PAFs, PATs and T-Tops

This is what the purple wire looks like. This PAF is fuller on one side than it is on the other. Sometimes it fuller in the middle. Sometimes on both edges. These things make them sound different from one another. Thanks to the Throbak site for the photo.

I’ve written a good bit about these three types of pickups but I’ve been asked a lot of questions lately and thought I would revisit the timeline in greater detail. The venerable PAF or patent applied for pickup was developed in the mid 50’s by Seth Lover and began showing up in pedal steels and guitars in 1957. There may have been some in late 56 in the steels but it isn’t totally clear. No matter, since we only care about the ES models. The first 335s had the long magnet PAF that are so coveted. They were used through 59 and 1960. It seems that in early to mid 1961, Gibson started using a stronger Alnico V magnet and since it was stronger, it became a bit shorter in order to have the same strength. I believe the winding of the pickups became more consistent as well, although its hard to prove. The circumstantial evidence is pretty convincing. There is no typical long magnet PAF because they vary so much in the way they were wound and in how many winds they actually have. That’s why you see DC resistances from the high 6K mark to the low 9K. By late 60, there seems to be a lot more consistency and the pickups are more generally in the 7.4 to 8.1K range. There are some outside that range but they are far less common once the change to the later short magnet PAF occurred. Many the things that give a long magnet  PAF it’s tone are random-like how the wire is wound on the bobbin-loaded up in the middle or loaded on one side or completely even. Or how much wire there is. Some sound great and some, simply don’t. It’s largely the luck of the draw. I’ve had great ones and some pretty dull sounding ones. Once we get to the short magnet PAF, they seem to be more consistently good. Here’s my take. The best long magnet PAF is always “better” sounding than the best short magnet PAF. But the average short magnet PAF is better than the average long magnet PAF. That’s my opinion based on the tone of about 200 PAFs that I’ve heard. By 1962, Gibson started putting the patent number sticker on the pickups. Until some time in 64, it’s the exact same pickup as the short magnet PAF. Ever wonder why 64’s are so consistently great sounding? The pickups have something to do with it. They mixed PAFs and Patent numbers from 62 through 63 but only the stickers are different. And the price. A PAF equipped 63 can command a few thousand dollars more than a PAT # 63. Some expensive stickers. There is a lot of disagreement about when Gibson went from the enamel coated (purple/maroon) wire to the poly coated (orange) wire. Some say as early as 62. I’m not one to pull apart unopened pickups but I’ve seen the enamel wire in at least one 64, so the transition must have taken awhile. Guitars with gold hardware have the early patent numbers a bit later since they didn’t sell as many gold hardware guitars, so the earlier stock lasted longer. I don’t find all that much difference in the pickups from 61 to 64. They do start to change by 65, to my ears, anyway. It’s a subtle change. these can be excellent sounding pickups and can be found as late as 1968 and maybe even early 1969. Shortly after Gibson changed the windings, they changed the bobbins and further automated the process of building pickups. It’s very hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the T-top first appeared. I don’t see a lot of mid 60’s 335’s but I’ve seen enough of them to know that T-tops don’t really become prevalent until 1967. The problem is that you can’t tell which pickup is under the cover unless you remove the cover. Fine, if it’s already been removed but if it hasn’t, most recommend that it not be. It lowers the vintage value-although knowing whether you have a T-top or a late patent number can be worth something too. There is another way to, at least, improve your odds of getting the more desirable patent number non T-top) and that is by looking at the screws that hold the bobbins to the base (the 4 screws on the back). If they are slotted, you can pretty much bet that the pickups are T-tops. If they are philips, it’s a tossup if the guitar is from 67 or later. I’m sure there are 66’s with T-tops. I’ve never seen a 65 but I’ve only had 5 or 6 65’s to look at and most hadn’t had the covers removed. They sure sounded like patent numbers to me. The fact that the sticker is identical on a “late” patent number and a T-top makes it even more confusing. You might try taking a reading with a multimeter. If the reading of both pickups is between 7.47 and 7.52 or so, then you’ve probably got a t-top if the guitar is from 66 or later. They are very consistent that way. The fact that most people don’t differentiate when they talk about early patent number, late patent number (or pre T-top) and patent sticker T-tops makes it even more confusing. People call T-tops PAFs in many cases. PAF has become almost generic for a Gibson humbucker with a sticker on it and that is wrong. So, know what you’re looking at if you’re buying loose pickups. It’s pretty easy to change the screws to be phillips. It’s also easy to change the covers to nickel but, once the solder is broken, that’s your invitation to take the covers off again and look for the telltale T that’s on each bobbin. Still, not a bad pickup, but not worth $500 or more like their predecessors. There is also the problem of telling a fake PAF from a real one but that’s a whole post in itself.

Is this the reason for that ol' PAF magic? An old Leesona coil winder. There are a few of these out there that are still in use today, although there are newer, more modern winders. Seymour Duncan has one and Throbak has at least two. This one is from the Throbak site. That looks like enamel wire on the spools.

4 Responses to “PAFs, PATs and T-Tops”

  1. Chris W says:

    Another cool thing about the 345’s is the later appearance of features that were already gone on the 335 (because of the gold hardware). My ’61 345 has a zebra coil PAF (and one double black). The covers are unmolested, but I would assume that both are long magnets based on the super late appearance of the zebra. The pickups are original to the guitar, with unmolested solder joints on the harness.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    True. Somehow, that never happens to me. I’ve had 4 or 5 61’s in the past 6 months and they are all blacks. Although, if they are to remain under their covers, what difference does it make. We’re all nuts.

  3. es336td says:

    I have a 1968 ES335TD similar to the one Larry Carlton plays.

    I love the pickups and was wondering what was stock in this run, or do I need to rip them out and do the biopsy surgery on them as stated above? I’m trying to find something comparable to replace the stock pickups in my 98 Epi Les Paul.

  4. OK Guitars says:

    Stock for 68 is generally T-top which can be found relatively cheaply on Ebay. I bought a pair for $200 not long ago. A lot of people are looking for way more but don’t overpay. I had a 68 that had pre T-tops which are basically PAFs with poly coated wire. Both are excellent sounding pickups. I find the pre T-tops to have a little more low end than the T-tops. If you look at the underside of your pickups, note whether the screws are philips ot slotted. If they are slotted, you don’t have to do any surgery-they will be T-tops. If they are philips, they are still possibly T-tops but not definitely. But don’t open them if they are still sealed with the original solder. You’ll just lower their value and they will sound the same whether they are pre T-tops or not. It really isn’t that big a deal (yet).

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