PAF Theory

The $1000 sticker. make sure it looks like this or you’re getting ripped off. There is something unusual about the bottom PAF. Anybody see it?

PAF. P-A-F. Call it what you like but it conjures up visions (or the audio equivalent of a vision whatever that is) of legendary rock and blues tones. I don’t think there is anything that shares the legendary status of this pretty simple piece of electronics. Folks have taken to calling anything with a sticker a PAF and, of course, that’s not really accurate. A PAF says “Patent Applied For” on the back. Otherwise-even if everything else is exactly the same, it ain’t a PAF unless it’s got a stainless steel cover and is from 1957. It’s understandable. After all, an early patent number pickup is identical but for the sticker. I’ve written about the “thousand dollar sticker” before, so that’s not what this is about. I want to put out a theory about some early PAFs.

There are, essentially, four versions of the PAF pickup. The early PAF was made in 1956 and fitted in some steel guitars. It had a stainless steel cover and no sticker. By 57, it was being used in a few “spanish” models-the Les Paul, the ES-175 and various other arch tops. By the end of 57, it had acquired the usual nickel plated cover and the very coveted PAF sticker. The next version showed up around the middle of 59 and was identical except that one or two of the bobbins were white instead of black. The reason for this has generally been acknowledged to be a temporary shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins. It wouldn’t matter, thought the brass at Gibson-nobody will ever see the bobbins anyway and even if they did, nobody would care whether they were white or black. A less true statement has never been made. Before I get into the white bobbin theory, I’ll mention the last version of the PAF. Versions one (no sticker), two (black bobbin with sticker) and three (white bobbin(s)) all had what we refer to as a “long magnet” which was usually an Alnico 2 (or 4) that measured roughly 2.5″. The last version was an Alnico 5 and measure 2.25″. Alnico 5’s are stronger, so the shorter magnet was, essentially, the equivalent of the weaker long magnet. This final version showed up in 1961 and lasted until around 64 in the nickel version and was generally gone around the same time in the gold version but the gold ones pop up occasionally in 65 and, so I’m told, as late as 67. I’ve never seen one after 65 but I’m sure someone has.

So, there are 4 versions of the PAF. The sound of a PAF is not consistent. The winding was done by machine but there was no stop or counter on the machine. They simply wound them until they appeared full. This was around 5000 turns and got you a pickup with a DC resistance in the range of 7K to 8K. There were a few with higher DCR’s and some with lower DCRs. Doing stuff by hand will always give you some variation.

Everyone agrees that white bobbin (and zebra bobbin) PAFs are more desirable and folks always say, with a chuckle, that the white ones sound better. Rational folks know that the color of the bobbin can’t possibly make a difference in the tone, right? Well, yes, except that, in a somewhat indirect way, it actually does. Really. I’m not nuts. Here’s the theory. First off, I happen to think pickups with a somewhat higher DCR sound better to my ear. In my player 345, I have a 8.75K double white in the neck and a 8.4K reverse zebra in the bridge. That’s backwards from what folks do-most folks want the higher DCR in the bridge. But that’s not the point. I’ve tested perhaps 80-90 double white PAFs over the years and nearly all of them have higher than average DCR’s. Why is this? Well, clearly, it isn’t caused by the white bobbins-the bobbins are electronically inert. But it is caused by the white bobbins. Need an explanation? I thought so.

The windings in a PAF are enamel coated copper wire and are a very dark brown or purplish brown. Against a black bobbin, the wire is very hard to see. So, if you are winding a pickup using a black bobbin and you don’t want to put on too many windings because if you do, they will fall off the sides and you’ll have to either start over or trim some wire off. That will slow you down and I’m guessing the winders had a daily quota to fill. So, I’m certain that they erred on the side of caution and left a pretty fair amount of room on the bobbins resulting in the 7K to 8K DCRs. DCR is directly related to the number of winds. But if they are winding the pickup on a white bobbin, the dark colored wire is very easy to see and you can add hundreds of additional windings to the white bobbin and still clearly see that the wire isn’t going to “overflow” the bobbin. That results in the higher DCR’s that are very common on white PAFs.

So, do white PAFs sound better than black ones? They often do if you like “hotter” pickups. Is it worth an extra $4000 per pickup? That’s your call. A black bobbin PAF will cost you from $2000-$2800 in today’s somewhat inflated market. A double white will cost you at least $5000 and as much as $6000. I’ve seen them listed as high as $7000 but I don’t think they sell at that price. Zebras and reverse zebras are somewhere in between, although reverse zebras are crazy rare (I’ve seen 6 ever).

I love it when somebody lists a vintage guitar and says that the pickups COULD be double white or zebra. Right. Like they didn’t check. Ask them and they’ll say, “the covers have never been off so I can’t tell”. Ever hear of a screwdriver? If you want to know, you can also tun the pickup over and take out the bobbin screws-that way you can see each bobbin. It’s a small hole and it’s dark in there but shine a bright light and you’ll see the white. 


8 Responses to “PAF Theory”

  1. RAB says:

    Super cool info for the geekiest of us git-tar geeks! Ny own observations support your beliefs concerning white PAFs being hotter than most black PAFs. My first First Rack ‘59 345 had very hot pups, including the double white neck pup measuring 8.6k ohms IIRC. The mid-59 355 mono I had was a similar story for its pair of double whites. The zebra neck pup on my current FR (First Rack) ‘59 345 is about 8.4k ohms, reverse zebra bridge pup about 8.2k ohms…both sound terrific so bigger numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole tonal story!

  2. John Dahms says:

    The devil is in the details. Really interesting theory on winding white vs black bobbins. There could be something to it. It may also be that someone different was winding more pickups coincidently at the time the white plastic was used and just like to put more wire on than the regular person at the machine.
    The pickup on the bottom is from an early 345 with the short leg to clear the rout on the first batches.

  3. Joe Campagna says:

    I noticed the 345/355 chopped foot (to clear the choke)bridge PAF in the photo.What do I win?

  4. okguitars says:

    You win my undying respect.

  5. okguitars says:

    My work here is done. Can’t fool you guys.

  6. RAB says:

    Yup, spotted the short leg pickup too…gold pups so likely from a FR (First Rack) ‘59 ES-345T?

  7. Jonathan Krogh says:

    I’d read here and there that the windings were run with a timer for a few years before being setup to run with a turns counter, the timer producing varying turns while the counter produces consistent turns (mid 7k). I dunno if that throws off your theory but I suppose they could have looked at them and said, yep we can fit a few more turns on there. I built a winder with a counter a few years ago and have built a fair amount on paf repro bobbins, using my hand to guide the winding and apply tension. I can tell you its tough to wind a pair of coils up to 9k without the wire bulging out too much out of the bobbins, to the point that after being taped up they can rub on the nickel covers. For anything hotter, that’s when one has to shift to taller bobbins or the thinner 43g wire.

  8. Nelson Checkoway says:

    As a player who has owned several dozen vintage guitars and who revels in all original, classic vintage instruments, I’m about to say something bordering on apostasy. Is the sound and performance of rare and sought after components, such as the early PAF pickups, truly elusive, or can it be replicated by adjusting other variables in the signal chain? And therefore, beyond the sheer WOW factor of vintage collectibility–the bragging rights of playing through a pair of double white bobbin PAFs–can you not attain a comparable sound or performance with a “lesser” vintage pickup (say a Patent No. model) or a well-reverse-engineered replica?

    I think reissue guitars ARE fundamentally different–the wood FEELS different and they look and seem “new” and “fresh” (not desirable characteristics!). But the strength and quality of the signal from two similar pickups can be modulated by so many factors: distance from the strings, pick material and attack, quality of the wiring harness, pots and patch chord, type and quality of amp, pre-amp and power tubes, and speakers. Let’s face it: vintage became a thing back in the day (late 60s/early 70s) when guitarists who wanted to create (or emulate) great tone and sustain had a few good choices … and a lot of bad ones.

    So I don’t dismiss the cool factor of vintage gear — in fact I love it and I hope it lasts long into the future. But strictly from a sonic perspective, is the sound of the most valuable PAF true unobtainium … or are we just paying a lot for old wire and plastic? And two related questions: If we’re that committed to replicating a vaunted player’s tone, shouldn’t we also secure the same critical components in the signal path (e,g, amp, tubes, speakers)? And if the sound we aspire to were recorded with a 1959 PAF-equipped guitar in, say, 1966-68 (like Clapton’s Bluesbreakers and Cream work) doesn’t the ensuing 4 decades of natural magnetic loss render this quest for tone all but impossible?

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