When he was in junior high, Curtis Novak wanted to play guitar—so he saved his lunch money and bought a “really crappy” Strat copy. “I immediately took it apart,” he says. “I was intrigued by the electronics.” Trying to improve the guitar’s weak sound, he installed a set of Seymour Duncan pickups. “I heard this amazing tone for three days,” he says, “and then I loaned it to a friend, who broke the coils.”
Undaunted, Curtis continued to explore his interest in guitar. While he never became an accomplished player, he found a niche in repair and restoration, putting himself through college by buying stripped-finish instruments, restoring their vintage look, and selling them. “Eventually I stopped painting because I was not liking all the chemicals, but I was really into pickups and did all I could to learn more. I would cold-call Fender and Gibson to find the old-timers who were still there, and I’d talk to them about what they were doing.”
At the time, Curtis was working as a computer scientist in a demanding job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Winding pickups was what I did to unwind from the stress of work,” he says. After years of splitting his time between the government job and making pickups, Curtis decided to focus on the latter, submitting his resignation to the lab so he could focus full-time on pickups.
On his website, Curtis states: “I believe a pickup should not be thought of in terms of output, but rather of input. The function of a pickup is to sense the string and send as wide of a tone band as possible to your rig.” To accomplish this, he has worked for years to perfect a hand-winding process that delivers the strongest and most detailed signal to the amp. All of his pickups are passive. “A pickup is a sensor, like a camera. Active pickups have a very low wind and a preamp to boost the signal. That’s like an underexposed image that you later lighten. You do make the image brighter, but there’s much data lost in the underexposed photograph.”
Curtis says about half of his current business is bass pickups. His website lists nearly 20 Fender and Gibson bass replacement pickups, as well as a Hofner and his version of the Hagstrom Bisonic, the pickup used in 1960s Guild Starfire basses. But that’s just a glimpse into what Curtis does. “I sell a lot of stuff that isn’t listed on my site, that people just know about,” he says. His method mixes art with science. “Pickups are like paintbrushes to an artist. I’ve spent a lot of time understanding the unique properties of the coil, the wire, the magnet, the shape, and what different materials do. But a lot of what I do is just talking to customers to figure out what they want. I’ve done this long enough to know what people want when they say, I want it to sound like this. I’ve always found it’s better to do that than to try to sell them on what I have.”
Novak pickups are made by a few well-trained workers closely supervised by Curtis, who still does much of the work himself in his California shop. “Everything is done by hand, the way it was done back in the ’50s. There’s a quality to that way of doing it that’s impossible with automation. Mass production was the death of good tone.”
Although Curtis deliberately keeps a low profile, eschewing advertising and other promotion, word about his great-sounding pickups has spread widely among players—and among instrument makers. His OEM customers include some of the biggest names in the business. “Those big companies can’t do what I do on the scale that I do it,” Curtis says. “So it’s a symbiotic relationship that works well, and I’ve got to say that in all the years I’ve been doing this, every year’s sales have surpassed the previous year.” There’s a reason for that.
For more about Curtis Novak pickups, go to curtisnovak.com.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).