Gibson’s main humbuckers, you should know well – just from their physical size alone. The numerous different “voicings” – from PAF-alike vintage-style alnico-magnet BurstBuckers to hot-sounding ceramic-magnet Dirty Fingers options – give plenty of tonal scope whatever your chosen style.
But what about smaller humbuckers, widely known by the catch-all term “mini-humbuckers”? Is the difference just a question of size?
Outside of regular-sized buckers, Gibson have made two other standout designs. The mini-humbucker and the Firebird humbucker. And, yes, they are different to some people. Annoying, huh?
These pickup designs are both smaller: 2-5/8" x 1-1/8" in size. Crucially, the narrower width of these pickups (1-1/8" compared to 1-1/2") sense a shorter length of string vibration, containing only the higher harmonics generated by the string. You will get a slightly brighter and somewhat more “focused” sound.
The tone of mini-humbuckers is also colored by what’s in their core – the size of the core and material affects the inductance of pickups, which has an effect on the output and frequency response. That’s right, your tone.
As a general rule, higher inductance means more output and more bass.
A smaller pickup senses a more focused area of your strings. And with a smaller amount of iron content in their core also, they result in a little less output and a slightly brighter, clearer sound.
“True” mini-humbuckers vs Firebird humbuckers
A mini-humbucker is made like a miniature PAF pickup. It has one bar magnet positioned under each coil, with adjustable polepieces made out of a ferrous alloy; the other coil contains a ferrous metal bar that is not adjustable. This corresponds to a Gibson PAF with adjustable poles in one coil and a series of metal slugs in the other coil.
A Firebird pickup traditionally has a bar magnet in each coil. Each coil is wound around a bar magnet, one coil is south up and the other is north up. Also the magnetic field shape and size are slightly different between the mini-humbucker and the Firebird mini humbucker.
Even so, what you hear is gong to be very much individual to your own ears. But again, generally:
A mini-humbucker has a smoother attack with more sustain.
Traditional Firebird mini humbucker pickups have a tighter, spankier tone. Tone tends to stay more defined even when you crank up your amp.
As always, the guitars’ construction and your own style/amps/attack are all part of the picture also!
Player Sounds and Opinions: Les Paul Deluxes with Mini-Humbuckers
The mini-humbucker was most famously featured on Gibson Les Paul Deluxes (from 1969, and throughout the ‘70s). Noted Deluxe players included Pete Townshend of the Who and Thin Lizzy's Scott Gorham (who prefers the Les Paul Axcess these days). So why did Gorham use that particular model Les Paul?
"We were broke!” Gorham tells Gibson.com. “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 Who’s 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 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...”
Indeed he did! For a quick guide to the different tones of a standard humbucker and a mini, listen to Thin Lizzy’s classic Live & Dangerous and Still Dangerous live albums. Scott Gorham’s tone (Les Paul Deluxe, mini-humbuckers) is distinctly different from Brian Robertson’s (Les Paul Standard, full-sized PAF-style humbuckers), even allowing for their unique styles.
Townshend’s tone in 1970s The Who is harder to isolate with regard to the mini-humbuckers on his Deluxes: he retro-fitted a DiMarzio full-sized ‘bucker in the middle of many of his Deluxes. See the Gibson Artist Series Pete Townshend Deluxe.
Player Sounds and Opinions: Gibson Firebirds with “Mini-Humbuckers”
Johnny Winter was one of the most renowned players of Gibson Firebirds. He still is, despite his passing. He explained, “I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked, and when I played it I discovered I liked the way it sounded, too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. It feels like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons. I was never a big fan of humbucking pickups, but the mini-humbuckers on the Firebird have a little more bite and treble.”
Listen to Winter’s classic Captured Live! album for his stinging Firebird slide tone. The traditional Firebird body construction, with raised center-block, also plays a part no doubt. Some of Johnny Winter’s famed Firebirds were recently auctioned for more than $400,000.
The razor lead lines of Phil Manzanera with Roxy Music were often on his mini-humbucker’d red Firebird VII, too, which he calls “Roxy Lady”! “It records beautifully,” Manzanera says. “They [Firebird mini humbuckers] give a very controlled type of distortion which sits very well in the recording medium. It’s a distortion which finds a space without spilling over into other areas and instruments.”
And for 1968-1699, for Cream’s Farewell days and with Blind Faith, Eric Clapton played a single mini-bucker Firebird I. “That particular Firebird, I had some great times on that; the single pickup produced a fantastic sound,” EC recalled. Clapton search for an even spikier tone led him onto single-coils for much of the ‘70s.
Gibson Firebirds 2017
The new 2017 Gibson Firebirds have updated firebird mini-humbuckers with dual ceramic magnets in both T and HP spec. They are slightly different, again, to 1960s vintage ones... but progress and refinement means you’d expect that, right?
Note that the Firebird Studio has full-sized PAF-style humbuckers. The Firebird Studio doesn’t have a raised center either. The Vintage Copper Firebird Limited (non reverse) has 57 Classics, full-sized PAFs.
As for Les Pauls... The Robbie Krieger 1954 Les Paul Custom has a Seymour Duncan mini at neck, just like The Doors man’s modded favorite. The last Deluxes with minis were made in Gibson in 2015 – highly acclaimed, you may still find a 2015 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe in some stores. Get at ‘em if you see ‘em!
So, whether you luckily have a 1970s/2015 Les Paul Deluxe or an original Firebird, or hanker after a 2017 Firebird... there’s plenty to discover in the tones of those “minis”. Full-size ‘buckers sure got the beef... but small is sweet and beautiful, too!