Greed is Not Good

When is a PAF not a PAF? When it doesn’t have a sticker. Stickers rarely fall off. In fact I’ve hardly ever seen it over my 20 years in this business. So why am I seeing so many in recent weeks? Yes, the one on the left has slotted screws and it shouldn’t.

I’m seeing something that I really don’t like. I’ve been selling PAF equipped guitars for decades now and I’m seeing a trend that is, at best, annoying and at worst, criminal. I’ve owned about 700 Gibson guitars over the years and at least half of them have had PAFs. That’s somewhere around 700 PAFs, give or take a few since some guitars have only one of them (and some have three). I check every guitar I get very carefully and that includes taking out the pickups and looking at the backs. I look for the sticker, of course, and the tooling marks on the feet and I make sure the bobbin screws are correct and I inspect the solder to make sure the pickups haven’t been opened and if they have, I’ll open them again to make sure they haven’t been rewound or repaired. Out of those 700 or so PAFs I’ve seen, less than 10 of them were missing their sticker. I will note that early patent numbers have often been missing their sticker especially in 64 335’s possibly because they were transitioning from the PAF sticker to the patent number or maybe they just fell off. I suspect the former. In which case, the unstickered pickup in that 62 or 63 that’s being called a PAF by the seller probably isn’t one. PAFs in 64 335’s are not common at all so if someone tells you the pickup without the sticker in a 64 is a PAF, you can be pretty certain that it isn’t.

So, why am I suddenly seeing so many guitars with one PAF and one pickup that is missing its sticker? Did they recently start falling off the pickups in the last year or so? I see 10 PAFs with no sticker in 20 years and, oddly, I can find at least ten of them for sale in the past month or two. Of course, the missing sticker must be a PAF because the other pickup with a sticker is a PAF. The boldface italic denotes sarcasm in case you missed it. This should be considered in light of the fact that plenty of 62 and 63 Gibsons had one of each. I have written more than one post about the “$1000 sticker”. It says, essentially, that a PAF without a sticker is a patent number because they are the same pickup but for the sticker and if the only difference is the sticker and it isn’t there, then it must not be a PAF. You still with me? Good. PAFs have gotten really expensive. So have patent numbers but the differential is still around $1000. So, the unscrupulous seller has, say, a 63 ES-335 with one of each-a PAF and a patent number. Same pickups-different sticker. So, if I scrape off the patent sticker, then I can say that both of them are PAFs, right? After all, if the one with the sticker is a PAF, why wouldn’t the one without the sticker be a PAF as well? That’s the screwy logic behind this annoying trend. It gets worse. A really unscrupulous seller might take the stickered PAF out of a 58-61 and drop in a patent number with no sticker. Then it’s “oh, it must be a PAF because there weren’t any patent number pickups in 61”. I’m seeing this more and more as well.

I’m seeing this phenomenon among individual sellers and “hobby” dealers on Ebay and Reverb. I’m not seeing it among the big dealers so much. And, I will add, that there are PAFs with missing stickers out there but, as I said up top, it is really uncommon. Buyers, in general, aren’t stupid. The guitar buying public knows a lot about vintage guitars and they know what questions to ask. So, if you have removed a patent sticker in the hopes of making a couple of extra bucks on your sale, you are hurting someone down the line and you aren’t helping a business that already fights a bit of a shady reputation. So, if someone tells you the guitar is equipped with PAFs and, oh yeah, the sticker fell off one of them, you can expect the price to reflect that missing sticker to the tune of about $1000. If you’re going to sell me a PAF for $2500 or an early patent for $1500, then the sticker is worth $1000 and if it isn’t there, you don’t get the $1000. And, by the way, I know, it’s a decal and not a sticker.

No sign of a sticker on this pickup. The only time to accept a no sticker pickup as a PAF is if you can show that it has never been out of the guitar and the guitar is a 61 or earlier. And it still should get you a lower price than you would pay if the sticker was there.

15 Responses to “Greed is Not Good”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, thanks for highlighting this sad example of seller greed evidenced by “missing” stickers. Fortunately repro PAF stickers are pretty easy to identify if you know what to look for. But they could be a problem for those buyers who aren’t as savvy…and other repro parts are getting so good they can be a challenge for many; truss rod covers, switch tips, etc. Best, RAB

  2. okguitars says:

    I should do a post about fake stickers too. The black light is your friend when it comes to identifying fake stickers. They sure look right but they don’t glow under the black light. Same with the tape around the bobbins. If it doesn’t glow, it isn’t legit.

  3. RAB says:

    Yeah, sad it’s gotten to the point where you need to be a forensic scientist to have confidence in your vintage guitar purchase. More good reason to buy from a reputable dealer like Mr. Gelber!

  4. RAB says:

    Back in 1970, when I bought my first expensive vintage guitar you didn’t have to be as careful or knowledgeable. After all, a ‘59 was just an 11 year old used guitar. Still, I was the laughing stock of my home town for paying $1,000 for a 1959 Les Paul Standard. We called them cherry sunburst Les Pauls back then. All original, 9/10 condition. Nice, flamed top too! They had to eat their critical words when I sold the guitar of couple of years later for $2500!

  5. Collin says:

    Is there any pattern to the 10 you’ve had without stickers?

    I ask because I’ve had TWO early ’61 (with 1960 FON) ES-335 TDSVs in the last year that are entirely original and never been apart. One has no stickers at all, and the other has a PAF in one spot and no sticker in the other. They are clearly original pickups, down to the smallest details and original solder.

    Maybe there is some correlation between gold pickups, stereo (flipped magnet) pickups or something else? A batch missing stickers during that period? It doesn’t look like the sticker fell off any of these either. They’re still PAF pickups, sticker be damned. Picky buyers need not apply…

  6. RAB says:

    Did you mean 355s?

  7. okguitars says:

    There is no pattern to the missing stickers. There are definitely PAFs out there that never got a sticker. The larger point is to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to PAFs without stickers. I don’t see a lot of 61’s (too many neck issues) so I can’t say I’ve seen many with a missing sticker. I rarely see missing stickers on 58, 59 or 60’s. If you get a guitar with a missing sticker and its 61 or earlier, you can assume its a PAF ONLY is the solder is untouched to the harness. The pickups go to the three way on a stereo guitar and its very easy to change out a pickup on them without disturbing much solder because you don’t have that big blob of solder connecting the ground braid to the pot housing. I could drop a pair of t-tops into a 59 ES-345 and you’d never know it by looking at the solder and I’m definitely an average to slightly better than average solderer.

  8. Paul says:

    Hi Charlie, I have a 1957 ES-175 purchased in 1975 with 2 early PAFs both with no sticker. When I bought it PAFs were not really a thing, it was just an old guitar. I only found out about them a couple years later. I heard back then that early (late ’57) PAFs usually had no sticker, has anyone else heard that? Pickups have never been out of the guitar or un-soldered.

  9. Collin says:

    @RAB – yes that’s a typo, I meant ES-355s

  10. Stephen Newman says:

    Let me add my 2 cents. Years ago I owned a ’61 stop tail, first fret marker cherry finished ES 345, bought unmolested from the original owner with absolutely NO pickup decals or traces on either pickup. I personally knew the owner, the guitar’s complete history from new, and also knew the instrument had never left the owners personal possession for even a string change, much less any type of repair or adjustment, ever. This was a very meticulous individual and rarely did he allow any other person to touch the guitar, let alone play it. In fact, it was rarely out of the case…..and it was an absolutely wonderful instrument. So there definitely are PAFs without stickers. The ’61 dot Bigsby/CUSTOM MADE 335 shown on this site’s gallery page has a full PAF decal on the bridge PU, but only about a quarter of the decal remains on the neck PU, though there does seem to be faint remnants of the outline. I doubt the decals fall off spontaneously, but theorize as they become old and brittle, they become very fragile and easily damaged with mishandling….say in removing them for inspection? Thank you Charlie for warning potential buyers about an easily avoidable scam!

  11. okguitars says:

    There are PAFs without labels. No doubt. But there seem to be a lot more lately than there have been in the past.

  12. okguitars says:

    I probably should have noted that early 57 PAF’s didn’t have stickers but there were no 335/345’s/355’s’s in 57 so I didn’t mention it. In general, the 57’s without stickers have brushed stainless steel covers.

  13. Bob Semanchik says:

    What if you come across a set of zebras with no decal?

  14. okguitars says:

    If you find a zebra without a sticker, the likelihood is that its a PAF. Zebras were gone (with very few exceptions) before patent numbers began.
    That said, I can make a fake zebra using a white bobbin from a busted double white and a patent number plate and black bobbin.
    I could also take a double white and make a zebra and a reverse zebra using an $800 late patent that has been rewound with the correct enamel wire.

  15. RAB says:

    Ack! That’s why I prefer my PAFs with untouched solder joints or the cover opened (say to flip a magnet for polarity purposes) by a reputable fellow such as Charlie G!

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