By Dave Stephens
You see these see 3 letters, “P-A-F,” put together in the context of guitar pickups, and you automatically think “humbucker.” Well, what does that actually mean? Gibson’s first humbuckers went into production without a finalized approved Patent number, so to protect their design in 1957, they put decals on the bottom plates that said: “Patent Applied For.” In the 80’s players began calling them “PAF’s” and prices on them start slipping upwards, following the prices of vintage Les Pauls, with no price ceiling in sight. But a PAF doesn’t just mean humbucker, and sadly many use that acronym to mean any humbucker, which is a toxic mistake. And, it’s a common mistake to think Seth Lover invented the humbucking pickup, Ray Butts invented the first one for Gretsch, called the Filtertron, and Seth was instructed by Ted McCarty to “make a pickup like those Gretsch guys got.” In recent years, prices for a good vintage PAF set has hit upwards of $15,000.
So, let’s go back in time and let me show you what these amazing old pickups really ARE, why they are different, and what made them so critical to the birth of rock-blues that Clapton and Page and many others who left timeless music behind them. First, let me introduce myself if you don’t already know about me. At age 66, my life career was in the art of graphic design, but I was a guitar player beginning in 1965 when my wonderful classical pianist grandmother bought a Harmony Bobcat electric guitar for me and the album “Play Guitar With The Ventures.” The first electric guitar I ever saw was in the hands of a guitarist backing Jerry Lee Lewis, 1963, on Dreux Air Force Base in France where Captain James R. Stephens and his family of 6 were stationed. Jerry was great, but that big Gibson archtop electric guitar blew me away. My passion for playing never really dimmed in all these years, and at the peak of my design career, I found myself specializing in music industry clients of my own. Notably, EMG Pickups and Shrapnel Records. I had EMG for about 14 years and Shrapnel for a whopping 25 years. Servicing those two accounts, I met many world famous guitar players and did album art in the hundreds of art packages in CD’s and vinyl covers, for talents I never dreamed I’d be in contact with.
In the 90’s and a move to Portland, Oregon, I was exposed to the massive and vital blues energy surging thru the music community and met guitar masters that I learned from and ultimately inspired me into building pickups as a side business to my frantic deadline-driven work for Shrapnel. As a graphic designer, the whole career craft is built around precision details, any tiny mistakes in production prepress work, four-color spec’ing, and other vital minuscule things, could cost the client thousands of dollars in wasted printing, so one simply has to be on top of everything at all times or heads would roll, especially MINE if I made a single technical mistake. In early years I would literally be cutting periods and commas out of type proofs on paste-ups, and moving lines of type around by hand and wax cement, years ahead of computers. This level of detail spilled over into my pickup design work, where technical details are in abundance and must be learned and mastered. Many pickup makers simply are not of that caliber and are more “kit assemblers” than anything to do with actual pickup design.
I vowed at the beginning of my pickup career to NOT be a replicator of “vintage” pickups because it seemed everyone else was doing that, so I focused on my own unique designs, completely handmade from scratch and what I could muster up in my small machine shop. And I vowed to never make humbuckers, because the field was flooded with guys who did nothing but “make” humbuckers, again, mostly kit parts. So, someone requested I make a set for him, which I did. I liked it, he liked it. But after a few months, the blandness of the tones and the fact that it sounded like every other hand wound bucker others were making, got me thinking, “why doesn’t this sound like Clapton, Page, Peter Green, Bloomfield?” There is something HUGE that is completely missing……
16 years later I figured it all out, yes I did. And I would never enter into another heartbreaking long ordeal like that again, nothing was easy, I “quit” and “gave up” many times, only to be sucked back into the quest for knowledge. I was told it was impossible to do, that made me go at it harder. So, what did I do? I talked to engineers, who gave me ideas about “alloys” and magnetic circuits. Chopping up and machining my own parts with various and exotic alloys, I learned what effects ferromagnetic materials of various ingredients did to SOUND, and what each group of magnetic circuit parts in a bucker actually contributed to the whole design. then it got SERIOUS……
I was contacted by a specialist in magnetic alloys from a big offshore company with a factory in the USA, who told me he would help me decipher anything I wanted in vintage pickups that were steel, and wouldn’t charge me anything. A great example of the mantra of focusing on what you want to do and the universe will send help your way! For about 6 years together we analyzed and did all kinds of testing on parts of Gibson vintage pickups that covered a 40-year time span. From Charlie Christian pickups, P13’s, P90’s, PAF’s, PAF mini-buckers, early Patents, and TTops, early and late-1937-1977. What emerged was the story of steelmaking during those years and how advances in technology made unwanted changes in pickup tones. That’s all I will share. I was the first one to do this kind of work and in such a deep dive true scientific reverse-engineering way, that some have tried to copy lately, but failed to spend enough time, nor looked at enough vintage materials. Most will just do a simple chemical testing, and all that anyone is going to find out is that there is no EXACT match for vintage steel in modern steel making. Open hearth Bessemer furnaces were used in those days, with different oxygen defeating chemicals literally shoveled into the fiery molten mass, that are different than the methods and chemicals used now. The majority of what I learned is kept secret, since I make my living now, making technical replicas of these old magnificent pickups……….Then, we went into “wire land….”
In an email conversation with Elektrisola Wire Corp., who graciously answered my query about what did they know about vintage wire making, I mentioned I had samples of vintage wire covering the same 40-year time span as the pickups in the metals project. They offered to analyze my samples for free and were just as interested in the results as I was. The data was mystifying so they explained what all of it meant, and I was able to translate it into my working theories of how metals and AC currents in sound creation interact to influence “tone.” There are no engineering books on this subject so I had to learn by experimentation to find out what’s real and what’s marketing hype. We also analyzed wire made in the last 20 years and even their own current wire, so I had something to compare against. Man, I didn’t miss any question or any detail I could learn from. But, there’s more……
One of my problems was getting my hands on enough vintage PAF’s, to get to really KNOW them. And to PLAY them. So, I began restoring them for free, and still do, depending on what needs to be done. By now, I have seen multiple examples of every year they were made, dissected them completely, removing the coils, everything, and have put many dead ones back into working condition, with correctly done machine pattern winds they all had, and making them look as untouched as I can. I got a decent pair of vintage PAF”s myself at one point, and my experiments with alloys and “other things” were confirmed by what these pickups told me. You have to play them yourself to understand their magic, and you have to be a competent player to “hear” whats different about them and why they grabbed all those classic rock heroes by the balls and made them famous. So, back on track…..
While there are many many little secrets about vintage PAF’s, and way too many bogus myths as well, I am able to put a kind of chronology together for the layperson guitarist, who may’be at some point might have a chance to trade for or buy one or a set. What is confusing is that more often than not, the year the guitar was built and sold is NOT the year the pickups in it were built. This is always true for the GOLD PAF’s, which I have seen in guitars that were made 5 or 6 years after the pickup was made. Even regular PAF’s were mostly made the year before the guitar was installed with them. So, here we go…..
The very first PAF’s did not have decals on them and were used in lap steel guitars, these unfortunately often had their pole screws cut down under the baseplate, which is pretty much a deal killer for a sale. These appeared sometime in ’56.
In ’57 these early PAF’s had stainless steel bobbin mount screws underneath the pickup, you can tell because they are non-magnetic steel, a dead giveaway, these don’t appear in any other year. The earliest 57’s were not like any other year, the diameter of the magnet wire was the thickest I’ve found, and in general, the older the wire the more likely its diameter will be fatter than later on, through these particular years. The thicker wire always has a lower resistance per foot of wire so these typically have low DC ohms reading much below 8K. The ’57 winding pattern is the same as P90’s built that year, and presumably wound on the same automated machine. NO hand winding in any Gibson pickups EVER. Hand winding makes humbuckers muddy, especially in the neck position, an all too common atrocious mistake in the pickup field. There were other major differences in the 57’s that I keep silent on and use that knowledge to make a credible technical copy of what I found. The PAF decal is usually found in the 57’s but very very earliest ones probably not. The magnets in these were thick and long, very rough sand cast.
In 1958 the decal is now always there onwards. The bobbin mount screws are now brass. The wire is still a smidge thicker than most classic PAF wire, so these commonly read below 8K as well. But, remember, there are no “rules” that can be nailed down with these pickups, I’ve always found exceptions. Long sand cast magnets. Anyone’s guess what “alnico” these are, close would be alnico 2, but analyses don’t match modern A2 magnets and casting methods and materials were nothing like what is used now. The magnets are highly overrated part of PAF tones, it doesn’t offer a significant contribution, and I have replaced vintage with some custom sand cast mags that sound identical, (I bought back sand cast magnets in 2007 single-handedly working with Allstar Magnetics and Magnetic Hold, and their Chinese suppliers, quite successfully, but sand cast is not magic and has no contribution, they just look cool.
1959! Some big changes here, still brass screws on the bottom, PAF decal, but now the magnets are shorter, still some long ones though. My guess is they shortened them to make it easier to stuff the coil leads in the unit, which becomes obvious when you make pickups for a living! The small loss of mass makes these magnets a little brighter, alnico is largely made of IRON, and the more iron in a magnet the less bright the pickups will be. This is when the beloved “double white” PAF’s show up. A set of these I worked on sold for $12,000 a few months ago. The wire in these particular pickups was the thinnest I’ve seen in PAF’s to date. The thinner wire lends more compression and smaller coils, which is probably why we now see them hitting 9-10K because they were filling the bobbins out, and thus the higher readings. BUT, again, these high ohm PAF’s show up in almost every year as well, so no real rules here. The white bobbins were simply because the company making them ran out of black pigment. No one even knew this til Page and others took the covers off to get more treble out of the pickups, it wasn’t for cosmetic purposes at all. There is a SERIOUS downside to doing this, vintage magnet wire gets EATEN by acid human sweat, and its what killed Page’s original double white PAF bridge pickup, and virtually every dead PAF I’ve restored was murdered by taking the cover off, leaving green salty corrosion to eat completely thru some coils I removed. It’s Real bad idea to play any vintage PAF without a cover, once dead they lose an incredible amount of value, even correctly machine rewound, they drop down to about $900 in value if anyone will even buy one altered.
1960. Wire diameter is now stabilized, amount of wire put on is all over the place. The official winding recipe called for 10,000 total winds, but this makes a pickup reading around 7.3k-7.6K, and these are really bright.
This is the last official year PAF’s were made, but keep reading because here’s a secret for you that will save you a ton of money—–They quit putting PAF decals on them, but up thru ‘early 63, they were still pure PAF. Steel bobbin mount screws show up on some of these and are magnetic attracting. Short magnets, the wire is now a median diameter and the most common size found among the majority of PAF’s even earlier years. There are other changes going on that made these bright pickups, changes that became common in the early Patent years.
This is the pickup that Eddie Van Halen had in his first iteration of the Frankenstrat. It now has a “patent number” decal on the bottom, but the magnet wire is the same as used on earlier PAF’s, these ARE PAF’s but they are on the bright side due to tolerance shifts and other things like the alnico 5 magnets becoming stronger and brighter. These are the “money saver PAF’s” because people think they aren’t PAF’s anymore when they really still ARE. Although the 10,000 winds were supposed to be now controlled by shut off counter switches, you do see higher wind versions and THESE ARE THE ONES TO BUY. They are PAF’s and were likely made in official PAF years. If you can see inside the tape on the end and all the leads from the coils are BLACK, these are real PAF’s. But ’62 is when they began using white and black coil leads.
A major change to a poly nylon orange magnet wire, brighter wire. Beginning of the end.
Last year of the Patent pickups, Gibson took one last shot at using plain enamel wire, but wire making began advancing and some of these pickups are deadly SHRILL, real shriekers, not fun to play.
TTops come into being to combat the overly bright and deadly last Patents. TTops are a whole other story…..
In closing, maybe this article made you glaze over and you never played a real PAF and this stuff sounds too complicated, but then someday maybe you WILL play a vintage instrument with these pickups, and you will be shocked! You only heard old records with guitar sounds that some studio engineer mangled into something great sounding, but the pickups by themselves don’t sound like the recordings. My job in life was maybe some kind of divine inspiration; years before I made pickups I dreamed that I was making pickups for a living, and I thought it was the craziest dream at the time. I want everyone to have the experience of playing these pickups, but most can’t, and so I learned what they are and how to reproduce them about 97%. One cannot get further than that because the most important elements to close that gap don’t exist in our time. Mainly the MAGNET WIRE was a huge part of the puzzle. We only have one real source left for plain enamel wire, and we are stuck with what little they produce. I have asked them if they could change some things so they could make the wire much closer to vintage, but the price tag for that is out of my league. Theoretically, I know it can be done, as I bought some Korean wire in 2001 that was dead identical to the vintage wire, an old factory, using old methods. Aaaaaah, dreams of good wire. Finally, if you have any dead PAF’s in your gearbox and want them to live again, contact me, I’ve restored some fatal cases back to life, and if you ain’t rich I don’t charge to keep these babies ALIVE.
To Learn More about Stephens Designs please visit: sdpickups.com
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