Five New PAF Clones Tested and Reviewed | VIDEO

No sooner do you undert ake a roundup of likeminded pickups than another batch of worthy contenders comes knocking on your door.
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No sooner do you undert ake a roundup of likeminded pickups than another batch of worthy contenders comes knocking on your door.
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NO SOONER DO YOU UNDERTAKE a roundup of like-minded pickups than another batch of worthy contenders comes knocking on your door. The test subjects here are all either new issues or highly respected small-shop pickups that came to light after GP’s PAF Roundup in the May 2014 issue—pickups with reputations and/or specs that demanded a swift revisit of the format. The term “PAF” is slapped around widely, and frequently rather inaccurately. Short for Patent Applied For—the phrase on the decal that Gibson put on the bottoms of its original humbuckers made from 1957 to early ’62—the label is often applied to any full-size, roughly vintage-spec humbucker. Strictly speaking, however, PAF should probably be reserved for products seeking dead-nuts-accurate reproduction of original PAF specs, materials, sound, appearance, or all of the above. But especially, perhaps, that sound, which has brought grown men to tears: rich yet clear, compressed yet biting, three-dimensional and loaded with harmonics, yet punchy and thumping both clean and overdriven. It’s a difficult tone to describe, yet utterly magical when you experience the real thing.

With all this in mind, the title of this roundup itself might not be entirely representative, but it’s the best we can do—and hell, it got you this far, right? Each of the sets included here represents a pickup maker’s efforts to achieve one or another element of that elusive vintage-PAF mojo. A couple of the builders admit they have bent the formula to achieve slightly modified ends. Another, while doing everything humanly possible to enact the second coming of the storied Gibson humbucker circa 1959, tells us that some materials simply aren’t available today. Some aim for fully aged, fool-the-collector looks, others for an entirely accurate tone in a new package. In short, all are different, but all worship in one way or another at the Temple of the PAF.

With that in mind, this test of pickup sets from Amalfitano, DiMarzio, Ron Ellis, Stephens Design, and Wizz is not a “shootout” per se, but a roundup in the truest sense of the word. No two sets here start out seeking to do exactly the same thing in every detail and nuance—although all do aim to capture some facet of the PAF mystique. It’s worth remembering throughout, too, that original PAFs can vary widely—both in basic specs and in sound—so players and makers alike will often have different concepts of the ideal PAF tone.

All of the featured makers give their own DC resistance readings for their individual models in their product literature. Such readings can vary from meter to meter, however, so those listed here were taken with my own digital multi-meter and may therefore show slight variations from the specs listed on the manufacturer’s own pages. To provide some set reference points, all the pickups were tested hot on the heels of two of Gibson’s best-ever repro PAFs: a Memphis Historic Spec set from the Memphis Division, and a Custom Bucker set from the Custom Division (each of which might be the best vintage-spec humbuckers Gibson has produced since the mid ’60s), as well as with a constant mental reference to great original PAFs that I have played and owned in the past. A 2013 Gibson Custom Shop 1959 Les Paul Reissue (aka R9) was used for all testing, played through Dr. Z Remedy and Komet Aero 33 heads, through a selection of cabs with Celestion and Scumback speakers.

AMALFITANO BARRYBUCKERS

Based in Keller, Texas, Jerry Amalfitano has earned a reputation for crafting a diverse range of consistently good-sounding pickups that he sells at prices well below those demanded by many small shops in the upper tier of the industry. His low-wind PAF set has earned raves from many players, who often pair a PAF neck with a fatter Fullbucker in the bridge. The Barrybuckers on review, however, seek to kick it all up a notch in a somewhat higher-wind set for the high-gain lead player, while still retaining vintage-inspired tone and remaining within the upper end of original PAF specs. Named for the client who first commissioned them, Barrybuckers are now in custom Echo Park guitars played by both Joe Perry and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, and Amalfitano tells us that Paul Crook, presently with Meat Loaf, has at least 15 sets of Barrybuckers fitted into various guitars that he uses on stage.

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They are made with short, unpolished Alnico V magnets to enhance the goals of plentiful sustain and good punching power. The bridge is wound to a reading of 8.6kΩ while the neck reads 7.86kΩ. Workmanship is neat and entirely professional, and the test units came supplied with chrome covers and traditional single-core leads with braided shield, although other covers and four-conductor leads are available (along with all traditional combinations of bobbin colors).

In use, the Barrybucker in the neck position proved extremely succulent for edge-of-breakup clean playing, and was thick and rich, yet very clear, with a defined attack and great dynamics. The bridge pickup had more of a nasal honk, and while also good for clean tones, it really excelled at cranked-up lead playing for the higher-gain side of classic rock, and even some heavier styles beyond that. Both pickups exhibited great cutting power with the amp cranked up for natural tube overdrive, and proved themselves entirely successful in achieving Amalfitano’s goals of a hardrocking pickup with vintage-PAF underpinnings.

BARRYBUCKERS

CONTACT amalfitanopickups.com

PRICE $350 per pair, including covers

MAGNETBoth Alnico V

DC RESISTANCE 7.86kΩ neck, 8.6kΩ bridge

COVERS Chrome supplied (gold, nickel, and aged-nickel available)

LEAD WIRE Traditional braided shield/one-conductor supplied, four-conductor available

BOBBINS Black, cream or zebra available

KUDOSGreat PAF-flavored rock tones in particular, at a good price for this market.

CONCERNS None.

[BREAK] DIMARZIO PAF MASTER DP260 AND DP261

A new humbucker from one of the world’s most successful replacement-pickup manufacturers, the PAF Masters represent DiMarzio’s effort to “create a pickup that pays tribute to the original sound, rather than trying to clone it.” As such, the design aims at traditional vintage-PAF depth and dynamics, with a little extra brightness and cutting power, and a distinctly quick attack suitable to today’s speedy pickers. Each of the pickups in this set has a relatively low wind count, with correspondingly low resistance readings (7.34kΩ DP260 neck, 7.47kΩ DP261 bridge), but I found they still had some grunt in them when you hit the strings hard. An Alnico V magnet (that uses DiMarzio’s patented “Air-Gap” to reduce magnetic field strength to the same level as Alnico II or III magnets) in the neck aims to keep that potentially muddy position clear and bright, while, in the bridge position Alnico IV’s “high iron content”—DiMarzio relates—contributes more body and punch to that pickup. DiMarzio sent the neck pickup with a nicely aged nickel cover, but left the double-cream bridge unit uncovered, the way they prefer it.

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I found the PAF Master DP261 was great when I wanted some real snarl from the bridge position while retaining plenty of high-end to slice through the mix, the way a good single-coil might. Both were surprisingly saturated sounding for low-wind pickups—which is to say, they weren’t entirely clean and clear at edge-of-breakup settings, but without the full-on mid-assault of high-output humbuckers. The neck sounded plumby and vocal, with a real vowel-like warmth to it, along with decent clarity, if not the harmonic depth and shimmer of some high-end neck options. The bridge pickup had great bite to it when played clean, with maybe just a touch of high-end ear assault when hit hard. These pickups definitely excelled at the fast response that DiMarzio was seeking from the design, which translated to an eviscerating lead tone, with individual strings still ringing clearly within chords. Both pickups had kind of a snarky attack to them, and maybe just a little bit of hyped “sonic-enhancer” texture to the overall tone. While delivering, at least to my ears, less of the elusive compressed-yet-forward front edge heard in a genuine PAF, the DiMarzios dished out a lot of PAF-like characteristics nonetheless.

LRPS PAF MASTER DP260 & DP261

CONTACTDiMarzio.com

PRICE $208 per pair street

MAGNETAlnico V neck, Alnico IV bridge

DC RESISTANCE7.34kΩ neck, 7.47kΩ bridge

COVERS Aged nickel cover on neck, no cover on bridge

LEAD WIRE Traditional braided shield/one-conductor supplied, four-conductor available

BOBBINSDoublecream

KUDOS A fast attack and a cutting edge in pickups that still rock out, but retain good clarity.

CONCERNS Perhaps just the slightest bit of fatiguing treble at some settings.

[BREAK] RON ELLIS LRP SET

Ron Ellis, an engineer at General Atomics in San Diego by day, has achieved high acclaim for several years now for the Fender S- and T-style single-coil pickups he was winding in his spare time. In the course of moving this manufacturing venture toward a full-time gig, he also got more and more into unlocking the nuances of great vintage PAF humbuckers, and recently collaborated with Lee Roy Parnell to develop the pickups for that artist’s signature ’57 Goldtop from the Gibson Custom Shop. Having access to his day job’s highly tuned spectrometers for testing vintage pickup materials from the ’50s and ’60s (and discovering, as a result, how different much of this was from supplies used by the same makers today) also provided a boost to the venture. The results—carefully modeled after Parnell’s desire to capture the bright, articulate, three-dimensional, yet full-throated tones of the PAFs in Duane Allman’s original goldtop and sunburst Les Pauls (which Parnell has frequently played)—are now available separately, direct from Ellis, as the LRP Set. The LRP bridge pickup uses an Alnico III magnet and coils wound to somewhere around the middle of the vintage range at 7.75kΩ. The neck pickup is made with a slightly softer, rounder-toned Alnico II magnet, and significantly lower winds to keep it clear and articulate (Ellis specs 7.2kΩ for this unit, although the test sample read at 6.77kΩ—pretty low indeed, but don’t let that fool you). Ellis’s set arrived with gently-aged nickel covers, but other options are available, as well as other PAF-style humbuckers wound to a variety of tastes and strengths.

As per the Ellis/Parnell objective, I found the LRP set extremely detailed and delectably bright without any hint of harshness. Both pickups exhibited lots of harmonic swirl in the upper end, but without the hyped fidelity you sometimes get in bright modern humbuckers, and with plenty of juicy, rich PAF characteristics there to back it all up. With my Komet amp set just to the edge of breakup, the LRP in the bridge position helped the R9 pull off convincing trad-country licks, with a tone much like that of a great Tele pickup in its thick snap and harmonic complexity, but with the girth and depth you’d expect from a great vintage humbucker. With some overdrive dialed in, though, it easily jumped into stinging rock’n’roll and gnarly roots blues—whatever I demanded, really, and was superbly dynamic in the process. The neck pickup was a pure delight in its shimmer and clarity, whether cranked or clean, and still had all the depth and warmth I wanted for moodier blues or smoky jazz runs, with the power to get things singing for electrifying blues riffs. In short, really tasty stuff, and worthy of an Editors’ Pick Award for their convincing achievements at the lower-wind end of the PAF spectrum.

LRPS

CONTACT facebook.com/ronellispickups

PRICE $600 per pair, including covers

MAGNET Alnico II neck, Alnico III bridge

DC RESISTANCE 6.77kΩ neck, 7.75kΩ bridge

COVERS Aged nickel

LEAD WIRE traditional braided shield/one-conductor

BOBBINS Black, cream or zebra available

KUDOSGreat for swirly, 3-D harmonics and full-bodied PAF tones with excellent clarity.

CONCERNS None, if you’re prepared to pay the price.

[BREAK] STEPHENS DESIGN PG HD/59 HD SET

With this Stephens Design repro-PAF set we have now arrived at the “make ’em as much like the originals” as is humanly possible today. Following an obsession with the sonic splendors of classic rock and blues-rock in general and the “Beano” tone in particular, Seattle’s Dave Stephens spent 14 years researching winding patterns, metallurgical analysis of the metal components, and other deep-dive explorations of several sets of genuine PAF pickups. As a result, he now machines and plates all the steel among the 14 parts in the magnetic circuit to produce the closest equivalent response that the vintage PAF delivers. In addition, Stephens built his own automated winders (noting that Gibsons PAFs were machine wound, not hand wound) to accurately replicate actual coil-wind patterns, and attains the closest thing to vintage-spec wire that’s available. Ultimately, 80 percent of all parts are made in house, and the rest sourced from as close to vintage-correct materials as can be found. The set under review includes his PG HD neck pickup (8.08kΩ, short Alnico V magnet), which is a replication of the neck PAF in Peter Green’s Les Paul, and a hotter 59 HD bridge pickup (8.92kΩ, short Alnico II magnet), spec’d to attain the hotter lead tones of the rock gods of the ’60s. For all that they’re pricey, no surprise, at $785 for the pair, including aged nickel covers and aged polepieces (NOS looks available). In the hand, the Stephens Design set reveals neat workmanship and an authentic vintage feel, a thorough reproduction that’s only given away by the etched signature on the pickups’ bases.

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Through either of the test amps, set clean, mean, or somewhere in between, the Stephens set—in all three positions—cut straight to the heart of what I find so delightful, and so unforgettable, about genuine PAF pickups. Fans of these tones are constantly struggling for words to describe them, but they are sure unmistakable when you hear and feel them. Taking a stab at it, I’ll call them rich, lush, and velvety in their depths, yet with plenty of that bite and edge and very slightly metallic thunk at the front of each note that keeps everything clear and distinct. The neck position was warm and chocolatey through a clean amp, and not at all woofy like you’d expect a higher-wound neck pickup to be. And, for a more heavily wound bridge PAF, the 59 HD was clear and bright, yet mega thick and meaty, with boatloads of harmonic texture and a silvery top end that tended almost toward twang in a clean amp, while lending real sting to overdrive tones. I could go on, but let’s just say these are Editors’ Pick Award material for the way they deliver to the player wanting to go allout for real deal ’59 tone, and leave it at that.

59 HD/PG HD SET

CONTACTsdpickups.com

PRICE $785 per pair, including covers

MAGNET Alnico V PG neck, Alnico II 59 bridge

DC RESISTANCE 8.03kΩ neck, 8.92kΩ bridge

COVERS Aged nickel

LEAD WIRE Traditional braided shield/one-conductor

BOBBINS black, cream or zebra available

KUDOS Big, juicy, addictively authentic PAF tone both clean and overdriven, with impressive articulation for higherwound vintage pickups.

CONCERNS None, if you’re willing to pay the price.

[BREAK] WIZZ PREMIUM CLONE SET

Unboxing this Wizz Premium Clone set crafted by Aleksandar Vrhovec in Croatia provided perhaps the best “look what I found in the attic!” experience of this bunch. Given their carefully aged nickel covers and polepieces, Wizz’s own aged mounting rings (included), and an accurate Patent Applied For decal on the bottom—in addition to a very authentic look to the pickups as a whole—these make a great option for the completist seeking circa-’59 looks as well as tone. The inclusion of a reprint of Gibson’s original literature on correct adjustment of PAF humbuckers only enhanced the fantasy. Vrhovec makes his own base plates, slugs, and many other parts out of metals that he has deemed to be correctly formulated to match vintage specs, while also molding bobbins and cutting keeper bars to match both materials and markings of those in and on original PAFs. In short, he goes all out.

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Fired up in the Les Paul, the Wizz set exhibited great bite and some juicy PAF-like depths in both positions. The bridge pickup offered a dose of that slightly nasal honk heard in some vintage humbuckers, and which can really help your leads cut through overdriven tones in particular. A slightly raw, jagged edge made this a fun pickup for gnarly rock riffs, while it cleaned up well, too, if showing a little more low-end softness and a little less boing on clean low-string runs than some other high-end units. The neck pickup impressed me with its round, creamy character which, even in an overdriven amp, retained good definition in the attack of the note, resisting a muddy wash in full chords. Overall, I found these to be a very good middle-spec repro set sonically, and rendered with impressive workmanship. Well done!

PREMIUM CLONES

CONTACTwizz-pickups.com

PRICE$425 per pair, including covers and aged rings

MAGNET Both Alnico IV

DC RESISTANCE 7.79kΩ neck, 8.49kΩ bridge

COVERS Aged nickel

LEAD WIRE Traditional braided shield/one-conductor

BOBBINS Black, cream or zebra available

KUDOS Great middle-reading PAFlike tones with a slightly raw edge that excels at rock.

CONCERNS None.

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