The PAF pickups rose to popularity due to their distinctive features and the harmonious tones they brought out in electric guitars. Renowned globally, these pickups continue to be a coveted component among guitarists today.
Detailed History and Development..
The journey of PAF pickups started after the First World War in 1946 when Gibson created and introduced the single-coil P-90 pickups with the help of Walter Fuller. However, a constant problem prevailed in their design: the noticeable humming or “noisy” sounds produced when the volume was raised. This issue was particularly pronounced in solid-body guitars like the Les Paul, and it would commonly be referred to as a 60 cycle hum.
To combat this, Gibson engineer Seth Lover proposed a solution in 1955. By using two single coils instead of one, he was able to create a quiet and hum-free pickup, creating what we now know as humbucking pickups, or simply humbuckers. Gibson quickly patented this new technology on June 22, 1955.
Later in 1957, Gibson started adding decals or stickers saying “Patent Applied For” on these humbuckers until the patent was granted in July 1959. This continued until 1963, after which Gibson shifted to decals that stated “Patent No 2,737,842”.
The supply of pickups with PAF decals lasted until about 1962, and one of the last Gibson guitars typically equipped with them was the early Gibson SG.
Differences from Other Pickups..
When discussing the number of winds each PAF coil had, it’s important to note that it wasn’t completely standardized. There were variances and slight characters found in each model. However, it’s generally accepted that the PAF pickup had around 5,000 windings per coil, or approximately 10,000 turns with #42 plain enamel wire.
Gibson used 2.5″ long magnets, referred to as ‘rough cast’. These magnets were made from a mixture of Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt and had the grades between 2 and 5. These magnets became an integral part of the PAF pickup from its inception in ’57 to about ’60.
One noticeable feature of the PAF humbuckers was their uniform size. They all had similar-sized covers, and the two bobbins inside were also identical in size. However, there could be slight warping of these bobbins due to the tight pickup winding of the time. Some even believe this variance contributes to the distinctive PAF sound.
There were several changes in Gibson PAF electric guitar pickups over time. For example, from 1956 to early 1957, Gibson used long Alnico 2, 3, 4, or 5-grade magnets in PAFs. They used purple-colored enamel wire to wind them, at a DC resistance between 7.5k ohms and 9.0k ohms. There were no “Patent Applied For” decals during this period. Changes continued over the years with Alnico and magnet grades changing and the introduction of the “Patent Applied For” decals.
Also worth mentioning is that the PAF humbuckers’ tone differed from their predecessors. The original P.A.F pickups, although managing to rid the pickups of hum, were still microphonic as they were not wax potted like their modern counterparts. This made the vintage humbuckers more sensitive to any touch on the guitar, resulting in vibrations and harmonics.
P.A.F vs. Modern Humbucker..
What singled the PAF pickups out from modern ones was their ability to retain definition and clarity of sounds when the guitar volume was turned down. They possessed an admirable versatility, able to suit almost any style of music. They also had a sweet and reasonable sustain, which was mainly due to the use of a “weaker” Alnico magnet in the 1950s.
Several Gibson guitars, such as Gibson Les Paul Standards and Customs, ES-175, ES-295, and Byrdland, came fitted with P.A.F. pickups between 1957 to 1960.
To correctly identify PAF pickups, there are key features to look out for like the raised gold lettering on the “Patent Applied For” black decal and the L-shaped tooling marks on the foot of the PAF.
Today, the value of vintage PAFs from the coveted years (1957-1960) sits around $20,000, showcasing their value as a guitar component. Overall, even years after their introduction, PAFs continue to be highly sought after by guitar players and collectors worldwide. Despite the difficulty of finding an untouched set of vintage PAF pickups, there are various modern PAF-style humbuckers out there that closely mimic the tone of the 1950’s originals.