In search of the P.A.F. tone:
This is a brief explanation of what pickups Iíve tried and how I feel they compare to one another and that sound in my head, what I feel is perfect P.A.F. tone.
Being a fan of “older” rock music, from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy et al, I’m also a fan of the tone of those old guitars, specifically the Gibson “Patent Applied For” humbucker tone. For pickups that were made in a time when quality control is not quite what it is today, it’s amazing that there seems to be so much trouble in replicating that sound – and many people try!
I’ll start my journey with the “Stock” humbuckers that came in the guitar and hopefully describe the changes I noticed moving from one set of pickups to another. I’ll detail some information about each pickup and the price which may help you decide whether one of these pickups is for you.
Gibson 500T (Bridge position ~ 15K ohms resistance) & Gibson 498R (Neck position ~ 8.5K ohms resistance). Price: Came as stock, but can be bought aftermarket for £89 per pickup (list price):
These ‘buckers are hot and are meant to rock! The large output of the bridge pickup is able to beat the front end of an amp into submission, making it pull out the white flag! I tried these pickups through an AC-30 and there was plenty of breakup even at relatively low volume. Unfortunately this does mean that some of the subtlety is lost and the pickups go a bit “dead” as the volume on the guitar goes down. They are good fun, but they are definitely not P.A.F.’s.
Seymour Duncan ‘59’s (Bridge position ~ 8.5K ohms, Neck position ~ 8K ohms). Price: £70 per pickup:
These are a mass market attempt to get that P.A.F. sound, and they do a pretty good job. Like the Gibson ‘buckers, these are wax potted to stop pickup squeal (micro-phonic feedback). These pickups use evenly balanced coils and “correct” construction materials in order to try and get the sound. These can’t drive the front end of an amp in the same way a high output pickup like the 500T can, but there is a greater room for volume adjustment and the subtleties of your playing to come through. The biggest problem with these pickups I’ve found is they have a tendency to turn to “mush” if the volume is dropped below half-way. These are very similar in style to Gibson's '57 Classic's.
BareKnuckle Black Dog’s (Bridge position ~ 9.75K ohms, Neck position ~ 8K ohms). Price: £170 per set (open coiled):
These pickups are hand made in Devon, in the U.K. Hotter than the Duncan’s they’re a bit more aggressive than your average P.A.F. style pickup, and therefore able to drive an amps front end harder. Again, these pickups use "correct" construction materials, but add in the scatter-wound, unbalanced coils that are a feature of P.A.F. pickups. These pickups have great clarity to them – something you’ll really appreciate if you move from a pickup like the Duncan 59’s. There is much more definition between the notes, and as such can really show how well you play – or even how badly! However, they don’t quite capture that P.A.F. magic; think of them more like Jimmy Page’s tone after the bridge P.A.F. failed in his number one Les Paul. Again these are wax potted to prevent unwanted feedback.
Tim White “Timbuckers” (Bridge position ~ 8.25K ohms, Neck position ~ 7.75K ohms). Price $320 ~ £185 per set (NO LONGER IN PRODUCTION):
The lowest output set is also, for me, the best. For those who don’t know, Tim White makes these pickups in his spare time, and they’re modeled after an original P.A.F. that he was asked to duplicate by a member of the Les Paul Forum. After that, everyone was so impressed he was just inundated with orders! Because of the limited number of pickups Tim can make, and the large demand there is for these pickups, there’s a bit of a wait – it was 22 months from the time that I got my order in to Tim getting around to being able to make them! A long wait? Yes, but they are the most authentic sounding P.A.F. replica’s I’ve heard. They have it all: the harmonics, double tone, clarity, punch, that "chirp" – everything! A word of caution though; these pickups are NOT wax potted, just like the old P.A.F.’s meaning there is a greater risk of pickup squeal if you play in high gain situations – that’s not to say they can’t cope, because they do just beautifully, but P.A.F.’s enjoy an amp that’s being made to work and not drowned in distortion. Once again, original construction materials and scatterwound, unbalanced coils go that extra step to getting P.A.F. tone. The closest Gibson 'bucker to these would be the latest "Burstbucker" pickups found on new standards and Historics. Please note that these pickups have ceased to be made as of December 2007 due to Tim's other commitments.
Update: Gibson Burstbucker #'s 1 & 2
Since I have now bought a historic model guitar, I have had the opportunity to try the burstbucker pickups. I don't think these are anywhere near as bad as some people make out, although they seem to be hotter than the Tim's that are in my classic. I want to swap the Tim's and the burstbuckers just so I can compare properly as it may just be the inherent sound of the R9 coming through which makes them sound so good.
So, after all this rambling, what do I think? You can probably tell that I like the Timbuckers the best. To me, they are P.A.F.’s; it just so happens they were made yesterday rather than 50 years ago. Now its important to consider that I’ve not tested all the P.A.F. pickups on the market (I'm not sure anyone can!). I hear very good things about Peter Florence’s Voodoo’s, Jim Wagner’s, Rolph’s, Holmes, Wolftone’s… the list goes on. The important thing to remember is they all have a slightly different take on the P.A.F. sound, and what’s good for one person isn’t necessarily the best for someone else. It may sound like a cop-out, but try some and let your ears do the deciding. I like the Timbuckers and will end up ordering another set (and waiting another 2 years to get them!). I don’t have a guitar for them to go in just yet, but I’m sure that will change.