As a long time participant on a guitar pickup forum, you see certain questions come around a lot. I decided I was going to write the definitive answer, at least according to me, so I could just reference everyone to it when needed. As much as giving the same answer on an internet forum is easy and runs up your post count for increased intarwebz credibility, at some point your hands get tired of typing. So I finally decided to document my answer to the age old question – in all of its various forms – of which Seymour Duncan Vintage Style PAF is right for me? Mostly I did this for my convenience, but I remember what it was like trying to figure out what pickup combination was the right one for me back in the day.
I have played guitar for over 30 years. When I was a kid I wanted to grow up and be Ace Frehley. I should have worked harder at that because apparently a guy named Tommy Thayer is now Ace Frehley. Who knew the job would come open? Obviously, I have been a long time Les Paul player. I got an Epiphone Classic one time as a back up for a classic rock band. I loved the guitar, but the sound just wasn’t happening. I decided to finally do my first pickup upgrade. I put a set of Seymour Duncan pickups in it. That Epiphone suddenly eclipsed my #1 1979 (with original T-Tops). After that it was all down hill. A $50 a week pickup habit, solder-induced wheeze, and burnt-wire red eye. This was in the days before eBay and you could snag a cheap guitar in a pawnshop for 20% of its actual value. It was easy to have more guitars than pickups to put in them. During that time, I swapped, traded, mixed and matched, the big three Vintage PAF sellers from Seymour Duncan, the 59, the Alnico II Pro, and the Pearly Gates, every which way.
Just to set the record straight, these occurred over a period of a few years, in all sorts of Les Paul style guitars (Gibson, Epiphone, Dean, and “other” copies). They were played/gigged through an assortment of Fender, Peavey, and occasionally Marshall amps, and through a variety of (mostly Boss) effects. The style of music I played was all the major flavors of rock: Classic Rock, Blues Rock, Hard Rock, and just plain old regular generic Rock.
Each of the combinations is listed as Neck / Bridge pairings.
FIrst – the same pickup combos:
59 / 59: The classic “PAF” as it was likely intended to be according to Seymour Duncan. Not that many (or any) Gibson windings were exactly this, since they didn’t do much QA back then. In the bridge you get a great tight bass sound and a cutting high end with a light mid scoop (to my ears, which are naturally mid scooped from years of playing). A great sound for a mid-pushing Les Paul a great all around balanced sound. The neck yields a fat but tight sound in the bass, and the highs still cut through. Great for clean chording. In my opinion, this is simply one of the best “all around” combos you could do. With a good modern amp or a couple of pedals, Jazz, Blues, Country, Metal, Rock…it is all right there. I will comment that in a bassy/muddy/dark Les Paul, the neck may sound boomy or muddy (see below for other options). Obviously the two 59’s are a good match. The middle position, however, doesn’t do much new or interesting IMO. This is a fantastic option for someone with a cheap Epiphone Dot to instantly upgrade it to real Gibson tone level. It’s a really flexible set.
Pearly Gates / Pearly Gates: My favorite PAF combo period of all pickups ever. The Reverend Billy Gibbons agrees. Give that little ‘ole band from Texas a spin, ZZ Top, and you will see what I mean. I think (and this is just me, Billy G, and a lot of others talking) that when people talk about “magic” PAF’s from the late 50’s, this is that sound they imagine. The neck Pearly Gates is the ultimate Les Paul sound ever IMO. This pup should be stock from Gibson in there. It has a little less bass than a 59. Nice in a boomy or muddy LP neck. It has spike in the upper mids that really lets it cut through. It’s nice and bright. And, the A2 magnet adds the signature sweetness on top end, but just the very top. It is by no means sweet and syrupy. More like icing on cake. It is smoother on the highs versus a 59 which is more sharp. Just a fantastic neck pickup. The bridge is just awrnry and gnarly and just has a ‘tude that the 59 doesn’t. It’s not ice picky, but it has a serious bite. It is a bright bridge pup. I actually enjoy playing blues or metal with this pup. People talk about a “fizziness” to this pickup, or “hair” on the sound when played clean. It isn’t a fizziness like distortion. It is more the quality of the fundamental. A Strat, or even an A5 is kind of glassy. This one is more rough. I think it feels kind of organic in it’s imperfection. Others may prefer the 59’s silky perfection (or see that as sterile). This pickup responds really well to volume and tone control. I like to say/think you can turn down a Pearly Gates a little and get a nice 59-ish sort of vibe. You can’t get a 59 into a PG zone. Again, they match perfectly neck to bridge, but neck and bridge together don’t do much for me. Some say the bridge is too bright. I used a PG in my #1 bridge for a while and it is a pretty bright guitar, but I had a stock 300k pots in it also. I have a bridge PG in a Dean Cadillac wound to 8k with 500k pots. Super awesome pickup. Many say the bass is kind of loose. No doubt it is not as tight as a 59, but I wouldn’t call it sloppy either. My favorite pickups for clean all around. They just have more character than a 59. I’d use a 59 for cleans with lots of effects.
Alnico II Pro / Alnico II Pro (AKA the A2P): This is classic A2 magnet territory. Big bass and mids, with super fat highs. A lot of people throw out Slash as a fast example. No doubt these will get you right there. But they do a whole lot more. And even though they use A2 magnets, I find the bass surprisingly solid (not ceramic tight and solid, or even like an A5 magnet). We can also argue if these are really “Vintage” or “Classic” or “PAF ” style. No doubt they are NOT a copy of old Gibson PAF’s. Still, I think of them as an old, soft, bluesy PAF pickup. The neck is just big and fat and singing. (Sorry, but Sweet Child Of Mine is the obvious example.) This is definitely NOT the pickup for a dark/muddy guitar. It is a great choice for jazz however, and any kind of fat blues. The bridge is a great pickup for really evening out a bright guitar. The bass will soften and warm a strangled tight bright , the mids will really crunch, and the top will tame a harsh high end. You will either get a really nice very sweet and balanced sound out of this, or a nice rhythm with a fat singing lead sound that still cuts. These are probably my favorite bridge rhythm sounds overall for distortion. Great for Allman’s slide work using the bridge. As always, a perfect match for bridge and neck tones, and the middle position to me was always a little too fat. I probably spent the least time with this combo of all of them. Just not my thing. Clearly Slash’s thing, and a lot of others. Definitely use 500k pots all around here or they may sound dull and muffled. A great set to tame an overly bright Les Paul, or for a little more modern take on the PAF sound without going super-progress and still being able to get a rootsy rock sound.
Now, while those three combos are fantastic sounds, you can really get great sounds when mixing it up! With the previous matched pairs, you get the same fundamental tone, with neck, middle, and bridge sound variations. With the following, you can really stretch the tones and get some unique tone issues addressed, or a wide range of usable sounds.
59 / Pearly Gates: This is kind of a cool combo if what you want is a “lead” pickup in the bridge and a “rhythm” pickup in the neck. Definitely better for a non-muddy Les Paul. Maybe a touch harsh in a very bright one (although I wouldn’t think so). If doing this, perhaps consider keeping the 300k’s for pots at least in the bridge, or if it is an overly bright bridge. This wasn’t a real favorite combo of mine, but that’s because I was never into the 59 in the neck position. Just my personal preference. I will mention that the both on position is very cool here. Lot’s of highs, but the Pearly Gates really adds mids to the mix, and the 59 neck add some bass. A very full even sound with both pups on, with lots of highs.
59 / A2P: Again, a combo I really didn’t hang with. Very similar to the PG except that not nearly as bright. In a really dark guitar this might not be good as you’ll get neck mud, and maximum bass in the bridge. That said, in a really bright guitar you may get fantastic rhythm sounds. Obviously the neck plus bridge tones won’t be as bright as a PG in the bridge. This might be good for a bright tight guitar where you do a lot of bridge rhythm with dirt and clean chording in the neck.
Pearly Gates / 59: Now this is a fantastic combo IMO. Particulalr nice in a darker woofier guitar. The PG does it’s magic in the neck. The 59 adds some nice tight bass to the bridge and nice highs for leads in the bridge. The two on combo is fantastic because the bridge adds the sharp and the neck adds the smooth, the Pearly Gates puts a little more mid, and the 59 adds a tight bottom from the bridge. This combo is a great sound for classic Les Paul awesomeness, and really does a Les Paul with a bit of dark mud sound right. I’d do this all day every day over a 59 / 59 combo. But again – that’s just my personal preference.
Pearly Gates / A2P: I refer to this as the ultimate balanced tone. Basically you are putting the darkest pickup in the bridge, and the brightest pickup in the neck. They both have that A2 magnet tone about them as well. The A2 magnets are just fatter, rounder, and smoother than typical A5 magnets. This is the combo if you want distinctive, yet similar tones from each position. Excellent for an overall bright guitar with a boomy neck. With both pickups on, you get a maximum bass and mid spectrum, but without overdoing the bass from the neck. The highs will be sweet, but present. Definitely another guitar to use 500k pots with for sure. This combo has a great range of cool clean sounds when you blend the bridge and neck sounds.
A2P / 59: And odd combo to me, but if you dig an extra fat neck to go with your classic bridge, this is it. I’d use this if I played a lot of neck leads and used the bridge for rhythm. The obvious thing here is when both are on, you add sharp bridge highs with fat neck tones for a very different sound. Round AND cutting – excellent!!! In fact, when I had this in a Les Paul, it pretty much became my ‘leads only guitar’ and I did a lot of neck/both/bridge changes during leads. However…this is also the big bass sound. A muddy/boomy guitar is going to be a monster in both lower register with this combo on. I did not mean that in a good way. Consider it as being extra tight in the bridge, and extra loose in the neck. Together, it’s a nice middle ground. Maybe blues on the neck and metal on the bridge? Possibly a better all lead combo with three solid tonal option at the flick of a switch.. Might try a 500k neck and a 300k bridge pot for more balance on the highs. Wasn’t a favorite of mine, but may work great for you.
A2P / PG: Maximum Range Guitar! The fattest sounds in the neck, the brightest in the bridge. You can add highs from the bridge, bass from the neck and a lower and upper mid boost with both on for a big sound when used together. Again, A2 magnets all around for a certain sweetness. This is for those who really want to go from fat to cutting and gnarly between the bridge and neck. And there is a certain looseness (or lack of super-tightness). I like this sound better than the PG / A2P combo, but again, that’s going to depend on the specific guitar and your tastes. I actually have something similar to this in my #1 – except it’s a T-top and a Distortion! The point is you get a fantastic range of sounds and can blend them with the selector switch and volume control. Again, very cool cleans potential here with bite from the bridge and fat from the neck.
Again, these pickups all match well output-wise. Just a matter of what you need or want for your guitar and your sound. With an uber-gain amp, or mega-distortion pedal, you may well find that these pups all offer more clarity, tone, and articulation than a super high output pickup. These are only a few of the Vintage/Classic offerings from Seymour Duncan. But take a look at all the great possibilities! I can generally find a combination from these three that makes any guitar sound fantastic.
Special thanks to guest contributor Bob Elliott