P-A-F, three little letters that signify what is arguably one of the furthest reaching guitar innovations of modern gear. So how did Seth Lover innovate pickup designs and establish the defining standard of humbucking brilliance for decades to come?
Like so many stories of guitar and electronic innovations of the post-World War II era, this one starts with a young man whose electronics specializations were military grade. After serving in the Navy as a radioman, Seth Lover found himself teaching radio dispatching at a small training school near Kalamazoo, Michigan. The town was no stranger to Seth. Years prior, he had a brief stint with Gibson guitars, but it was not until 1948 when Ted McCarty was at the helm that Seth received a tap on the shoulder to come back.
Ted had a problem and he thought Seth could develop a solution. At the time, electric guitars came only with single-coil pickups. Tonally, these have stood the test of time. Yet, both then and now, single coils have the plague of a hum introduced by electric line voltage. In short order, Seth found a solution and submitted his schematic for the new pickup design to the U.S. Patent Office on June 22, 1955. Not wanting to delay production with the new design any longer, Gibson put the new pickups in their guitars as early as 1956. These early installations bore the letters “PAF” on their backside, standing for “patent applied for.” Ever since then, the acronym stuck. On July 28, 1959, the patent was awarded but the design would inspire others for years to come.
So what went into the design of this pickup wizardry?
In some respects, the new humbucker design channeled the best of the P-90 pickups that were already a staple at Gibson. The PAF and P-90 designs share some common DNA including, Alnico bar magnets and 10,000 winds of 42 AWG wire. The big difference, however, was Seth’s tandem design that put an end to buzz.
The stacked single-coils of the PAF design include a set of coils, wound opposite one another, and zapped with reverse polarity. When set in series alongside their doppelganger twin, the result is a silent sentinel of a pickup that’s hot yet hum free. In addition to this distinctive configuration, Seth’s original designs also found some advantage in the imperfections. Early PAF designs are noted for their use of unevenly matched and wound coils and their lack wax potting to adhere to an external plate. These days, original, authentic, old school PAF pickups are rare and costly. Yet boutique offerings of PAF-inspired pickups by Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckle, and Porter put this classic and iconic sound in reach. If you’re looking for something new in your sound, perhaps drawing on something very old would do the trick. Sixty years of PAF humbucking history suggests the design’s worth a shot!