The PAF Strat

As threatened, here’s a closer look at Strat with PAF humbuckers used for my recent “God Only Knows” cover. Most parts are from the long-suffering guitar used for all the Mongrel Strat Project experiments. And this one is especially mongrel-ific, with its blend of vintage Fender and Gibson.

Obviously, Gibson pickups is a Strat is far from a new idea. But usually, that arranged marriage is designed to spawn macho, high-gain solos minus the characteristic shrillness of vintage Strat bridge pickups. While many players I love have used humbucker-equipped Strats, I’ve always loathed playing them myself. But what, I wondered, if you didn’t use a hot humbucker, but an über-vintage PAF?

Like many players my age and younger, I was astonished when I first encountered a vintage-voiced humbucker. It was nothing like the dark, over-overdriven tones I associated with the word humbucker. A good PAF is sparkly, resonant, and perfectly capable of gloriously bright and clean tones. Here I used a Seymour Duncan Joe Bonamassa signature set, the same one heard in a more Gibson-like context here.

The results are … compelling. As expected, notes have far more mass than on a conventional Strat, and the bass response is vastly increased. There’s no shortage of top-end either, though the big lows can overwhelm the highs at times. So while I’m pretty much always obsessed with bass-cut controls (especially the high-pass section of the PTB circuit I’ve written about approximately 37 zillion times), it’s especially invaluable in this case. Since lows disproportionately drive distortion, even modest bass cuts clean up the tone and make highs speak more clearly.

I’ve also incorporated the dual-capacitor treble control I wrote about here. It creates a Vari-Tone/ToneStyler effect in a simplified way: Instead of using a clunky rotary switch to choose from a large set of treble-trimming capacitors, it fades between a large cap and a small cap, yielding the same resonant effect as the more complex options. I’ve incorporated this circuit in several guitars now, and it’s still working for me. It’s especially nice here, when paired with a Steinberger JackPot potentiometer, which lets you bypass the entire tone circuit for absolute maximum volume and brightness. I chose the small cap based on the minimum amount I’d ever want to remove from the signal, and the larger one based on the maximum cut I’d use.

I would have included a photo of the project in progress, but I didn’t because I’m embarrassed about how awful it looks inside. I needed to route out the pickup cavities to accommodate these larger pickups. But instead of taking it to a professional, or getting a proper router and learning how to use it, I chipped away with the tiny routing bit on an inexpensive Dremel tool. Do yourself a favor, kids, and don’t follow my lazy-ass example.

But hey, what’s a Strat pickguard for if not to conceal your shoddy workmanship? The guitar looks okay in the end, and I’m digging its sounds, even though it was far harder to get accustomed to than I’d anticipated. I had to recalibrate my right-hand dynamics to prevent treble notes from screeching. I was almost ready to chalk this up as a failed experiment, but after a few days of noodling around, I started to get the hang of it and enjoy the results. I think I’ll keep it this way for a while — or at least until the next Mongrel Strat concept wafts up from the bowels of Hell. 🙂

20 comments to The PAF Strat

  • Greg

    Hey Joe, is there a middle single-coil on there? I can’t quite tell from my phone.

  • Greg

    Ah, I see now. I was tied up, couldn’t get to watching the video then, just sneaking a listen here and there. Thanks!

  • All my guitars have some form of humbuckers. Either full size, or single coil size. I hate hum, and I prefer the tone of a bright humbucker. It’s much more balanced. Single coils can get too shrill. And I hate those overly dark humbuckers like a JB.

    A real PAF was a bright and snappy pickup. It didn’t have a lot of low end either. I had a set of early patent label humbuckers. And everyone took the covers off because they sounded better that way.

    It’s funny how younger players think PAFs are dark sounding pickups. As soon as they hear a decent top end they say they are “sterile” sounding.

    And Strats with humbuckers still have a nice snap and twang because of the longer scale length. 🙂

  • Hey Joe

    Because I am a massive nerd, and always on the lookout for good idea I can steal, I noticed you’ve removed the outside two screws on your Strat’s bridge—going for the opposite of the common remove-the-middle-four-but-leave-the outside-two mod.

    What’s the big idea? Contrarian move or secret sauce?

  • Oinkus

    You couldn’t have mangled it a little more and put 3 of them in there ? That is way up there on the ” pretty dern spiffy ” scale !

  • Olivier

    Hi Joe,
    really nice demo, sound great ! Do you think about adding some of the wiring you use in the Pagey project ? Like phase inversion or something ?

    • joe

      Bonjour, Olivier! Yes, it would be a fine instrument for those sorts of experiments. But I have a dirty little secret several years after wiring up that impossibly complex Les Paul: I use the traditional settings 90% of the time. This is totally a matter of personal taste. But after trying so many mods over the years, they seem to fall into two categories: interesting ideas, and features I can’t live without. In the latter category are onboard overdrives, bass-cut circuits, multi-cap treble controls, and treble-preserving circuits like “vintage wiring” and treble-bleed bypass.Coil-spitting, series wiring, and out of phase wiring are definitely in the former category for me. But hey, Pagey loves them, and his opinion carries far more weight than mine. 🙂

  • Great post Joe with lots of interesting points. I have two humbucker (and by humbucker I mean pickups with two side by side coils) equipped guitars; a Les Paul Studio and an Epiphone Sheraton. I always felt there was something overwhelming about playing the Les Paul, so your comments about getting used to the dynamics really resonate. This doesn’t seem to be the case with the semi-hollow Epiphone, which otherwise has very similar pickups.

    As to taking the covers off humbuckers is concerned I believe this may be more of an issue with brass covers because eddy currents in the brass damp the response of the pickup. Eddy currents are apparently much lower with stainless steel or nickel silver covers. I think at one point Gibson switched to using brass covers and base plates because it was cheaper and they thought nobody would notice. A cover may also increase the pickups self-capacitance, but not by much.

  • Joel

    Very interesting. I have a H/H Tele I’d like to do something like that to.

    How did you set up the switch? 3 way, other?

  • Alex S.

    So when are we going to hear more about this Purr Tremolo?

    • joe

      Hi Alex! It’s a relatively simple opto-vibrato, with especially “realistic” hysteresis and a one-knob design. You can hear it clearly in the above video between 3:34 and 4:09. It’s also on the entire time at a low setting for the entire “God Only Knows” performance in my previous post. I’d definitely like to release it at some point, but I’ve got to figure out a way to make the case that you don’t need independent rate and depth controls for certain types of vibrato. Long story ….. 🙂

  • Colm

    A 4-way switch would be a nice addition

  • Oinkus

    Just built a Strat with a set of SD mini humbuckers in it , the usual hardware for me(PW Tuners , Tusq XL nut , Dunlop Straplocks, Babicz 2 point tremolo, Graphtech Tusq string trees , ) It has a cheapo maple neck and fretboard not sure if I will upgrade to a Moses Graphite neck or not , will see after it gets some fretwork by my favorite luthier Kenny Marshall. Pre-loaded pickgaurd And etc… Oh yeah it has a push/pull to add the neck pup to any switch position giving the bridge/neck and all 3 pup options. Sounds pretty fantastic all around , like a Strat but a LOT better !

    • Joe Gore

      Oh, cool! I didn’t even know Duncan made that three-pickup mini-humbucker pickguard as a regular custom shop item. I’d originally wanted to do exactly that but … I went with the parts I had lying around. Any observations yet on the sound?

  • Oinkus

    Those are 920D Pickgaurds made by Sigler music found them on ebay got my Fluence set premade pickgaurd for cheaper then MF sells the set. Yes , they sound FANTASTIC ! It sounds like a Strat but sooooo much better ! Those A5 magnets give it brightness you associate with a Strat but it is a bigger,fuller sound. I would rather have out a set of Fralin minis in it but that would have been over $470 , they will build you any pickgaurd however you want it ,and if you call Cathy and order over the phone she will take %10 off the listed price. Bunch of premades in stock all kinds of pickups in them for Strats and Teles mostly.

  • jerrod

    Are you planning to do any more mongrel Strat blog posts? And I’m curious if the Lollar Goldfoil pickups survived the shuffle. If so, what objective did you have and how did that manifest itself as volume & tone pot selections, switching, treble bleed, etc. Thanks!

  • merseymale

    Jerrod, I’d like to know too…

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