Quite recently, I was searching the web for my usual diet of unimportant and shallow snippets of information, when I noticed the £hundreds being charged for original Gibson ‘patent number’ humbuckers. I’ll admit that at first, I found it incredibly difficult to get my head around the reasons why someone would spend that kind of money on a single Gibson pickup. But then I set aside my experience with electric guitars, and started to read the hype. It was convincing. Very convincing. It almost convinced me that Gibson ‘patent number’ pickups were the very best pickups in the whole wide world… Are they? Well, at this point I'm going to need to allow my experience back into the equation. I own some 'patent number' pickups, and I've used them extensively, alongside many other humbuckers. I can evaluate them objectively. I'm also in a position to relate some of the background info on why the prices of vintage Gibson humbuckers first started to inflate. So hopefully, by the end of this piece, you'll have a full answer to the question I've posed in the title...
Before I get started, I’d just like to mention that I’m going to be exploring the sound of the pickups in this article – not tool-markings and cosmetic design changes which would only matter to a collector. I want to establish the tonal parameters for old Gibson humbuckers, and give active guitarists a picture of what they really represent as a purchase.
The craze for old Gibson humbuckers began before some of the pickups being sold for a premium today were even made. By the late 1960s, a substantial number of guitarists considered the then current Gibson ‘patent number’ humbuckers inferior to the PAF humbuckers of around a decade earlier. I don’t want to be going over stuff you’ve heard ‘til you’re blue in the face here, but just for anyone who doesn’t know, the PAF was Gibson’s original humbucker, developed in the mid 1950s, and released publicly on new guitars in 1957. It was known as a PAF because it had a small black sticker on the base saying ‘Patent Applied For’. The story of the patent, its granting, and the reluctance of Gibson to denote the patent number on its pickups I’ll leave for someone else to tell, but basically, in 1962, Gibson began to stamp a patent number onto the base of the standard humbucker. For years, this was regarded as a line in the sand. The PAF was an almighty behemoth of a pickup; the ‘patent number’ successor represented a decline in appeal.
However, Seth Lover – co-creator of the Gibson humbucker – notably said that he wasn’t aware of any changes in spec at the point where the PAF humbucker became the ‘patent number’ humbucker. So it’s fairly well agreed that the last of the PAFs were the same as the first of the ‘patent number’ pickups. But over the course of the decade from the late ‘50s to the late ‘60s, there was undeniably a raft of progressive changes, which had a cumulative effect and gave, say, a ’59 Gibson humbucker, a noticeably different sound from a ’67.
Among the detail differences which would actually have an impact on the sound were:
The number of coil windings. The windings on ‘50s Gibson humbuckers were not as tightly controlled as on later pickups, and therefore the potential for bobbins to be seriously ‘overwound’ was much greater in the late ‘50s. Vintage Gibson humbuckers don't have what's considered today to be a high output. They're louder than Fender Strat and Tele pickups, but with a typical resistance just shy of 8K ohms, they're quiet in the grand scheme of humbuckers.
The documented spec for Gibson (PAF) humbucker windings in the 1950s was 5,000 per bobbin, producing that combined resistance of nearly 8K. That was the theory. But in practice, the '50s PAFs were erratic and unpredictable, displaying a range of resistances, which in some cases exceeded the documented spec by a good ten percent or more. These were the 'overwound' pickups. The hotter and pokier units which built the eminent rep of the PAF. The best of the ‘50s PAFs were markedly different from the worst, and some are acknowledged as quite poor. In the ‘60s, tolerances became tighter so there wasn't much deviation from the intended spec. There was also a deliberate reduction in coil windings on Gibson humbuckers in the 1960s, which would have highlighted the eminence of the 'overwound' PAFs even more.
The strength of the magnets. Low-strength alnico magnets were used in 1950s Gibson humbuckers, making for a mellower tone and smoother treble. In the 1960s, Gibson switched to regular use of standard-strength alnico V magnets for their humbuckers – brightening the tone. ‘Overwound’ coils combined with low-strength magnets made for a fat, smooth sound which especially suited bridge pickups. In particular, this full-bodied tone would suit the new overdriven setups being adopted by guitarists in the ‘60s, as rock music began to dawn. Ironically, a generously-wound ‘50s Gibson humbucker would be better suited to late ‘60s rock, whilst a typical late ‘60s Gibson humbucker would be better suited to ‘50s rock and roll! It was no surprise that the guitarists of the latter ‘60s wanted to switch their ‘patent number’ humbuckers for higher output PAFs.
This, remember, was before the market for custom, hot pickups got started. Guitarists couldn't pop down to the nearest dealer and get a Super Distortion Death-Bucker or whatever - they had to choose from stock units. Had there existed the range of pickup choice guitarists enjoyed in the '80s, I doubt the PAF would have caught '60s guitarists' attention in the way it did. There was also, incidentally, a size difference between the larger late ‘50s magnet, and the slightly smaller 1960s magnet, although this, in my view would have a lot less impact on the tone than the magnet strength.
Coil wire insulation thickness. In the early ‘60s, Gibson began using coil wire with slightly thicker insulation, which, with winding turns like for like, made for a physically fatter coil. The fact that the outer windings accordingly sat a greater distance away from the magnetised poles would alter the tone.
It should be noted that due to the timing of some of the spec changes, a line is probably better drawn between ‘50s and ‘60s Gibson humbuckers, than between PAFs (which lasted until 1962) and the ‘patent number’ jobs which succeeded them. There would probably be more difference in sound between a ’59 and a ’61 (both PAFs), than a ’61 and a ’63 (a PAF and a ‘patent number’).
So that's how the 'vintage' thing got started with Gibson pickups. '50s humbuckers being perceived as better than mid to late '60s humbuckers. Over time, the feeling of '50s greatness versus '60s mediocrity has eroded, and today there's clearly a big hankering for '60s 'patent number' pickups too. People are paying through the nose for what once were the inferior, mediocre Gibson humbuckers. What's changed?... Well, I believe that apart from a bit of ageing to the magnets, the only thing that's really changed is the spiel. At some point, someone realised that quite a few people have got money to burn, and will shell out for anything with a bit of 'mystique potential' - provided you enshroud it with enough evocative language.
I’ve used ‘patent number’ pickups over long periods of time in recording and live situations, and my experience has been that they’re polite sounding units. It’s almost inevitable that the magnets will have lost strength over the decades, so the pickups will have a mellower sound today than when they were made. Loss of magnet strength also means a decrease in output, and as I say, these were never powerful pickups in the first place. You could describe the tone as sweet and rounded, but you could also describe it as reserved, slightly hollow, and lacking in 'bark'. The ‘patent number’ pickups I’ve used are good for clean, jazzy sounds, but I don’t find them great for distortion or overdrive. It does depend on the guitar, of course, but I feel there are much better humbuckers for rock sounds – and in that I include vintage rock.
Perhaps the most revealing fact is that I removed the Gibson ‘patent number’ pickups from my mid ’60 Gibson ES-345 and replaced them with Seymour Duncans – and I’ve never once considered changing back.
There’s also a significant difference in tone for pickups with covers as opposed to those without. Seth Lover once said that it even made a noticeable difference to the sound if the pickup cover was gold plated as opposed to chrome! I had to laugh, incidentally, at one of the ads I saw claiming the pickup covers had never been removed from a set of vintage Gibson humbuckers. If not, judging by the photos, it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying! I suspect the vast majority of old Gibson pickups will have had their covers removed at some stage – especially if they’ve ended up in a situation where they’re being sold as spares, without a guitar. It’s almost inconceivable to me that a pickup could find its way out of an instrument and somehow evade being tampered with in any way, so I’d be inclined to disregard claims like that and demand that any “covers never removed!” price premium is promptly dispensed with.
Just to tie up a loose end, I should say that the era of the ‘vintage’ Gibson humbucker is perhaps best considered as coming to a close at the end of the 1970s, when the single, standard humbucker gave way to an array of variants for different guitars and purposes. The old specification, or something very close, did continue to exist, but as a ‘reissue’ rather than ‘stock fare’.
I assume that most of the people paying silly money for old Gibson humbuckers are doing so because they’ve got a vintage Gibson guitar which needs a like-for-like pickup replacement in order for a lucrative sale to progress. I certainly wouldn’t suggest anyone pays £hundreds for a 1960s Gibson humbucker in the hope of making a fairly new guitar sound extra special. It won’t. It might, indeed, sound worse than it does with its own pickups. As I always say when I revisit music gear on this site, I’m not selling anything. I don’t care whether or not you’re in the market for a Gibson ‘patent number’ pickup – my only concern is that you have a realistic understanding of what it really is, and does. You have to budget for the fact that my personal taste could be different from yours, but after careful consideration, my conclusion in relation to the Gibson 'patent number' pickups of the '60s and '70s is just as was my initial sense. Not a bad pickup at all. But if you're going to spend £hundreds, you can do a hell of a lot better.