The History Of The Humbucking Pickup

PAF Humbucking pickup image

If you’re around electric guitars at all (and who isn’t), you’ve probably encountered your share of Gibson electrics with a humbucking pickup. But did you ever wonder how the humbucker came about as compared to the much simpler single coil ones that Fender used? There’s more to the story than you might think, but this video from Reverb breaks it down nicely, complete with some great sounds.

One of the reasons why the humbucker was such an important development is that it’s quieter than a single coil. A single coil pickup acts like an antenna and can pick up lots of interference, as we’ve all experienced. Because it’s basically two coils in series, the humbucker not only cancels these out, but also has a beefier tone which many guitarists have preferred over the years.

Although Gibson’s Seth Lover is given credit for developing the humbucker that we know today, the original patent for a similar device was actually granted to A.F. Knoblaugh of Baldwin in 1938. This was intended for use on a piano (I don’t remember ever seeing any electrified Baldwin pianos out there). Believer it or not, Leo Fender was granted a patent for his very own humbucker in 1956, but it was intended for a lap steel and never incorporated into early Fender guitars. And if you’re going to get picky with history, Gretsch’s Filtertron pickup came out in 1954.

To me the most interesting humbuckers are the small ones on the Gibson Deluxe. They’re functionally the same as their larger cousins, but have a brighter sound and lower output because the magnets and coils are smaller. Not a full humbucker, but yet hot a single coil – the best of both worlds.

Of course the 80s brought us the guitar heros and hair metal and everyone wanted more output from their guitars so boutique pickup manufacturers like DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan sprung up. These used larger coils and different magnets (most notably ceramic) for more power, but I think the tone suffered greatly. Today we see fewer of these as everyone would rather go back to the original designs with lower output but better high end.

I’m a sucker for the vintage stuff myself, but I have to say that the latest humbucking pickup models that are based on the older designs are much more consistent and hard to beat.

There’s a lot more info in the video. Enjoy!

[Photo: Raphael Kirchner]

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