‘Tone is King’

In Features, Human Interest on March 3, 2015 at 11:19 pm

Camano Island resident Kerry Learned is known around the world for his hand-made guitar pickups

Written by Alex Ashley

Most people don’t know Kerry Learned, but guitar players have heard of him.

Learned, a Camano Island resident, is a bit of an enigma: he doesn’t go out much, nobody knows who he is, yet his work as a boutique manufacturer of guitar pickups, along with his brand name, Onamac Windery, is known worldwide.

A guitar pickup is a magnetic transducer that captures the mechanical vibrations of the instrument’s strings and converts them into an electronic signal.

Today, Learned’s pickups are so in-demand that for the past few years, he has had a constant backlog of orders between one and two months. He calls his work “a full-time job and a half.”

But there was a time in the not-too-distant past when producing custom guitar pickups wasn’t Learned’s business at all; he was a mechanic.

Although he came from a musical family – his older brother played drums and guitar; his younger sister played piano and he himself took guitar lessons at 9 – the passion of his youth quickly became cars and hotrods.

After attending Bellingham Technical Institute for automotive, he rebuilt a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle from the ground up that made the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1986, just before his 21st birthday.

In time, he became a factory-trained Honda master technician at a local dealer, and eventually foreman at Honda of Seattle.

But then he had an accident — a back injury that led to a major fusion surgery in 1991, and things were never the same.

“After recovery,” he said, “I couldn’t return to full-time shop work, so I opened my own shop in Mount Vernon.”

The shop was Alternative Automotive, Inc., operating on honest business practices and word-of-mouth advertising.

In 1995, Learned had another back surgery, but continued to work through the pain.

“My wife Stacey and I ran Alternative Automotive for over 13 years,” he said, “until I physically couldn’t do it any longer.”

In 2008, Learned and his wife of 23 years sold the business and moved to Camano Island.

“I found myself needing something to keep me sane,” Learned recalls.

To avoid the stagnation of an early retirement, Learned turned to his first love.

“I started playing again and building guitars as a hobby to keep busy,” he said.

All four walls of Learned’s living room are lined with beautiful electric guitars, mostly Fenders, and several classic amplifiers.

A large tapestry of electric guitars hangs on the wall opposite the window.

“I have so many guitars so I can swap the pickups out and see how they sound,” he said.

To save funds on what can be one of the most expensive parts of a guitar, Learned decided to try his hand at making his own pickups.

“I made my own winding machine from a Honda Accord heater blower motor, miscellaneous electronics and some plywood,” he said.

A major part of creating guitar pickups is tightly winding fine metal coil around the base of the pickup – as many as 7,000 turns.

“I was amazed at how good they sounded.”

In an effort to cover the cost of his first few attempts, Learned posted a few surplus pickups on eBay.

It didn’t take long, he said, for the word to get out, and soon he started receiving requests for pickups from all around the globe.

Learned said the way pickups are made influences the tone and feel of a guitar, and for that reason is one of the most important components of an electric guitar.

The sound, he said, will change drastically based on several factors: how the wire is wound, the makeup of the metal used in the magnets, and so on.

It’s both an art and a science.

His home workshop, a tiny room in the back of his house, is where it all happens: the walls are lined with shelves full of tools, parts and spools of wire; with half-finished prototypes of guitar bodies; with pickups-in-the-making still waiting for finishing touches.

He passed a couple across the table.

Learned said that aside from selling to what he calls “play-at-home guitarists,” who mostly play as an after-work hobby, he also sells to high profile guitar legends like Vince Gill and Tom Petty Warren Haynes, among others.

“One of those is for Peter Frampton,” he said.  “That other one goes to Robben Ford.”

Learned said there is a degree of satisfaction that comes from knowing his stuff is being played on Broadway, on television, on several records and live venues worldwide.

To say the least, Learned’s success as a boutique manufacturer is profound.

As a bit of a recluse, or so he calls himself, Learned has never been one for self-promotion.  He doesn’t have a website, his Facebook page is virtually blank and he said he’s never had any drive to commercialize.

Learned said he’s been invited more than once to travel to Nashville and try to replicate the highly unique, sought-after sound of Vince Gill’s 1952 Fender Telecaster pickups, but hasn’t yet been able to bring himself to do it because he doesn’t like to be around people.

“If I go much further, I’ll have to change how I work to accommodate the extra workload, and then the magic would be gone.  Right now, every product is handmade by me.  I couldn’t do that if I commercialized.”

He does most of his work discreetly through an eBay account, where he offers listings of 36 separate and distinct products.

“I’ve always operated under the philosophy that if you’re honest and provide a superior product, people will find you.  It served me well in the automotive business, and it seems to apply to guitar pickups as well…”

Today, Learned, who because of his back injury and subsequent surgeries can barely move at times, spends most of his days and nights focusing on his craft.

“Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and there’s no Kerry,” Stacey said, “and then I’ll hear him tinkering away in his shop.”

“Tone is king,” Learned said.  “Accomplished guitarists demand high-quality pickups that produce deeper, richer, more harmonic tone than what is available in the mass produced guitar pickup market.  For those who can tell the difference, tone is all that matters and those are the types of people I cater to.”

This piece was originally written for Stanwood Camano News, March 3, 2015:


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