Vintage-Style Pickups Explored: Part 2 – PAF Humbuckers into a Les Paul
When Les Paul fanatics talk pickups, there’s one pickup type that gets talked about more often than any other: the legendary “PAF”. Those three letters stand for “Patent Applied For” and are a reference to the earliest humbucking pickups used in Gibson guitars. Even after more than forty years of continued development and advancement in pickup technology, the PAF remains the premier tonal choice for expressive blues and rock players.
This has driven early original PAF pickup prices to extreme levels and as of this writing in 2003, prices of $1000+ each are not uncommon for those that require the original deal. For the rest of us thankfully, replacement pickups fashioned after the original PAFs are offered by numerous pickup manufacturers and are much more affordable.
What exactly is the PAF sound? In general (because each was hand-wound and there are variances between PAFs), the tone is powerful but also very open and dynamic, with a strong and bright attack, smooth mids and plenty of bottom end. There’s a warmth and certain dynamic feel associated with these Alnico-magnet humbuckers that ceramic models just haven’t been able to emulate. Not all PAFs were the same however. According to the good folks at Seymour Duncan, different magnet types were used throughout the PAF’s history, and because the pickups themselves were hand-wound, a variety of resistance and output strength was the result. While PAF’s tonally can vary a bit, the sum total of the various “ingredients” all contribute to the signature PAF character sound that is very identifiable even with the variances in specs.
For this roundup review of pickups, we’ve selected some key PAF-type models from Gibson and Seymour Duncan. For testing, we went with the classic setup of a Les Paul (both a Classic ’60 reissue and a Les Paul Custom were used) into a 1968 Marshall 100 watt Super Lead and 1970 Marshall cabinet loaded with Celestion pre-Rola 25-watt “greenback” speakers. In some cases, and just for fun when my drummer came over to jam, I added another 100 watt Marshall Super Lead and cabinet together in the mix – it was at this point that I felt like Jimmy Page playing with John Bonham – what a tone! Two Marshalls are certainly better than one…but back to the story at hand...
In the future, we’ll also plan to do further roundups of various other pickups made by other manufacturers in this category. Enjoy!
Gibson ’57 Classic (Neck and Bridge, $144.95 SRP each)
Gibson’s ’57 Classic pickups have been in production for years and have been offered as OEM equipment in many of Gibson’s own models including the Les Paul Custom. The ’57 Classic uses an Alnico II magnet that should compress and have a softer or “spongier” feel compared to an Alnico V type. The pickups are also wax-potted.
I put these into my own Les Paul Custom running into the Marshall Super Lead and was a bit surprised by a few things. First, the ’57 Classics felt as if they were closer to an Alnico V design as the attack of the pickups was much more immediate than a typical Alnico II. Second, the characteristic mids of a PAF was largely absent. The ’57 Classic has an emphasis on the upper lows tonally and so to my ears earn their spot as the “least PAF-like” of this group. I also disliked the neck position for being a bit overly bass heavy and it wasn’t very usable in the Les Paul/Marshall setup as I would’ve liked.
From a positive point of view, many guitar setups suffer from over-brightness especially when playing distortion in the bridge position at loud volumes. If this is the case with your setup, the ’57 Classics may be what you need to tame a bit of the top end and bring in the lows. Output of the ’57 Classic is quite a bit hotter than the norm as well, so note definition may be an issue for players looking to “clean up” by use of their volume control. The ’57 Classic is essentially a pickup that I put into a category as desirable for those that want a heavier rock driving sound but don't necessarily require a "spot-on" PAF replica.
Gibson Burstbuckers (Ratings 1, 2, and 3 output ratings: 8.4, 8.7, 9.1K DC resistance, $169.99 SRP each)
The Gibson Burstbuckers have garnered quite a bit of attention as being a “truer” PAF type pickup compared to what Gibson had been offering over the past several years. Indeed, I would also agree with that thought as well, especially in the area of distortion “smoothness”. The Burstbuckers through a Les Paul into the old Marshall Super Lead created a powerful, creamy distortion with plenty of sustain that made them a pleasure to play. The Burstbuckers feature Alnico II magnets and are wound in three intensities from 1 being the least output, to 3 being the hottest.
Like the original PAFs, Burstbuckers are not wax-potted. Unfortunately, I found that with using the number 3 Burstbucker in the bridge and the 2 in the neck position, that squealing and uncontrollable feedback was definitely a problem. Even when plugging into a Vox AC30 at a low thirty watt rating rather than the Marshall at 100 watts, the squealing was quite annoying and difficult to control.
When using the number 2 in the bridge position and with its lower output characteristics, things were a little better, but there was still a bit more squeal then what I would have deemed as being acceptable. Though the Burstbuckers are not wax potted in order to retain the character of the originals, I find it hard to believe that people would pay out the big dollars for original PAFs if they had to deal with this same problem.
According to Gibson, ALL Burstbuckers will be wax potted in the future to avoid this apparent problem that they’ve had. We had a number 2 pickup wax potted and indeed the difference in control was huge and the tone difference in this case was negligible interestingly enough. The midrange “honk” that is supposed to accompany a non-wax potted PAF pickup was absent, whether the pickup was potted or not.
Characteristically, the number 2 and 3 rated Burstbuckers both seemed very hot for a PAF type pickup and indeed those who are interested in more aggressive but smooth higher-gained tones of the Van Halen type caliber may enjoy these pickups the most from the group. I personally prefer a pickup with a little more clarity when overdriving an amp, but that’s a call of personal taste more than anything. Because of the hotter feel, the Burstbuckers also will satisfy those players who are seeking a bit more bottom end. In our setup, running the Super Lead through a 25 watt greenback-equipped cab provides for more than an ample amount of bass already.
Running the number 2 in the bridge and number 1 in the neck was my favorite combination after both pickups were wax potted. Gibson definitely has the smooth PAF distortion character correct with these pickups as they’re as good as any I’ve played – great all-around tone. But Gibson has a few design or manufacturing issues to work out with the non-wax potted designs and the resulting squealing which should however be a non-issue in the near future.
Seymour Duncan ’59 (Neck and Bridge: 7.4, 8.1K DC resistance, $119.00 SRP each, $94 SRP w/o Covers each)
The ’59 is one of Seymour Duncan’s oldest designs and is also one of the first of the aftermarket PAF-type pickups to be offered to the public. In addition to the versions with covers that we used, the ’59 is offered in non-covered black, zebra, or zebra-reversed patterns. Versions of the ’59 also are offered in “Trembucker” spacing as well as for 7-string guitars.
We went with the covered versions with a single-conductor lead design to get the closest specifications to a PAF-type replacement. The neck and bridge models of all of Seymour Duncan’s pickups are slightly different, with the bridge being hotter so as to create better balance and offer an even pickup height between both the neck and bridge positions.
With its Alnico V magnet, the ’59 is easily the most aggressive pickup out of the bunch. The attack is crisp and immediate and there’s more than enough highs on tap. The tone of the ‘59s installed into the Les Paul Classic and going through the Marshall and basketweave cabinet provided for a well-balanced tone. However, I could see that if your setup was already bright, the ’59 could provide a bit more top end cut than you could ask for. In the neck position, this added brightness was nice to have to cut through the mix from what can sometimes be an overly-bassy neck position like that of the Gibson ’57 Classic.
In feel overall in both positions, the ’59 is closest to the Alnico II Gibson ’57 Classic, with its attack, even though the ’59 is the only Alnico V pickup out of this group. Where it excels is in grinding, punchy loud rock and roll. Surprisingly, even with all of its grind, the ’59 does clean up fairly well and is capable of bringing out a bit more of its “softer side” when rolling down the volume control on the guitar.
Seymour Duncan Antiquity Humbuckers (Neck and Bridge: 7.8, 8.5K DC resistance, $155.00 SRP each)
The Antiquity series are built out of Seymour Duncan’s own special room and are each made by hand and signed by Mr. Duncan himself. After trying the Antiquity Stratocaster pickups last time around and discovering that they were the best of the group, I was quite intrigued to see how the humbucker set would fair.
The Antiquity humbuckers are not only hand-made, but are also aged as well, including the magnet poles and covers. The idea behind the Antiquities is to provide a pickup and tone that has appropriately aged through the years to sound and feel as close to what an original PAF would sound like today. The Antiquity is not wax potted and is an Alnico II design.
As with the Antiquity Stratocaster set, after installing them into the Les Paul and playing a few loud, distorted chords though the Marshall, my reaction immediately was “Wow!” The distortion overtones of the Antiquity humbuckers were the smoothest out of the group. In addition, the Antiquities were the best tonally balanced. Bass, mids, and highs were all present with none of them being dominant over each other. Added sparkle and harmonics were plentiful. The midrange was creamy through the Marshall and offered some delightful bridge tones. The Antiquity also cleaned up very well. When running the neck pickup, I was delighted to find that the bass wasn’t mushed out as was the case with some of the other pickup models I tested. In fact, I was able to roll down the tone on the neck pickup to soften the highs some more and get a great Clapton “Woman Tone”.
Interestingly enough, even though the Antiquities are not wax potted, I had no problems whatsoever controlling the guitar. The non-potted design really helps contribute to the top end sparkle as well as a bit of the mid-range “honk” as the internal sonic vibrations within the pickup are all “on the verge” of feedback. Because the Antiquity was so controllable, I could enjoy the tones and feel of the these pickups rather than dreading them as I did with the Burstbuckers when I turned up an amp.
The Antiquity humbuckers are the pickups to beat and to my ears are the cream of the crop in this group.
Seymour Duncan Seth Lover (Neck and Bridge: 7.2, 8.1K DC resistance, $135 SRP each)
Seymour Duncan describes the Seth Lover as a PAF pickup that has NOT gone through the aging process like the Antiquity. Similar to the Antiquity in specification but with a bit less output, the Seth Lover is a regular production model and like the ’59 is available in a variety of covered and non-covered as well as colored varieties.
The Seth Lover came about as a result of Seymour Duncan working with Seth Lover (the original PAF designer) himself to help come about with a truer PAF pickup. The Seth Lover succeeds.
Tonally, it is similar to the Antiquities except that there is a little more of the midrange “honk” within the tone as well as some more bite on the top end. Like the Antiquities, clarity is great and the tone is full and open with great balance. There was also no issue with mechanical feedback or squeal when playing the Seth Lover at higher volumes.
The distortion characteristics through the Marshall with the Seth Lover were similar to the number 2 Burstbucker in smoothness, but without the added bottom end of the Gibson. For the neck position, I found the Seth Lover has a better balance of lows and also wasn’t overbearing. While the Antiquity was my personal favorite because of the even greater smoothness in distortion and softer mids largely due to the aging process, many may prefer the Seth Lover as it is closest to what a PAF design would be if you were able to buy a brand new one today. Between the Seth Lover and Antiquity models, both seem well suited for varieties of music styles beyond just the harder rock tones that the Gibsons seem tailored toward. The Seth Lover can be used comfortably within a range of music styles from rock to clean jazz and makes a fantastic PAF pickup choice.