The Joe Bonamassa Pickup Set: It’s Not Just for Blues!

Vintage P.A.F. pickups are like snowflakes — only a lot louder and a lot more expensive.

Aficionados of the P.A.F.pickup, the original humbucker, often say that vintage models are like snowflakes — no two are identical, due chiefly to the the pre-digital inconsistencies of their windings.

One particularly memorable pair of snowflakes resides in Joe Bonamassa’s 1959 Les Paul, the crown jewel of Joe’s insanely huge guitar collection. Joe and Seymour Duncan teamed up to duplicate their sound, and have released the results as the Joe Bonamassa Signature Pickup Set. As a rabid fan of Seymour P.A.F.-inspired Seth Lover and Antiquity Humbucker models, I couldn’t wait to smear greasy fingerprints all over the new set.

I got to hang out in the studio with Joe a few years ago during a project I was working on for Apple. He’s a phenomenal player, a nice guy, and a walking encyclopedia of guitar gear. There aren’t many players who better understand the glory of a great P.A.F. — and how to make the most of it.

As promised, these pickups provide superb P.A.F. tones, and they have a sonic personality quite distinct from Duncan’s other P.A.F. models. Check out this little demo I recorded:

What do I hear (besides some really sketchy playing)?

These pickups sound exceptionally warm and smooth. The bridge pickup is never shrill or thin — in fact, if you tend to moderate your bridge-pickup attack to avoid nasty highs, you may find yourself wanting to dig in more than usual. There’s a touch less twang overall compared to, say, a Seth Lover bridge pickup, and you can really whack the thing without it getting nasty.

Meanwhile, the relatively low-output neck pickup couldn’t be silkier. (Seymour refers to these lower-output pickups as “weakies.”) But there’s nothing timid about the tone — I love its fatness and flattering natural compression. And I’ve never encountered anything better for that dark, high-gain neck-pickup sound occasionally (and annoyingly, IMHO) referred to as “woman tone.”

This set sounds great overdriven. It sounds great clean. And it sound great in- between, especially through a nice old combo amp and a good overdrive pedal. I really enjoyed finding the sweet spot where I could control the distortion entirely from the guitar’s volume pot.

Conclusion: These pickups are staying in this guitar! 🙂

Any other P.A.F.-ophiles out there? Tell us about your favorites!


43 comments to The Joe Bonamassa Pickup Set: It’s Not Just for Blues!

  • Christopher Haugan Lyngedal

    Sounds wicked Joe!

  • zyon

    I think Billy Corgan was about to come down the stairs on that second song. 

  • Labes

    Joe, u made me smile, had fun watching this !

  • Scott

    Nice job Joe. Robert and Porl would be proud. Are you going to try the JBs in the Trini Lopez? or any other guitar you have setup for humbuckers?

    • joe

      Wow — interesting idea. I would love to hear them in a semi-acoustic. But I since Trini is one of my very few all-original vintage guitars, I may seek another home for them. 🙂

  • Sounds great, I must have a set of those!

  • Scott

    Also, I think the Tremolux is one of the most underrated Fender amps. I have a 65 and it is soooooo nice. Doesn’t have the sweet tremolo of the brownfaces, but has is still very nice blackface trem. Plus, the sealed 2×10 cab gives it a nice tone difference from the rest of the Fender open back combos.

    • joe

      I’m usually use my Tremolux head through a kit cabinet with a 1×12 Alnico Blue. But I LOVE 2×10 combos!

      • Matt Seniff

        I love 2-10s as well I have a pair of cabs from a Gibson GSS-100 (that funky late 60’s SS amp with true vibrato) the amp head was destroyed in shipment. I use them with a pair of Egnater Tweakers and they sound very sweet and work well in the combos I play with. They are a lot easier to transport than the cabs with my JBL D130s (tho’ they might be the king of guitar spkrs). I also have a JBL D110 I am looking for an affordable mate for someday that would make a swell 2-10 cab but right now it’s in a modded Fender Pro Jr.

  • Kenstee

    You do know that Schecter just happens to have 2 Seymour Duncan 59 ‘Buckers on their signature Robert Smith UltraCure guitar don’t you? Or was it…as they say they say….”This was no coincidence….”

    • joe

      Nope, I did not know that, though I did know that Schecter uses a lot of Duncan pickups in their various models. The ’59 is killer — that’s what originally came in the red Hamer seen in the video, though I’ve been using Antiquity Humbuckers for the last year or so. Till now, anyway. 🙂 

  • David

    Can’t wait to get the set I ordered! Psyched! Thanks for this video!

  • Kenstee what axe are you playing? Any pedals except for the looper? And what pups did you remove to put these in?

    • joe

      It’s a Hamer 20th Anniversary. The only pedal in the blues section is a secret-recipe overdrive. For the second part, I added homemade reverb, delay, and trem pedals.

      The guitar came with a JB/’59 set, which I replaced last year with Antiquity Humbuckers. But I think I’m going to keep the Bonamassas in there, because they sound so unique, especially that amazing neck pickup . . .

  • Matt Seniff

    Love the sound of the neck pickup and the bridge sounds great, unlike many pickup sets the middle setting sounds useful and amazing. That Hamer is a sweet guitar, I missed buying one with P90s by a bout 5 minutes years ago. That Joe Bonamassa set may be the perfect pickup set for my Jaguar Special, the original pickups aren’t bad but they are not “special”. I didn’t want to put P90’s in it since it has an alder body tho’ I toyed with the idea of P-rails for a while but I have a Modern Player Jaguar with P90s and a mahogany body so that role is filled to a “T” (those Modern Player Jaguars are a great guitars made in China the workmanship is superb and are dead cheap even the matte red finish on mine looks great and it sounds amazing but the headstock is unpainted). My Jaguar Special is dark red with a gun metal gray sunburst and dark red painted headstock made in Japan (all Jaguars should have painted head stocks like my 1968 Jaguar IMHO).
    Your Tremolux sounds very sweet in your videos there were some very special sounding early 60’s Fender amps that were totally unique tone wise. A good friend of mine has a 63 Bassman head with white tolex/beige face plate/white knobs that honest to god sounds like it has reverb because the sound has such a nice sweet shimmer to it and it roars like an angry angel when kicked. It also sounds killer with a Gibson EB0 or EB3 bass but it is exquisite for guitar. Must have been something about the output transformers, the later Blackfaces sounded nothing like it and the rest of the circuits are all most identical. That 63 Bassman is  a true wonder and the early 60’s Tremoluxes I have restored are in that same class IMHO.
    The “secret recipe” overdrive sounds very nice. I am a bit jaded with the whole TS808 thing so a really good overdrive perks up my ears. When I need an overdrive I have one I made with an old Telefunken 12AX7 tube and the chassis/transformers from an old 1950’s Leak mono preamp. It has an output transformer on the 2nd stage of the 12AX7 with a 1.5K ohm output impedance which drives the front end of a tube amp handily. I wish I could find some more of those inter-stage transformers that I used for the output xfrmr so that I could build some righteous guitar stuff with them. Nobody makes them except for the esoteric hifi types and they won’t sell them to anybody as they are part of the “secret sauce”. My tube overdrive also has a 3 position variable Q full bypass midrange boost with a shielded hand wound tapped inductor (I wish I could find more of them too).   It makes a wonderful overdrive but never leaves my studio. The Leak mono preamp was destroyed by Mayflower movers when they moved a customer of mine many years ago. He sued the hell out of them and I got the preamp remnants for testifying in court. He was well up in the US Justice Dept. back then and Mayflower movers never stood a chance, it was an interstate commerce kind of thing.

    • joe

      Yeah, I also noticed how nice the two pickups sound simultaneously — and I tend to shy away from mixed-pickup tones, preferring to go from extreme to extreme. But it sound so cool in this instance that I just like hanging out there! I had to remind myself to switch to the single-pickup sounds while recording the demo.

      • Double D

        I know what you mean Joe; the extremes are so instantly rewarding.  I find that as I’ve matured as a player and left myself more headroom, just cracking the volume knobs on the guitar and working the tone knobs more, that the multiplicity of voices and subtle colourings available in the dual pickup settings are the most interesting.  I like to mix my bridge pickup, tone control off, with my neck pickup, tone open, for a sweet ratty grind that still has girth and detail.  Subtle tweaks of either volume or tone knob yield almost unlimited tonal options.  A previous comment you made about “who really needs two tone controls on a dual pu axe” quite surprised me-I definitely do!  Now, if I could ever get around to installing in/out of phase wiring, I’d really have it all!

        • joe

          LOL — not only does what you say make a lot of sense, but man, it’s really well written. 🙂

          You’re right — my comment about “who needs two tone controls” was a little facile, but on the other hand, there just aren’t many players who make use of them. Thanks for giving an example of how it’s an important technique for you. Now I’m going to have to plug in all my two-tone, dual-humbucker guitars and try it out . . .

          I’m going to be doing a post very soon on Jimmy Page wiring and its derivatives — which basically means every dang series/parallel/phase combo possible from a pair of humbuckers. Stay tuned!

          • Double D

            Geez, thanks Joe.  That is a compliment coming from you; I nearly cried when you left GP after presiding over it’s most fertile period since the Tom Wheeler days of the early ’80’s.  God bless you and Jas Obrecht for giving me online access to writers I’ve missed greatly over the years!

      • I have a Gibson SG 60’s Tribute, the two pickup sound is very sweet. It has the low end of the neck with a sugary sweet high end in that middle position. I think this may be because the pickups do not humbuck when played together just like on some old Gibsons I have played (besides a little hum makes a guitar sound more electric to me). The volume and tone control combinations in this position supply a seemingly endless plethora of tones. I have seen surprisingly few younger guitarist using the volume and tone controls to their utmost but the old timers seem to get it. Les Paul was very masterful at volume/tone control manipulation but hands down I would give that crown to the late Danny Gatton when he was playing his modded Les Paul with the control box on it.

  • Oinkus

     Have to say there have been very few SD pups that I like at all but those have some pretty great sounds in them. So many variables to sounding good and you are hitting a bunch of them perfectly.

  • PJ

    Any thoughts regarding anticipated differences between the Duncan Bonamassa 59 PAF’s and the 57 Reissue and Burstbucker Pro found in my Traditional Pro?  Thanks!

    • joe

      Hey PJ — I’ve never owned that pickup combo, but if it’s the same as the ones that are in my friends Linda’s ’57 reissue (and I believe they are), well, I thought they sounded pretty wicked.  

      This is just a guess, but, I’d predict that the Bonamassa set would be warmer and smoother, at the expense of some bite. They’re super-dynamic — you can MAKE them sound bright. But it takes some muscle to get there, which may be a real good thing, depending on your style.

  • loic

    i have a set  from WCR Jim Wagner Darkburst on my LP Epi from 1989 built in Korea and they are pretty good PAF !!!

    Wich guitar should have those Joe´s Pickups !!!

    Very great video from you with Joe´s pickups , thanks !!   

  • These are $375 on the Joe Bonamassa website.

  • Josh Gordis

    O.K., it sounds like SD has a new set of great sounding pickups, smooth, nice compression, etc. The only question I have is, are these pickups just for blues?

  • Aceman

    You know, what I would really like is a “Classic PAF Reference Guide”  Where do these fall in the world of classic PAF’s?  We all know that there was no “one” single magic PAF – S happened at Gibson back in the day and sometimes it generated magic.  For example – The PAF’s in the Rev. Billy G.’s Pearly Gates.  Those seem to be NOTHING like what the Bonamassa’s are, yet they are also Legendary PAF’s.  And of course, based on this, Seth’s are different too.  Yet they are all amazing 50’s PAF’s.

    No doubt this type of pickup is Seymour’s realm.  He OWN’s classic PAF-ness IMO.  The classic PAF’s are all just awesome:  59, PG, A2P, Seth’s, and of course, now these.  I’d just really love to see a chart describing some of the major PAF-ness.  Maybe one for A2’s, A4’s and A5’s, then for under wound, on target, and over wound.  Where do all of these fit in the “big picture” of PAF’s?

    • joe

      Hey Aceman — always a pleasure to see you here. 🙂

      Yeah, that is a cool idea — or at least, it’s something that confused me a little until I started working with SD folks and got to spend a lot of time with the individual models. It’s so tricky to describe some of the properties, though! Take the Joe Bonamassa neck pickup, which is one of the type that Seymour refers to as a “weakie,” though I’m not sure exactly how much of said “weakness” is due to magnet treatment, and how much to the wind. But the tricky part, said “weakness” translates into  corpulent overdrive done and (to my ear) phenomenal two-pickup blends. In other words, it’s “weak,” but sounds and feels powerful. How to quantify THAT in a chart?

      But with your scientific background, perhaps YOU can conceive a meaningful way to organize it? 🙂

      I’m am, of course, perfectly serious. I’d love to see which metrics you regard as most meaningful and helpful. 

  • Danny Boy

    *How do these compare to the bare knuckle mules?  I’m a clean player on my 59 les Paul reissue, jazz and blues – mainly clean, occasional with a tiny bit of over drive

  • Homesick

    What an inspired playing & tone. Reluctantly started the video (thinking ow well just another PAF replica), but I discovered with joy your tremendous musical playing. Tone is spot-on, but the playing is top notch really. Can’t comment enough how musical & inspired. Keep it up & bravo!

  • Homesick

    I just realized who you are. I was a big fan, from Guitar Player golden age,

    Count me in this page for sure, I’m already addicted 🙂

    My name is Hani, I’m writing from Beirut, Lebanon. I’m the leader & founder of The Real Deal Blues Ban – a local band of weekend warriors.

    Really a joy to meet you again.

    • joe

      Thanks for the nice note, Homesick. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      BTW, did you know that Andy Ellis, my colleague at both Guitar Player and Premier Guitar, partially grew up in Beirut? (He’s not Lebanese, but his dad worked there for years.)

  • Homesick

    Wow that’s awesome. Andy is great as well. I will sure stick around !!!

  • Homesick

    The internet still has some good surprises :finger:

  • Dave

    Hey Joe, could you compare the neck Bonamassa to the neck Seth Lover a little more specifically please? I’m curious which one would be clearer, have more responsiveness, more open and more honky sounding (that is what I’m looking for). Many thanks.

    • joe

      Hi Dave — great question! The pickups are a lot more similar than they are different, and since they’re unpotted, they’re more like each other than any modern potted humbuckers. (Manufacturers started dipping pickups in wax/paraffin solutions to prevent squealing when playing in at Hendrix-like volume levels. I’ve come to believe that was a wrong turn in pickup design. It sacrifices a great sound — the “honk” you refer to — and isn’t necessary unless you’re playing extremely loud and high-gain directly in front of your amp.) The Bonnamassa neck pickup has unusually weak magnets — it’s modeled after a pickup of Seymour’s that he’d nicknamed “the Weakie.” As a result, it sounds “old” as few modern PAFs do, which means a smoother, looser sound, very warm and musical. The Seth Lover is more like a new pickup made the old-fashioned way, and it’s got a bit more snap and sparkle at the expense of some smoothness. Both models are among my very favorite pickups, and they’re my two favorite Duncan pickups. Hope that helps.

  • Dave

    Many thanks for the info Joe, it does help!

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