The Burst for Less: Affordable Alternatives for PAF-Style Sound

There’s a combination of three single letters that is sure to get a great many guitarists excited: PAF. The term refers to PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups, which were the humbuckers fitted in Gibson guitars between late 1956-1962 and are heralded as some of the best pickups ever made. They’re a huge part of what makes Gibsons from that era so desirabl— and so expensive

There is some debate over who created the first ever humbucker, whether it was Seth Lover for Gibson or Raymond Butts who invented the Filter’Tron for Gretsch (more likely), but we do know that Lover is the main man behind the PAF. He set out to rectify one of the problems that many players were experiencing with single-coils at the time: that unwanted buzz or hum. He did this by using two signal-producing coils instead of one, each with opposing windings and polarities so that they cancelled out the unwanted hum. Thus, the PAF humbucker was born.

Matched pair of original Gibson PAF Humbuckers.
Matched pair of original Gibson PAF Humbuckers.

So, what does the PAF sound like? Before getting too deep into that, it’s worth noting the inconsistencies within pickup manufacturing at the time. These pickups were wound on machines by human operators with no automatic stop feature, so there was a larger margin for error than there is today. As such, many vintage PAF pickups don’t sound the same—there are similarities for sure, but to ignore their differences is unwise.

That said, we can make some generalizations. Firstly, they’re very dynamic, so players find that they can very easily express shades of quiet and loud. They usually have a big, cutting top-end without it being overly harsh, punchy mids, and a full, warm, and rounded low-end. All in all, they’re balanced pickups. Players often talk about the bloom of notes with PAFs—that is, when sustained, additional sonic elements can be heard whilst the note rings out, like extra harmonic content, overtones, and so on.

They were essentially an adaption of a P90, so similarities can be drawn with those. PAFs are also microphonic, so there’s more of an argument to be made here about what effect the wood the guitar is made from has on the sound you get.

What can be said with certainty of PAF pickups is that they are expensive. They can be found on Reverb as individual pickups, but also in golden-era Gibson guitars. As such, people have been looking to get the PAF sound for less, and luckily, there are a number of ways to do this. A ton of great guitars come fitted with PAF-style pickups. Many are aiming to be super authentic, but others offer players the PAF sound with the manufacturer’s own twist. You can also buy PAF-style pickups to fit in the guitar of your choice.

Gibson Custom Shop Reissues

Gibson Custom Shop '58 Les Paul Standard Reissue
Gibson Custom Shop '61 Les Paul SG Standard Reissue

If you’re after that classic PAF sound, then one of the most obvious places to look is the Gibson Custom Shop. They make some incredibly authentic replicas of those holy grail late '50s/early '60s guitars. From '57, '58, '59, and '60 Les Pauls, to '61 Les Pauls (SGs), these are made to give you the sound of those famous PAFs, but also the whole vibe of the guitars in which they were originally fitted.

Not only are the pickups finely tuned to original PAF specs, but the woods, glues, and construction methods used to build these guitars are reminiscent of that original PAF period too. You might argue that the most important part of a guitar’s sound is the pickups (and you’d probably be right), but a guitar is the sum of its parts. So, if every part of the instrument is made to late '50s/early '60s specs, then surely you’re going to get a more accurate PAF sound, right?

Epiphone '59 Les Paul Standard Outfit

This Epiphone Les Paul is a great way of capturing the PAF sound for less. It might not be up to the same high quality as its Gibson equivalent, but these guitars are still made to a really high standard. What sets this guitar apart from other similar Epiphones—aside from its lovely ’59-style rounded neck profile and classic Burst finish—is the Gibson Burstbucker pickups that come fitted as stock.

The idea of the Burstbuckers was to capture the slight differences in the various PAF pickups that were being made in the late '50s and early '60s, so some are a little hotter than others. In this case, you’ve got the slightly mellower Burstbucker 2 in the neck position, and #3 in the bridge, which is a touch hotter.

Though there are probably more authentic PAF replica pickups available than the Burstbuckers, they do a great job. Burstbuckers are nice and airy, really dynamic, and have a great mid punch. Plus, they’re fitted in a top quality guitar that comes shipped in a hard case, all for a great price.

PRS McCarty 594

PRS and vintage might not be two words you’d normally put together, however the McCarty 594 is unashamedly inspired by holy-grail guitars of the late '50s and early '60s. The body shape is quintessentially PRS, as are the finishes and feel, but the sound is tinged with a lot of vintage mojo. It’s also named after Ted McCarty, who was Gibson’s president during their golden era and provided Paul Reed Smith with a lot of guidance.

The 58/15 LT pickups might not be super authentic compared to some others, but they do give a lot of the PAF characteristics that people like with a bit of a PRS twist. The idea was to create a late '50s-style humbucker that also incorporated everything that Smith had learned about making pickups and guitars over the years.

They’re nice and present in the mids but with a slightly extended frequency range, so the high-end is very crisp and detailed while the low-end is nice and full. You can think of them as slightly more high-fidelity PAFs—they’re not for everyone, but for certain types of music and styles of player, they’re perfect. The 594 has the same wood combination as a Les Paul too, a mahogany body with maple cap.

PRS McCarty 594 SE & S2

PRS SE McCarty 594 Singlecut
PRS S2 McCarty 594 Singlecut

The 594 is expensive, but there are now cheaper versions. The S2 range is still made in Maryland but without quite as many bells and whistles. Then there’s the SE version, built in Indonesia by PRS’s own skilled workforce. Both these versions of the 594 are fitted with their 58/15 LT ’S’ pickups.

The idea behind them is the same as the more expensive ones: a PAF-style humbucker that delivers vintage warmth and punch, brought a little more into the modern world. They aren’t quite as refined as the full-fat versions, and there isn’t quite the same clarity with the top-end sounding a bit harsher, but they come fitted in guitars that are a fraction of the price.

Gibson Memphis MHS Fitted Hollowbodies

Gibson Memphis ES-Les Paul
Gibson Memphis '63 ES-335

In the old Memphis factory, Gibson used to fit many of their hollow and semi-hollowbody models with MHS (Memphis Historic Spec) humbuckers. Some claim these to be amongst the best PAF-style pickups that Gibson have ever made, and you can get your hands on the pickups separately from time to time.

These MHS-fitted 335s, 339s and other models have a great, vintage sound; not quite as bright as a Les Paul, but if you’re going for a semi-hollobody then that’s probably exactly what you’re after. They sound open and warm, with great dynamics and a strong, punchy mid-range.

Explore more MHS fitted hollowbodies here.

Reverend Charger HB

For players that seek a slightly hotter take on the classic PAF sound with a completely different look, the Reverend Charger may be for you. In the bridge position is a HA5 humbucker. It’s nice and warm-sounding with the classic openness of PAFs, but it’s wound hotter and is a little more aggressive. This mixed with its slightly more vintage-style neck pickups makes for a great combination.

If you’re after something that’s true to the sound and response of original PAFs, this guitar probably isn’t for you. But if you like something with a touch more bite, it's great. It’s also quite different stylistically to any Gibson guitar, with the body more of some sort of Tele/Les Paul hybrid design.

Lindy Fralin Pure PAF

Lindy Fralin and his team are amongst some of the best boutique pickup manufacturers in the US, probably the world. Their take on the PAF pickup is very authentic, offering all the nuance and dynamics of the original units.

The Pure PAF features all US-made parts and is actually Lindy’s favorite humbucker. Just like the originals, there are a few different outputs for both the neck and bridge allowing you to really hone in on the particular PAF sound you’re after. They also utilize hand-weakened Alnico II magnets to smooth out the top end a little. All in all, some of the best '50s-style humbuckers out there—and a sure way of getting the PAF sound for less.

Seymour Duncan Seth Lover

Seymour Duncan SH-55n Seth Lover Neck Humbucker
Seymour Duncan SH-55b Seth Lover Bridge Humbucker

Created by Seymour Duncan and the man behind the original PAF himself, Seth Lover, this vintage-style humbucker is another incredibly authentic-sounding pickup. Expect an articulate, harmonically rich sound, with a crisp, sweet top-end and full, warm bass frequencies. They’re punchy when you want them to be, but back off on your volume and tone and they'll mellow out wonderfully.

These pickups are made to Lover’s original specs, and the bobbin molds are created by the same factory that made the original PAF mold. They even wind every one of these pickups on Seymour’s personal Leesona coil-winding machine. Whatever guitar you’re putting them in, you’re sure to get much closer to that hallowed PAF sound.

Bare Knuckle The Mule

Bare Knuckle have not only honed in on the PAF sound for their Mule pickup, they’ve actually pinpointed a particular era. These are designed to be faithful reproductions of some of the best sounding PAFs from late 1959. They utilize many of the same materials as originals from this period, which helps them yield a wide frequency range and super clear sound, whether you’re playing clean or with heaps of gain. The Mules use Alnico IV magnets for a faster response in the low-end, fuller mids, and a really controlled top-end.

These probably rate amongst some of the hotter PAF-style pickups, while still keeping true to the originals. They’ve got a higher output than most from ’57 or ’58, for example, with an 8.4k and 8.1k DC resistance in the bridge and neck, respectively.

Lollar Imperial

Lollar’s take on the PAF keeps all of the qualities that players have learned to love over the years, while enhancing the frequency range and boosting the bridge pickup’s output slightly. You still get that nice airy, top-end and full bass that you’d expect, as well as some lovely overtones that develop and change after the note has been struck.

Having the slightly hotter bridge pickup allows you to push your amp just that bit harder, giving you natural, organic breakup when you want it. This then balances perfectly with the mellower neck pickup, and gives a great middle position sound too.

Honorable Mention: Epiphone Probucker Pickups

You can get hold of the Epiphone Probucker pickups for a great price here on Reverb. Sure, they don’t quite have the same clarity, frequency range, or dynamics as their Gibson counterparts—but for the money, they are a great way of getting a vintage humbucker sound.

The Probuckers call themselves a Vintage Humbucking Pickup, so they’re not directly claiming to be a PAF replica. But for those who want a classic-sounding humbucker with a DC resistance not too dissimilar to some PAFs (7.9 k in the neck and 8.6k in the bridge), then these are certainly worth checking out.

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