Commerce City, Colorado

Owner Jose Mellado brings his engineering background to the manufacturing of boutique guitar pickups used by an array of professional musicians.

Photos Jonathan Castner

Mellado once demonstrated the basics of what he does to his daughter’s elementary school class — explaining, as he puts it, “how you can create a replication of [a guitar string’s] sound using a magnet and wrapping it with metal wire and connecting it to an amplifier.”

The students, he says, were “enamored” seeing the concept demonstrated before their very eyes — and ears. Mellado, the founder of Planet Tone Pickup Co., also told the kids how Earth has a “magnetic inner core, a north and south pole.” Magnetism, it turns out, adds music to our planet.

Clearly, Mellado’s attracted to the science behind building his guitar pickups — which is fitting for someone who graduated with a degree in civil engineering from CU-Boulder. Mellado says, “One of the beautiful things about the civil engineering degree at CU is it really asks you to dabble in a few disciplines: I had to take circuits and chemistry and thermodynamics…I’m able to use some of the circuits background from that degree.”

Mellado also played guitar, so he knew about classic pickup styles — which he now emulates and evolves. For instance, Fender Stratocaster guitars, featuring single-coil pickups, were played by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Fender Telecasters, with their own style of pickups, have often been favored by twangy country pickers. And humbucker pickups go into those Gibson Les Paul guitars wielded by Slash, Warren Haynes, and Jimmy Page.

Mellado first began selling his own guitar pickups in 2008 under a different brand name on his eBay store. He offered them alongside other ones made by noted manufacturers like Seymour Duncan (whose namesake Mellado calls a “wonderful person, absolutely kind”) and Lace. “I realized that the pickups I was making sounded better than the pickups I was buying and distributing,” says Mellado.

Presently, Mellado’s company manufactures a few dozen styles. He often sells the pickups — such as his 1959 Special Humbucker and Elite Pro P90 — as single units. But they can also be purchased wired together as part of a calibrated set — like the two that make up the Elite Pro for Tele and the three in the 1969 Voodoo Hot Pickup for Strat.

Mellado studiously avoids discussing his manufacturing tricks. However, he allows how his initial readings into how to make guitar pickups — from texts which he sometimes found lacking in terms of advice — did lead to one solid lesson: the importance of eddy currents. Mellado says, “It’s no hidden secret, when you look at the pickup books, they talk about eddy currents — and the eddy currents change the character of the tone. So, in coming up with our pickup manufacturing techniques, we did everything possible to minimize eddy currents.”

According to Mellado, Planet Tone’s pickups have been receiving positive feedback: “We’re doing things that other manufacturers aren’t — and it’s yielding a different tone. We’re hearing people tell us, ‘I’ve been playing pickups for 30 to 40 years and I’ve never heard anything like your pickup: the clarity, the dynamics. . . . I can hear every single note in my chord all at the same time — and together — at once. I’ve never been able to hear that before.'”

Planet Tone operates out of Mellado’s home. “Yeah, it’s a house — but the entire basement’s a shop,” laughs Mellado about his serious-minded setup. The operation uses a winding machine to wrap copper wire — sourced from Germany-based Elektrisola — directly around alnico magnets (made from aluminum, nickel, and cobalt), or on a post which the magnet is placed alongside. Most of the parts he incorporates into his pickups are also accessible to other manufacturers, but Mellado says it’s how he puts his pickups together that makes the difference.

In terms of sales, Mellado says, “Last year, we grew almost 40 percent.” Business remains steady this year, but he says that for the previous four years, “We experienced record-breaking numbers. We were pursued by a few business-investment groups.” But increased sales have also had consequences: “For a while, we were experiencing too much success — and then our turnaround times got too big for some people.”

Mellado says he’d rather not rush production if it ultimately means lowering his products’ quality; and he likens wait times for his goods to that of a popular restaurant at which one might not get seated at the exact reservation hour, but customers will stick it out because they know the food is going to be worth it.

In addition to their sound quality, another of his pickups’ selling points is their affordability compared with other brands. “I don’t believe in overcharging people for an honest day’s labor,” Mellado says. “We just want to provide a good product at a good price to good people.”

When he’s not crafting pickups, Mellado is a pastor at a Denver church, a pursuit for which he doesn’t draw a salary. So, his love of tinkering within his equipment shop affords him the ability to listen to his congregants’ needs — as well as to play guitar for them — within that setting.

Challenges: “We really notice the shift every time there’s a new president,” says Mellado: a change, every four to eight years, which affects everything from taxation to international trade.

Opportunities: “Business-to-business sales,” says Mellado. In other words, steady relationships in which Mellado vends his boutique pickups to, for instance, artisan guitar makers. Oftentimes, larger pickup dealers won’t engage at that level with smaller businesses. But the steady source of income helps to provide salaries for Planet Tone employees, says Mellado.

Needs: “To establish a consistent branding and marketing program, so that we become that household name for the next generation,” says Mellado.

Planet Tone Pickup Co. has an artists’ program, spotlighting working musicians who use the company’s pickups. “Without artists using our products, we probably wouldn’t have experienced the success that we have,” says Mellado. “People want to know that there are legitimate musicians using the products.”