The Gibson pickup guide!

Sweetwater

Even if Gibson had never put blade to wood and created some of the most enduring and sought-after guitar models, this writer believes they would still claim a spot in some of the greatest gear innovators in history. Why? Three legalese-sounding words: “patent applied for.” Or perhaps one letter and two numbers? P, 9, and 0 anyone?

Though Gibson didn’t invent the electric guitar pickup, or even the humbucking pickup (that credit goes to Electro-Voice), it played an absolutely crucial role in shaping their design and construction. Gibson’s P-90 design, introduced in 1946, is still a popular choice for just about every style of music out there.

Gibson’s “patent applied for,” or PAF, humbucking pickup first hit the street in 1957 and is simply in a class of its own. These heavenly humbuckers are revered for their airy dynamic sensitivity and powerful-yet-polished tones. Tonally, true “patent applied for” pickups are slightly lower in output, smooth, and balanced but still full of character. Like many pickups from electric guitar’s early days, “patent applied for” humbuckers tend to vary in output and EQ, but even with these difference their voice is timeless and unmistakable. Even pickups that aren’t explicitly trying to be the Gibson model still have some of it in their DNA, be it size, construction, appearance, or materials.

Gibson is still putting out a slew of well-regarded pickup models, and we here at TheToneKing.com thought we might provide a handy field guide to you, our esteemed readers, on their various offerings. Enjoy!


The P-90

While not Gibson’s first production pickup, the single coil P-90 enjoys just about the same level of popularity as it’s humbucking hermanos. Even with a ton of pickup builders offering takes on the P-90, Gibson-built units still hold their own quite well. So well, in fact, that many players tend to leave well enough alone. P-90s famously deliver an articulate-yet-raunchy midrange growl that sits somewhere between a traditional F-type single coil and humbucker. The Who‘s phenomenal “Live at Leeds,” in which Pete Townshend wielded a P-90-equipped SG Special into a Hiwatt, is often held up as an example of the glorious power of the P-90. Since they’re still single coils they are susceptible to noise, but Gibson also offers a P-100, a stacked-coil pickup in a P-90 package and the P-94, a humbucker-sized P-90.

Check ’em out if you’re into: Powerful, primal rock ‘n roll tones.


The Classic ’57 Line

As the name implies, Gibson’s ’57 Classic pickups evoke the rich, balanced tone of the original “patent applied for” humbucker. The ’57s specs are basically the same as their inspiration: Alnico II magnets, nickel-plated pole pieces, and two-conductor wiring, but are wax potted (unlike their famous ancestor). Gibson also offers a “Plus” model for a little extra kick while maintaining the vintage vibe.

Check ’em out if you’re into: warm, medium gain sounds with a vintage soul.


The Burstbucker Line

If the Classic ’57s are in the PAF ballpark, the Burstbucker line is Gibson’s effort to put you in the dugout. Burstbucker construction and tonal signature is even more closely aligned with that of the vintage PAF and all of its subtleties, but Gibson does offer additional models in the Burstbucker line for those looking for more bite and bark. The Burstbucker 1 is the most faithful recreation of a vintage PAF in the Burst line, while Burstbuckers 2 and 3 kick the heat up a notch. Meanwhile, the Burstbucker Pro’s Alnico V magnet is perfect for those wanting a more biting flavor of PAF.

Check ’em out if you’re into: balanced vintage tones with a bit of extra sparkle and fire sprinkled in.


BONUS COVERAGE:

Line 6

The Custom Bucker

The Custom Bucker is reportedly Gibson’s most accurate modern rendition of the fabled PAF. You’re going to have to shell out if you want a set, though. They’re only available on Gibson Custom Shop instruments and used sets go for a premium online.


The “Four Series” Line

This writer has no idea if this line of pickups is called the “four series,” but it makes some sense. The “four series” moniker covers the Gibson humbucker range that departs a bit from the PAF template. The most ubiquitous of the group seem to be the 490R (R for “rhythm,” or neck position) and 498T (T for “treble,” or bridge position), which come standard in a wide variety of Gibson models. Those are the pickups that seemed to be standard equipment on the late ’80s/early ’90s Les Paul Studio models that were all over the place in this writer’s youth (it was the only Gibson most of us could afford!). They feature a modern four-conductor build and tend towards a hotter output profile well suited for most contemporary styles. The 490R and T run Alnico IIs, the 498T runs an Alnico V, and the 496R “Hot Ceramic” and 500T “Super Ceramic” live la vida loca with ceramic magnets for even more firepower.

Check ’em out if you’re into: Modern, versatile pickups that can push your amp a bit.


Dirty Fingers Humbucker

If you want to test the hurricane resistance of a structure, a Dirty Fingers humbucker through an appropriately powerful amp will get you there. This thing is hotter than a Tucson sidewalk in August. You get the idea.

Check ’em out if you’re into: relentless crunch and collecting noise violations.


Mini-Humbucker

This is another pickup closely associated with Gibson, but actually began life as an Epiphone design (which itself is closely associated with Gibson, as we all know). A unique sort of beast, the mini-humbucker is the size of a P-90 and kind of has that same sort of single coil/humbucker hybrid thing going on tone-wise. It’s built much the same as a traditional humbucker is, but it’s smaller footprint results in a toppy, jangle-infused sound that retains exceptional definition even when pushing gobs of gain. Bonafide crunch dealers like Neil Young and Pete Townshend (post Leeds) and bluesman Johnny Winter have waved the Mini-HB flag throughout their storied careers.

Check ’em out if you’re into: A humbucker that jangles and cuts or a drop-in replacement for a P-90.


As we mentioned earlier here on this website, it really does appear that Gibson has met the criticism levied at some of their…ahem…innovations of the past few years and recalibrated their approach. However, when you look at their approach in the pick-up world, they’ve been getting it right for a long time now. Somewhere out there, there’s a Gibson pickup that will suit your needs nicely. Hopefully, this guide will help you get there!

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