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Gibson Pickups 101

With electric guitar - trees, any design, color, size, weight, many aspects of the neck profile, worry and tuner etc.. But in the end only one component, make a "power" of the guitar. Pickup. Or two. Or three...
The car can be said to be the most complicated (discussion) of any electric guitar parts. But don't worry: Gibson pioneered the electric guitar pickup design since twentieth Century 30 years, so you know you are good.
Here is a very simple 101 on some of the things you need to know to learn more links. Knowledge is power. The rest, as usual, is in your ears...
1. Gibson P-90s

The P-90 is a single-coil pickup introduced by Gibson in 1946. They have a large flat coil with adjustable pole pieces for each string, and a pair of flat alnico bar magnets lying underneath the coil. As single-coils, P-90s are brighter than Gibson’s more-common humbucking design, but are also slightly fatter and warmer sounding than Fender's single-coil pickups. Win!

2. What's Alnico?

Common guitar terminology these days, but Alnico is an acronym referring to a family of iron alloys which, in addition to iron, are composed primarily of aluminium (Al), nickel (Ni) and cobalt (Co), hence AlNiCo. Pickups also include copper, and sometimes titanium.


3. What's a Gibson “Soap Bar” Pickup?

Just a matter of design. A Gibson “Soap Bar” pickup casing has a rectangular shape (with curved edges) and the mounting screws were contained within the coil perimeter, positioned between the pole pieces, between the second and third strings and between the fourth and fifth strings.

The unusual pattern of screws confuse some players. Why? Occasionally the mounting screws are mistaken for pole pieces - sometimes the Gibson Soap Bar P-90 is erroneously said to have eight pole pieces. No, just six. The first P-90s on the original Gibson Les Paul Model of 1952 were white.

4. What's a “Dog Ear” Pickup?

Again, just design terminology. “Dog ear” refers to the mounting plate, or frame. The "dog ear" mounting plate is fitted with screws and springs, that attach it to the flat pickguard and allow the pickup to hang within the guitar's body rout. The “soap bar” cover is usually used, and the soap bar mounting screws are used to fix the cover to the “dog ear” plate. Confusing words! - especially if you have a soapy dog you need to wash after a rainy run.


5. Gibson Humbuckers

One of Gibson's greatest inventions, the humbucker uses two coils (in contrast to the P-90s' one) to "buck the hum" (or cancel out the interference) picked up by single-coil pickups. Humbuckers work by pairing a coil with the north poles of its magnets oriented "up", (toward the strings) with a coil which has the south pole of its magnets oriented up.

Noise interference is significantly reduced via phase cancellation. The coils can be connected in series or in parallel. Ask your electrician friend! Or just listen to the sound.

6. What are PAFs?

PAF means “Patent Applied For.” Gibson's legendary pickup engineer, Seth Lover, applied for the patent on these humbucking pickups in 1955 - it was finally granted in 1959. PAF has become a common name for pickups wound faithfully to these original designs.

Why the fuss about PAFs? Listen to Duane Allman and his sunburst Les Paul or Albert King and his Flying V at full-tilt. In the words of Seymour Duncan, “this pickup changed guitar music for all time.”

7. Who is Seymour Duncan?

Seymour Duncan is, probably, the guitar world's most-respected specialist pickup builder. He became friends with Seth Lover and tapped into SL's immense experience. Seymour Duncan pickups have featured on many Gibson models. Here's a link to Seymour Duncan interviewing Seth Lover.

8. Split Coils?

Genius. How to get “humbucking” non-interference sound but have it sound like a single-coil. Read more about split coil sounds.

9. 7000?

Pickups can have up to 7000 windings of fine wire to make them work. We take pickups for granted without thinking, but it's all about Electromagnets.

10. Mini-Humbuckers

Originally created by Gibson sister-brand Epiphone, the mini-humbucker resembles a Gibson PAF humbucker, but is narrower in size. It senses a shorter length of string vibration. You'll get clearer, brighter tones, mostly - it's a midway sound between a single coil P-90 and a humbucker.

Johnny Winter used a 1960s Gibson Firebird with mini-humbuckers. Pete Townshend of The Who used a number of Gibson Les Paul Deluxes guitars in the 1970s with mini 'buckers, as did Thin Lizzy's Scott Gorham. Not much wrong with their tone.

11. Mini-Humbuckers Are Back!

The 2015 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe comes with newly-designed mini-Humbuckers. And coil splitting, too. That's cool.

Les Paul

12. Have You Got Dirty Fingers?

The Gibson "Dirty Fingers" humbucker is an accurate replica of the famous super-hot humbucker introduced by Gibson in the 1970s. Loud, raw and rude... it's the sound of super-hot rock.

13. Ceramic Pickups

Ceramic vs Alnico is an ongoing debate among pickup geeks. Let's just quote another pickup guru, Bill Lawrence, on this matter...

“When I read that ceramic magnets sound harsh and alnico magnets sound sweet, I ask myself, 'Who the hell preaches such nonsense?' There are harsh-sounding pickups with alnico magnets and sweet-sounding pickups with ceramic magnets and vice-versa! A magnet by itself has no sound, and as a part of a pickup, the magnet is simply the source to provide the magnetic field for the strings. The important factor is the design of a magnetic circuit which establishes what magnet to use.

“Though ceramic magnets cost less than alnico magnets of equal size, a well-designed magnetic circuit using ceramic magnets costs much more than the six Alnico 5 magnets of a traditional single coil pickup! Confusing, eh?”

Yep, it is confusing. But thanks Bill Lawrence. Gibson knows all this already. Players: use your ears!

14. Humbuckers' Early Days

Trivia! Although the Gibson Humbucker is synonymous with Les Paul guitars, it debuted on other Gibson guitars first. The humbucker was first used in Gibson’s steel guitars in 1956 and then introduced to some of arch-top models such as the ES-175, ES-295, ES-335, Byrdland, ES-5 Switchmaster, L-5CE, Super 400 and the ES-350T favoured by Chuck Berry.

15. Pickups and Strings

PAFs were originally designed for heavier gauge strings than those favoured today. Seymour Duncan opinies, “With heavier strings, you get more steel mass. There’s more current being induced by the string vibrations.” To get the best from your PAFs, play with heavier strings.

Yes, pickups can be baffling. But you can learn more

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