In the first instalment on PAFs, we take a look at the pivotal formative years of Gibson’s epoch-defining humbucker…
During the late 40s, Gibson began to build upon the initial success of its pre-war Electric Spanish range by ramping up production of electric guitars sporting its new P-90 single-coil pickup. By this stage, the electric guitar had become a much more prominent and popular instrument within several musical genres, due to its potential for amplification in a band setting. No longer was the guitarist confined to thrashing out acoustic rhythms in the background – the stage was now set for them to take the lead.
During this time, Fender began competing directly with Gibson in the electric lap-steel market. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, both companies were simultaneously developing their own version of a solid-bodied electric Spanishstyle guitar. Fender pipped Gibson to the post in 1950 with its Esquire and Broadcaster instruments, and the Les Paul Goldtop Model appeared in 1952. As the early 50s progressed and the new solidbodied ‘electric Spanish’ guitar trend took hold, Fender ascended to market leader status and became a serious competitor of Gibson’s, while carving out its own Tele/ Strat-shaped future in solid ash.
With a far lesser propensity for uncontrollable feedback than hollowbodied electrics, the new solid-bodied instruments encouraged guitarists to push the envelope even further with volume. However, with greater volume often comes greater noise – as many guitarists familiar with the ominous 50/60Hz undertone of AC mains hum emanating from their amplifier speakers will attest to! Gibson president Ted McCarty was to find a solution to this perceived problem – one that might put the company a step ahead of the competition – as electronics engineer Seth Lover overdelivered on his latest pickup design for the company using humbucking dual coils.
Seth began his association with Gibson as early as 1941 and developed its single-coil Alnico V pickup around 1952 in an effort to maximise loudness and compete with the high-output DeArmond
Model 200/Dynasonic pickup that was belittling its beloved P-90. By 1955, Seth’s work on the new Gibson humbucking pickup was complete and a patent was filed in June of that year. Although phasecancelling double-coil technology had been ‘bucking hum’ since the 30s, it was a first for Gibson and the company soon began integrating it into production, beginning with lap steels in 1956.
Migrating from electric lap steel to Spanish-style electric guitar in a similar manner to Fender’s original single-coil Esquire bridge pickup, Gibson’s new humbucker first started appearing on electric solidbodies and archtop guitars from 1957. Later that year, a black rectangular decal reading ‘Patent Applied For’ in gold-coloured capitalised font was added to the base of the pickup, giving rise to the ‘PAF’ acronym. Although a patent was granted in July 1959 (number 2,896,491), the ‘Patent Applied For’ decal remained commonplace until 1962, when a new decal featuring the patent number of a Gibson trapeze tailpiece appeared reading ‘Patent No. 2,737,842’… Yes, it’s confusing! And the jury is still out as to why this occurred.
In spite of Gretsch receiving its Filter’Tron humbucker patent virtually
in tandem with Gibson, the humbucking pickup has remained chiefly synonymous with Gibson for many years – arguably the most iconic image being that of a PAFloaded Les Paul Standard or ’Burst. The characteristically dense, chunky tone of these Gibson Les Pauls – as compared to Fender’s typically thinner-sounding single-coil pickups – often brings to mind those classic-rock-era guitar heroes who played their part in popularising humbuckers today, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons. Seth Lover certainly did not foresee the path his invention would take in terms of music making, and the ‘holy grail’ guitar tones these artists would later produce seems almost incidental. As is so often the case in the world of music making, creativity begins in the laboratory.
With a solid reputation built upon Seth Lover’s PAF unit, Gibson has continued to evolve its humbucking pickup designs over the decades at the forefront of the industry. And yet despite more recent advances, the demand for modern PAF recreations – as well as original examples – has never been greater. With a boutique niche market in reproduction pickups focusing on the finest of details, unravelling the secrets of the PAF has almost become an artform in itself.
The PAF-loaded Les Paul is iconic in looks as well as sound