When it came to launching a solidbody electric guitar, Fender beat Gibson to the punch with its Broadcaster model in 1950. Big G, though, had a cross to counter the upstart’s jab.
When it followed with a solidbody in ’52, Gibson’ Les Paul boasted star-player affiliation, fancy gold finish, superior craftsmanship, and thicker-sounding P-90 pickups. And while initial response was satisfying, the guitar was on the market a scant couple of years when sales reps began to echo complaints about the “noise” – a static-filled hum caused by electrical interference and amplified via the P-90. When those gripes reached Maurice Berlin, owner of Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI, then the parent of Gibson), he tasked Gibson president Ted McCarty with quieting the crowd – and the pickup. McCarty, in turn, turned to the men in Gibson’s electronics lab, Walter Fuller and Seth Lover.
A second-generation employee, Fuller was top-dog when it came to anything electronic at Gibson. Hired in the machine shop in 1933, he was promoted to electrical engineering in ’35, where he helped develop some of Gibson’s first amplified instruments. In 1941, he asked Lover, a local electronics whiz, to join him in the lab. Lover had served stints in the Navy intermingled with a few years of employ at Gibson, and he agreed to return in ’52, thanks in part to the enticement of a new facility and state-of-the-art tools. Together, the two set about building a new pickup.
Drawing on his experience with radios and earlier experimentation at Gibson, and knowing that the tone of the P-90 was held in high regard, Lover wanted to design a pickup that not only retained its sound, but (for ease of implementation) fit under the cover designed for the P-90. Needing to employ two coils which would “cancel” each other’s inherent noise, he split the bobbin of a P-90 and wound wire around each half, then connected them in series. The result was a more powerful signal that retained broad frequency response, “cancelled” the hum, and became known as the “patent applied for” (PAF) thanks to a small sticker Gibson applied to its underside.
Though Gibson ultimately had to concede to enlarged body routes and covers to accommodate the production version of the new humbucker (which Lover himself dubbed the “humbucker”), the pickup made its debut in late ’55 on a Consolette pedal-steel. A year and a half later, Gibson put it in the ES-175; a ledger entry dated February 18, 1957, reads “ES-175N #A-25000” and “H.B. Pickup starts here.” And while jazz players drawn to the 175 appreciated that it was indeed quiet, the PAF gained its greatest notoriety in the Les Paul model beginning that year, just before the company began offering that model in a sunburst finish (the two elements contribute greatly to the collectibility of the 1958-’60 Les Paul Standard “Burst,” along with the fact the guitar became the preferred instrument of many of the first guitar mega-heroes, including Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, Joe Walsh, Duane Allman, and others).
Today, original PAF pickups are held in such high regard that on the rare occasion when they turn up for sale, they can bring thousands of dollars each. It’s little wonder, then, that pickup builders ranging from giants like Gibson itself to the newest one-person “boutique” shops put extensive effort into making them. We recently polled several of those builders, asking for personal takes on their magic.
Dave Wintz, who co-founded Rockin’ Robin Guitar Shop, in Houston, did work for a lot of players using PAF-equipped guitars well before that shop opened in 1972.
“The one that really stood out was our local boy, Billy F. Gibbons, in the incubatory period of ZZ Top. One of their early gigs was at the grand opening of a department store, and I remember his Pearly Gates PAF tone for miles!” Wintz laughed. “That was the real focus. The first guitar I ever owned with a PAF was a ’63 Firebird III that some yahoo had modified. I would never have done that to a guitar, but I have to say, it sounded awesome through one of my ’58 tweed 4×10 Bassman amps. Nothing could touch it. And of course, this was long before Gibson figured out that a humbucker was all a Firebird needed to take it over the top.
“The sound of a PAF was – and still is – a totally in-the-pocket tone that cannot be reproduced by any other pickup,” Wintz added. “Yeah, there are other pickups with great tone, but what a happy accident; a designer, in the process of producing a new product, occasionally gets lucky beyond the original purpose. The PAF falls into that category.”
“Without the PAF, our industry and the sound of music of the last 60 years would be quite different,” added Paul Reed Smith, founder of PRS Guitars. “I started as a guitar maker and a repairman in the Washington, D.C. area, and a lot of vintage guitars crossed my bench – it was a great way to see what musicians were wanting, thinking, and how these beloved guitars sounded.”
While developing a humbucker of his own, Smith spoke several times with McCarty.
“The PAF is a very complicated device to reproduce, and figuring out how to make a pickup sound like a really great PAF is the hardest code I’ve ever attempted to crack,” Smith added. “We don’t build exact copies, but we do make pickups we believe carry on the best elements of the PAF. One of the pieces of that puzzle is one of our machines, which made and coated the wire for Fender and Gibson in the ’50s. We are very appreciative of having that exclusively because it gives us an extraordinary base to produce real variations on that tone. We are also very appreciative of Ted, for sharing everything he could remember about how and why they were made the way they were. In our 30th year of business, we are very pleased with our 58/15 and 85/15 pickups – they’re the closest we’ve made to the PAF magical formula.”
“I liked Duane Allman’s tone before I ever even heard of a PAF,” said Scott Petersen, Harmonic Design, whose NickelTone pickup is inspired by the PAF. “The best PAF guitar I’ve ever had was a ’58 ES-345, but all of the PAFs I’ve owned or played were articulate and not particularly loud in part because their nickel-silver covers increase the treble and scoop the deep bass, so their tone is more amp-friendly when the amp is cranked up.”
“The first sounds that made me pay attention to tone came from Cream,” added Lindy Fralin, whose first humbucker-equipped guitar was a Gibson SG inspired by Clapton in the legendary trio. “Distortion was new to me, and my guitar – a Hagstom II that I ran through a Silvertone Twin Twelve – just wouldn’t do those sounds.”
David Shepherd, the brains and ears behind the design of Mojotone’s PAF pickup, has played and/or worked on hundreds of vintage Gibsons with PAFs. Good ones, he said, help a player make better use of their amp.
“Old PAFs were special not just because of the parts and materials, but they resonated with the guitar because of the lower number of winds, and their unpotted coils,” he said. “You could hear the pick attack and natural tones of the guitar come through without hitting the front end of the amp too hard. You can back off and get a polite tone or really dig in hard to get mean and authoritative. For our PAFs, we use accurate parts and focus on a more-consistent, refined sound.”
Don Lace, whose father, Don, Sr., was a professional acquaintance of Lover in the late ’60s, later developed the Lace Sensor – which was Lover-approved.
“We would often stop by to talk pickups with Seth at his home,” Lace said. “Much of the discussion revolved around the PAF, and we actually bought a guitar made by Seth to use as a proof-of-concept model for the Lace Sensor.”
As a young player, Frank Troccoli, President of JBE Guitar and Bass Pickups (formerly known as Joe Barden), preferred instruments with PAFs primarily for their fat tone, power, and performance, even if – as he points out – they weren’t always actually noiseless.
“Early PAFs set a standard for tone, and I was attracted to them after hearing B.B. King, Cream, Mike Bloomfield, and others in the ’60s.” JBE, he added, created the PAF-inspired humbucking pickup with the intent of offering something with a musical, hi-fi tone that would stand out.
Ash Scott-Lockyer, Oil City Pickups, was a 16-year-old punk rocker doing repair in a guitar shop when someone played a bit of Free for him.
“I was blown away by Paul Kossoff’s tone,” he recalled. “At the time, many players were ripping PAFs out so they could install new, high-output humbuckers. So, I squirreled away some choice ones, dissected a couple, and put a pair in my my old Japanese Antoria guitar. I was hooked; the smoothness and vocal-like quality has always intrigued me, along with the versatility and the way dirt can be cleaned up wonderfully with the guitar’s Volume control. When I built my own pickups, I naturally offered the main flavors of PAF – Alnico II, IV, and V; my personal Les Pauls have our Blitz Spirits, which use Alnico II magnets.”
“As a builder of aftermarket pickups, we did not choose to make a PAF-type pickup, we had to!” said Wintz, whose Rio Grande Pickups offers three versions of a PAF. “To exempt it from our offerings was simply out of the question. There are only two or three seminal guitar pickups at the top of the heap, and the PAF sits on top of that small heap.”
Special thanks to Gil Hembree, author of “50 Years of the Humbucker,” VG, March ’05.
Seth Talks Humbuckers
Seth Lover’s achievements include numerous amplifiers and circuits, but none have been so highly recognized as his humbucking pickup, which became the Patent Applied For (P.A.F.) humbucker. In 1996, VG’s Stephen Patt spoke with Lover, who at the time was working with pickup designer Seymour Duncan on the SH-55 humbucker, more commonly known as the Seth Lover Model. Here, we offer another look at that talk.
Lover passed away January 31, 1997.
Vintage Guitar: Who got you started on the path of electronics?
I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on January 1, 1910. In the early 1920s, a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania began helping me with electronics projects. I was living with my grandparents at the time, and we used to get the Philadelphia newspaper; the radio section showed how to build different circuits. I guess my first project was a one-tube radio, which worked pretty well. My grandparents had died in the 1920s, and I decided to join the Army, where I worked with electronics. And when I hit the end of my term in 1931, I took a radio course from a Washington, D.C. company. It was actually my second – the first was in 1925, while I was working on a farm.
How did your first radio business come about?
After my second course, I went into business in Kalamazoo, repairing radios and the like at the Butler Battery Shop. We’d recharge batteries, repair radios, and install them. But when Butler died, we started a shop at 465 Academy. Eddy Smith, an orchestra leader at Long Lake, was a good customer. I used to build amplifiers for them. The poor guitar player would be playing next to the piano, and you could see him moving his hands, but for the life of me you couldn’t hear him play one note! If they let him get close to the microphone, he could be amplified and heard.
In 1935, I went to work for M&T Battery, doing the same thing. Then in ’41, Walter Fuller wanted me to come to work for Gibson. They were buying amps from a Chicago company, the EH-125, the 150, and the 185. We’d plug in the tubes and test them – I was a troubleshooter. And when World War II came along, I joined the Army again.
In what capacity?
They offered me a Second Class Radioman rating, and I ended up in the Navy. I was sent to Connecticut, then to Treasure Island, near San Francisco, to radio electronics school. That August, I received my First Class rating and was sent to teach electronics near Washington, D.C. Most of my time during the war was spent teaching.
In 1944, I had to go to sea [on] the USS Columbus, which was being built in Massachusetts. I was sent there and began checking installations and spare parts, and a little later we were out to sea. Well, about 500 miles out, the drive shaft broke, and we had to turn around. In order to get at the thing, they had to cut a hole through all the decks. And before they got the darn thing fixed, the war was over!
Did you resume your electronics work?
Yes. I went back to work for Gibson and stayed for a couple years, until the Navy built a training station in Michigan. With my Chief’s rating, I was asked to work for them for $5,000 per year, which was a lot of money back then. Gibson was only paying me $3,000. A few years later, they wanted to transfer me to Minnesota. Ted McCarty asked me to build a special kind of pickup, which I did by hand. Then he decided Gibson could afford to pay me what I was getting in the Navy, so I was back with Gibson in 1952.
What were some of your earlier designs?
Before I’d gone into the Navy, I’d begun to design an amplifier. The tremolo circuit in typical amps at the time “putted” along if there was too much depth. I found a way to get a tremolo without any noise, using an optical device, and Gibson was building it while I was in the Navy. So in 1952, I began designing other amp circuits. In ’55, I got the idea for this humbucking pickup. When a single-coil pickup, got too close to an amplifier, it would make a godawful hum.
I had designed an amplifier – the Model 90 – which had a special humbucking choke, and figured I could use the same concept on the pickup itself. It was quite simple, really – just two coils opposed, and they’d pick up the hum and just cancel out. I designed it into the tone circuit of the amplifier, and if you’d swing to one end it would wipe out the bass, to the other extreme it would wipe out the treble. So, the pickup was similar in concept.
When did your humbucker actually begin production at Gibson?
We starting building our version in 1955, even though we didn’t have a patent, and that’s when they got the “PAF” stickers to put on them. When we finally were granted our patent, we changed the sticker to one with a patent number, but we actually printed the wrong number on the sticker, one that matched our tailpiece. This way people who sent away for copies of that patent didn’t ever get a copy of the pickup (laughs)! We were replacing the P-90, and there were other single coils being used, especially on steel guitars. I did make a humbucking pickup for steels that worked particularly well. The Gibson Electraharp had my pickup on it, and it was a whopper, but they didn’t build too many of them. It was quite expensive.
I bet you’ll like this (holding pickup). This is my PAF prototype. It has a stainless-steel cover. There’s no high-conductivity in stainless like copper and brass, so it worked well. When the salesmen saw this with no adjustment screws, it was like breaking their arms! They just didn’t have anything to talk about. So, next came the punched-out holes and the adjustment screws.
Was there anything you did specifically for Epiphone?
Epiphone guitars used to have a bunch of pushbuttons, and every time you’d change settings, it’d go “clunk!” I designed a switch with a rocker panel and a magnet to hold the position. My version was never used, but it worked awfully well.
And on the Epiphone mini-humbucker, I changed the design to offset the screws and look different – maybe better in some ways – than the Gibson humbucker with its straight screws. It wasn’t quite as loud as the Gibson version, with fewer turns of the coil, and it was a bit trebly. But it did the job.
What prompted your shift from Gibson to their main competitor, Fender?
I stayed with Gibson until 1967, and then had an offer from my friend, Dick Evan, who was Fender’s chief engineer. Now, while I designed most of the amplifiers and pickups, I never did hold that title. I was just a designer. CBS had bought Fender, and they were kind enough to offer me a job. He sent me a ticket to come out [to California] and talk. And they offered me $12,000 per year. I was only getting $9,000 at Gibson.
So I came out and did design quite a bit of stuff for them. But the thing was, if the front office didn’t ask for something, they just weren’t interested in anything you’d come up with.
How did you and Seymour Duncan join forces?
After the patent ran out, Seymour started making the pickups, and he did an awfully good job, not just in appearance, but in materials and workmanship and sound. Everything, down to finest detail, was intact. We had used plain enameled #42 wire. A lot of people would use plastic-coated wire, but the results weren’t the same. We used nickel-silver on the covers originally, sometimes called German silver, again due to its low conductivity. You can’t solder stainless steel, so the nickel-silver worked better. And that’s what you see on these special Duncan-Lover pickups. It’s really faithful to the original. The SH-55 will have my stamp of approval on it, and I’ll even get a small royalty on each sale. Now, that’s something that Gibson never got around to giving me! My name doesn’t show up in too many of these history books, and maybe they didn’t value design in those days. I guess that’s why they never paid me much [a wicked glint in his eyes signals that Seth is gently pulling my leg]. I did a lot of work, and now it seems to be getting recognized.
Read the full Seth Lover interview from the February 1996 issue of VG.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.