Mini Humbuckers and The Players Who Love Them
Gibson has taken a few different approaches to mini humbuckers over the years, leading to the minis found in the 1969 Les Paul Deluxe. The first was a model acquired from Epiphone and found on their Sheraton and Sorrento models. On the surface it appeared much like a regular PAF humbucker but shrunk down a little in width. It was even built with the same 'Patent Applied For' sticker found on the back of original PAFs. The next attempt at a mini was that found in the Firebird, but this was a very different pickup to the Epiphone mini. For starters, the wire of each coil was wound around its own Alnico II bar magnet, a stark contrast to the traditional PAF method of having the magnet at the bottom of the pickup with two pickup bobbins placed over it and with pole pieces passing either side of the magnet. These pickups were decidedly more treble-heavy than their pre-1963 counterparts: they had more jangle and twang compared to the existing minis - although those pickups also benefitted from sensing the tone of a narrower area of the string.
But perhaps the most well-known mini humbuckers were those introduced on the Les Paul Deluxe in 1969. Again these pickups were wound similarly to original PAFs, but with some key design changes that made a huge impact on the sound. Once again an Alnico bar magnet was used - this time an Alnico V - between the two coils, each of which was sound with polyurethane-coated 42-gauge wire. The coils differed from each other, PAF-style, in that one had solid slug pole pieces while the other had adjustable slot-head poles. And yet for all their sonic differences, all three pickup types shared some common traits: somewhere around 4,250 turns of wire per coil, and a DC resistance of between 6k and 7k - well and truly low enough to be considered a low-output humbucker.
The '69 mini humbucker (and the Les Paul Deluxe it's associated with) is a particularly clear, dry-sounding pickup with plenty of detail and punch, which makes it ideal for the 70s hard rock and southern rock that would immediately follow its introduction. It also equips itself particularly well with jazz fusion styles, where it maintains great articulation and just enough of a harmonic kick to emphasize the overtones in lead lines and complex jazz chords. Noted Deluxe players included Pete Townshend of the Who and Thin Lizzy's Scott Gorham (who prefers the Les Paul Access these days). So why did Gorham use that particular model Les Paul? "We were broke! When I joined Thin Lizzy I had a really cheap Japanese Les Paul copy. One of the first things Phil [Lynott] said to me when I joined was – we’ve got to get you a new guitar! We went down to Denmark Street [renowned London row of guitar shops] and I saw some lovely Les Paul Standards. Phil just shook his head, too much money! When we got to the Deluxe section he was – yeah, that’ll do! So it was a financial thing originally, what the band could afford at the time."
Legend has it that Pete Townshend stopped playing his Deluxes because the guitars of that era were particularly heavy - which could have aided in the wanton destruction of drum kits and amp stacks, but would have made general musicianship a little more tricky. Gorham agrees on the weight point. "All Les Pauls were heavy in the ‘70s! It’s heavy [expletive] machinery! Gibson has now realized that and the newer weight-relieved guitars sort that out. I was talking with Billy Gibbons recently, and he even said: you don’t need big hunks of wood anymore. Pedals and amps, there’s such an array of sounds you can get out of them. But I did notice a difference between my Deluxe and Brian Robertson’s Standard though. If I could’ve afforded it, I would have played a Les Paul Standard. But hey, getting a Les Paul Deluxe kick-started my career. I did some pretty good stuff on it, I think!"
And now there's a new mini humbucker on the block: the model found in the Les Paul Studio '70s tribute, SG Special '70s tribute and Firebird Studio '70s Tribute. It's designed to improve upon the best qualities of the earlier pickups while providing a more tailored sound. These dual-blade Alnico pickups are calibrated for separate neck and bridge versions to ensure a balanced output - quite the contrast from the early pickups, which were from a time when separate neck and higher-output bridge versions of pickups were unheard of.
And yet I'll always keep a place in my heart for the pickups found in the Les Paul Deluxe. When I was a teenager my guitar teacher had a beautiful Cherry Red Deluxe, and that guitar always had this beautiful '70s AOR' vibe about it. It sounded incredible clean or distorted, and it played like a dream. Although - wouldn't you know it - it was crazy heavy.
Additional reporting by Michael Leonard