When Gibson and Seth Lover first patented the humbucking pickup in 1955 – the legendary “Patent Applied For” or PAF humbucker – could they have known that the design would endure throughout several generations of musician to still be available unchanged six decades later? It’s hard to say. But it’s even harder to know if the Seth Lover of 1955 could have foreseen the niche variations on that design that have emerged, particularly since the 1970s.
Something interesting started happening around that time: as guitarists became more knowledgable about their gear, they began to share information about what made particular pickups special. An overwound or mismatched coil here, a substituted magnet there, and voilà! An otherwise unattainable tone! And that’s part of what's so much fun about playing guitar: even if your axe comes stock with a great stock ’bucker like the Gibson 498T, there’s plenty of scope for customizing your guitar to embody your personal ideal sound. Here are a few Gibson humbuckers that each offer a different take on the basic framework of the PAF, employing a tweak here and a change of materials there to fine-tune their – and your – tone.
’57 Classic and ’57 Classic Plus
The ’57 Classic (the pickup of choice for Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher) is designed to embody the character of the legendary “Patent Applied For” humbucker of the 1950s. Made to the exact specs, including Alnico II magnets and 42-gauge wire, the ’57 Classic has a balanced response and great dynamics whether you play clean or dirty. It’s also available with four-conductor wiring which allows you to wire it for series, parallel or split coil sounds, while its angry big brother, the ’57 Classic Plus, knocks it up a notch with slightly overwound coils designed in the spirit of the occasional accidentally-overwound original unit from the ’50s. The ’57 Classic Plus works particularly well in the bridge position when paired with the regular ’57 Classic in the neck.
The AC/DC legend’s signature Gibson humbucker is takes its cues from the ’57 Classic, with a few crucial twists and turns. For starters, it uses an Alnico V magnet instead of Alnico II, giving it more punch, clarity and midrange girth – all crucial factors given the amp-driven overdrive favored by the Young brothers. It’s also overwound with 43-gauge vintage enamel-like coated wire for additional drive, while each coil is balanced against the other. Angus places his signature humbucker in the bridge position of his SGs while using a ’57 Classic in the neck slot.
Burstbucker Type 1, 2 and 3
While the ’57 Classic, ’57 Classic Plus and Angus Young humbuckers all draw inspiration from original ’50s designs with matched coils, the Burstbucker models – Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 – are designed to match the subtle variations that occurred among original pickups when the bobbin windings weren’t quite equal. Different ratios in the number of windings between each Alnico II-loaded coil, as well as of course amount of overall winds, emphasize different tonal aspects. Type 1 is lower in output, and is well suited to the neck position; Type 2 is more of a medium-output all-purpose pickup; and Type 3 is overwound for higher output. By mixing and matching different types, vastly different characters can be coaxed from a guitar.
In the 1970s, players started looking around for different ways of achieving higher levels of overdrive. One particularly popular way to do this is to present a hotter signal to a tube amp's preamp stage: overdriving a 12AX7 in this way enhances its harmonics and creates a warmer tone. And one particularly efficient way to do this is with a higher-output pickup. The Dirty Fingers uses three powerful ceramic magnets as well as a special combination of wire gauge and windings to achieve its extra-high output: ceramic magnets generally produce a sharper, tougher, punchier tone compared to Alnico, with brighter highs and tighter bass. Reintroduced in 2003 after a special reissue run in 1997, the Dirty Fingers is a favorite of Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge, and its enhanced output is especially handy for players who like to use their guitar’s volume knob to control the amount of gain coming from their amp.
Black Sabbath’s master of metal demands a powerful pickup capable of creating that legendary wall of sound but also able to cut through the devastating rumble of Geezer Butler’s bass when it’s time to solo. The Tony Iommi humbucker (one of my personal favorite pickups, I might add) has plenty of low end and just enough treble cut, but what really sets it apart from other metal ’buckers is midrange character. The mids are chewy and thick, with plenty of body for palm-muted chugs and lots of harmonics for wailing bends. In the neck position the overtones are equally fierce and the tone just as full. Yet despite all that output, the Tony Iommi humbucker never sounds muddy. Incidentally, this model was actually Gibson’s first ever signature series humbucker, and it features shielded four-conductor wiring for series, parallel and split coil options.