50 Years of the Gibson Humbucker
It’s hard for any guitarist today to imagine what life was like before the Gibson humbucking pickup. So many of the great guitar tones we know and love—Eric Clapton’s legendary “woman” tone, Jimmy Page’s bone-crunching riffs, Angus Young’s mighty power chords—are all the product of that magical combination of magnets, dual coils, adjustable pole pieces, and imagination.
Fifty years ago, in 1957, Gibson introduced the humbucking pickup as a standard feature on its Les Paul, ES-175 and ES-350 guitars. But the path to this groundbreaking innovation started three years earlier, when Gibson president Ted McCarty encouraged the company’s engineering department to invent a new pickup. Engineer Seth Lover took up the challenge, setting his sights on developing a pickup that eliminated the hum that made guitarists’ lives difficult.
“I decided that we ought to make a pickup that would do away with that noise,” said Lover, who passed away in 1997. “I found that we could overcome the hum problem by building pickups that used double-coil construction, connecting the coils so that signals induced by external magnetic fields were cancelled out, while signals induced by vibrating strings were retained. The result was a pickup that bucked the hum, so we called it a humbucking pickup.”
It took Lover about a year to refine his design, and in 1955 Gibson applied for a patent for this new innovation. It took the US patent office until 1959 to grant Gibson this patent, which is why Gibson humbuckers from the ’50s and early ’60s feature a decal with the phrase “patent applied for” printed on them. During the ’60s, guitarists nicknamed these pickups “PAF” because of this decal. (Interesting trivia: To throw imitators off the trail, Gibson printed the incorrect patent number on these decals. Anyone who looks up the patent number will discover that it corresponds to the early Les Paul’s combination bridge/tailpiece.)
The original patent detailed four different construction methods, including three with the coils arranged in an offset manner, but it was quickly agreed that the side-by-side configuration was the most practical choice from both a performance and aesthetic perspective. That same year, Gibson showed a prototype of their new humbucking pickup at the summer NAMM convention. Reaction to this innovation was promising, if not overwhelming, and Lover continued to perfect his creation.
“The pickup had to have the same volume level as other pickups on the market,” said Lover. “It also had to have enough treble so the overtones were not deadened. I figured each coil would need to have about 5000 turns of wire, for a total of 10,000 turns. Adjusted correctly, you could equal or even exceed the volume of the P-90 pickup. Soon we found we could get the sound and volume we wanted with fewer turns.”
Another significant feature of Lover’s design was the non-magnetic metal cover for the pickup, which helped eliminate electrostatic interference. Lover experimented with a stainless steel cover, but the material was too difficult to work with. He soon found that nickel silver was a much better alternative. In addition to featuring adjustable pole piece screws for one of the coils, the pickup was suspended in a plastic ring, affixed with two spring-loaded, adjustable screws, which filtered out body vibrations and allowed guitarists to set the pickup height as they wished.
Gibson announced their new humbucking pickup (code named PU-490) in the summer 1957 edition of the Gibson Gazette. “Another Gibson first!” the announcement proudly and rightfully proclaimed. “The ultimate for recording, broadcasting or whenever truly fine performance is required.” Shortly after making its debut on three models, the humbucking pickup became standard equipment for Gibson’s top-of-the-line instruments like the Byrdland, ES-5 Switchmaster copy, ES-295, L-5, and Super 400.
But it was the sound of humbucking pickups on the Gibson Les Paul that inspired a new generation of rock players in the ’60s. With their increased output, warm tone, and incredible sustain, humbucker-equipped Les Pauls inspired rock guitarists to explore heavier, more aggressive and distorted tones. The sound of humbucking pickups remains the standard for rock players today, and Gibson still leads the way, offering a wide variety of humbuckers that produce everything from classic tones to modern metal mayhem.
Here’s to the Golden Anniversary of the Gibson humbucker. It may be half a century old, but it’s still as fresh, powerful, and beloved as ever.
[ originally by Chris Gill / 08.17.2007/ Gibson.com ]
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