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TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS for a set of old guitar pickups? Absolutely, yes. In this article I included a macro close-up photo of an original silk screened "PAF" decal. Gibson's first humbuckers went into production in late 1956 without a finalized approved Patent number, so to protect their design in 1957, they put decals on the bottom plates that said "Patent Applied For." Back in the 80's players shortened that to "PAF's" and prices on them start spiraling upwards, following the accumulation of vintage Les Pauls by affluent Japanese collectors, with no price ceiling in sight. These guitars are currently peaking around $250,000 and MORE, for a "minty example." Previous to that, old PAF's could be had for almost nothing and were not popular. Eddie Van Halen put one on his first iteration of his "Frankenstrat," but few paid any attention to what it was. In 2016, old Gibson PAF humbuckers are highly valued, as players realized that Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, and many others, got their classic world-shaking tones from THESE PICKUPS, that were installed in all the original humbucker-equipped Les Pauls. In the pickup making world, these pickups have been grossly misunderstood and previously anyone making humbuckers were calling them "PAF's" when nothing could be further from the truth, as I will discuss below.
NOW---"PAF" doesn't just mean ANY humbucker, and sadly many use that acronym as a generic term, which is a toxic mistake, because there has never been a 'bucker made since those years, with such magical qualities. The things that made them great no longer exist in our time. Its also commonly mistaken that Seth Lover was given credit for the first humbucking pickup, not so. Ray Butts invented the first humbucking pickup design for Gretsch, called the "Filtertron," and Seth was instructed by president of Gibson, Ted McCarty, to "make a pickup like those Gretsch guys." In recent years, prices for a good vintage PAF set has hit upwards of $15,000, especially a virgin, unopened double white bobbin example with original covers.
In this article I'm going to take you back in time and reveal what these amazing old pickups really ARE, why they are different, and what made them so critical to the birth of classic rock-blues that left us so much timeless music. My role here was my rather happenstance pioneering work in scientifically reverse-engineering them, to find out exactly HOW and WHY they created such magical tones. My original instinct that it was due to period materials being used turned out to be correct…it only took 17 years and more work than I've ever done on anything else in my life, a labor of true love that eventually answered every question about these artifacts of times long gone.
First, a little of my own background, at age 67 now, my major life career was in the art of graphic design, 35 years worth. I started playing guitar, beginning in 1965. The first electric guitar I ever saw was in the hands of a guitarist backing Jerry Lee Lewis, 1963, at Dreux Air Force Base in France where Army Captain James R. Stephens (my Dad), and his family of 6 were stationed. Jerry was great, but that big Gibson archtop electric guitar blew me away; little did I know the electric guitar would dominate so much of my life. At the peak of my design career, I found myself specializing in music industry clients of my own. Notably, EMG Pickups and Shrapnel Records. I had EMG for about 14 years, and Shrapnel for a whopping 25 years. Servicing those two accounts, I met many world famous guitar players and did 100's of album cover art and packaging in CD's and vinyl, for talents I never dreamed I'd be in contact with. You'll find my name in all their classic era shred metal, blues and jazz CD's.
In the 90's and a move to Portland, Oregon, I was exposed to the massive and vital blues energy surging thru the music community, and met master guitar slingers who taught me how to play better by example when I attended blues jams for 10 years, which ultimately inspired building pickups as a side business to my frantic deadline-driven work for Shrapnel. Portland is where I learned about REAL tone, which does not come out of a pedal board, it comes from talent, a guitar cord and a good amp.
Graphic design, especially before computers, was an extremely precision-oriented technical career, something that I fit right into. This kind of necessarily anal work ethic fit right into what I did with pickups and is a strong personality trait, though my work spaces are all very messy, my work is extremely detailed and precise. My Dad was a Signal Corps officer, WWII vet, and a ham radio freak, so I also grew up with a soldering iron in hand. Many pickup makers these days simply are not craftsman level caliber and are more "kit assemblers" than anything to do with actual pickup design; there are more and more showing up every month it seems. Its a diluted field, and buyers unfortunately can't tell who is a marketing hypester and who is actually a master of this technical art form, of which there are precious few. Many websites will sell you kits and all the ingredients, but "paint by numbers" pickups are just plain boring… Anyway bear with me as I share how I fell into this PAF specialty and some of the things I learned….I know, I know, "shut up and play," I'll try give you an education if you stick with me here, I promise!
Strangely enough, I vowed at the beginning of my pickup career to NOT be a replicator of "vintage" pickups because it seemed everyone else was doing that. I focused on my own unique designs, completely hand made from scratch and what I could muster up in my small machine shop. For awhile I refused to build humbuckers, because the field was flooded with guys who did nothing but "make" humbuckers, from mostly kit parts. Eventually a customer requested I make a set for him, which I did. I liked it, he liked it. But after a few months, the blandness of the tones and the fact that it sounded like every other hand wound 'bucker," got me thinking, "why doesn't this sound like, Clapton, Page, Peter Green, Bloomfield?" There is something HUGE that was completely missing from these offshore kit parts. This is where my obsession started, damn it… Little did I know then that vintage pickups would end up being my "master teachers," and my joy in life would end up being to recreate them as technically and sonically accurate as possible, for my own guitars and others. PAF's became an excruciating focus, the most complex of designs, but I finally did completely understand exactly that the mystery about them is tied to SCIENCE, and science taught me the story they personally told me, combined with fanatic experiments to debunk the goofy myths about them, and to invent techniques that came breathtakingly close to mimic-ing everything they did.
Honestly, I would never attempt another heart breaking long ordeal like that again, nothing was easy, I "quit" and "gave up" so many times, only to be sucked back into the quest for knowledge, OCD can be a terrible thing, but I could not stop. I was told what I wanted to do was impossible, so I worked harder. So, what did I do? I talked to engineers, who gave me ideas about "alloys" and magnetic circuits. Chopping up and machining my own parts with various and exotic alloys, I learned what effects ferromagnetic materials of various ingredients did to SOUND, and what each group of the "magnetic circuit" parts in a bucker actually contributed to the whole design. An old PAF had 4 major groups of magnetic alloys, and each one was different material, not by design but by "off the shelf" availability. Then holy HELL!!!----- it got worse and it got really SERIOUS……
You have to remember at this time, no one had any interest in recreating an actual vintage PAF, there really wasn't even a market for that. One day, I got an email from a specialist in magnetic alloys from a big offshore company with a factory in the USA, who told me he would help me decipher anything I wanted in vintage pickup parts that were steel. He'd been following my posts on various internet forums, and wouldn't charge anything for the work, and was nearing retirement. A MIRACLE! For about 6 years together we analyzed and did all kinds of testing on every vintage pickup Gibson made over a 40 year time span. From Charlie Christian pickups, P13's, P90's, PAF's, PAF mini-buckers, early Patents, and TTops,early and late-1937-1977. What emerged was the story of steel making during those years and how advances in technology made unwanted changes in pickup tones. And of course I keep all this real data under my hat, I'm just sharing things that others can't profit from, which is much more than I can go into. This kind of work had never been done in such a deep dive true scientific reverse-engineering way. There had been a few previous attempts done in company venues, but short lived, underfunded and crude results. Bottom line is that there is no EXACT match for vintage steel in modern steel making. Open hearth Bessemer furnaces were used in those days, with different oxygen defeating chemicals literally shoveled into the fiery molten mass, that are different than the methods and chemicals used now. And to assume that "steel" is the secret of PAF tone is a HUGE mistake anyway. You can't isolate out one material or idea and say "thats IT." There is NO SINGLE "SECRET" to vintage PAF tone, there are MANY..……….Then, I suddenly found myself whisked into the wonders of "WIRE LAND…." oh shit……
In a later email conversation with Elektrisola Wire Corp., who graciously answered my query about what did they know about vintage wire making, I mentioned I had samples of vintage wire covering the same 40 year time span as the pickups in the metals project. They offered to analyze my samples for free and were just as interested in the results as I was. Well, HELL YEAH! The data was mystifying so they explained what all of it meant, and I was able to translate it into my working theories of how metals, and AC currents, in guitar pickup audio frequencies, interact to influence "tone." There are no engineering books on this subject so I had to learn by constant experimentation to find out what each parameter and characteristic did WHAT. We also analyzed wire made in the last 20 years and even their own current wire, so I had something to compare against. Man, I didn't miss any question or any detail I could learn from. Eventually I obtained some actual 50's plain enamel wire and it verified ALL the lab data and my knowledge of metals. But, there was much more….the PAF's spoke for THEMSELVES….
One of my problems was getting my hands on enough vintage PAF's, to get to really KNOW them. And to PLAY them. Its not like I could exactly go buy boxes of them to take apart, play, BIG MONEY I didn't have. So, I began restoring them for free, and still do, depending on what needs to be done. By now, I have seen multiple examples of every year they were made, dissected them completely, removing the coils, everything, and have put many hopelessly dead ones back into working condition, with correctly done machine pattern winds they all had, if rewinding was needed, and making them look as untouched as I can. I got a decent pair of vintage PAF"s myself at one point, and they showed me when I was on track and when I was failing. They don't lie, and when I was off track they sat there brutally showing me that "close" isn't good enough. I don't like magical theories, or fooling myself that I'd succeeded when the old pickups showed me I hadn't. The were never a static product, every year they were made, things were changing, things that directly had effects on how they sounded. Don't get me wrong, they ALL sound like PAF's, they all have the same basic VOICE, but there are shades of difference, and I used all that knowledge cover every major variation I found in my own reproduction work.
OK, take a beer break and come back... In order to share with you the guts of this chronological history of each year they were made, I have to show you the hoops and head-banging explosions I had to go through to have a personal relationship with these relics I adore so much. I was born in 1950, so they are of my generation, and like me, will eventually become extinct, all of them at some time will die.
To understand vintage PAF's you REALLY have to play them yourself, you have to be a competent player with a good "ear" to know whats different about them and why they grabbed all those classic rock heroes by the balls and made them so famous. If you ever get to play a vintage set of these marvelous little beauties, hopefully in an original Gibson or at least in a correctly built 50's harness (which you won't find in any modern Gibson with their fake "bees" and budget pots and wire…) the first thing thats going to shock you is how bright they are. Tone controls actually become useful. Turning the volume pots down doesn't kill useful tones, they don't go flat and lifeless like modern versions or poorly researched "clones." There is "chirp" in individual pickups and in abundance in middle position. Pedals KILL THEM, you don't need it. Strings sound like human vocalization, or "vowel" tones. Bright, yet there is a warmth to them, a sweetness to the edgy treble that won't hurt your ears. There's a single coil quality as well, in fact the design is a slightly modified "noiseless P90" idea, and indeed, the exact same parts used in vintage P90's (magnet, pole screws, pole keeper, wire…) are whats in vintage PAF's. Listen to Bloomfield on his P90 Les Paul, and then to his 57 gold top with PAF's, and you can't hardly tell them apart. What often confuses players, is that they listen to classic recordings our Les Paul heroes left us, but what they forget is that these recordings were all done on analog tube studio gear, engineers EQ'd and limited the treble, compressed the guitar and often used a plate reverb as well. Guitarists used low efficiency coil cords which were basically big tone capacitors with a sound of their own, the recordings went down on analog magnetic tape. Even the microphones were different. All these things made these guitars sound much warmer than they really ever were. So, when you encounter and play one of these pickups, they come as a shock. But, to an experienced pro player, the supreme greatness of them shines like the sun…..
So, back to the story and into the chronology, year by year.
While there are many many little secrets about vintage PAF's, and way too many bogus myths as well, I am able to put a kind of year by year timeline together for the layperson guitarist, who maybe at some point might have a chance to trade for or buy one or a set. What is confusing is that more often than not, the year the guitar was built and sold is NOT the year the pickups in it were built. This is always true for the GOLD PAF's, because fewer were made. I have seen gold PAF's in guitars that were made 5 or 6 years after the pickup was made, so you cannot date them by the guitar they are in. Even regular PAF's were mostly made the year before the guitar was installed with them. So, here we go, the "Dave Stephens Official Timeline" and details of the short years PAF's were manufactured, and a few buying tips…..
THE MEAT: IDENTIFYING VINTAGE PAF HUMBUCKERS YEAR BY YEAR...
Early 1956-7 The very first PAF's did not have decals on them and were used in lap steel guitars, these unfortunately often had their pole screws cut down under the baseplate to make them fit in the guitars, which is pretty much a deal killer for collectors. These appeared sometime in '56.
1957 Tthese early PAF's had stainless steel bobbin mount screws underneath the pickup, one of my photos shows these, you can tell because they are non-magnetic steel, a dead giveaway. These don't appear in any other year. The earliest 57's were not like any other year, the diameter of the magnet wire was the thickest I've found in PAF's, in general the older the wire the more likely its diameter will be fatter than later years. The thicker wire always has lower resistance per foot of wire, so these typically have low DC ohms reading much below 8K. The '57 winding pattern is the same as P90's built that year, and presumably wound on the same automated machine. NO hand winding happened in any Gibson pickups EVER. Hand winding makes humbuckers muddy, especially in the neck position, (an all too common atrocious mistake in the "booteek" pickup field). The covers were the earliest stampings and they have the sharpest corners and edges, you don't see many of these covers and the stamping die quickly wore out giving us roundy corners and bends.
There were other major differences in the 57's that I used to make a credible technical copy of what I found, but the knowledge I use in all my replicas is proprietary and private, but these were the MOST different of the PAF's. The PAF decal is usually found in the 57's but very very earliest ones, probably not. The magnets in these were thick and long, very rough sand cast. ALL VINTAGE PAF'S HAD NICKEL SILVER COVERS. One of the myths out there is that there were "brushed stainless steel" covers, which is just not true of PRODUCTION pickups. The actual Seth Lover PATENT application prototype, that Seymour Duncan now owns, DOES have a stainless cover, but it was hand cut with metal shears and put on by bending tabs, as stainless will not accept electronic resin flux solder, stainless is a BITCH to solder to, and Gibson made the mistake of using stainless steel covers on their Burstbucker covers, soldering to them is pure hell. I have seen one set of covers in a rare gold top with unplated raw nickel silver covers with no holes. These were Seth Lover's prototypes, and his actual design had NO pole screws, so solid top covers would have been fine. McCarty's sales team demanded Seth put adjustable screws on his design, which he was not happy about, and this bastardized version of his design is what was produced and became famous.
1958. The decal is now always there onwards. The bobbin mount screws are now brass. The wire is still a smidge thicker than most classic PAF wire, so these commonly read a little below 8K as well. But, remember, there are no solid "rules" that can be nailed down with these pickups, I've always found exceptions in every year. Long sand cast magnets. Anyone's guess what "alnico" these are, close would be alnico 2, but analyses don't match modern A2 magnets and casting methods and materials were much cruder than now. Some alnico may have been A4 magnets, but to date I've not seen anyone do a lab study of these old magnets and I can only quote one book from the 80's. Not much point in even doing lab research since the magnets are highly over-rated part of PAF tones, it doesn't offer a significant contribution. I have replaced vintage magnets with some of my custom sand cast mags that sound identical, (I personally brought back sand cast magnets in 2007 single handedly working with Allstar Magnetics and Magnetic Hold, and their Chinese suppliers, quite successfully, but sand cast is not magic and has no contribution, they just look cool).
1959! Some big changes here, still brass screws on bottom, PAF decal, but now some magnets are shorter, still some long ones though. My guess is they shortened them to make it easier to stuff the coil leads in the unit, which becomes obvious when you make pickups for a living! The small loss of mass makes these magnets a little brighter, since alnico is largely made of IRON, and the more iron in a magnet the less bright the sound will be. This is when the beloved "double white" PAF's show up. A set of these I worked on sold for $12,000 a few months ago, photo is included here of those. The wire in these particular pickups was the thinnest I've seen in PAF's to date. The thinner wire lends more compression and smaller coils, which is probably why we now see them hitting 9-10K because they were filling the bobbins out, and thus more wire and the resulting higher readings. BUT, again, these high ohm PAF's show up in almost every year as well, so no real rules here, and even the wire resistance varied itself, so two coils from 2 different spools and same number of winds could give dramatic different readings. I have personally found this in vintage wire, that the beginning of the roll is low DC resistance and the end is much higher, but the diameter remains constant.
The white bobbins were simply because the company making them ran out of black pigment. No one even knew this until Page and others took the covers off to get more treble out of the pickups, it wasn't for cosmetic purposes at all. ***(There is a SERIOUS downside to doing this, vintage magnet wire gets EATEN by acid human sweat, and its what killed Page's original double white PAF bridge pickup, and virtually every dead PAF I've restored was murdered by taking the cover off, leaving green salty corrosion to eat completely thru some coils I removed. Real bad idea to play any vintage PAF without a cover, once dead they lose an incredible amount of value, even correctly machine rewound, they drop down to about $900 in value if anyone will even buy one altered. Removing a cover in itself is often what kills old PAF's, everyone does it wrong and it devalues the pickup greatly). If you ever buy a vintage PAF or set, avoid ones without covers, they may die from exposure or previous salt crystals from sweaty players.
1960. Wire diameter is now stabilized to a more median diameter. The amount of wire put on is all over the place. The official winding recipe called for 10,000 total winds, but this makes a pickup reading around 7.3k-7.6K, and these are really really bright. Gibson never had a shut-off counter until the very end, so the coils are all over the place, and the "ohms" readings for pickups are all over the place as well. "ohms" is not a measure of output though. It is only the measure of how much wire resistance there is. Resistance of wire varies widely by diameter, thin wire is high ohms per foot, fat wire is low ohms per foot. Gibson used turn counts, or they just eyeballed to fill the bobbins. I have found a real quote from Seth Lover, who said once, that they also wound to inductance readings. But even those are all over the place with an average reading of 4 Henries. The pickups were a sloppy product, cheesy parts, low quality of materials compared to now. But alot of '60 PAF's I restored or played measure around 8K +/-
1961, This is the last official year PAF's were made, but keep reading because here's a secret for you that will save you a ton of money-----They quit putting PAF decals on them, but up thru 'early 63, they were still pure PAF. Steel bobbin mount screws show up on some of these, and are magnetic attracting. Short magnets, wire is still a median diameter and the most common size found among the majority of PAF's. There are other changes going on that made these bright pickups, changes that became common in the early Patent years. MANY EARLY PATENT PICKUPS ARE ACTUALLY '61 PAF'S. Look for double black coil leads. The Patents officially used black and white coils leads, but often there is a real PAF behind those colors.
1962. This is the pickup that Eddie Van Halen had in his first iteration of the Frankenstrat. It now has a "patent number" decal on the bottom (as Gibson's patent was finally approved), but the magnet wire is the same brownish red plain enamel as used on earlier PAF's, these ARE PAF's but they are on the bright side due to tolerance shifts and other things like the short alnico 5 magnets becoming stronger and brighter. These are the "money saver PAF's" because people think they aren't PAF's anymore when they really still ARE. Although the 10,000 winds was supposed to be now controlled by shut off counter switches, you do see higher wind versions and THESE ARE THE ONES TO BUY. They are PAF's and were likely made in official PAF years. If you can see inside the tape on the end and all the leads from the coils are BLACK, these are real PAF's. But '62 is when they began using white and black coil leads, but you find double black wires in them too, GRAB THESE.
1963. Major change to a poly nylon orange magnet wire, brighter wire, some even golden looking. Beginning of the END!
1964. Last year of the Patent pickups, Gibson took one last shot at using plain enamel wire, but wire making began advancing and some of these pickups are deadly SHRILL, real shriekers, not fun to play. These were rare with the brown-reddish plain enamel, most of them were red poly or orange poly. Clapton's SG and 335 were '64's but as I said previously about pickups pre-dating the guitars, his 335 had PAF decals on them NOT the patent number decals. Keep that in mind...
1965. TTops come into being to combat the overly bright and deadly last Patents. Covers are now CHROME. But TTops are a whole other story, and they weren't all the same either…..
Finding real information on this subject for guitar players can be tough, because there is so much mythology and disinformation out there about vintage PAF's, that they were wound on "magic winders," and worse. Remember now, that Seymour Duncan OWNS the only two known Leesona auto winding machines that actually wound vintage PAF's. There were no OTHER machines that were used. If you really want a pickup wound on that old machine (their second one is for parts), give Seymour a call, but even he will tell you it has no tonal advantages, those machines are just old and cool to own. There are several websites out there that claim expertise in the subject, but they are either full of mistakes or purposefully written with invented details more about selling you something than any true facts. This is a sad state of affairs and why I continue to write on this subject and have been in Guitar Player Magazine with Dave Hunter (Editor's Pick Award in review 2015), 20th Century Guitar (now defunct), Tonequest. Burst Believers II and now my friend, Kelcey's magnificent Guitar Connoisseur Magazine.
I continue to restore vintage PAF's back to working life, thru repairs or last resort rewinding, for no charge, if you have a dead one you want put back on stage, contact me.
You can also learn about my own replica sets, of which only 50 or less are made every year at these links:
(Not kept up to date but informational).
Over 60 demos and always up to date on
and my constantly updated Facebook page
IN CONCLUSION, I thought I'd leave you with these 2 videos below showing the nearly priceless 1959 vintage double white set I did a minor wire break repair on, then demo and compare to my own PAF replica sets. And two other videos showing dissection of a '57 set, and another demo of a 1958 PAF and comparison.There are no tricks, no pedals, just a simple unforgiving vintage Fender amp and guitar cord. All the demo guitars are completely rewired 50's method and all hardware replaced with vintage correct material parts.