New Gear: A Little Thunder Pickups

Octave pedals have been around since the beginning of time, right? Or at least since Jimi Hendrix fired it up at the Monterey Pop festival, anyway. And guitarists have been seeking out a more and more beefy tone since just about the beginning of time too. Aren’t we all?


So along comes a new tool for those of us looking for, shall we say, more depth in our musical endeavors. We’re talking about the new must-have pickup, A Little Thunder. If you haven’t heard about ALT, now’s the time.


These incredible guitar pickups include built-in octave technology that will give your guitar playing either monstrously deep, bassy tone, if that’s what you’re looking for in your little chunk and doom world, or allow you to accompany yourself on bass guitar while simultaneously laying down some killer licks or chords up top. Or whatever your imagination and fret-hand fingers can come up with.

Currently the ALT pickup is configured as a humbucking, dual coil replacement pickup that will pop right into your Les Paul, PRS, or any guitar fitted with a dual coil pickup cavity, and with just about as little hassle as zipping up your jeans.

Once it’s installed, the ALT pickup gives you the option to double your low E and A string guitar playing with octave tones either one or two octaves lower. So you will hear your regular E and A strings the same way your guitar sounds now, but through the magic of digital signal processing, you’ll also hear an added bass note, simultaneously.

So you’re saying, “Yeah, doesn’t my octave pedal do that already?” The answer is, basically, not this well, and not with this much flexibility and ease of use either.

The ALT pickup can not only double your single note riff lines, but can add bass to your barre chords too, without mucking up your sound -- something most octave pedals fail at. That’s because you can select not only whether that bass note should be one or two octaves below your guitar sound, but you can also choose to have the ALT pickup process only the lowest note it detects -- say the sixth string root note of a barre chord -- and ignore the fifth string note in that same chord.

And since the ALT pickup is only affecting the fifth and sixth string on your guitar, it’s not going to bury the tone of your instrument and what you’re playing up top by trying to duplicate it all at once, like an octave pedal would do.

There’s so much you could do with this thing, right? And there’s even more cool features, like on-pickup lights warning you when battery power is running low, and, while we’re talking battery, the fact that the whole thing doesn’t require a nine-volt like a lot of guitar mounted active electronics.

No way, dude. This thing actually charges using a micro-USB cord, just like your cell phone. You just plug it in and in an hour, you’re fully charged, and good to go for days or weeks of playing.

The concept for A Little Thunder pickups came from the mind of Andy Alt, an L.A. based musician who also happens to be Steve Vai’s online marketing director. Alt came up with the idea and got it off the ground, then hired some serious brain-power -- as in electrical engineering geniuses with PhDs and all that -- to flesh out the idea and build the prototypes.

Then Alt took his pickup, which he installed in one of his own guitars, around to known players in the L.A. area, and got a few people excited and clamoring for one of his magical devices. A successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign followed, and having nearly doubled his goal of $35,000, Alt has now put A Little Thunder pickups into production.

A Little Thunder pickups sell for $229 and will begin shipping in January, 2015. spoke with Andy about A Little Thunder pickups and got the really cool backstory, and some highly informative technical info as well. Check out what Alt has to say, and for sound and video on these incredibly cool little goodies, click the links below. How you doin’ Andy?

Andy Alt: I'm doing great! We're on a very exciting path right now. It's been a tremendous 28 days so far. I really can't be more grateful for the guitar community right now, showing their support, and sharing our invention, the A Little Thunder pickup. So it's awesome. It's a very cool pickup. I would like to have one!

Alt: The interesting thing is -- well, you know the concept: it adds a bass signal to your electric guitar, without needing to route, drill, add a nine-volt battery, or install MIDI, or any of that stuff to your physical guitar. It's a direct replacement for a humbucker, and it's still a humbucker. So all six of your guitar strings are still being produced, but then you get these two extra sounds -- the E and the A string become user-selectable, with an on and off switch, and minus-1 or minus-2 octaves. And then there's a couple different modes with it.

So it's funny because, the video -- it was amazing to have all these artists come to my place in Echo Park and check out A Little Thunder. Certainly in a laptop, iPhone, iPad world, the speakers aren't as perfect as you'd like, to be able to reproduce the bass. So that was definitely an interesting challenge for us.

But actually being in the room and playing the pickup, it's another experience all together. And that I think is going to be the most exciting part, more so than what's being shown right now: actually playing it. Actually going to a concert where somebody is playing it. It's gonna be great. Do you have any artists who are on the road using the pickup right now?

Alt: Since we're just starting off. We've had a lot of interest. So anybody who is in the video -- Social D’s Jonny Two Bags, Norah Jones guitarist Adam Levy, Dweezil Zappa and others -- they're gonna be getting A Little Thunder, as well as anybody who has given us some input, like Pete Thorn, or any of James Trussart's artists as well. They've all expressed interest in having one. So we're new to A&R in general, but certainly where there's interest, we're going to make sure the pickup finds it's way into the right person's hands. Do you only have a couple prototypes right now?

Alt: We've got about a dozen prototypes and as we work with R&D they improve vastly. It went from the original concept to growing something that had all the features that we wanted. Another exciting part is that the final product will have even more features than our current prototype, and the sound quality will be improved roughly about two and a half times because of the different technologies we're using, and the algorithms and stuff that can really only happen in production. So for us it will be just as exciting to get going with A Little Thunder at the same time as everyone else. You're not an electrical engineer, you have a degree in advertising, right? So how did you come up with this pickup?

Alt: Right, exactly. It's a funny story. One day I was just playing with a drummer, and we were at his place, and he's a known artist, and we were just kind of jamming out. And I was thinking to myself, "I can't really invite more people to this person's house." And then we'd have to teach them what we're doing, and the energy changes. What would it be like to have this beautiful bottom end rounding out the sound? It would be awesome.

So I went home and worked on it, and I think within about a week and a half I had a decent working prototype from just going online and digging around, and getting what they call a "breadboard," where it's like a DSP development kit, and I started following instructions and coding and everything. And it was pretty cool. Within about a week I had something that actually worked, and then that drummer went and did his big tour, so I was like, "I'm gonna develop this for fun."

And I formed a little band called Swimming in Trees, a duo. And it was probably a year or two after I started working with Steve Vai, so I showed Steve the pickup, and he said, "That's pretty cool." So that's kind of the origin of it. Who was the drummer you were jamming with?

Alt: It was Ben Kenney from Incubus. He is the bass player from Incubus, formerly the guitar player from the Roots. And in your video you're playing with the guy from Suicidal Tendencies, right?

Alt: Yeah, Thomas Pridgen. Thomas is a monster drummer. He's in The Mars Volta, Suicidal Tendencies. He plays a lot with Trash Talk. Just a lot of different cool punk but progressive bands. He's from Berklee (College of Music) and has a jazz background. He's just awesome. So I started telling people about it and it when it was time to put some video together to get it out into the world, I reconnected with him. So you actually personally designed this pickup using apps from the Internet?

Alt: Well, there's this thing called a breadboard, and you can order a DSP development kit. And it's this big bulky thing, the size of an old Game Boy. You hook it up to your computer and start to load code on to it, and manipulate it and mess around. It started like a low-level engineer/tech project, but grew from that.

And when it was time to improve it, I hired an R&D firm who has a staff of people with PhDs in audio processing. It was the right connection to be made. So now you've put the pickup out there to the world. You have a Kickstarter campaign that worked really well, really quick. So you're excited, right?

Alt: Yeah! Absolutely excited. The response from the guitar community has been unbelievable. I'm on the Kickstarter page right now and it's been shared 20,000 times on Facebook. I've never seen figures quite like that, being shared 20,000 times is phenomenal! I'm getting messages from people all over the globe: Kosovo, the U.K., Australia, Japan, China, just everywhere. And I'm making friends with these people.

So when an order comes in, I'm writing back as soon as possible and trying to gauge how they might use it. So it's a really fun communication tool to be able to interact with guitar players from all around the globe who you wouldn't have previously met. So the pickup has switches where you can choose between one octave or two below guitar tuning, or you can choose to only allow the lower bass note to sound, or to allow both bass strings to sound out at the same time.

Alt: Right. And these switches will be on the exterior of the pickup, so the user can change them on the fly, right?

Alt: Exactly. There's a specially designed pickup ring that ships with A Little Thunder, and it's all connected. It allows you to turn it on and off at your fingertips. You can switch between minus-one and minus-two octaves. And then there's a low note priority feature, so basically it detects the lowest note being played -- and there's quite a bit of science behind it in terms of it's frequency, amplitude, and another algorithm that we're using.

Essentially, if you play a barre chord, you may not want the root note and the fifth in your barre chord (to sound as additional bass notes). You may only want the root note. So in that mode, it processes the organic string signal as the bass note, and not the other one. The other one still comes through as a guitar signal, but does not come through as a bass note in that mode.

It's been a really interesting process because -- I got a patent on it, and it was a matter of being really clear and explaining to the United States Patent and Trademark Office what you're trying to do. So I learned a ton of stuff about how to originate intellectual property, get it approved, and then protect it. So who knows, maybe I could have come out with this two years ago, because it took a couple years to get a patent.

But I think it was very important to secure the intellectual property because this concept can grow: A violin can sound like a cello, a cello could sound like an upright bass. And conversely, if you have a four-string bass, maybe the top two strings of your bass go up an octave, and you take a guitar solo.

So there's probably a lot of different applications for it, and there's... Billy Sheehan might want one of those!

Alt: Yeah! (laughs). And we love Billy. And there's a lot of fun things to do. It's not just a six string thing. We're working on a seven-string version. We're experimenting with an eight-string version. We're working on an acoustic version. We're working on a single coil version.

So part of the responsibility of having the intellectual property secured on it is producing enough configurations so anybody who wants to experiment with it on their existing guitar can plop it right in, and install it very easily, and then get going with it and let the experimentations begin. So now you have achieved your Kickstarter funding goal, so what's the next step?

Alt: As soon as we hit our mark -- and the goal was $35,000 to go into production. And that happened after about 12 or 14 days, we immediately signed a manufacturing agreement with a company here in Los Angeles, or slightly south -- in the Irvine/Costa Mesa/Newport Beach area -- so it's so close.

Everything is being done here in the Los Angeles area, which I love because I've heard from different people who I've spoken with to get some advice: They order from China, and the labor is cheaper, and everything is cheaper, but it takes a long, long time. And you can't really interact with the product as it's being built.

So I think it's really important that the team of people be within proximity. So if something good happens, I can be there within an hour. If something bad happens, I can be there within an hour.

And it's really cool, because there is a lot of excitement, even from the manufacturer. And that's a good sign when they're excited about the product. They're going above and beyond. And the same people who created the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset are going to be manufacturing A Little Thunder pickups, and putting them together, and molding the plastic, and the 3D stuff. It's really neat. Maybe I'm just getting lucky, but the talent level going into the product is so high, and there's just so many features that I'd love to keep sharing. What else can you tell us about A Little Thunder from the tech side?

Alt: It's great: we have a near-zero latency. We have all kinds of different factors that make this a very unique product. And also much different, even the way the pickup coils are wound. But also much different than an octave pedal.

And that's what I had tried first: I tried every octave pedal out there. I didn't just go to the store either, I actually bought them. And I was like, "Aw, next time I get together with Ben I have to bring this pedal." But I could not get the reliability and the tracking, and it sounded like eight-bit processing on these pedals. It was like, "I'm not even going to bother, I'm just going to go into this woodshed and try to crank out digital audio workstation type processing, and I'll worry about powering it later." And that was the start. So it powers by plugging in USB.

Alt: Yeah, the same cable that you use to plug in most of your cell phones, a micro USB charge cord, can be plugged right into A Little Thunder, and it charges really rapidly. Within an hour it gives you a full charge. And it's an ultra high-density lithium polymer battery.

And we're always conscientious of resistance. If you show me a product that I think is cool, but it requires me to modify my guitar, or inconvenience my life in any way, I'm going to be a little less interested. However, if it's like, "Here's your new iPad, there's no instructions even necessary, you just turn it on and know what to do," I think that mentality really works today.

We're going to ship instructions, and we're going to support installation a little different than an electronics company, but the idea is intuition. You don't need to complicate this in any way. In your video you mentioned that it charges really quick, in case you forget to charge it before your show, if you can find 20 minutes and plug it in. Maybe you can package it with, or sell as an extra item, those little portable charging devices like many of us carry around for our phones these days.

Alt: Yeah, that's exactly where we are with it. We had experimented with all these different ideas, and one thing was that little tiny charger -- it's like 1500 mAh or something like that -- it charges your cell phone. You can put that in your guitar case... I live by those stupid things sometimes, those portable USB chargers.

Alt: Yeah. It's funny because I'm working with Jensen Communications on this project, and my publicist Ryan is so excited about this it's unbelievable. A couple of the artists who came by, were people he reached out to, and told about A Little Thunder. So he's turning people on to it, and he's involved in a great way. And one of the things that we spoke about was, let's brainstorm a way to include or ship or make available one of those branded chargers for a few bucks. So if you get to the gig and you're out of charge, no problem: plug it in. Exactly. Can you work a way that you can charge it right off your phone?

Alt: That would be really interesting, although most input/output devices will only conduct charge, they won't produce charge. That would be cool, because you always have your phone with you, and if you had the pickup, and X, Y, and Z happened and you needed to juice up, there's that option.

But you can use A Little Thunder for about two weeks of continuous play and not need to charge the battery. And there's also an indicator that lets you know when it's getting low, and then basically when you have about a half-hour left. So that way there's no surprises. There's an LED indicator that points up toward the user and let's them know, "You're gonna be out of juice pretty soon, so charge up." Well, it's a really cool pickup. Thanks for giving us the back story on how you developed A Little Thunder pickups, Andy.

Alt: Thanks so much for helping us spread the word!

Related Links:


Video: A Little Thunder Pickup in Action

Video: A Little Thunder Pickup Celeb Promo Video

A Little Thunder Pickups Website

A Little Thunder on Facebook

Andrew Alt Website

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