Soon after the advent of the electric pickup, manufacturers were working hard to create a design that would cancel out one of it's inherent problems: the dreaded 60-cycle hum. The answer came in the form of the humbucker, a dual-coil design that was able to cancel out the hum -- but it didn't end there. Over the years, manufacturers developed different takes on the humbucker design, some of which are still popular to this day. Today, we're taking a look at some of the most notable designs, from the Gibson PAF to the modern active humbucker.
One of the earliest humbucker models around, the PAF was invented by infamous pickup, effects and amp designer Seth Lover for Gibson. Lover applied for the patent on the humbucking pickup in 1955 but wasn't granted one in 1959. Gibson began using the PAF on higher-model guitars in late 1956 and stopped around 1962. During this five-year period, Gibson applied a "Patent Applied For" sticker to the underside of these humbuckers, hence the name. They were eventually replaced by the Patent Number (Pat No) pickup, essentially a refined version of the PAF, making true PAFs one of the most expensive and collectible pickups around, fetching upwards of $1,000 each among vintage guitar collectors. These were in turn replaced by "T-Top" humbuckers in 1967 and production for the PAF ended competely in 1975.
Although it is regularly mistaken as the first humbucker (many agree that this designation goes to the Gretsch Filter'Tron) the PAF was the first humbucker to gain widespread use and notoriety. The PAF is an essential tonal characteristic of the now-famous 1958-1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard guitars and pickups of this type have gained a large following. Many of today's humbuckers are modeled after the PAF such as the Lindy Fralin Pure PAF, Gibson's own Burstbucker series and Seymour Duncan's Seth Lover line of pickups, just to name a few.
In 1954 Gretsch began plans to produce the first Chet Atkins endorsed model guitar, the Gretsch 6120. Atkins recorded much of his music of the 1950s with the Echosonic and had serious hum problems caused by the single-coil pickups and an unshielded transformer in the amplifier. Butts ended up connecting two single-coil pickups next to each other and out of phase, creating the first humbucker. Butts didn't get it patented until later, when it became the Gretsch Filter'Tron, and so Gibson is often credited with developing the first humbucker. Throughout the early years of production, Butts insisted on making all the Filter'Tron pickups by hand. It wasn't until 1957 that mass production of the Gretsch Filter'Tron finally began.
While it employed a dual-coil pickup design to cancel the hum just like the PAF, the Filter'Tron distinguished itself with a large 1/4″ alnico magnet that was twice as large as the one found in Gibson's model as well as larger pole screws. This resulted in higher inductance which meant more power and a thicker tone. The Filter’Tron’s bobbins are also positioned closer together and wound with less magnet wire for less loss of high end.
Fender Wide Range
Fender's first humbucker design, also by Seth Lover. Created in the early 70s, this pickup was intended to break Fender's image as a "single coil guitar company" and to gain a foothold in the humbucker guitar market dominated by Gibson. Although Fender's Wide Range humbucker was able to gain some popularity, they were never able to achieve the widespread success of their single-coils. Original Wide Range pickups were available from 1971 and subsequently installed in the Deluxe, Custom and Thinline Telecasters as well as the Starcaster until 1979 when these models were discontinued.
Fender Japan were the first to introduce a reissue in 1983, followed by the Made in Mexico version around 1998. The Wide Range Pickup found on American made Fender guitars is actually the Mexican-made model introduced in 1998. Although they look identical, all reissues differ from the original Seth Lover design in both construction and sound but tonally similar, with the Japanese reissue sounding hotter and the Mexican reissue sounding more like a standard Gibson humbucker.
The mini-humbucker was designed by Epiphone as a smaller version of the standard humbucker that could fit in Epiphone guitars routed for the 1950s Epi "New York" pickup. When Gibson bought the company in the late 50s, they gained the rights to the mini-humbucker. After the purchase, Gibson continued to use mini-humbuckers on Epiphone guitars along with several of their own archtop jazz guitars. In the 70s, Gibson began replacing their single-coil P-90s with mini-humbuckers on several of their guitar models, most notably on the Les Paul Deluxe; the size and shape of the mini-humbucker meant that it could easily fit into the space occupied by P-90s so no extra routing was required.
The mini-humbucker looks similar to a Gibson PAF humbucker but is narrower in size and senses a shorter length of string vibration, creating clearer, brighter tones that are different from typical Gibson humbuckers (in between single-coils and full-sized humbuckers in the tonal spectrum).
Active humbuckers (or active pickups in general) are pickups that use additional circuitry to modify a guitar's signal but require an external power source to get the job done, usually in the form of a 9-volt battery housed on-board the instrument itself. The idea of the active pickup was in development for decades but it wasn't until the mid 70s that they became practical enough for commercial use. One of the early pioneers of the active pickup design was EMG, releasing their first models in 1974, the H and HA, marketed as the first pair of noiseless single-coil pickups. The EMG 58, the company's first active humbucker, followed soon after.
Active pickups are known for their hotter signal, better sustain and wider dynamic range and control than their passive counterparts. They also produce less unwanted noise and create a strong signal that is relatively unaffected by instrument cord length, amp input characteristics and other tone-shaping qualities of the instrument itself. Because of the extra electronics involved, active pickups tend to cost more than passive pickups. Active humbuckers are popular with metal and hard rock guitarists because they can send an amplifier into overdrive more dramatically than lower-output passive humbuckers and work great with high-gain amps, resulting in a louder, tighter sound.
Your Turn to Sound Off!
Did we leave out one of your favorites? What are some notable humbuckers that we might have missed?