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Good Tone Hunting: The Gibson Pickup Guide (Now with Audio Clips!)

Ted Drozdowski
|
03.29.2011

The union of guitar and pickup first occurred in 1931, and – like peanut butter and chocolate or fish and chips – it’s been a great relationship. There has been lots of evolution along the way, marked by such stellar human signposts as Muddy Waters, Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Thurston Moore, Wes Montgomery, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Zakk Wylde and the list goes on and on.

Nonetheless, as time has passed and OEM, aftermarket and even boutique pickup makers have come and gone, the basic operating principle of the device has remained essentially the same. The short version: a magnetic field disturbed by moving strings creates a resonance frequency that is transmitted electrically to an amplifier. But since the 1970s there has been an explosion of variations: in windings, sizes, magnet types, active and passive technology, emulation and materials. And guitarists have dived into the game by mixing and matching to achieve very specific tonal qualities, and even, in the case of prominent players like Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and ZZ Top’s Rev. William F. Gibbons, by getting involved in pickup design.

Starting in 1946, the Gibson Company has been at the forefront of pickup technology. In that year Gibson introduced one of the most durable tone generators, the P-90 single-coil pickup, to the world. The P-90, with its snappy top end and rich chocolaty mids and lows, remains a pillar of the sonic architecture of electric guitar. Just three of the important players in the P-90 spectrum are Wes Montgomery, who played P-90 equipped Gibson L-5s; Robby Krieger, whose dark, gorgeous tone with the Doors sprang from a Gibson SG with the tone pots rolled off; and the late Randy Rhoads, who pumped a Gibson Les Paul Custom with humbuckers through a raft of Marshalls to generate his wall of sound onstage with Ozzy Osbourne.

Gibson also invented the first humbucking pickup, made in 1955 by company engineer Seth Lover and given the nickname “P.A.F.” That tag didn’t happen just because “Lover Pickup” would have implied something entirely unrelated to guitars. P.A.F. stands for “Patent Applied For,” which appeared on a sticker on the bottom plates of every humbucker Gibson made until 1959, when said patent was finally issued.

The two-coil humbucker – named for its ability to cancel the hum generated by single-coil pickups – is ubiquitous in popular music, from Eric Clapton’s and Peter Green’s classic Gibson Les Paul Standard tones with the Bluesbreakers to Jimmy Page’s roaring solos to Duane Allman’s hot buttered slide to The Edge’s textural wailing. Today, this still robust 52-year-old remains synonymous with power and versatility.

The third essential Gibson pickup style is the mini-humbucker, which was invented by Gibson’s sister brand Epiphone. This model provides a nice bridge between the big, warm tones of the humbucker and the snappy, brighter tones of single-coil pickups like the P-90 and other single-bar- and multi-pole-magnet single coil pickups. Although their lineage goes back to earlier Epis like the Sheraton, these clear, crystalline pickups with just enough mad-dog bite became truly popular when the Gibson Firebird was introduced, boasting mini-humbuckers, in 1963 and the guitar was subsequently embraced by such luminaries as Johnny Winter and Steve Winwood, who rocked a Firebird during his tenure with Traffic and Blind Faith.

Typically, electric guitars come with one, two or three pickups, but players have customized their axes to embrace five or six pickups between the bridge and neck, and avant-gardists – most notably the great six-string innovator Fred Frith – have even attached pickups at the nut.

A bedrock example of a single-coil model Gibson guitar is the L-5 CES, which provided Wes Montgomery with his cool, breathy sound. Many other jazz and blues six-strings sport the same configuration.

For two pickups, think Les Pauls, SGs, Flying Vs, and the list goes on. Most new Les Paul models typically have two Gibson Classic ’57 Humbuckers. And some Les Paul Custom models sport three humbuckers.

 

PICKING REPLACEMENT PICKUPS

Regardless of which pickups a guitar comes with as standard equipment, the reality is pickup configurations are fluid. Unless one’s a purist who always insists on stock gear, pickups can be switched out, single-coils and humbuckers can be paired together, additional pickups can be installed via routing, wiring and soldering. The options, given the wide variety of pickups available, are, perhaps not endless but at least extremely intriguing for the tone conscious. And they all have a profound effect on the way guitars sound.

Want something that’s impossibly hot? Try pairing a Gibson 498T “Hot Alnico” Series in the neck position with a Gibson Dirty Fingers in the bridge. The bright, searing mids of the 498T and the loud bark of the Dirty Fingers are a formidable match-up, especially when chained to a high gain amp like a Marshall.

Want to turn back the clock to the classic tones of the ’60s? Replace a pair of humbuckers with P-90s, or keep one ’bucker in the bridge spot, for edge, and pop a P-90 in the neck position for smoother tones with just a little more darkness. And so on.

The rule of thumb is, to accent or downplay more biting tones, consider replacing the bridge pickup with something that gets you where you ultimately want your sound to go. To enhance or trim the smooth, fluid mids, re-examine the pickup that’s in your guitar’s neck position – the warm spot. (This, by the way, is why most single-pickup jazz guitars have their little magnetic wonders installed in that locale.)

And don’t be afraid to take your instrument out of tonal character. One of my own workhorse six-strings is a bolt-on neck model made in Japan in the ’80s that I got for $185 bucks. I replaced its muddy, cheap, terrible OEM pickups with a pair of stock Gibson humbuckers from a late ’60s Les Paul Standard that met a sad fate in an auto accident (all humans fared well!) and now it sounds like a million bucks.

To get you thinking about pickups as a versatile, flexible part of your tonal arsenal, here’s a rundown of Gibson’s array of ass-kicking models and the qualities that comprise each’s tonal character:

Dirty Fingers

Think of these open-faced little monsters as bridge pickups. They are bad-ass high output machines with plenty of bark and bite to enhance nastiness. Dirty Fingers pickups are wax potted to eliminate microphonic feedback that’s occasionally associated with high-output pickups. Tom DeLonge, frontman for Blink-182, favors these and they come stock in his Epiphone signature model ES-333.

Here’s what Eric Kirkland had to say about Dirty Fingers pickups in Guitar World: “I dropped the Dirty Fingers into both positions on a heavy 1981 Les Paul Custom and ran it through a 1969 Marshall Reissue “Plexi” half stack. The pickup was immensely loud and vicious. Its high gain provided me with tons of power and sustain, but the pickup remained quiet and very clear on single notes. Chords sizzled with extreme energy, and the overtones were spectacular. In fact, I’ve never heard a pickup that complimented EL34-style distortion better than this.”

Dirty Fingers: Bridge, Clean, Lou Pallo Les Paul




Dirty Fingers: Bridge, Dirty, Lou Pallo Les Paul

 

 

’57 Classic

If you dig Clapton’s Bluesbreakers’ tone, Duane’s tone with the Allman Brothers, bluesmen like Luther Allison and B.B. King, etc., then this is your go-for-blood hound. Complete with the “Patent Applied For” decal on their bassplates, these pickups are faithful reproductions of the originals, providing warm, even tones with nice full response and crunch to spare.

Many consider these humbuckers to be the Holy Grail of the “true” Gibson sound. The ’57 Classic has a special Gibson Alnico II magnet, vintage enamel coated wire, nickel-plated pole pieces, nickel slugs, maple spacers and vintage-style, two-conductor, braided wiring – all true to form, with optional gold-plated covers, nickel-plated covers, or open coils. They are marvelous in both positions, or can be balanced out with a different model like the ’57 Classic Plus.

57 Classic: Neck, Dirty, Angus Young SG




57 Classic: Dirty, Neck, Les Paul Traditional



57 Classic: Bridge, Dirty, '61 SG



57 Classic: Neck, Dirty, '61 SG



57 Classic: Neck, Clean, Les Paul Traditional



57 Classic: Neck, Clean, '61 SG



57 Classic: Neck, Clean, Angus Young SG



57 Classic: Bridge, Clean, '61 SG



 

 

’57 Classic Plus

As mentioned above, these go with the ’57 Classic like hot fudge goes with ice cream. Really hot fudge. The “Plus” is literal. These perfect bridge-position companions to the Classic reproduce the late-’50s Gibson pickups that got a few extra turns of wire at the factory, earning higher output without compromising tone as a result. The ’57 Classic Plus – which has the same cover options as the Classic – specializes in pushing tube preamps to smooth saturation.

57 Classic Plus: Bridge, Dirty, Les Paul Traditional




57 Classic Plus: Bridge, Clean, Les Paul Traditional



 

 

Burstbuckers

All three versions of Gibson’s Burstbuckers are time machines, set to the classic-tone era of the late ’50s and ’60s. Why so many variations? Back in the good old days, before advances in technology and engineering allowed guitar building to adhere to strict, reproducible standards, the human factor created differences in pickup windings, coil dipping and magnet characteristics. And these Burstbuckers cover the waterfront of the varied tonal characteristics of the first generation of P.A.F.s that made the original production runs of Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard guitars hammers of the six-string gods.

The key is really in the windings. In the late 1950s, Gibson’s winding machines lacked an automatic shut-off, so the company’s pickup makers stopped the machines after the counters reached approximately 50,000 turns on each bobbin. When the two coils on a pickup have a different number of turns, that variation creates different degrees of sonic bite. In comparison, the coils of Gibson’s ’57 Classic pickups all have the exact same number of windings. So while all Burstbuckers feature vintage-style Alnico II magnets and no wax potting on their coils, the subtlety comes in the windings.

The Burstbucker 1 has slightly underwound coils, giving them a “medium” level of vintage output, which makes them great in both the neck and bridge positions. In contrast, the Burstbucker 2 is wound closer to the Gibson ’57 Classic pickup, with a slightly hotter output good for both positions. And the Burstbucker 3 is the big dog of the pack. They are slightly overwound for a hotter output level that’s also good for the neck or bridge, or both – perfectly walking a tightrope between vintage tone and historic sizzle. All three come with a nickel-plated cover.

Burstbucker 3: Bridge, Dirty, Les Paul Standard Limited




Burstbucker 3: Bridge, Dirty, BFG Gary Moore



Burstbucker 3: Bridge, Clean, Les Paul Standard Limited



Burstbucker 3: Bridge, Clean, BFG Gary Moore



 

 

Burstbucker Pro

But wait, there’s more. The Burstbucker Pro, which was unveiled by Gibson in 2005, offers the unmatched windings of the Burstbucker with a new generation magnet, the Alnico V. These little monsters are stunners that need to be properly managed to create their pure, creamy, nasty tonal range in vintage form. That’s why they’re sold in calibrated pairs for the neck and bridge positions. And they are wax potted to work in high-volume settings without generating feedback – a factor to consider when weighing the merits of the Burstbucker or Burstbucker Pro for your playing style. Their pickup covers are offered in German Nickel, Silver or 24-karat Gold plated options.

Burstbucker Pro: Neck, Dirty, Les Paul Standard




Burstbucker Pro: Neck, Clean, Les Paul Standard



Burstbucker Pro: Bridge, Dirty, Les Paul Standard



Burstbucker Pro: Bridge, Clean, Les Paul Standard



 

 

Angus Young

For those about to rock, consider the Gibson Signature series Angus Young pickup, which comes in neck and bridge configurations. It’s as powerful as a locomotive without sacrificing classic tone, and has a slew of coil deployment options. True to vintage form, the Angus Young pickup has enamel-coated wire, but it’s got a new-generation Alnico 5 magnet and matched coils. The bridge pickup is the secret weapon in Angus’ main Gibson SG. Spec’d for maximum versatility, it has four-conductor wiring for series, parallel and split coil variations. And the pickup is wax potted twice to eliminate microphonic feedback.

Angus Young: Bridge, Dirty, Angus Young SG




Angus Young: Bridge, Clean, Angus Young SG



 

 

P-90 Super Vintage

This is simply the king of the single-coil pickup, leading the pack since 1946. The P-90 blends high output with warm mids and stone-etched treble. Think John Lennon’s Epiphone Casino or Pete Townshend’s SG for a sonic picture of this durable beast’s turf. The pickup has vintage two-conductor braided and shielded wiring and comes in either the “dog ear” (Lennon) or “soap bar” (Townshend) mounting configuration with cream or black plastic covers.

P-90: Neck, Dirty, BFG Gary Moore




P-90: Neck, Clean, Lou Pallo Les Paul



P-90: Neck, Clean, 60s Tribute Les Paul



P-90: Bridge, Dirty, 60s Tribute Les Paul



P-90: Neck, Dirty, Lou Pallo Les Paul



P-90: Bridge, Clean, '60s Tribute Les Paul



P-90: Neck, Clean, BFG Gary Moore



P-90: Neck, Dirty, '60s Tribute Les Paul



 

 

P-94

If single-coil bite and color is the goal, but the look of a “dog ear” or “soap bar” just isn’t right, the P-94 is the solution. This model offers the classic Gibson P-90 sounds in a standard humbucker sized housing, which means replacing a humbucker with a P-94 requires no routing or filling. Just drop it in and solder. The P-94 has the same enamel-coated vintage wire and Alnico V magnets as the P-90 and comes in calibrated neck and bridge models for balanced output. And like a P-90, it can be paired with a humbucker to produce fresh tonal combinations. Plus, the P-94 has higher output and sustain qualities than traditional single-coil pickups, which provides the dynamic response to enhance its ability to bark and to negotiate subtle string work.

 

490R and 490T

Maybe their names aren’t as sexy as Burstbucker or ’57 Classic, but the sound of these versatile pickups inspired by the late wave of the British Invasion – think everything from Cream to T. Rex to Led Zeppelin to Mick Ronson to Mick Taylor – are just as entrancing.

Inspired by the era’s heavy blues-rock tones, often generated by Gibson guitars and high-gain amps like Marshalls and Hi-Watts, these pickups have coil-splitting capability and are designed to prevent microphonic feedback at maximum overdrive. The “T” and the “R” in their designations stands for “treble” and “rhythm” – which translates as “bridge” and “neck,” respectively. They have the traditional structure and tonal base of the original P.A.F. plus two key modifications. A four-conductor wiring pattern allows the 490s to be connected to any push/pull knob, which lets players split the coils to increase sonic versatility. And they’re wax potted, to eliminate any air space and minimize microphonic feedback.

The 490R has the tonal characteristics of an original P.A.F., with a slight increase in upper mid-range response. The 490T is calibrated to match the 490R, with pole pieces aligned a little further apart to accommodate the spacing of the strings at the bridge, which is different than the spacing of the strings at the neck.

The Gibson 498T Alnico Humbucker is the perfect pickup for rockers who want an emphasis on mid-ranges and highs. A high-output version of the 490T, the “Hot Alnico” combines a slightly hotter Alnico V magnet with a specially wound coil combination, resulting in enhanced sustain and crunch. A great pickup for hard rock players.

490R: Neck, Dirty, SG Special




490R: Neck, Dirty, Flood Les Paul Studio



490R: Neck, Clean, Flood Les Paul Studio



490R: Neck, Clean, SG Special



490T: Bridge, Dirty, SG Special



490T: Bridge, Clean, SG Special



498T: Bridge, Dirty, Flood Les Paul Studio



498T: Bridge, Clean, Flood Les Paul Studio



 

 

496R and 500T Ceramic

These pickups are a favorite for high-gain, modern rock applications, where sustain, definition and power are priorities. The 496R is a high output neck pickup made for sustain and cutting punch – exactly what’s needed to cut through in a loud band setting. The ceramic magnet adds more highs with increased definition and no muddiness. This toothy critter comes with double black or black and white (so-called “zebra”) open coils and four-conductor shielded wiring for series, parallel and split coil set-up.

The 496R’s screamin’ cousin, the 500 T “Super Ceramic” pickup, is a bridge position dynamo with a special multi-ceramic magnet construction that covers a wide sonic range. It can howl, purr or snarl without compromising its rich blend of enhanced lows and bright, clear highs. Like the 496R, it also comes in a double black or black/white open-coil scheme, with four-conductor shielded wiring and series, parallel and split coil applications.

496R: Neck, Dirty, Explorer




496R: Neck, Clean, Explorer



500T: Bridge, Dirty, Explorer



500T: Bridge, Clean, Explorer



 

 

Tony Iommi

This black beauty was Gibson’s first Signature series humbucker: a knockout blend of high-powered magnets and special windings geared for insane sustain. Ever lusted for that Black Sabbath sound: a palette of thick dark-edged rhythm crunch with tons of clarity that also includes bell-like highs and crisply defined mids? This pickup has all of that in a little black box that houses shielded, four-conductor wiring for series, parallel or split-coil usage, and it is fully wax potted and epoxy’d for maximum protection against unwanted feedback.

 

Mini-Humbucker

And finally we come to the little giant, the mini-humbucker. The latest variation on this durable workhorse pickup is based on the model used for Gibson’s introduction of the Les Paul Deluxe in 1969. With a small size, narrower magnetic field and unique design, this is the pickup to pick up when the goal is a bright, tightly focused sound with an output level similar to a ’57 Classic or other historic full-sized humbucker. Today’s Gibson mini-humbuckers have adjustable pole pieces and Alnico II bar magnets, enamel-coated wire, braided lead wire and maple spacers in a cream plastic mounting – exactly like the originals.

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