Lies, damn lies, and P.A.F. Mythology

Highlights:

  • P.A.F.s were not hand wound.
  • Early P.A.F.s were wildly inconsistent.
  • Early P.A.F.s were built with a variety of Alnico magnets.
  • Early P.A.F.s were wound on a machine that didn’t have an auto stop.

 

I disdain the lies that are told to sell things. From cars to computers to blenders nothing makes me more angry than the endless slur of utter bullshit that is used to sell. And this goes double for all things guitar. Guitars, amps, pickups, pedals, picks, and on and on. There may be no other industry so awash in nonsense and blatant misinformation.

And there may be no heavier concentration of BS than when it comes to vintage pickups and, in particular, the P.A.F.

The P.A.F. I’m talking about is the nearly mythical pickup designed by Seth Lover and used specifically in 50’s and 60’s Gibson guitars. Gibson made the move from P-90’s to the P.A.F. in ’56 and then on electric guitars in ’57. In late ’57 the infamous black “Patent Applied For” sticker could be found on the base plates of these pickups. They are renowned. They are coveted. There is a cottage industry built around the reproduction of this specific pickup. And everything about this P.A.F., from the coveting itself to the cottage industry to the infinite amount of information about them spread across the equally as infinite number of forum posts on the world wide web, is 90% pure, unadulterated, bullshit.

How could this be? You know the game ‘telephone,’ where one kid whispers something in the ear of the kid next to him and this continues around a circle of several children? When the thing said by the first kid reaches the last kid it is something different than when it started. And the kids all laugh and they play again. But in this “guitar aficionado” special edition of the game, instead of everyone having a good laugh the story that gets told by the last kid gets accepted by some of those kids as biblical truth and repeated thousands of times.

There are some people more to blame for this than others. And those people who deserve the blame parroted that misheard information as truth for the sake of selling their pickups. There’s a guy out there who bought some machines Gibson originally used, started making pickups Gibson used to make, and charges a lot of money for those pickups. But if you’ve been in this game for more than ten years you can remember when this same guy just started building pickups and was asking all the questions about what makes a P.A.F. special and how to reproduce them on the forums that pickup builders were using to share information.

And then this same guy (and other people) flooded the internet with his personal mythology and endless tales about how only he and maybe one other person could make an actual reproduction P.A.F. and listed all the reasons why and these reasons, taken up by people who didn’t know any better and accepted this person as an expert, were repeated and repeated and now they are considered truth. And all of this to sell something.

But here’s the truth about the P.A.F.: Back in the day they were mass produced pickups of varying quality, wildly different resistances, and whatever magnet the employee happened to pull out of a box of mixed magnets for that one pickup. They were wound on machines not particularly suited to the task and which didn’t have operating turn counters. And so some of the bobbins were more sloppy than others, most of them had various amounts of wire comprising the coil, and the coils were accidentally asymmetrical. Some of them had Alnico 2 magnets, some 3, some 4 and some 5. But 4 seems to have been the most commonly used.

In ’61 production improved, tolerances tightened and parts standardized. A shorter Alnico V magnet became standard and each pickup was about 7.5kΩ. Around ’63 Gibson began using  polyurethane-coated wire instead of plain enamel and the bobbins looked red instead purple. In ’66 Gibson began using automatic winders producing pickups with consistent turn counts and resistances.

Certain early P.A.F.s sounded great, many sounded not even good, and many were, and still are, pretty good humbuckers. But now it’s easier to understand the inconsistency of them. And it is much easier to understand why there are so many different “P.A.F.s” on the market which all sound different. That is because the originals all sounded different. It is argued by certain builders that EVERY early P.A.F. has an unmistakable sound that, despite the amount of wire or the amount that the coils are mismatched or the difference in the magnet used in the pickup, is consistent in those inconsistent P.A.F.s. But…

So before you buy a reproduction P.A.F. ask yourself which P.A.F. you are trying to buy a reproduction of. And if you don’t know maybe just buy a good humbucker. There are so many good and great humbuckers out there that you can have for a song and which will be way more satisfying than whatever is being marketed as a P.A.F. Or, better yet, get yourself a Revel Retro P.A.F.

Then, at the very least, you’ll neither be lied to nor gouged.