Play guitar long enough, and you’ll run into the term P.A.F. When reading about boutique guitar pickups, the often thrown around P.A.F. term refers to pickups wound with the extra mojo that strives to replicate the tone of original vintage pickups from the fabled late fifties “Burst” Les Paul’s. The Late Fifties Burst Gibson Les Paul’s are widely considered some of the most incredible guitars ever made. Well-known for their dynamic, musical response and thick clarity, the P.A.F (Patent Applied For) Humbucking Pickups became a legendary component of the well-loved sound of a Gibson Les Paul and rock stars like Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, & Joe Perry. In this blog, I go over some of the ingredients in what makes an excellent sounding P.A.F style pickup and how to incorporate the P.A.F tone into your musical arsenal.
A Little P.A.F History:
P.A.F pickups started as a mere musical response to existing 1950s single-coil style designs used by Gibson rival Fender Musical Instruments. While outstanding sounding pickups in their own right, single-coil pickups produced brilliantly clear, thick, biting guitar tones that became inherently plagued with a 60-cycle hum. Think of the last time you played a Fender Stratocaster in the neck position, and you had to go into an in-between pickup position to avoid that oh-so-specific buzz. While I love playing on all the old Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, that 60-cycle hum is the least favorite aspect of my favorite guitars. It’s also why my signature “Number One” Stratocaster came loaded with Vintage Noiseless pickups.
In 1955, Gibson tasked engineer Seth Lover to design a pickup for their line of electric guitars that would not have the 60-cycle hum present in their competitors’ guitars or Gibson’s old P-90 models at the time. Mr. Lover had already applied an electrical engineering concept, the humbucking choke, to the power amp in Gibson amplifiers to eliminate hum; he merely took these ideas to their logical next conclusion by adding the technique to pickups. Using a pickup designed with two separate coils, Lover successfully eliminated hum in Gibson’s relatively new guitar-the Les Paul. Gibson filed a patent for their new product, the “hum”-bucking pickup, and early pickup versions stamped with the label “Patent Applied For” to ensure the pickups could go into production and sale as soon as possible.
Patent Applied For, or P.A.F pickups, first hit the market in 1957, debuting in Gibson’s Les Paul “Goldtop” models and later came in the iconic 1958-1960 “Bursts.” While successfully eliminating the annoying 60-cycle hum that so plagued the early Fenders, the addition of a second coil inside a single pickup changed the overall sound of traditional electric guitar pickups. P.A.F’s are considerably warmer, thicker, and chewier than their single-coil counterparts while still maintaining clarity and sweetness in the high-end without getting harsh.
The P.A.F’s also have a bump in output compared to its single-coil precursors, with many examples reading at 7.8k to 8.5k instead of the classic Fender 5.5k to 6.5K recipe. Think of the extra bump like an extra bit of push from your electric guitar to your tube amp, and that push helps excite specific frequencies better for distortion or clarity. Ironically, many of our favorite guitar heroes would have thought this was a massive difference between the styles of electric guitar pickups at the time. Remember, classic P.A.F output readings are considered tame by today’s modern guitarist love of hotter and hotter pickups!
There are many different variables to consider when thinking about the mechanics of what makes a beautiful sounding P.A.F pickup. Interestingly enough, it seems as though all of the other potential variables are present in different vintage P.A.F examples. Gibson did not make every P.A.F with the same repeatable process of using the same type of grade magnet, the exact number of windings or number of wraps of conductive wire wrapped around the magnet, and the type of wire used in the winding. All P.A.Fs were wound by hand, and different workers would produce different feels in the winds, impacting the end product.
Manufacturers also would provide the Gibson corporation with varying grades of metal for their magnets in their shipments, with often Gibson not knowing batches were not the same. Supplies were used at the factory, nonetheless. As such, there are noticeable sound differences between different vintage pickup examples from this period. I’m not exactly an expert on all things P.A.F’s, but I’m going to do my best here to go through which of these tonal differences are the most useful for musicians who need a way to apply it within their creativity.
Pickup windings are the most personal way a pickup maker can control the tone of their products. Pickup makers, the ones who still wind their products by hand, are everso disappearing artisans of the highest order. A good pickup maker can feel how many winds a pickup needs to get a good sound, and part of what we perceive as excellent guitar tone in the final product is much more a judgment on the craftsman-like feel of that particular artisan. The more winds you add to a pickup, the hotter the pickup becomes. A good pickup artisan can feel the balance between the right amount of winds for a pickup to have a sizeable bold sound and have the right amount of musical dynamics for specific stylistic needs of guitarists. I’m not a big fan of overwound pickups in my playing, as I feel it changes the overall tone of guitars to be too mid-focused and harsh.
Here’s where things get interesting. The P.A.F Humbucker pickup built with two single coils put together to eliminate the 60 cycle hum, but this adds variables for discrepancies between pickups. Both coils in a single humbucker were hardly ever wound identically. The difference in windings between the first and second coil in a single pickup can make dramatic differences in the sound between P.A.F’s. When the coils aren’t wound identically, the pickup stops being a true-humbucker with the high-end opening up with more single-coil like qualities, but with all the thickness of a traditional humbucker. The tone can become more 3-D like with more chime and less muddiness. Often players who collect vintage Les Pauls rate their finds over these seemingly minute differences! Part of the fun is the hunt’s magic and not knowing which set of P.A.F’s give exactly what response!
Types of magnets varied regularly in the early years in the Gibson factory. Gibson’s suppliers were often inconsistent with the types of magnets they included in boxed shipments, with different magnet grades often making into mislabeled boxes. Gibson traditionally used Alnico magnets, made of a particular blend of nickel, cobalt, and aluminum graded two through five, in their humbucking pickup construction. While P.A.F.’s used all of these listed Alnico grades, hey no time to send the mismatched magnets back when you got guitars to build, Gibson ultimately settled on Alnico 5’s as their standard magnet in their humbuckers in 1960. Magnet type ultimately matters because different magnet types have different sounds and creative uses for guitarists.
As for the tonal difference between different P.A.F Alnico magnets, the lower Alnico’s grade, the less powerful the magnet, which usually translates to lower output, most modern boutiquey P.A.F clones you can buy now only use Alnico 2’s or 5’s. Hence, it’s a fair amount more straightforward just to describe the differences between them. Alinco 2’s have less output but have a warm bass and mid-heavy pickup, with a somewhat reduced high-end. Alnico 5’s are a much stronger magnet, produce more output with a punchier bass, and crisper high-end. Alinco 2’s sound incredible in a smoky jazz band application chording, whereas the Alnico 5’s sound fantastic on the electric blues, classic rock, and the rock n’ roll we’ve all come to know out of a modern guitarist’s take on the Les Paul.
Now, as for what’s installed in my “Burst” Les Paul. I lucked into a pretty sweet birthday gift of an original set of P.A.Fs a year or so ago. Both are Alnico V’s and have a wide frequency range from booming low bass to stinging, clear treble. However, according to my guitar tech, one of my neck pickup coils is slightly underwound, with the hotter coil being closer to the neck of my Les Paul. More accurately, he placed the hotter side towards the neck when he installed the pickups, and it may be backward to accomplish this. The slightly underwound coil facing towards the middle of the body gets a very interesting in-between single coil-like tone when using the in-between pickup position.
What is PAF Sound? What’re the Applications for Guitarists?:
Gibson PreHistoric 1958 Burst Les Paul- My Guitar
Hey, if you’re anything like me, all these tech specs are cool and all, but what does any of this magnet and wire mambo jumbo mean for me, the average guitarist? Great question. So, after a year of getting to play around with my set of vintage P.A.Fs, I’m not really sure how I managed to get along without them. Even though they aren’t in a real 1958 Burst, I had them put in a PreHistoric R8 Les Paul for a more authentic experience. Immediately, I noticed a difference in my playing and overall guitar tone. The clarity on my Les Paul with just a clean tone is incredible, with each pickup position having its voice. This clarity isn’t only when going clean into the amp, either. There are varying shades of tones in each position, depending on how far up the volume knob you are. Growing up as a Fender 250k potentiometer guitarist, the increased sweep is exceptionally noticeable. There’s also a tremendous amount of dynamics that the pickups highlight with the right-hand attack. Playing delicate gets clear, responsive notes, but digging in with your right hand can get a howl of searing sustain that’s great for milking bends and playing less in improvised solos. Whenever you can get away with sounding like a million bucks and working less in a soloing situation due to the sustain, I say it’s a good thing!