With so many P.A.F. winders coming out of the woodwork these days its easy to get lost in the sea of “exceptionally accurate” clones. Be kinder to your wallet by using this guide to help you navigate the waters and decide for yourself what makes a truly exceptional recreation of the historic Gibson Humbucker pickup.
The market for P.A.F. clones and reissues is on fire. Much like the boutique pedal rage that continues to this day it continues to grow steadily. This guide attempts to help understand the most common “voicings” winders offer today and more importantly their most useful…uses. What makes up a “true” clone and the importance of specific parts and materials will be discussed later in detail. We will also look at what is actually fueling this craze and how pickups are being sold based on both reality and marketing. It might surprise you.
Of course you may want to skip to “The three voices of the P.A.F. Reissue” if you want to get right to it. You might also notice that there isn’t a “King of the Hill” listed here. This is specifically because “true” boutique gear often isn’t comparable in regards to superiority. They are all just colours of the rainbow with their own specific uses. You will be much more satisfied when you find what is right for you and not the other forum members. Be extremely wary of anybody who tells you otherwise especially in the world of pickups. Even more so with P.A.F.clones.
As always if you find any discrepancies or just like to discuss (read” argue) about gear post a comment. There is so much to the history and reproduction of the original humbucker. But to begin…
A bit o’ history…
Eventually becoming the successor to Gibson’s P90 single coil pickup the Gibson humbucker was originally designed to mimic its precursor’s single coil tone, albeit with less hum. Clean and responsive was the name of the game in the Fifties scene. As each decade of rock emerged the requirements of solid body pickups expanded enormously however. Loud amps distorted which soon became not just acceptable but preferred. And distorted tone required an amp turned up loud which became a necessity for ever growing venues. Chosen for its ability to “buck hum” as things got louder (and noisier) the humbucker quickly became a go to for the heavy rockers. But this was just the beginning…each year saw exponential increases in gain and distortion. And with it came the calls for more noise suppression and a characterstic change in voicing to adapt to the wall of sound that became the norm…
Soul to Sole…
In the beginning clarity was the main focus of any instrument amplification besides volume itself. Even the “Fender Sound” was the result of ol’ Leo ensuring that distortion was kept to a minimum (!) As things became more and more raunchy year by year a larger signal was needed to push the preamps of the amps designed to “stay clean”. And humbucker equipped instruments were the quick and easy way to get there. The P-90 soon became relegated to use for the budget models of Gibson’s lines.
This of course was years before distortion pedals and high gain amplification. Raising your pickup height to the point of wolf tones was a common thing. And so it went…clean and clear tones of the more organic genres quickly gave way to the more brutal and heavy pavement pounding beats of the day…and with it so much more…
Many things happened during the years of excess and beyond…more members in a group meant less room in the mix for each member. More volume at a gig meant slightly more compression was helpful to keep things tame when they were meant to be wild…and with more distortion for hard rock most gear had to be that much more quiet…or at least be much less susceptible to hum as gear from previous generations were.
Back to Life..
But here were are. It isn’t hard to find a winder from almost anywhere in the world charging north of $500.00 for reissues of what came stock in the Fifties… The days of absolutely accurate P.A.F. reproductions for $200.00 (*) are long gone…or are they?
Almost as quickly (or some would say even quicker) came the calls for going back to the days of less gain and more tone. Far less instrumentation means more space in the mix. Less gain mean higher noise floors in vintage amps are more acceptable. Clear and warm forego the tight and brutal tones for the most part. And while that market hasn’t entirely disappeared it is far easier to find a willing buyer for a P.A.F. themed Seymour Duncan than it is for a high gain EMG lately…even a DiMarzio Super Distortion is considered vintage! So vintage is in. Of course those heavy genres have moved even further to the darkest of corners these days…namely with seven strings!
Back to Reality…
We’ll get into much more specific details of what makes up an original Gibson humbucker later (and why many of those details aren’t really facts as much as they are opinions) but until then here is a rough guide to help you navigate the waters of the much cherished Gibson pickup. It has helped me immensely when figuring out not only what I want in a reproduction P.A.F. but what I actually need for specific uses. And while there are many pickup winders out there with specs and “fuzzy warm” descriptions few of them detail their most sensible uses (though consumer anxiety can be to blame for this point…)
The three voices of the P.A.F. Reissue
I find that these “reissues” tend to fall into three basic camps.
Bright: Much like a true single coil these have a much more wide ranging frequency response with seemingly more of a shallow dip in the mids than the substantial mid bump that most modern hum humbuckers have us accustomed to. Sparkling and clear with an even response. Likely how the designers of the originals intended them to be. MUCH closer to a Fender (gulp) single coil that you would expect. Extremely faint compression (for a humbucker) if any at all. Their clear voice is amenable to drastic equalization and seems to work much more easily with pedals and effects than the others do. But why would you want any of that? Its voice is just right. Highly recommed for studio work.
Boxy: These have a more mid focused response to them (though not remotely close to what modern humbuckers have.) The corners of their frequency spectrum seem to have the edges sharply “squared off” giving them a seemingly sharper attack and more defined bass envelope to them. Not as much strong mids as “less bass / treble heavy.” These seem to have a “cut” to them that isn’t specific to the treble frequencies…Low notes slice their way though with more of thud than an edge and push forward with a “square” voice to them. Though subtle in comparison their voice would be closest to a modern humbucker than any of the others. They cut through. Highly recommended for live work.
Rounded: These seem to be what you would compare to a nicely worn in baseball glove: a strong solid voice with a soft familiar feel to them (likely pseudo compression from frequency response) and a softer less aggressive tone. These seem like they represent what happens to a vintage humbucker from actually being…well…vintage…as opposed to what they originally sounded like from the factory. Unlike “Boxy” P.A.F. reissues these corner frequencies aren’t abruptly cut off but smoothly rounded off. Shoulders not squares. Usually described as “warm” by most winders they are built with weaker or weakened magnets to achieve this. This is what I believe most people want to find in a reissue P.A.F. which ironically isn’t a true reissue…All of those classic albums and cherished recordings from the Seventies actually used instruments from the Fifties didn’t they? Great in the studio for specifically vintage tones and work well live in groups where there is ample space in the mix.
Of course there are many variations on these three themes but from my experience any vintage voiced humbucker has always been part of these groups. Some have could be considered to be in a more than a single group! Add to this the fact that each winder has their own preferred interpretation of what a classic vintage humbucker should sound like and you will have a lot of research to do.
From my experiences the more accurate the materials used and build processes are for a given P.A.F.s recreation the higher the price will be. (Since Custombuckers aren’t even available as a separate part so their prices are like rollercoasters!) The closer the winder will claim to get to an absolutely accurate replica of the originals the higher it cost will be. Now this may seem obvious but ponder this for a while: Are you after what they sounded like when they originally came out or what the set in a ’59 Les Paul sounds like today…?
So far my favourites from each group are as follows:
Bright: Believe it or not Gibson’s own Custombuckers** were squarely in this camp. Who knew the original manufacturer would get it right out of all these reissues ? There was absolutely no reason to pull these pickups…except I needed some Page wiring which requires four conductors. They were my go to for recording. They were my go to for live work. Heck they were my go to for seeing if I should keep my DC30 in rotation on many occasions. (It hasn’t left the stable…) I still ponder if putting them back in…
$$$ to $$$$ based on market availability
Boxy: Lollar Imperials (Regular Wind). These were clear and clean enough to be considered “Bright” but had just enough of the corner frequencies shaved off to make them part of this group. The four conductors on these uniquely labeled pickups offered a lot of vintage voiced variety…standard wiring came quite close to a single coil tone keeping a balanced frequency spectrum but with a compression more akin to a modern humbucker. Still vintage voiced but less soft and much more unapologetic in delivery. Much like a Matchless amp completely wound up. These things rocked for live work.
$$$ to $$$$ based on options
Rounded: Seymour Duncan’s Antiquities had me really excited as soon as they were plugged in. Just round enough not to be considered “boxy” these sound like a dusty L.P. recently pulled from being years on the shelf. They really do sound and feel like a vintage vinyl recording as far as pickups go. (Odd description but you gotta try ’em!) They always respond in a comfortable relaxed way that needs no effort or heavy technique at all…some gear asks you to “dig in” but these just whisper “lay back.” A wise ol’ voice. My personal theory regarding vintage humbuckers is that back in the day most people somehow weakened their pickup magnets. Likely by resting their instruments up against their amplifiers but ho knows? (Or in the case of Andy Summers having his instrument at the rear of the train by the electromagnetic field. Heck somebody may have even had those ol’ horseshoe magnets sitting about. They were everywhere!) The speaker magnets likely “degaussed” them and “softened” their EQ profile. Regardless of why and how they may have weakened it seems like Seymour has captured this seemingly magical characteristic exceptionally well. It adds a seemingly vintage vibe to the tone much like a “vintage” filter on an instagram post. Except it’s actually believable.
I adored these pickups.
$$ to $$$ based on options
Before seeking out your P.A.F. clone it would be prudent to decide what you actually will use it for. The “most accurate reproduction available” will likely have a much more specific use than something less historically accurate that is far more useful in your given situation. And surprisingly cheaper as well. Don’t buy on price. That said the more expensive winds didn’t fail to impress here. Corvettes and Ferraris as they say…
$ = Under $100.00 Stew Mac / “Designed by Duncan”
$$ = $100.00 to $200.00 Entry level Seymour Duncan / DiMarzios
$$$ = $200 to $300.00 Jason Lollar / Bare Knuckle / Lindy Fralin
$$$$ = $300.00 to $500.00 Wizz / Rewind / Ron Ellis
$$$$$ = $500.00 and above OTPG
**A note regarding buying Gibson pickups off of the shelf: If you have ever visited a forum asking about pickups there are few manufactures that have as dichotomous opinions of them as Gibsons do. Why is this? Well here is a theory: O.E.M. Gibson pickups seem to have far different “manufacturing specifications” then retail parts pickups for separate sale. This has apparently been verified by a Gibson employee that was around during the formative years of Gibson’s Custom Shop. They are different or so the forums say. Maybe that’s why Gibson’s Custombuckers sound so great. They are built to a much higher specification. And that’s why they cost so much. Also they are only available O.E.M.. Because they are built to a much higher specification… Sigh
As always if you find any discrepancies or just like to discuss (read” argue) about gear post a comment. There is so much to the history and reproduction of the original humbucker.
If you made it this far you may (or may not!) be interested in part B regarding pricing and build details and of course more reviews and comparisons…coming soon!