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Gibson Pickups, Part 2: Modified Humbuckers

Dave Hunter
|
03.24.2008

Gibson’s “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickup of 1957-’62 is a much-loved tonal icon, and is still the template for some of the most popular reproduction-style pickups that the company makes. But plenty of players want a little something different from their humbuckers, so the company has tweaked, modified, and hotrodded the formula in a wide range of directions to prove that there is life beyond the PAF.

While original PAFs are noted for their warmth, depth, and clarity, they aren’t especially “hot” pickups by today’s standards, and the same applies to Gibson’s excellent PAF reissues: the ’57 Classics, Burstbuckers, and Burstbucker Pros. Certain playing styles demand more output, in order to drive an amp into breakup more easily, to maximize the potential of fuzz and distortion effects, or to generate maximum sustain and harmonic feedback. The range of requirements, however, goes far beyond any simple dichotomy of “vintage” and “hot” output levels, so Gibson offers a comprehensive line of humbuckers that caters for numerous stops along the way. All of these pickups also feature four-conductor wiring when purchased as replacement pickups, so they can be used in modified switching systems to achieve series, parallel, and split-coil sounds.

490R

Modern Classics

Comprising the 490R, 490T, and 498T “Hot Alnico,” this set takes its cue from the ’57 Classic, but rolls the output and midrange grind upward a few notches to create a pickup more suited to modern music styles. The 490R uses Alnico II magnets and features pole-piece spacing suitable to the string spread at the neck position, while also being calibrated for balanced volume when matched with a slightly hotter 490T in the bridge position (a pickup also made with Alnico II magnets). Hotter still, the 498T “Hot Alnico” uses a punchier Alnico V magnet and modified coil windings to provide even more oomph in the bridge position for rock lead work.

The Modern Classics still offer plenty of richness and clarity, and can dial in great clean tones when required, but will also push amps and effects a little harder than Gibson’s more accurate PAF reproductions, which is exactly what you need in some circumstances. As replacement pickups, all three come with four-conductor wiring for series/parallel/split-coil switching, although factory installed units have two-conductor wiring as standard. All are available in chrome, gold, or nickel covers, or as open coils.

Angus Young Signature Video

Angus Young Signature

Somewhat akin to the 498T “Hot Alnico,” Gibson’s new Angus Young Signature humbucker—a pickup calibrated for the bridge position in particular—achieves a “hot-PAF” tone with the help of an Alnico V magnet. Add to that its well balanced, slightly overwound coils, and double wax potting and you’ve got a lead pickup capable of searing lead tones with good clarity and no troublesome microphonic feedback whatsoever, even in ultra-high-volume situations. Available with nickel cover only, with four-conductor wiring as a replacement unit, and two-conductor when installed at the factory.

Tommy Iommi Signature pickup

Tony Iommi Signature 

Tailored to the requirements of legendary Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, credited as being the founding father of heavy metal guitar, this is Gibson’s first ever Signature pickup, and the third hottest pickup in the Gibson lineup. Using overwound coils and a patented custom magnet configuration, the Tony Iommi Signature pickup is double-potted with wax and epoxy resin to squelch any possible feedback-inducing vibration when used at the mammoth volumes that Iommi’s playing requires. It is also designed to yield both hot, screaming, menacing lead and rhythm tones at full output, with aggressive mids and razor-sharp highs, yet clear, clean tones when the guitar’s volume is wound down. The pickup comes with four-conductor wiring when bought as a replacement part, and is available in chrome, black chrome, or gold-plated cover, all entirely enclosed with no pole pieces visible.

Ceramics

Ceramics

From the early 1970s or so, some pickup makers employed ceramic magnets—which are more powerful than Alnico magnets—to get more drive and clarity out of their designs. Increasing a pickup’s gain by overwinding the coil, in order to squeeze more power from an Alnico magnet, can result in muddy, “squashed” tones when taken to extremes. Put a ceramic magnet in a coil with the same number of winds that yields a weak tone with an Alnico magnet, however, and you instantly got a hotter unit, but—when built right—one that retains a lot of clarity and definition, along with excellent dynamics.

The 496R is intended for use in the neck position, where it offers unparalleled creamy sustain that nevertheless retains excellent cutting power. Its partner, the 500T, is one of Gibson’s two hottest pickups, intended for ultimate wailing lead tones, sustain, and searing cutting power in the bridge position. Both are available in open-coil configuration with double black or black/cream (zebra) coils, and with four-conductor wiring when purchased as a replacement pickup.

Dirty Fingers

Dirty Fingers

The other of Gibson’s two hottest pickups, the Dirty Fingers, was a popular hard-rockin’ upgrade back in the ’80s. It returned to the fold initially as the choice of Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge for his Signature model guitar. Noted for its huge, bold sound and incredible power, this ceramic-magnet pickup nevertheless offers surprising clarity for a design of its type, and provides a fast track to big-rock distortion tones for wailing leads and crunching, thumping rhythm work. Unlike most Gibson humbuckers, the Dirty Fingers features adjustable steel pole pieces on both coils, rather than just on one, and is available as open coils, in black, with four-conductor wiring.

Tune in to Part 3 for a look at Gibson’s Mini-Humbucker, P-90 and P-94 pickups, and check out this handy Pickup Guide for further information and comparison charts that provide a visual guide to the differences between units.


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