When Kendrick Lemke isn’t slinging riffs in Cyclopean Blood Temple, he’s creating and selling his own handwound guitar pickups with his company, Valhalla Pickups. Lemke has been been putting his expertise to work since 2015 and his products have been used by the likes of Cattle Decapitation, Christworm, and more. With the release of Valhalla’s new Standard Series of models on the horizon, Lemke agreed to give Svbterranean the details on his upcoming products. In this special interview, Lemke speaks on his new line of pickups, as well as Valhalla’s beginnings and what sets his company apart from the rest.
Hello! Could you please introduce yourself?
Hey! My name is Kendrick Lemke; I’m a guitar pickup winder, musician, electrical engineer, and owner of Valhalla Pickups. I’m based in Gainesville, Florida.
When did you first become interested in instrument/hardware design and repair?
I started playing guitar when I was around 12 years old, and I’ve always had the tendency to take things apart to see how they work. By the time I was 14 or 15, I was swapping the pickups in just about every guitar I had and modifying circuits to add more tonal options. I didn’t start winding my own pickups until the summer of 2015.
Why the interest in pickups specifically?
In electric guitars and basses, electromagnetic pickups are what transfer the energy from your strings into an electrical signal, and because pickups are so early in the signal path, they can make such a huge difference in your overall tone. Most guitars have stock pickups that leave something to be desired tonally and sound weak and/or muddy. You can have the nicest amplifier, cabinet, speakers, and pedals, but if your tone is trash at the source, you’re basically polishing a turd. There’s a similar concept in recording: capture the sounds you want as accurately as possible when tracking, instead of fixing mistakes or issues in the mixing or mastering stages.
I went to school for electrical engineering, and while I have the knowledge to be able to design amplifiers or pedals, there are only so many ways, electrically, to amplify or distort an audio signal. I’ve just never been as interested in that side of things. There are already tons of small companies making boutique pedals and amps, and I have a lot of respect for anyone doing that. There are some great designs out there. Maybe one day I’ll have a novel pedal or amplifier idea that I’ll just have to make, but as of now, pretty much anything I’d be looking for in an amp or pedal already exists in some form. Plus, I build EEG amplifiers at my day job, so I’m working on electronic circuits every day regardless.
How did your company, Valhalla Pickups, come to be?
In June 2015, I was working in Daytona Beach and bought enough supplies to make eight humbucker pickups and through a ton of trial and error, I started finding magnet and wind combinations that I thought sounded awesome. I made a few for friends and got their feedback and applied it to my next builds. About halfway through the summer, I ended up getting an offer to intern with Orange Amplifiers and relocated to the Atlanta, Georgia area to work in their US office. Learning about the inner workings of such a legendary company in the musical equipment / electronics realm was super inspiring, and by August 7th, I had opened up an online storefront and started accepting custom orders for my guitar pickup company. I got all the paperwork done and established an LLC so that everything was as legitimate as possible.
I don’t really stick to the Norse mythology theme that the name of the company implies, but I liked the imagery of someone dying in their battle with getting great tone – and living an afterlife in Valhalla. In my first logo designs, the first two letters are also the alchemy symbols for “earth” and “magnet,” which fits with the theme of pickups, considering rare-earth magnets are used to magnetize unoriented guitar pickup magnets.
What sets Valhalla Pickups apart from the competition?
My main goal and passion is to build pickups that sound aggressive while still retaining clarity. A lot of people playing heavy music have gravitated toward high-output active pickups where the pickups are powered by a 9V battery or rechargeable battery pack, and I don’t think they’re the best option for anything; they’re kind of a one-trick pony. Passive pickups like mine don’t overly compress your output at the source (unlike most active pickups), and because of that, passive pickups lead to a greater degree of note separation, picking dynamics, and clarity. But even big-name passive pickup manufacturers are, for the most part, creating machine-wound, machine-tensioned pickups, which makes the designs easy to duplicate on a large scale. Everything I make is guided by hand, or handwound and hand-tensioned, and since I make every pickup by hand, I’m also doing personal quality control on each one.
I think the way I offer custom aesthetic options is also a little bit different than most companies making pickups. For example, when people order custom humbuckers from me, they can choose one of my 10 pre-set magnet and wind combinations I’ve come up with over the years, or specify their own specs, and then choose different pickup color options, hardware color options, and whether or not they want one of eight different covers. The degree of customizability I offer is more than most guitar pickup companies offer at this point.
What do you feel makes hand-wound pickups a better selection that machine-wound pickups?
Handwound pickups just sound awesome! There’s something to be said about the randomness of the winds created when winding by hand compared to machine-wound pickups. All electromagnetic guitar pickups use the concept of Faraday’s Law of Induction: changes in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will induce a voltage in the coil. When you strum your guitar strings, it causes changes in the magnetic environment of the coils of a pickup, which in turn, induces a voltage in the coil. This voltage is the electrical signal that you can hear from an electric guitar when you complete the circuit with amplification and speakers.
The randomness of handwound coils captures a more nuanced depiction of your playing in that electrical signal. Compared to the machine-wound pickups I’ve tried, mine have all sounded more articulate and three-dimensional.
What can you tell us about your upcoming Standard Series?
Up until now, I’ve only made pickups on a one-on-one custom order basis, with pickups shipping 4-8 weeks after an order is placed. The new Standard Series are the first pickups I’ve made that I will keep in stock and ship immediately after an order is placed. The Standard Series models are some of my personal favorite magnet and wind combos and includes some brand new designs offered for the first time as well as some old customer favorites. The Standard Series pickups are offered in black with black hardware and have the “Valhalla” branding on the front of the pickups in metallic silver, and will be available starting Friday, September 28th. The Standard Series includes six humbuckers: the Cerberus bridge, the Predator bridge, the Smoke bridge, the Atmos bridge, the Supercollider neck, and the Atmos neck.
When the pickups are released on the online store, I’ll also be releasing some really nice demos of each pickup, recorded at Warhouse Recordings here in Gainesville.
Valhalla offers customers the option to customize their own pickups. What kind of advice do you have for certain kinds of players to help them customize their pickups to the sound desire?
The best advice I can give is to know what you’ve liked or disliked about previous pickups you’ve used, and to let me know what kind of music you play and what the rest of your rig is like. If you can give me a previous pickup you’ve used and what you’d want more or less of compared to that, it gives me a much better starting point than just saying you want something that sounds “heavy” or something like that. Everyone’s guitar rig is different; everyone uses different processes to get the tones they like, and everyone’s perception is different. For example, the Gibson PAF humbuckers are not very high-output pickups; some people love them for heavy music, and some people hate them for heavy music. Tone is subjective and even your own opinion on your own tone can change over time, so the more data I have about how you’re achieving tones you like, the more accurately I can make you a pickup that I’ll be sure you’ll love.
Any final words or thoughts?
Spend time doing stuff that makes you happy. I went out on a limb when I started doing this, and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Thank you so much for this opportunity to share some information about one of my passions!