Joe Bonamassa is very particular about what he wants in his gear. He has an incredible collection of vintage and new instruments and he knows a lot about everything he owns. He can talk tone for days, and he knows the language to communicate his ideas and sonic needs from a technical perspective as well as from a guitar player’s perspective. And when it comes to PAF-style humbuckers, he’s looking for two things: he wants enough output to generate some decent overdrive in the amp’s preamp tubes, and also enough clarity give each note the detail he demands. But he doesn’t like an overly bright high end: he prefers a sound with a slightly rounded edge to the treble, and this is why he likes to use non-true bypass pedals instead of using a buffered signal. What he likes about the early ’59 PAFs in particular is that they have a good combination of output and clarity, and they’re not too bright but not too dark either.
The Joe Bonamassa Custom Shop pickup set came about because Joe found that he was drawn to a particular set of PAFs in his 1959 sunburst Les Paul, and he caught himself wishing he could have a clone of these exact humbuckers on more of his working guitars. Keep in mind that this is a guy who knows this particular guitar so well that he goes so far as buying an extra plane ticket to make sure it doesn’t leave his sight when he’s travelling. You don’t rack up all those air miles and all that stage time with an instrument without learning a thing or two about it. So the idea was to create a pickup that would make some of his reissue Les Pauls sound consistent with his ’59 sunburst, as well as with each other.
You can’t just decide to make a PAF-style pickup and then just make it. You have to figure out which specific PAF sound you’re after first. There was a lot of variation between individual PAFs, because everything was done by hand. Some if them sound very bright, some are quite dark, and some have more output than others because the specs weren’t set in stone back then. I once asked Seth Lover about how he figured out how many turns of wire to use on the original Gibson humbuckers he designed. He said they used #42 plain enamel magnet wire, and they put on as many turns as was needed to fill the space available, then they stopped! It was as simple as that. They weren’t counting specific numbers of turns at all, and that’s a big part of the reason why there’s so much variation between those old PAFs.
Like all our other ‘vintage’ pickups, such as the Seth Lover, the Pearly Gates and the ’59 model, we wind these on the Leesona machine that Gibson used to make humbuckers in the 50s and 60s. We use butyrate bobbins, lightly antiqued nickel covers and a wooden spacer just like the originals. But we control the process a lot more closely than Gibson was able to back in the 50s, from testing every spool of our wire, to closely controlling the way the wire is wound onto the bobbins. This allowed us to match the sound of Joe’s favorite PAFs in the research and development phase, and then to reproduce this design exactly in the Custom Shop.
Between our Custom Shop manager MJ and I we’ve taken apart literally thousands of PAFs for rewinds, and we’ve always noted down the variables such as what kinds of magnets they have, what kinds of winds they use and what type of wire they use. So when we need to recreate something we can go back to the library of specs we’ve gathered over the years to zero in on the specific combination of factors that will get a specific response. And this goes for other pickup types too, not just PAFs.
We made four different sets of prototype pickups for Joe based on the PAFs in that ’59 sunburst of his, and he installed them in a test Les Paul which he’d selected as the closest match to the neck shape, weight and natural tone of his actual ’59. Joe played each set through a Marshall Bluesbreaker combo with a range of different tones, from clean to dirty to dirtier. What Joe found was that he preferred one pickup from one set and one from another, so he took those two, put them in the test guitar to see if they got along with each other, and that was that. He actually played that guitar with those prototype pickups on stage through his live rig that night, alongside the ’59. The final formula involved using an Alnico 2 magnet for the neck pickup and a stronger Alnico 3 for the bridge one, along with vastly different winds between the two. Joe says these pickups give him 99.9% of what his six-decade-plus pickups give him, right down to the texture of the feedback.
Because these pickups are a tribute to the ones in his ’59, Joe was also really particular about getting an accurate recreation of the way they’d aged as well as the way they sounded. As a player and collector who’s had his hands on a lot of original PAFs over the years, he had some really definite ideas about just how scuffed up and aged this signature pickups should be. Some of those old PAFs aren’t actually as weathered-looking as you might expect, or as roughed-up as some reproductions might imply.
After talking it over for a while, we got the idea to offer only 1,959 sets of these pickups, in tribute to the birth year of the guitar that inspired them. We also had some fun with the sticker on the back of the pickups. Instead of saying ‘Patent Applied For’ like the old PAFs, Joe’s pickups have a sticker in the same typeface and dimensions but it says ‘Bonamassa.’ Joe and I each hand-sign every pickup, and each set includes a USB flash drive with video interviews, special features, and more.
The response to these pickups has been outstanding. We’ve heard – and I know Joe has heard this too – that there are even folks out there buying them without actually owning the guitar they’re planning to put them in yet. Joe has even had people tell him they aren’t fans of his music but they still love his pickups. I think part of the reason people are responding so well to this set is because whether you’re into Joe’s music or not, nobody can deny his ear for tone, or the thousands upon thousands of hours he’s racked up on some of the finest vintage guitars in the world. So when someone with that frame of reference gives his stamp of approval to something, that means a lot to me. And that’s one of the most rewarding things about what the Custom Shop does: being able to provide players of all levels with the exact sound they’ve been chasing.