Why Are Original Gibson PAF Pickups So Valuable?

Billy Gibbons, in an early quest to understand the magic of his famous ’59 "Pearly Gates" Les Paul, went to see pickup maker Seymour Duncan with Pearly in hand. He wondered if Seymour could analyze his Burst’s twin PAFs, the holy grail of humbucking pickups.

Billy knew these pickups had magnetic coils inside, and that the vibration of a string hovering over the coils would excite their magnetic field, causing a current to flow and (stop me if this is getting too technical) in turn causing delightful guitar tone to come out of that amp over there.

"We plugged Pearly Gates into an ohm meter," Billy tells me. "Seymour said, ‘Give me a Texas G.’ I strummed away, strummed away, and it appeared that the pickups that ride on my instrument are extremely robust. He said, ‘Gee whiz, I’m getting a reading hotter than I’ve ever seen.’ He said he’d had a hundred of these PAFs come through, that this was their standard test, trying to determine what these pickups potentially can put out, voltage wise."

Gibson’s original humbucking pickup, known as the PAF and introduced in 1957, is still the design that provokes more analysis, more copies, more half-truths, more arguments, and more money for a (hopefully) original set than any other type you care to name. With all the improvements in pickup design that have come along in the 60 years and more since Seth Lover presented the prototype to his bosses at Gibson, PAFs still command hushed reverence among those in the know.

PAF is shorthand for Patent Applied For, because that’s what a small black sticker on the base said. It remained in place until about 1962, when a new sticker with a patent number appeared there. Further changes around 1964 drew this era of Gibson’s humbucking development to a close, and to vintage fans, nothing can touch that original design.

Around 1971, Billy paid a visit to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo. This was not what we’d now consider the golden period. But seven years or so after the end of that first great pickup era is closer than most of us have managed.

"It was dead of winter, snowing like crazy, but we got the 50 cent tour, the whole bit, top to bottom," Billy recalls. "We went up to the room where they were making humbucking pickups. We saw the original machine that the famous PAFs were made on. Three ladies were operating the machine. It was a long rod, running left to right, with three wrapping points: one on the left end, one in the centre, and one on the right end. These ladies would slide a pickup bobbin down to the centre and put one on either end."

Billy Gibbons playing his Gibson "Pearly Gates" Les Paul

Billy says he watched as the women wound .42 gauge enamel wire onto a spool under a glass dome and that the wire was fed through a hole in the top of the dome. "They would put this wire on to each bobbin," he continues, "and they had a clicker, something like the winding stem on a wristwatch, connected to a counter. You could set how many turns you wanted the motor to spin. Once the wires were in place, they’d hit a switch, the motor would start spinning the rod, and the bobbins would be flying, dragging the wire off the spool."

He remembers a guide that went left to right—he reckons it was much like the gadget a fishing reel has, and it allowed the pickup wire to be laid into the bobbin in a fairly sophisticated way, left to right, right to left, and so on. When the clicker hit the defined number of turns, it would trigger the off switch.

"What I noticed—and this is probably why some humbuckers sound different, with more oomph or power—is that the ladies had a footbrake, a long bar," Billy says. "When the motor stopped, it would make a noticeable click, so that they knew that particular bobbin was complete. They would step on the brake and it slowed the turning mechanism. And if they were talking, well—when we were there, we noticed they didn’t always step on the brake straight away, so another couple hundred turns got put on the bobbin. It was not an exact science."

It was not an exact science. This might well be the catchphrase that sums up the story of the pickup we have under our microscope. Fortunately, though, our guide among this rocky terrain is Thomas Nilsen, a Norwegian pickup specialist now resident in England. Thomas runs Cream T Pickups, and he employs science in the shape of his patented analogue spectrum recorder, which he uses to accurately scan and analyze old pickups. He’s worked with Billy and many other tone hounds who want to know what makes great pickups great.

Cream T Whisker Bucker Billy F Gibbons Humbucker Pickup Demo

Thomas grew up listening to Clapton and Green and Gibbons and the rest. "And when I was old enough to understand the basics of how an electric guitar was built and took my first one apart," he tells me, "I was on the hunt to find out how these great players got their amazing tone and sound. It didn’t take long before I understood it was all about going back to the pickups in their Les Paul guitars, specifically those made from 1958 to 1960. This was my base point, and it marked the start for my long journey that’s still going on today."

So, Thomas, why all the fuss surrounding the PAF humbuckers? The ones made from 1957 into the very early ‘60s. "Original PAFs have an open and very transparent sound," he explains, "and they react more honestly to your guitar’s tone settings, to how you attack the strings, and from there through your amps. This is what the original old PAFs have that no other pickups, say from the 1970 to ’90 era, have at all."

That sound is what many players and most modern pickup makers are chasing. And that sound is what creates the aura around original PAFs. So there’s some consistency there, Thomas? "Well, yes and no," he says. "The thing that is so interesting with PAF pickups is that none sound similar." He’s analyzed close on 60 sets of PAFs from 1957 to ’60, mostly examples taken from Gibson ES models and Les Pauls of the period.

Modern PAF Clones

"Most of the PAFs from this era vary a lot regarding the types of magnet and the output," he says. "None are the same. The important thing to remember is that this was the period when Gibson was experimenting with the humbuckers in their quest to develop and make them better. I call it the test and trial period. So when I scan PAFs from this period, I find a big variation in how much bass, middle, and treble there is at the various frequencies. As I say, the consistent thing is that they are very open and transparent sounding pickups."

Surely all this fuss around the original PAFs indicates they are the greatest humbucking pickups ever made. "No," Thomas says, "a vintage PAF is the base and foundation of the greatest humbucker ever made. I know that some humbuckers being made now sound much better. Not many, but there are a handful of humbucker models made now that sound much better. That’s because some pickup makers, including me, have taken what was started back then and added more to it. We have the torch now and we’ll bring it further into new development."

Thomas’s particular torch is his Super Scanner. It grew from discussions he had with Billy about finding a way to accurately scan PAFs in a guitar. Few owners would welcome desoldering and removing these valuable items. So Thomas and a friend spent two years developing the scanner, and from that he created a handheld version, which he uses today to reveal information about the key assemblies inside a PAF.

How Guitar Pickups Are Wound At Gibson USA

"The hardest and most challenging way for a modern maker to achieve that famous old vintage PAF tone is to replicate the winding pattern, the type of wire and tension used in that winding, and how the magnet is oriented," he says. "The rest is not helpful. If you try to use and source the correct covers with the right corners, the same plastic for the bobbins, and so on—all that has nothing to do with the sonic part of a PAF. I repeat: the only factors that decide the real sound of a PAF are type of wire, winding pattern, and magnet."

I imagine Thomas is not as concerned as some Burst nuts about the alleged sonic contribution made by the color of plastic—black or cream or both—used at various times for those bobbins inside a PAF. He laughs out loud and shakes his head.

Cream T's Billy Gibbons Whiskerbuckers
Cream T's Billy Gibbons Whiskerbuckers.

"I met a guy years ago," he says, "and he was dead serious, he said, ‘Hey Thomas, I can hear the difference between a one-ply pickguard and a three-ply pickguard.’ And I thought, you know, he must have this horrible life. Think about how much stuff he must hear around him every day as he just walks around. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes."

What’s the biggest mystery that remains about PAF pickups? "When we were working on the PAFs in Billy’s Pearly Gates to create the WhiskerBucker pickup set," Thomas recalls, "I kept saying that, to be honest, these pickups are so special, that they are so far off the consistent things of all the other PAFs I’ve heard from that period.

"That guitar and its pickups sound amazing compared to others. And Billy says, ‘Well, do you think it’s possible to find out who made them, to figure out which lady wound the pickups in my Pearly Gates?’ I said, ‘Billy, I think that option is long gone now.’ But it is a mystery that would be so good to solve. Wouldn’t that be great?"

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Sunburst and The Gibson 335 Guitar Book. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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