Humbucker History: The SH-55 Seth Lover Model
The humbucker as we know it traces its history back to a design by Seth Lover, who invented it while working for Gibson in 1955. His Patent Applied For (P.A.F.) design has served as the launching pad for innumerable pickups in the nearly six decades since, and these days original examples of those early humbuckers change hands for some pretty impressive figures. But there’s an easier way to tap into that historical tonal mojo, and it’s currently catching the light as I type this and drawing my eye to my Gibson Les Paul: the Seymour Duncan SH-55 Seth Lover humbucker.
Seymour W. Duncan considered Lover his humbucker mentor (for more on this history, check out this 1978 interview, where Seymour and Seth go into extraordinary detail about the history of the humbucker), and in 1994 they collaborated on the release of the Seth Lover Model, an authentic recreation of the P.A.F. It has the same nickel silver cover and long-legged nickel silver bottom plate, butyrate plastic bobbins, plain enamel wire, Alnico 2 bar magnet, maple spacer, and black paper tape. And just like the originals, it’s not wax-potted, so it has a slightly more lively tone compared to potted pickups. It comes standard with vintage-style single conductor cable, but is also available with four-conductor cable for coil splitting, phase flipping or series/parallel options. My Les Paul has a four-conductor set, so I look forward to replacing the pots with push-pulls and installing Jimmy Page wiring at some point.
I installed the SH-55 in place of my Les Paul Traditional’s stock pickups, which are similarly P.A.F. inspired but with tighter tolerances and wax potting. This makes them sound a bit more modern than I need from a Les Paul. The SH-55 bridge pickup has a DC resistance of 8.1k and a resonant peak of 5.9 KHz. That puts it within the slightly hotter edge of vintage output. It’s a very open-sounding humbucker, and true to the spirit of the original 50s P.A.F.s, it has similar attack and detail to a single coil, but with no noise, a more rounded treble and thicker midrange. That slight single coil-like attack s something a lot of players tend to be surprised by when they first get their hands on a true vintage-output, unpotted humbucker, but it’s quite addictive. The low end is quite constrained and the treble has a smooth, buttery feel. There’s a lot of treble, but it rolls off right before the fizzy-sounding frequencies kick in. This helps the individual notes of chords to mesh together nicely, and it’s great for articulate solo work. Crunchy rhythm tones have plenty of detail, while clean tones are bright and sunny, rather than twangy and brittle.
The neck SH-55 has a DC resistance of 7.3k and a resonant peak of 7.5KHz. The lowered output and increased treble compared to its bridge counterpart actually helps it to sound more balanced, since neck pickups are sensing a darker-sounding but more powerful section of string. Tonally, the neck model feels quite different to the bridge. It’s fuller, more singing and sustaining, with a hair more pick attack, which is great for really squeezing out those Gary Moore-style notes. It tracks very well for high-speed picking under high gain, and it has a beautiful R&B voice when you use a clean or slightly pushed tone. And it’s gorgeous when blended in with the treble pickup – a sort of Jimmy Page-esque jangle.
The SH-55 isn’t for everyone – its midrange and treble might be a little too warm for certain heavier styles, and its cover and lack of wax potting means you’ll hear a bit more string detail than you might be used to from a humbucker under overdrive conditions – but it’s great for classic rock, jazz, blues, R&B and country. It can even handle certain crunchy hard rock tones with higher gain levels, although it’s slightly susceptible to feedback under high volume conditions, so don’t go pegging it through a 120 watt double stack through a chain of fuzz pedals! Ultimately what it does best is reproduce the best qualities of your guitar with a little personality of its own, in an authentically vintage way and with a dash of history too.
Here’s a song clip using the neck and bridge Seth Lover humbuckers in various contexts: clean, dirty, neck and bridge. You’ll be able to hear the slightly single coil-like detail of the bridge pickup and the fullness of the neck. Enjoy!
Seymour Duncan Seth Lover Sketch by Peter Hodgson