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The strange name of the pickup wasn't intentional. Gibson and Seth Lover filed a patent on June 22, 1955. After that, first produced Les Pauls had new pickups with a sticker on a bottom plate of a pickup that said Patent Applied For. A patent was issued on July 28, 1959. Since it took more than 4 years to get a patent number, the unnamed pickup had been dubbed "PAF" by many guitarists in the meantime. Even after getting the patent (U.S. Patent 2,896,491), Gibson printed the wrong number on some PAF stickers: most humbuckers were labelled with U.S. Patent 2,737,842 until 1962. The number shown on the pickup is actually a patent for a Gibson trapeze tailpiece bridge, not a pickup at all. Both true PAFs and incorrect patent marked PAFs are fairly rare today and make an expensive vintage collectors' item.
PAF pickups can be usually identified by their look: they have two internal coil bobbins under a 1.5" x 2.75" metal cover with one bobbin having a row of six adjustable pole pieces, with the other bobbin having non-adjustable pole pieces. Standard PAF pickups had 5000 turns of wire on a bobbin and impedance of 7.5k ohms.
The range of 1956-1961 is usually dubbed the era of early PAFs. These pickups were first used on lap steel guitars in 1956, on Les Paul Gold Top, and Les Paul Custom electric solid-bodied guitars in 1957.
These early PAFs tend to differ from each other significantly in terms of output level and tone - many factors are quoted as a reason for such difference:
- Gibson pickup winding machines were manual-operated at that time and had no mechanisms to automatically cut the wire after a set number of turns. Thus the pickups had a different number of wirings and that lead to different output tone.
- Gibson used Alnico magnets in PAFs, the same magnet as used in the P-90. Alnico has several different grades and different magnetic properties (grades 2, 3, 4 and 5 are usually used), and Gibson assigned them quite randomly until the end of the era of early PAFs.
- Such vintage pickups today are over forty years old and thus their magnetic fields may have changed significantly.
Early pickups were wound with #42 plain enameled wire, this wiring looks purple, as opposed to later varieties.
Since July 1961, Gibson standardized the PAF construction process. A new, smaller Alnico 5 magnetic plate became standard. In about 1963, Gibson switched to polyurethane-coated wire, thus changing the tone yet again, and wire color from purple to red. About 1965-1968, automatic pickup winding machines came into use, thus making pickups that had a consistent number of turns and fixed impedance.
Nowadays, the PAF is considered a vintage humbucker with relatively low output and soft, mellow tone. However, original Gibson PAFs are scarce and very expensive, so most major pickup manufacturers produce copies of original PAF design.
Notable pickups include:
- Seymour Duncan SH-55 Seth Lover Model. A modern pickup trying to reproduce Seth Lover's '55 prototype design in great detail: a nickel silver cover (not brass one), long bottom plate, plain #42 enamel wire, Alnico 2 magnets, wooden spacer, and black paper tape.
- Seymour Duncan SH-1 '59 Model. A replica of late 50s PAFs, gives a bit fatter sound, more known as a signature tone of famous blues/rock guitarists of the 1960s.
- Seymour Duncan Antiquity Humbucker (11014-01 and 11014-05). An as-close-as-possible replica of a late 50s PAF, complete with a patented aging technique.
- Gibson '57 P.A.F. Gibson's most regular take take on the P.A.F, but these are not scatter wound and they are wax potted. Since the mid-'80's this is the standard pickup on most higher level guitars.
- Gibson Burstbucker. Gibson's newest take on the P.A.F. Scatter wound, not wax potted, these are the closest Gibson ever got to replicating an original P.A.F. These pickups come stock on the Historic line of Reissue Les Pauls.
- DiMarzio PAF (DP103). One of the earliest P.A.F. replicas, it replicates later P.A.F. designs, with several enhancements, such as wax dipping to eliminate microphonics, Alnico 5 magnet, 4-conductor cable for split and series/parallel wiring.
- DiMarzio PAF Classic Bridge (DP195) and Neck (DP194). PAF pickups with pre-installed covers, wax-dipped twice (before cover installation and after).
- DiMarzio Virtual Hot PAF (DP214), Virtual PAF Bridge (DP197), Virtual PAF Neck (DP196). Pickups built with patented Virtual Vintage technology that gives a more balanced pickup characteristic.
Patents related to PAF pickup:
- Extensive PAF guide for vintage guitars.
- Flying V site pickup section mentions PAF pickups on Gibson Flying V.
- History of Les Paul on Ultimate-Guitar.Com has few PAF references.
- Les Paul Forum PAF FAQ Page Detailed PAF info from the Les Paul Forum