A Guide To Gibson Pickups
The pickups that changed the world
Gibson pickups have arguably done more to change the direction of guitar development than any other. When the brand developed the first humbucker in 1955, it inadvertently provided music with a new, more raucous voice.
There are many varieties of Gibson humbucker available, each with their own character. Here, we’ll take a tour of these, and explain the differences between them.
The PAF (Patent Applied For)
The PAF is the name given to the original Gibson pickup developed in 1955 by Seth Lover. Up until this point, all pickups had been single coil designs. The problem with these was that they were plagued by hum and noise.
The principle of the PAF was ingenious. Two coils of wire were used, but put out of phase with each other such that the hum was effectively cancelled out. The PAF was much quieter than the typical single coil.
However, there were several side effects of this process that would take the humbucker, and music, into all-new territory. Firstly, the effect of a second coil made the pickup much more powerful than a single-coil design.
Secondly, the phase cancellation also cancelled some of the guitar’s high frequencies, whilst reinforcing the lower frequencies. The result? Thick, rich, powerful guitar tone that has characterised the tone of Les Paul instruments ever since.
The PAF is no longer available, but Gibson has a far wider range of pickups that offer classic PAF tones and beyond. For example, the new Gibson Les Paul Studio emulate these classic tones, using the pickups described below.
The original PAF humbuckers varied hugely due to several factors. Firstly, whilst Alnico magnets were always used, the type of magnet (2, 3, 4, or 5) could vary. As these have different magnetic properties, the characteristic tone of the pickup could vary considerably.
Secondly, as pickups were wound using machines operated by humans with no definite ‘stop’ point, pickup windings could also vary hugely, with a great effect on pickup output.
The standard Burstbucker aims to recreate the best of PAFs with three differing models. All three have unbalanced coils (less turns of wire on one coil than the other), which results in a tonal ‘bite’.
The Burstbucker 1 is a slightly under-wound model, with medium output. It maintains the classic ‘creaminess’ and edge that typifies a PAF, but with an output that means it is equally adept as a neck or bridge pickup.
The Burstbucker 3 has more windings still, and its over-wound design makes it the highest output Burstbucker, but again, with classic PAF tone.
All of the above are available in Nickel, Gold, Zebra and Black finishes.
The Burstbucker Pro is a more modern incarnation of the model, which swaps the Alnico II magnet for an Alnico V magnet. Unlike the other Burstbuckers, which are sold individually, the Pro models are sold in calibrated pairs.
Tonally, they offer ‘enhanced’ PAF tone that’s a bit brighter with more ‘bite’. These are available in gold or nickel finish.
All Burstbuckers feature 2-conductor wiring.
However, where the ’57 Classic differs is that its two coils are balanced. This gives it a slightly richer, less ‘edgy’ tone that tends more towards ‘vintage’. In terms of output, it’s comparable to a Burstbucker 2.
The standard model is paired with ’57 Classic Plus. This adds more turns of the vintage, enamel-coated wire, for higher gain. Perfect for adding some classic, blues crunch.
Available in black, nickel, gold and zebra finishes, an example of ’57 classics in action can be found here.
The Dirty Fingers first appeared in the ‘80s, and its ceramic design makes it one of the hottest pickups Gibson produces. Loud and aggressive, this pickup is a favourite among those who like to drive tube amps hard.
In addition to the enhanced gain, the Dirty Fingers also provides excellent sustain and clarity. Plus, wax potting prevents issues with microphonic feedback.
The Dirty Fingers is a 4-conductor design. Available in black only. These can be found in the Epiphone Tom DeLonge Signature ES-333.
490R and 490T
Tonally, however, these pickups provide slightly more mid-range bite. Perhaps the biggest difference between these and the Burstbuckers, however, is that they feature a 4-conductor design, and can be used in ‘split coil’ modes.
The ‘T’ and ‘R’ in the names stand for ‘Treble’ and ‘Rhythm’ respectively- effectively bridge (treble) and neck (rhythm). An example of these pickups can be found in the Gibson 2016 SG Standard.
496R and 500T
The 496R is very high output, aggressively voiced neck pickup, with a great, cutting tone and exceptional sustain.
The 500T usually partners the 496 at the bridge. With even higher output, the ceramic magnets provide searing lead tones with incredible sustain and note definition.
Both of these pickups are 4-conductor designs, meaning that they can also wired to be have coils split.
Quick summary of our Guide to Gibson Pickups.
- Burstbucker – vintage tone in an all-new pickup
- ’57 Classic – slightly richer, less edgy tone
- Dirty Fingers – ceramic pickup, loud and aggressive
- 490R & 490T – more mid-range bite, in a 4-conductor design
- 496R & 500T – great cutting tone with exceptional sustain