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.
1. The PAF (Patent Applied For) aka The Holy Grail
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 Traditional emulate these classic tones, using the Burstbucker pickups described below.
2. Burstbuckers 1, 2 & 3
Burstbuckers are Gibson pickups that aim to authentically recreate the classic tone of a PAF in a modern pickup. Gibson describes these as ‘Time Machines’, creating vintage tone in an all-new pickup. Who are we to argue with the guys that built the original?
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 2 is slightly ‘hotter’, with more turns of wire. According to Gibson, its output is closer to that of a ’57 Classic.
The Burstbucker 3 has more windings still, and its over-wound design makes it the highest output Burstbucker, but again, with classic PAF tone.
NB: All of the above are available in Nickel, Gold, Zebra and Black finishes.
Adding a modern touch – Burstbucker Pro
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.
Highlighted Model: Gibson 2019 Les Paul Traditional
3. ’57 Classic
The ’57 Classic is another hugely popular Gibson pickup. In many respects it is very similar to the Burstbucker- it offers ‘vintage’ PAF style tone, too, for example. It is also based around an Alnico II magnet.
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.
Highlighted Model: Gibson 2019 ES-335 Dot
4. Dirty Fingers
Whereas all of the above are based around Alnico magnets, the Dirty Fingers is based on a ceramic magnet. Ceramic pickups are usually characterised by a hotter, more aggressive tone.
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 Gibson 2019 Flying V Tribute.
Highlighted Model: Gibson 2019 Flying V Tribute
5. 490R and 490T
These two Gibson pickups take the DNA of those original PAF models, and ‘evolve’ them slightly for the modern player. Based on an Alnico II magnet, the 490 models provide similar output levels to the Burstbucker models.
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 2019 Les Paul Studio Tribute.
Highlighted Model: Gibson 2019 Les Paul Studio Tribute
6. 496R “Hot Ceramic” and 500T “Super Ceramic”
Two more ceramic Gibson pickups, squarely aimed at the modern rock fraternity, these are two incredibly high gain pickups. The 500T is, with the Dirty Fingers, one of the highest gain pickups that Gibson produces.
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 be wired to be have coils split.
Quick summary of our Guide to Gibson Pickups:
|Pickup Model||Tonal Style|
|Burstbucker||Vintage tone inspired by hallowed PAFs|
|’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|
Get in touch
As always you can check out our extensive collection of Guitars over at the Dawsons website. If you prefer to get your hands on something then head to your local Dawsons Music store, and our instore specialists will be more than happy to help.
If you liked that then you might like this
Check out the new Gibson Modern and Original ranges here!
Delve into Gibson’s plans for the future in our recent article on the guitar titan.
For a recap on what came through last year, check out our article on the “Gibson 2019” range of models.
If you want to rundown on some of Gibson’s most iconic models, then indulge yourself in our “Five Iconic Gibson Models” guide.
Check out our “10 Interesting Facts About the SG“, and beef up your Pub Quiz knowledge!
Build up your gear knowledge with our growing “Gear Wisdom” series where so far we’ve covered:
- Why Do I Need a Guitar Stand?
- The Humble Guitar Strap
- How to Restring an Acoustic Guitar
- Cleaning Your Electric Guitar
- How Not to Coil a Cable
- What is a Capo Anyway?
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.