That classic "P.A.F" sound is closer than you think
Over the years, the first generation of Kalamazoo-made humbuckers (often called "Patent Applied For" for tell-tale sticker found on the back of the pickups) have acquired a mythical status among guitar players. There's hardly a player in the world that doesn't regard the prospect of owning (or just seeing) a late 50's Les Paul with these rare, impossible to find humbuckers as the ultimate electric guitar experience. Prices for a late 50's Les Paul Standard with early humbuckers are close to $200,000 and then there are a few out there (rare left-handed models, artist owned, and even a few unplayed Les Pauls that still have hang tags) that easily approach the cost of a house in a city of your choice.
So to achieve those near-mythical tones out of a modern guitar, many players think they have to either switch out their factory installed pickups for "boutique" pickups (an expensive and time consuming process) or instead save up for the more serious investment of buying a vintage guitar that's far out of the typical Epiphone price range.
For Richard Akers, Epiphone's Director of Research and Development, securing Epiphone a place in the crowded and formidable race to produce a great--not just good--but great Patent Applied For-style humbucker was the ultimate challenge.
"These ProBucker pickups are not just slight improvements over previously produced pickups. They were completely designed here in Nashville and tooled from the ground-up at a new factory dedicated to high end pickup production," said Akers. "These pickups use only the highest quality components and are based on the most sought after humbuckers of Gibson's history. I spent many, many hours making sure these came out great and I am really happy with the results. They sound fantastic."
With the new ProBucker pickups, Epiphone now gives its players the confidence that any instrument they purchase with ProBucker pickups will have that sound, the elusive classic rock and roll patent applied for ("P.A.F.") tone.
That vintage sound may not be for everyone (which is why we make more than one kind of humbucker). But for devotees, having a Les Paul or archtop with ProBucker pickups provides a player with a tonal palette unmatched by any other pickup. The ProBucker humbucker gives players the ability to seemingly erase any barrier between your imagination and what you play. They can sound stark, grungy, clean, shimmery, creamy, bold, round, skinny--the list goes on and on. Today, the ProBucker humbucker pickup makes Epiphone not just a near-contender but also a real contender, in fact, a bona fide option for those seeking the classic late 50s humbucker sound.
But don't take our word for it. Naturally, we thought the finished ProBucker pickups were serious contenders. The real test came when Akers set up a "humbucker challenge" station during Epiphone's 140th open house in July 2013.
We set up two sets of three Les Paul Standard PlusTop PROs--in Vintage Sunburst and Heritage Cherry Sunburst--and encouraged visitors to check them out. Both groups of Les Pauls were set up with new Epiphone ProBucker pickups as well as two other very fine boutique humbuckers.
Many guests participated in the "blind" challenge including pros, guitar magazine editors, and guitar collectors. While every pickup sounded fantastic and the differences were slight, Epiphone's ProBuckers were chosen as the preferred pickup by a majority (61%) of the players. Check out the video below to see the challenge in action and some of the surprising results (and guests)!
But just what is this so called "P.A.F." humbucker? The first humbuckers were installed in Les Paul Standards in 1957 at the Kalamazoo factory in Michigan and at the time were not considered to be a tonal breakthrough as much as they were a practical breakthrough.
The humbucker pickup was invented--in fact--to "buck the hum," the annoying "buzz" that amplifiers and electric guitars picked up in poorly grounded bars and nightclubs. Add to the noise the powerful signal of AM radio stations and you can understand why "bucking the hum" was a concern. Sometimes the buzz from guitars, amps, and PA systems could be as loud as a Saturday night crowd.
Inventor and Gibson/Epiphone staff technician Seth Lover, who first applied for a patent for his humbucker pickup in 1957, certainly recognized that the humbucker had a unique sound. But primarily, his mission was to give guitar players a pickup that brought down the noise without sacrificing tone. Coincidentally, Gibson/Epiphone owner Ted McCarty, who put Seth onto the task of making the humbucker, also needed something to perk up flagging sales of the company's flagship electric, the Les Paul.
Initially the Les Paul Standard and its new humbucker pickup (with a "Patent Applied For" sticker on the back) didn't take off and were made in low quantities. In fact (gasps from the audience), the Les Paul Standard, as we know it, was actually discontinued for most of the 1960s.
But the humbucker and the Les Paul Standard did not go quietly into the night. As music fans know, guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and Peter Green took to the P.A.F. sound as the ultimate blues guitar tone. Their inspiration? Probably Keith Richards, who played a late 50's Les Paul Standard (with a Bigsby) on the T.A.M.I. show which also featured The Beach Boys and James Brown in one of the great live television performances in rock and roll history. (Just before the show, Keith had put aside his Epiphone Casino, his main axe for a dozen early Rolling Stones hits including "Satisfaction.")
Thanks to Clapton, Allman, and Bloomfield, the Les Paul Standard and the P.A.F. humbucker became legendary--and due to its low production numbers--virtually impossible to find. And of course, there were more legends within the legend, like the one about the P.A.F. humbucker being assembled by part-time housewives and retirees who made each pickup slightly different, depending on their machinery and their whimsy.
"Just like a good chef uses science and art to create unique dishes a good pickup designer is able to use ingredients in unique ways to create sound," said Akers. "All the ingredients are available to anyone willing to look but you have to know how to combine them and what is important. And for us here at Epiphone it is crucial that we do so in a way that provides the greatest value for our customers. Knowing the ingredients in a fine family recipe and how they combine is very similar to how I went about producing these pickups that are based upon pickups synonymous with what our ears have evolved to know as THE sound of Rock and Roll, the 50s era Gibson P.A.F.."
Before coming to Epiphone, Akers started in the Gibson pickup division and became a keen student of the sound of a P.A.F. humbucker, which he first heard about when he began playing guitar as a teenager.
"I've got a degree in Electrical Engineering so I appreciate the science but I also understand the subjective nature of sound and the nuances of pickup design," said Akers. "There are certain aspects of the design that are critical to insuring a quality product. It all starts with the dimensions of the bobbins. The shape and size of the bobbin are critical to how the pickup is going to respond. As I mentioned, the sound of Rock and Roll has been defined in large part by the early Gibson made humbucker pickups. We tooled up our bobbins for our Pro Series pickups to the exact dimensions of these classic Gibson pickups. Another key ingredient to produce a top quality pickup is the use of Nickel Silver unit basses and covers. This is crucial to achieving the transparency and high-end sparkle needed for a great pickup. This is the one aspect of pickups used in Asian built guitars that most manufactures don't want to pay for. It's more expensive than using plated brass but it makes a real difference. We also use the highest quality magnet wire available, Elektrisola. The thickness of the insulation on this wire also plays a part. We use the thinnest available, single build. Every aspect of these pickups was considered. We specified the correct alloys of metal for the pole shoe, screws, and slugs. The magnets are sand cast Alnico magnets. All these seemingly insignificant parts add up. The Pro Series pickups are extremely well made, high quality pickups."
"Of course the sound is subjective," continued Akers. "There is a reason there is more than one flavor of ice cream and more than one pickup on the market. People like different things. But before you automatically assume you need to rip your pickups out of your new Epiphone Pro Series guitar and spend another couple hundred dollars give the ProBuckers a chance."
The new Epiphone ProBucker pickups are only a part of the larger story of Epiphone's piece-by-piece re-evaluation of its guitar making processes over the last decade. But certainly creating not only a viable but necessary choice for those wanting the "P.A.F." humbucker sound was an exciting and daunting task. But the results, as you can see from the video, will rock your world. As Akers notes, some of the greatest inventions were the result of part inspiration, part science, and part accident. So when it comes to achieving a "P.A.F." sound that can be replicated on a regular basis--as Epiphone has now done with the ProBucker--the arrival of the ProBucker is cause for serious celebration for Epiphone Les Paul fans especially.
"There's a great quote from Seth Lover, the inventor of the humbucker pickup at Gibson, who when asked how he figured out how many turns of wire were needed on each bobbin said something to the effect of "as many as they would hold." Same with the wire gauge. 42 gauge was just the economical choice at the time. What we perceive today to be a great sounding pickup is partially great because that is the sound we grew up hearing as the definitive sound of Rock and Roll. It's what our ears want to hear. There is also a lot of truth to the fact that through some very intelligent engineering and also some just plain old luck Seth Lover and Gibson created a fantastic sounding pickup that worked extremely well in the guitars they were producing at the time. Our modern manufacturing procedures certainly give us a higher degree of consistency but it's hard to top the sound produced by the best examples of the golden era."
Epiphone ProBuckers feature 18% Nickel Silver unit bases and covers, the same alloy used by Gibson. The use of Nickel Silver reduces the occurrence of eddy currents due to low conductivity and provides a more transparent and crisp output. The size and shape of bobbins also has a great impact on tonal response. The bobbins used on the ProBucker pickups duplicate the size and shape of the gold standard in the industry, Gibson humbuckers. Epiphone ProBucker pickups also feature Sand cast Alnico II magnets, high quality 4 conductor lead wire and are vacuum wax potted to eliminate microphonics.
So if the Epiphone ProBucker pickup can now be considered a contender for those looking for an affordable no-fuss choice in a classic humbucker sound, what's next?
"There's always new ground to break. That is what got us the humbucking pickup in the first place," said Akers. "Smart people trying to solve problems. I think there will be a prominent place for these classic pickup designs for many years to come but there is also room for exploration and experimentation. It's hard to predict where technology will take us but I'm certain people will keep trying to improve upon what came before."