A Brief History of DiMarzio Pickups

Staten Island, to the uninitiated, is New York City’s lost borough. Situated furthest from Manhattan, Staten Island’s subdivisions and neighborhoods look more in place with the tracts of suburban homes found within Westchester County or out on post-war Long Island.

However, musicians (and guitarists in particular) know better than to write off the borough, which houses Mandolin Brothers, a world famous guitar shop that's served the likes of George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and other famous players. It would seem that some of a guitarist’s favorite gear is produced in New York City, with Staten Island adding to the City’s already impressive resume.

Somewhere between the Staten Island Mall, the now-closed Fresh Kills Dump (now the City’s largest park with spectacular views of Manhattan’s skyline) and St. George’s Ferry Terminal, lays DiMarzio Inc., a company that produces pickups, cables, straps and hardware.

DiMarzio pickups are world famous – powering the sounds of famous virtuosos Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and bands like Boston, Motorhead, Megadeth, Dream Theater, Def Leppard and more. In a 2010 article, Premier Guitar said that the company “boasts a who’s who list of endorsers that includes notable guitarists and outright guitar gods.”

DiMarzio’s Beginnings: Super Distortion & Dual Sound

Larry DiMarzio, DiMarzio Inc.’s founder and namesake, first introduced the Super Distortion and Dual Sound pickups in 1971. These pickups were the first mass market replacement pickups, launching a generation of guitar tinkering that's still strong today. Thirty plus years later, his company produces almost 200 pick-up models, all coming from a nondescript factory on the industrial north shore of Staten Island.

DiMarzio first created the now famous Super Distortion while seeking a better sound from his guitar, but recognizing the limited availability of hardware for the average consumer to use. Influenced by Bill Lawrence, who created True-Sound pickups in the mid-'60s, DiMarzio sought to make custom parts more readily available for those who wanted to shape their sound, and push their guitars to the sonic limits. As the company’s website says about the Super Distortion, “…this pickup started a sound revolution. Replacement pickups simply didn’t exist before the invention of the Super Distortion in the early Seventies.”


Shaping Signature Sounds

Even before his company launched, DiMarzio had a reputation for knowing pickups and tone. Fellow New Yorker Ace Frehley of KISS was an early adopter of the pickup, which helped him achieve an aggressive tone as needed. Gene Simmons went to college with DiMarzio who was making hand-wound pickups in Manhattan and introduced the builder to Frehley. Frehley loved the pickups and careful ears can hear DiMarzio’s creations shaping KISS’ signature guitar sounds.

According to Steve Blucher in the Guitar Pickup Handbook, the Super Distortion’s success was fueled by Frehley’s usage and the “absence of high-gain amplifiers in the 1970s.” Blucher, who had a major hand in influencing the direction of DiMarzio's pickups, continued to say, “The only ways to achieve thicker sound with more sustain with amplifiers of the era were with either a hotter pickup or a floor pedal.” A product of its time, the Super Distortion helped set the stage for even hotter pickups, including the active, battery-powered options that the company offered in the following years such as the D Activator, which was created to eliminate the sterility often associated with active pickups, and the more extreme X2N. By making the Super Distortion approachable to the average player, DiMarzio fueled the gear swapping culture that many find just as rewarding as actually playing the guitar.

Even with their central role in defining pickup culture, Blucher still recognizes that sometimes, players get so lost in the quagmire of gear choice they forget what brought them to the topic in the first place – the instrument itself. As he told Guitar.com, “It will probably seem strange coming from someone who makes a living from the sale of pickups & parts, but I’d like to caution players about getting too hung up over gear choices. It can be endlessly fascinating, but I don’t think it’s good if it takes away from playing time.”


Moving Into Other Arenas

Today, the DiMarzio factory employs between 40 and 50 employees, with some staff being as far away from the tiny Staten Island factory as Montana. As an industry leader, DiMarzio has been churning out pickups for decades, moving into accessories like the ClipLock strap and high quality instrument cables. Despite forays into other product lines, the core of their business is, and always will be, pickups.

When it comes to variety for competitors to benchmark, DiMarzio has plenty, with offerings ranging from humbuckers, single-coil, unique offerings for Strats and Telecasters, soapbars, bass, acoustic, and 7-string. Even the variety of their relatively obscure 8-string pickups is rich, with the company offering 9 choices for the discerning player. DiMarzio’s website is a helpful resource for any discerning guitar player, complete with output charts for pickups, videos, and according to multiple players in the online community, rapid response from company staff.

All in all, DiMarzio’s success comes back to the Super Distortion pickup, the New York music scene, and the freedom of choice DiMarzio offered guitar players in the early 1970s.

Update: In May 2023, DiMarzio published its own history article, written by Larry DiMarzio himself—"The Birth of the Super Distortion: How DiMarzio Changed the Electric Guitar"—for the pickup's 50th anniversary. Check it out by clicking the link for a deep dive into the invention and the inventor.

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