Vintage Humbucker Pickup: The Tonal Choice of Electric Guitar Professionals

Fat, rich and sweet tone; perfect balance between warmth and clarity; soft magnetic field, these are but among the most salient characteristics of a great vintage humbucker.

But what really is a humbucker? Perhaps not many are familiar with the term aside from musicians and those who are critical about sound quality.

original PAF humbucker pickups

A humbucker

, which is also known in varied terms such as humbucking pickup, dual-coil, double-coil, or hum-canceling pickup, is a type of electric guitar pickup that uses two coils both generating string signal. Compared to the single coil pickup, a humbucker gives out higher output since both coils connect in series. Basically, it is two single coil pickups with opposing windings and polarities: one of which has the north poles of its pole pieces oriented toward the strings, and the other has the south pole of its pole pieces oriented toward the strings. Its magnets produce a slight magnetic field around the strings, which in turn produces an electrical current in the coils as the strings vibrate. When the signals from both pickups are combined together, the noise is cancelled due to destructive interference. At the same time, the actual signal is increased due to constructive interference. Therefore, the signal-to-noise ratio effectively improves through common-mode rejection, a technique which is also used in balanced lines in audio recording. These pickups are precisely voiced to drive a tube amp with a warm amp-friendly tone without the obscure distortion or edgy treble that is common in the modern humbucker.

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Using two coils dramatically changes the tone of the pickup. The humbucking pickup brings forth a warm and fat tone in contrast to the bright or clear tone of a single coil pickup; although the former may also produce a bright tone similar to that of the single coil pickup. Humbucker derived its name from the fact that it cancels out the interference produced by alternating current, which is normally experienced with single coil pickups.

The first noteworthy humbucking pickup was the PAF, or Patent Applied For, invented by Seth Lover, who was an employee at Gibson Musical Instruments, in 1955. Due to its success and its use on the Gibson Les Paul guitar, the

humbucker pickup

has become associated with Gibson since then, although many guitar designs by different manufacturers used the term. From 1956 to 1961, Gibson used different grade magnets with varying magnetic strength in its PAF pickups. Specifically, it used Alnico — a combination of alloys aluminum, nickel and cobalt – numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 grade magnets. The higher the magnet’s number, the higher the magnetic strength there is. Since each pickup was hand-wound and having a variety of resistance, the PAF sound produces a tone that is powerful and very open and dynamic, with a strong and bright attack, smooth midrange and plenty of bottom end. There is a particular dynamic feel as well as warmth associated with each of the Alnico-magnet humbucker that ceramic models have not yet successfully imitated.

At present, though, the PAF is considered a vintage humbucker with somewhat low output and soft, mellow tone. The original Gibson PAFs have become rare to find and very costly. Because of this, major pickup manufacturers opted to produce copies of the original PAF design. But even after more than four decades of constant development in pickup technology, the PAF vintage humbucker remains the premier tonal choice among the expressive blues musicians and rock players

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When you need a new guitar pickup, why would you consider a humbucker?

The choice is easy once you have heard the best pickup sound.

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