ask, it seems like in the boutique builder world Christian players seem to be a big part of the scene? Am I crazy?
TM: You’re not crazy. I can’t figure it out. I don’t deliberately market myself as a Christian company or use it as some kind of an angle for sales. I just want people to use my stuff because they like it or they like to work with me. That said, the Christian community is a big part of my customer base.
CT: I find that so interesting.
TM: It is, I agree. I don’t think Christian players have more disposable income necessarily, but often with really big churches there can be available funds for purchasing gear, which might be a part of it. I’ve had long conversations with people about this. I still don’t know the answer.
CT: Have you ever injured yourself doing something completely stupid?
TM: When I did construction, I left a drill a couple levels up on some scaffolding. We were moving windows and knocked into the scaffolding and it came down and went through my toe. It was bad but thankfully didn’t hit bone, so it could have been worse.
CT: Ouch! Thanks so much Tim, I really appreciate your time!