To many laymen, Gibson guitars are predominantly things of beauty. And that remains undoubtedly true. But scientific innovation has always been at the heart of Gibson also – whether it's Gibson G FORCE™ tuning and titanium zero frets of 2016 – to '50s revelations such as the Tune-o-matic bridge and humbucker pickups.

The humbucker itself has grown into one of Gibson's crowning achievements. Although only fitted as standard on Les Pauls and other models from 1957 (replacing the single-coil P-90), Gibson electronics guru Seth Lover began work on the design as early as 1951.

PAF Patent image

Humbuckers not only reduce hum (they “buck the hum”!), they also offer the fatter, more rounded tone synonymous with many Gibson greats. There are many variations, some with estimable input from Gibson legends such as Tony Iommi, Angus Young and Billy F Gibbons.

What is a humbucker?

In simplistic terms, a humbucker is two pickups in one. In any magnetic pickup, a vibrating guitar string, magnetized by a fixed magnet within the pickup, induces an alternating voltage across its coil(s). But wire coils are sensitive to electromagnetic interference caused by alternating magnetic fields – you get “hum”. The humbucker solved the problem.

A humbucker has two coils wound in opposite directions, one clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. The magnets in the two coils are arranged in opposite directions so that the string motion induces voltages across both coils in the same direction. If you want to get really technical, electrical engineers refer to this sometimes as “common-mode rejection.”

After many hours of experimenting and testing, Lover came up with the PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucker. For many, it remains the holy grail of Gibson tone. Changes in wiring, magnets, visual design and size all followed.

In terms of magnets, alnico = aluminium (Al) nickel (Ni) and cobalt (Co) soon became coveted. Numerous variants have been used over the years. The degree of “wax-potting” was another variation.

So much so that the world of the Gibson humbucker is a broad church. But for numerous players, it's definitely their tonal religion.

Here's a quick guide to some key models.

The PAF

Early 'bucker building at Gibson wasn't quite as automated as it is now. “The pickup had to have the same volume level as other pickups on the market,” said Lover. “It also had to have enough treble so the overtones were not deadened. I figured each coil would need to have about 5000 turns of wire, for a total of 10,000 turns. Adjusted correctly, you could equal or even exceed the volume of the P-90 pickup. Soon we found we could get the sound and volume we wanted with fewer turns.” Lover was an incessant tinkerer. “We finally got to the point where you had to stop… you could have gone on forever and never been exactly perfect [for everybody].”

PAF pickup

Indeed, some early PAFS were hand-wound – hence sometimes the “overwound” terminology used for particularly fat-sounding 'buckers. PAF appears on a sticker on the bottom plates of every humbucker Gibson made until 1959, when said patent was finally issued. After that, it was simply known as the Gibson humbucker.

Coil Splitting: The Best of Both Worlds

Pull Up Knobs on a Gibson Guitar

You can't turn a single-coil pickup into a 'bucker. But with coil splitting you can do the opposite. With most Gibson 'buckers offering splitting possibilities, usually via push/pull pots. All told, it means the coil-splittable Gibson Humbucker is arguably the most versatile pickup ever made.

The question is: how often do you use coil-splitting on your 'buckers? Is it a key part of your pickup choice or do you veer towards the fuller-on sound of the classic Humbucker? Please Discuss!

Humbuckers in the '60s

Improved, more precise building came into its own in the '60s – and thousands of players couldn't get enough. Not that every humbucking hombre sounded the same: just listen to the different tones eked from 'bucker Les Pauls by the likes of Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Robby Krieger, Peter Green, Muddy Waters and many more. Individual fingers, use of tone pots, amps all played their part in the stars' own sonic brew.

Humbuckers Now!

Changing your guitar's pickups is one of guitar nerds' favorite mods for new sounds. You may want two (or three, on some Les Paul Customs) the same. You can mix and match at will. You can go for one humbucker and one P-90. It's up to your ears, people!

'57 Classic

The closest you'll get to an original PAF. Made to the exact same specs as the original PAFs, including Alnico II magnets, nickel-plated pole pieces, nickel slugs, maple spacers, and vintage-style, two-conductor braided wiring. The pickups are also wax potted to remove all internal air space and any chance of microphonic feedback. Black, Zebra (black/white), Gold and Nickel-colored options. There's also the option of a 4-conductor wiring scheme allows the 490s to be connected to any push/pull knob, which lets players split the coils and increase versatility.

Modern Classic: 490T and 490R

First launched in the 1960s, in 490T (treble) and 490R (rhythm) stylings. The 490R is a humbucker with the tonal characteristics of an original PAF, with a slight increase in upper mid-range response. The 490T bridge pickup is calibrated to match the 490R, with pole pieces aligned a little further apart to accommodate the spacing of the strings at the bridge, which is different than the spacing of the strings at the neck.

Again, a 4-conductor wiring scheme allows the 490s to be connected to any push/pull knob, which lets players split the coils and increase versatility. Also adds Chrome as a finish.

Dirty Fingers

The '70s 'bucker sound. Powerful ceramic magnets and “overwound” coils mean these are loud 'n' proud with maximum output. 4-Conductor wiring and also available in Quick Connect™ versions if your guitar has that spec. A favorite of high-def shredders and dropped-tuning riffers.

Gibson quick connect

496s

496R Hot Ceramic and 496T Hot Alnico (higher output) options. If you want a benchmark, think 1970s Jimmy Page. Roarin', with sizzlin' sustain.

Burstbuckers

Time travel back to the '50s and '60s. Numbers of windings vary – as one some early PAFs -

and with vintage-style Alnico II magnets and no wax potting on their coils, the subtlety comes in the windings. The Burstbucker 1 is underwound, the Burstbucker 2 is closer to a '57 Classic, while the overwound Burstbucker 3 is the big dawg. Burstbuckers can give you either both historic tone or plenty of modern sizzle. Mix and match to your taste.

Gibson Burstbucker

Then there's the Burstbucker Pros, with a newer generation magnet, the Alnico V, offering pure/creamy/nasty tones in vintage-alike form. Sold in calibrated pairs for the neck and bridge positions and wax potted for no-feedback high volume.

500T Super Ceramic

Hot, hot, hot! With growling lows and screaming highs, these offer plenty of sustain but not a hint of muddiness.

Mini Humbuckers

For Les Paul Deluxes, Firebirds and others these were actually innovated by Gibson sister company Epiphone. Despite the smaller P-90 size, they still pack a punch: just a cursory listen to '70s Pete Townshend, Thin Lizzy's Scott Gorham or the late Johnny Winter will tell you that.

Add Angus Young and Tony Iommi Signature models, and there's a 'bucker for every muthaplucker.

Remember, these are the replacement models you can buy separately. Stock factory 'bucker-equipped Gibsons come with their own luthier-matched models, but whatever humbucking Gibson you buy, think of of your p'ups as important as shape, color, finish, neck profile, weight relief et al. And after all, if you fancy a change, you can get it done.