Down And Dirty with a Heavy Humbucker

12.20.2012 Dirty Fingers

When Seth Lover's first Gibson PAF (Patent Applied For) humbuckers appeared in the ‘50s, they were relatively low output, at least compared to what we think of when we hear the word 'humbucker' today. In fact, many of those old PAFs sound a little more like single coils than they do modern humbuckers. The classic PAF sound has a clear high end, punchy lows and dynamic attack, whereas many modern humbuckers are generally fat in the low end, maybe rolled off a little in the highs and with a compressed attack.

As musical tastes progressed, players began experimenting with higher and higher levels of gain, initially by cranking their tube amps, and then by using pioneering units such as the Gibson Maestro fuzz. Soon treble boosters were all the rage for their ability to slam the preamp tubes and create harmonically rich overdrive. Eventually a few pioneering techs began rewinding PAFs with more turns of wire and thicker gauges, and experimenting with stronger magnet types. This achieved a similar impact on the preamp stage of amps, but without the signature chewy tonal bump of a treble booster or the characteristic sizzle of a fuzz pedal.

In the early ‘80s, Gibson decided to enter the fray with an attempt to build the ultimate high-output humbucker. The result: the Dirty Fingers.

The Dirty Fingers is not just an overwound PAF. It's practically a unique design from the ground up. It uses three ceramic bar magnets instead of a single Alnico II, III or V magnet (which are the standards Dirty Fingersfor PAFs and PAF-inspired 'buckers). Each coil has six adjustable threaded steel pole pieces, which allow you to fine-tune the high-end response by raising the poles closer to the bridge or closer to the neck side. And instead of the common 42-gauge wire, the Dirty Fingers is wound with around 8,000 turns of fine 44-gauge plain enamel coated wire. Although there's no such thing as an 'average' PAF, since production tolerances were a little looser back then compared to today, the typical vintage PAF would weigh in at a DC resistance of between 7.25 and 9k ohms. It's a simple rule: more turns of wire equals more output and less high end. Ceramic magnets tend to sound a little zippier in the highs and more 'modern' in their attack, so you can balance the reduced high end and smeared attack of a high number of turns by using a ceramic magnet instead of an Alnico one. The Dirty Fingers' DC resistance? A whopping 16k ohms. The inductance is 8.6 henries, and the resonant peak is up at 6K Hz. The result is a thick, powerful pickup with an aggressive edge and which compresses nicely when confronted with a heavy pick attack. This makes it great for heavy rock, of course, but this same reactive nature makes it a surprisingly adept blues rock pickup too: it interacts with your playing and amplifier in a way that rewards strong technique.

These same qualities that help the Dirty Fingers to sound so good for aggressive rock, rude blues-rock, snotty punk and brutal metal also happen to make the Dirty Fingers well-suited for dropped tunings, although this wasn't the original intention, since tuning down to Eb was considered low back when the Dirty Fingers first appeared. It's a good fit for baritone instruments too. It can be paired with another Dirty Fingers in the neck position (although you may want to set the neck one a little lower to balance out the volume between the two, since 16k ohm is pretty extreme for a neck pickup) and it also plays quite nicely with a '57 Classic or a P-90 in the neck position.

The original Dirty Fingers pickups were available on just a few select models in the early 1980s, including the Flying V, Explorer, a version of the ES-347 and the 335-S (although the modern version of this guitar now features Burstbuckers). The model resurfaced as a special run for an international distributor in 1997, and were officially reintroduced in 2004. The modern version is the same as the ‘80s original with the addition of a four-conductor lead for coil splitting, series, parallel or phase switching options. Today you can find it on models like the SG Special Limited, the Lou Pallo Signature Les Paul and the Tom DeLonge Signature ES-333. As DeLonge told the UK's Total Guitar magazine, the Dirty Fingers "was so loud and so obnoxious, but you try it now and it's crazy. It's awesome. It sounds so good. It has so much more clarity and volume and a much wider sound... I instantly fell in love with it."