Video: A History of the Humbucker

The humbucking pickup—or, humbucker, for short—is far more than a utilitarian form of a standard component. A noise-canceling pickup that rejects 60-cycle hum, it has a sound all its own, and an abiding place at the center of many genres and playing styles. It’s also the name for the most valuable single electric-guitar component ever created… but more of that anon.

Mention the term “humbucker” and most guitarists will first think of the full-sized Gibson Patent Applied For (PAF) pickup of the late ’50s, which has become both the most revered and most reproduced form of this component. Cast your thoughts a little further, though, and likely you’ll stumble onto the Gretsch Filter’Tron, Epiphone and Gibson Mini-Humbuckers and Firebird pickups, Fender’s Wide Range Humbucker, a vast array of dual-blade and stacked pickups, and others.

But the humbucking pickup, and the concept behind it, existed long before the notion of bolting one onto a Spanish-electric guitar was even a glimmer in Ted McCarty’s eye.

How Humbuckers Buck Hum

The humbucker’s function is really quite simple, but also rather ingenious. Standard single-coil pickups produce an electronic rendition of your guitar strings’ vibration by means of a single coil of very thin wire wrapped around magnetic pole pieces (which might be either magnets themselves, or steel pole pieces connected to a magnet mounted beneath the coil).

Humbucking pickups, on the other hand, use two coils of wire each wound in reverse of the other, positioned around pole pieces of opposite polarity. When the two coils are wired in series, they still pass the guitar signal clearly, but the reverse-phase relationship cancels out much of the noise induced by electronic devices—the stuff that leads to the hum we hear in most single-coil pickups.

In conventional designs—the full-sized Gibson version in particular—the two coils are positioned side-by-side, which makes humbucking pickups a little wider than most single-coil pickups. The results of this extra width and the fact that the pickup is sensing vibration from across two different positions of the strings (and a little bit of everything in between) means that they also sound a little different from single-coil pickups, even when all else might be comparable specs-wise—regarding magnet strength, the length of the coil wire, and overall output.

Overall, and in simple terms, humbuckers are often heard to be a little warmer and smoother, although many can also be very bright and articulate, too. That “broad sonic window” can also push an amp pretty hard, even where vintage-style (aka “low wind” or “low output”) humbuckers are concerned.

The Birth of the Humbucker

Engineers were aware of the principles of using a second coil to cancel out the hum of the signal passed through the first, or both, since pretty early in the 20th century.

The “choke coil” was used in radio manufacturing long before the guitar amplifier was even a thing and passed into use in guitar amps too well before the concept was translated to pickup design.

So, who was the father of the humbucking pickup? You’re thinking Seth Lover for Gibson, or arguably Ray Butts for Gretsch, right? How about… Armand R. Knoblaugh, an engineer working for the Baldwin company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Knoblaugh filed a patent for a hum-canceling musical-instrument pickup in December of 1935 (awarded in 1938), a solid 21 years before Gibson filed for a patent for its own humbucking pickup. (If there are earlier humbucking pickup designs we haven’t found them, but feel free to call them out in the comments section below.)

Intended for use with piano, Baldwin’s stock-in-trade, the design on the patent application shows two long, stacked coils, one on top of the other, with multiple pole pieces to cover several piano strings at a time.

In the text of the application, Knoblaugh states, “The principal object of my invention is the elimination of effects caused by stray magnetic fields and such elimination of the device of my invention, without affecting its sensitivity to the motion of adjacent magnetized strings.” In other words—the humbucker is born!

Fender’s Humbucking First

What the…? No, this isn’t the name you expected to see tied to “first humbucker on an electric guitar.” But a probe of the history of the development of hum-canceling pickups for this market throws up some real surprises.

One of which is the fact that Leo Fender actually made the first application among notable manufacturers to patent a design for a humbucking guitar pickup, albeit one intended for use on a lap-steel guitar.

A little different from what we would conventionally think of as a humbucking pickup, Fender’s design specifies two coils wound in opposite directions, with magnetic pole pieces inserted at opposite polarities, and installed in a plate that makes them appear more like two entirely individual pickups, yet wired together in series as a single unit for hum-canceling signal generation.

Fender filed his patent application on March 29, 1956, nearly three months before Seth Lover’s application on Gibson’s behalf, discussed below. He was granted his patent relatively quickly, too, in December of 1957.

The pickup itself was only rarely used, first appearing, it would seem, on a 1957 Fender Deluxe Lap Steel. After this, Fender also developed a hum-canceling bass pickup in 1959, as used on the Precision Bass thereafter, but the company wouldn’t put a humbucker on a standard Spanish-style six-string electric guitar until the early ’70s.

Getting It on a Gibson

In 1955, Gibson president, Ted McCarty, wanted a new pickup to provide a novel selling point, and he tasked engineers Seth Lover and Walter Fuller with the job. Lover decided the thing might as well improve on existing units, too, and hum rejection was the way to go.

Lover was already familiar with the concept of a choke, used to help suppress noise in the power supply of guitar amplifiers, so he ported those principles over to his dual-coil pickup design. Otherwise, the original Gibson humbucker that hit the market first on some Gibson lap-steel guitars in 1956, and the Les Paul Goldtop and Custom models in ’57 had largely similar ingredients to the preceding single-coil P-90 pickup—just split across two coils, and with one bar magnet rather than two.

It was also just a little different from his first functioning prototypes for the unit, thanks to some input from the sales department. Lover’s early iterations had fixed steel pole pieces in both coils, but, as he told guitar writer Tony Bacon in 1998, “When the sales force over in Chicago saw it, they said they didn’t have anything to talk about adjusting screws. So [laughs] they wanted adjusting screws, and that’s why we brought out this style here that has the adjusting screws.

“And I set the pickups in the guitar with the screws towards the bridge and towards the fingerboard. People wanted to know why did I do that. For decorative purposes [laughs].”

The Hallowed PAF

Lover filed a patent application for the new design on June 22, 1955. Back in the day, patents tended to take quite some time to be awarded, so Gibson started applying little black decals that read “Patent Applied For” to the bottoms of the pickups in late ’56 or ’57, to discourage copying. Abbreviated to “PAF”, the term has come to denote the original Gibson humbuckers made up until early 1962, when a patent number was finally added to the new decals.

That’s “a” patent number, rather than “the” patent number: The patent itself was finally awarded on July 28, 1959, but the common theory has it that Gibson wanted to use up the existing decals before moving on. When the new “Patent No.” decals were eventually printed, they included the patent number for the combined trapeze tailpiece and bridge design used on the very first Les Pauls, not the number for the pickup itself. Whether this was an intentional effort to keep copyists from looking up the design at the patent office or just a clerical error is difficult to say.

In any case, Gibson’s PAFs of around 1957 (when the design really settled into itself) to early ’62 didn’t only succeed in their efforts to buck the hum; good examples are considered to be some of the most musical, dynamic, expressive, and overall lustworthy tone generators that have ever been coupled to an electric instrument.

Biting yet somewhat compressed in the attack, bright yet rich and warm, extremely dynamic, and loaded with harmonic overtones, the Gibson PAF has established a sonic template that has been central to some of the most classic recordings in the broad realm of rock, and original units have become highly prized as a result.

It is beloved for its ability to drive a cranked-up tube amp into toothsome distortion and singing sustain, yet can also be a sweet and musical sounding pickup when played through a clean amp. Find a set in good, original condition, and you’re likely to pay $6k, $8k, or even $10k USD for a pair of PAFs made between ’57-’60, and only a little less for units from ’61-’62.

Chet and Ray Chase a Humbucker

Although Gibson is generally credited with being the first major guitar manufacturer to have brought a humbucker to the market, there’s strong evidence that the pickup that would become the Gretsch Filter’Tron was in development even before Seth Lover and Walter Fuller began their hum-canceling efforts up in Kalamazoo. The trouble seems to be that Gretsch was a little slower to start publicizing the creation, and to make it standard equipment on its guitar lineup.

It appears that some time in 1954, guitar star and Gretsch artist Chet Atkins asked his inventor pal Ray Butts to develop a tight, clean, hum-canceling pickup. Butts had designed and built the EchoSonic amplifier with built-in tape echo that Atkins had starting making good use of, alongside Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and others, and he seems to have been pretty quick to get a working humbucker in motion.

During early disputes of “first-humbucker rights” between Gibson and Gretsch, Butts pointed out that he had photos dated from 1954 showing Chet Atkins using the new pickup, but he had applied for his patent just a little later than Lover had for Gibson’s, and the so-called Filter’Tron—for its ability to filter out electronic hum—wouldn’t appear on Gretsch guitars until late 1957, and more widely in ’58.

A narrower pickup than the Gibson PAF humbucker, with smaller coils and generally only about half the output, the Filter’Tron is known for its clear, crisp, clean sound—which makes sense, given it was designed for Chet Atkins’s articulate country picking. Played through an overdrive pedal, though, or into an amp that’s set at the edge of distortion, it can deliver anything from biting semi-dirty twang to a breed of snarling rock ‘n’ roll that still retains a crystalline clarity amid individual notes. As such, it has become another classic for yet another genre of player.

The Firebird Humbucker and Epiphone’s Mini

Much of the guitar industry’s quest of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and that of guitarists themselves, was for the greater treble content that would help them cut through the mix. As such, the desire for a brighter humbucker became a big part of what drove pickup design in general.

To accompany its radically new “reverse-body” Firebird of 1963, Gibson designed a mini-humbucker with a solid cover hiding two narrow coils, each wound around an Alnico II bar magnet that also served as its “blade” pole piece. Bright, sharp, and biting, they definitely fulfilled the desire for cutting treble content, while also pushing an amp decently well for more grinding rock ‘n’ roll playing.

Epiphone also had a smaller humbucker in development around the time Gibson acquired the company in 1957, and this is the pickup that appeared on popular semi-acoustics like the Sheraton. (It’s worth noting that a somewhat earlier and similar looking Epiphone pickup was actually a single coil, but one made with the pole pieces set off to one side of the pickup, making it appear to be a mini-humbucker).

In the late ’60s, Gibson adapted the format for the Mini-Humbucker that debuted on the Les Paul Deluxe of ’69. Despite the skyrocketing popularity of the original Les Pauls of the late ’50s—of which the full-sized PAF humbucker was a major ingredient—this Mini would be the standard humbucker for Gibson’s seminal single-cut electric throughout the ’70s, while the SG Standard took on the full-sized humbuckers.

Fender Wide-Range Humbucker

When Fender finally decided to put a humbucker on a six-string electric guitar, the company’s former chief pickup designer—Leo Fender himself—was already exiting the stage, post CBS buy-out, so another legendary inventor was called up for the task. Seth Lover, the father of the Gibson PAF humbucker, went to work on a new design in 1970, and the resultant Wide Range Humbucking Pickup was soon in use on the revamped Thinline Telecaster, and found its way to the neck position of the Telecaster Custom early in ’72.

Although it appears outwardly to be much like the full-sized Gibson humbucker, if a little larger, the Fender unit actually uses cunife magnet pole pieces within each of its side-by-side coils, with offset sets of three per-side threaded for adjustability, while the remaining six are non-adjustable and hidden beneath the pickup cover.

True to Fender’s sonic legacy, the use of magnetic pole pieces, rather than steel pole pieces with a magnet charging them from beneath, results in a bright, clear humbucker, but one that is still fat and meaty, and which drives the amp pretty hard.

Overwound Replacements and Modern Solutions

By the early ’70s, the majority of truly classic humbucker designs were already up and running, and most further developments would either be modifications or extensions of these templates, or—several years later—more radical re-thinks intended to further extend the format for more forward-looking guitarists.

Much of the tone quest of the ’70s involved a drive for power, output, and distortion, and many makers pursued these ends via hotter pickups. Larry DiMarzio designed his Super Distortion humbucker in 1972 along the basic lines of the Gibson PAF, but with more powerful ceramic magnets and a lot more turns of wire in each coil, and founded the DiMarzio company in ’75. Others like Carvin, Seymour Duncan, and EMG soon followed, each focusing for a time on the “high-output” humbucker, but often settling back into more vintage-inspired designs as well.

In recent years, of course, the replacement-pickup market has veritably exploded, with makers chasing both period-correct renditions of the classic original designs, and radical new inventions that entirely rework the concept of translating string vibration into electrical signal.

By about the mid to late ’80s, “humbucker” no longer necessarily denoted the wide format, or even a unit with two coils positioned side-by-side. Joe Barden pioneered narrow dual-blade humbuckers in 1982, after first winding several prototypes for Telecaster wizard Danny Gatton. DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan patented designs for “stacked” single-coil-sized humbucking pickups in 1984 and ’85 respectively, with two opposite-wound coils positioned one atop the other in, for example, a united designed to fit a traditional Stratocaster or Telecaster mounting.

Come the 21st century, myriad companies have pioneered entirely alternative designs for hum-canceling pickups that fit in traditional, narrow single-coil housings—Fishman, Lace Sensor, and Kinman being prominent among them—as well as futuristic new forms of full-sized humbuckers. All the while, the race for “best reproduction of a vintage PAF” might be hotter than ever among dozens of acclaimed boutique pickup makers, and many of the big names as well, and the popularity of the humbucker circa-’57 shows no signs of waning.

Guitars/Pickups Used in this Video
  • Gibson Custom CME Les Paul w/ Custom "S" PAF Humbuckers
  • Whalehazard Andromeda w/ Righteous Sound Wide Range Humbuckers
  • Redtail Goldtop w/ '70s Mini-Humbuckers
  • Epiphone ET-290 w/ Mojotone Johnny Winter Firebird Humbuckers
  • Redtail Brownie w/ '70s DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbucker

About the author: Dave Hunter is the author of The British Amp Invasion: How Marshall, Hiwatt, Vox and More Changed the Sound of Music—which contains further behind-the-scenes tales of the birth of the British guitar-amp industry—as well as The Guitar Amp Handbook, Amped, and more than a dozen other books on guitars, amps, and related gear.

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