PAF Pickups (also known as “Patent Applied For”) are renowned for being the first humbucker…As much as Edison invented the lightbulb. 😉 Which means they aren’t really the first, but we’ll get into that later.
Gibson filed for their patent in 1955, with Gretsch filing in 1957… But guess which patent was approved first? Well, we would not be calling these PAF Pickups if it had been Gibson. So guitar history was made by a bunch of legalisms, and today we’re going to get into all the magic that the highly sought after PAF pickups are.
PAF Pickups Paved the Way for Hard Rock and Metal
Because original single coil P-90 pickups were perfect antennas for 60 cycle hum, a disaster of sound was created when you’d turn an amplifier up. That hum is what they tried to “buck” in creating these PAFs.
So, in a sense, hard rock and metal owe their very existence to people like Seth Lover and Ray Butts for researching and developing a pickup that could be used with a loud, high gain amp.
The Race For Humbucker Pickups: Seth Lover v Ray Butts
Seth Lover and Ray Butts were in a race to buck 60 cycle hum, just as Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan were in a race to illuminate the world. But the race for humbucker pickups ended with two winners, and two music-history-changing creations.
Sometime after making an amp for Chet Atkins in 1950, Ray Butts invented the Filter’Tron for the same musician. Shortly thereafter Seth Lover was hard at work on what would become Gibson’s first humbucker pickup, and then the lawyers would duke out the rest in court.
So while Gibson filed first, it was Gretsch and Ray Butts who were awarded the patent thanks to a recording of Chet Atkins playing those Filter’Tron pickups in 1954.
PAF Pickups Tone Characteristics
While they eliminated the hum, they did not eliminate ambient sound. Older humbuckers such as the original PAF pickups are sensitive to any touch, such as taps and scratches on the guitar, resulting in vibrations and harmonics, and they were microphonic by nature due to the un-potted coils.
Compared to modern humbucker pickups (like our ‘59 Clone Hot Humbucker), PAF pickups create a slightly more open and uncompressed sound that is not as bright as single coil P-90’s from the same era. PAFs offer warm lows and clear woody tones.
The Difference of PAF Pickups vs Modern Humbucker Pickups
PAF pickups deliver a range of clarity and definition at lower volume levels, which comes from less winds (lower output) and “weaker” Alnico magnets used in the 1950s, resulting in less magnetic pull on the strings. The PAF’s were also un-potted, meaning the coils were not impregnated with wax or any potting material that would prevent microphonic feedback and high volume and gain levels.
Compare that to modern day humbuckers which typically run “hot” deriving from higher output and higher gain achieved from the higher wind counts (also called overwound) and more powerful magnets. Heavy distortion came into vogue in the 1970s; using overdriven amps in a totally unique way, making distortion the central theme of the sound rather than a small part played. This also made it essential for potting the humbuckers to prevent any unwanted microphonic feedback.
PAF Pickups Stand the Test of Time and History
As time presses on and we become increasingly modern as an industry of creativity through tone and sound, we find ourselves craving the give-and-take nature of PAF pickups.
Sure, we’ve pushed boundaries as the decades pass, but we’ve also used so much technology to refine our processes and tools of the trade that there’s a little soul that’s lost amidst it all. And that’s exactly why PAF pickups have stood the test of time.
PAF Pickups allowed us to use distortion and buck the hum from earlier pickups. Modern humbuckers took that to a new level and allowed us to push even further into an entire world of hard rock and metal that was not possible in the 1950s. But even the most brutal and attacking riffs from modern hard / heavy music need some give-and-take; enabling guitarists to deliver what they feel and feel what they are creating.
Music is tone and tone is inside of us.
What Are The Best PAF Pickups?
Attempt after attempt has been made by various builders over the years to replicate those earliest 1950s Gibson PAF pickups. What we have found is that the devil is in the details of materials used. But what you might not know is that while Gibson used machines to wind their pickups, winding machines were step-pedal driven.
Fabled stories of yore from folks like Billy Gibbons, who visited the Gibson Factory trying to understand why original Gibson PAF Pickups are so valuable, tell tales of women winding PAF pickups as they talked amongst themselves and hardly paying the closest attention to the number of winds that each pickup was given.
While we know that an overwound pickup delivers higher outputs, we don’t really know the exact counts that make up those early Gibson PAF pickups. We really like our ‘59 Clone PAF, but in the end that’s what makes these pickups so magical.