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The Pickup Story, Part III: The Road to the Humbucker

Setting the record straight about how and when hum-canceling pickups turned up

Read more:
The Pickup Story, Part I
The Pickup Story, Part II
The way stories get passed around from player to player, guru to guru, or especially on the internet, one can be forgiven for believing that the dual-coil, hum-canceling pickup came into existence the moment Seth Lover walked one of them into Ted McCarty’s office at Gibson Headquarters in Kalamazoo, Mich., in early 1955. It had taken Lover close to a year to get the new pickup to the point of presentation. And certainly Lover had brought to bear a great deal of learning and experience to the project, much of which had been gleaned from other sources. So while 1955 is certainly the moment of genesis for the Gibson humbucker, the actual technology existed in various forms for some time prior. In fact, patents for hum-canceling guitar pickups can be found going back to at least 1936.

Hum-canceling technology had its roots in telephone technology. Western-Electric, the original telephone company, was an electronics technology innovator on a gigantic scale. Aside from bringing the vacuum tube to widespread use, Western Electric had a hand in the first coast-tocoast telephone service (1915), the first loudspeaker technology (circa 1920) and bringing sound to the movies (1929). Western Electric literally wrote the book on amplification circuits, and their circuits served as the blueprint for the tube-driven guitar amplifier. In fact, a photo on page 35 of Richard Smith’s book, Fender: the Sound Heard ‘Round the World, shows Leo Fender’s workbench, complete with a tattered copy of a Western Electric circuits manual.

Western Electric also had a hand in pickup technology, albeit indirectly. Around 1912, the company devised hum-canceling (some call it humbucking) technology for use in their telephone amplification systems. It was this basic technological principal on which numerous pickup designers of the 1930s, and Seth Lover in the 1950s, based the dual-coil pickup design. Loudspeaker designers also contributed to hum-canceling technology by way of making their speakers quieter. Electro Voice claimed the invention of the humcanceling coil in the mid-1930s.

In the realm of guitars of the 1930s, a number of manufacturers, builders and inventors tinkered with dual-coil pickup designs in an effort to cut noise, and thus make it possible to amplify the guitar even louder. Some manufacturers used two coils placed a good distance from each other, but within the same unit. This would have the effect of creating a wider magnetic field, thus helping to smooth out the tone. Other manufacturers did indeed place two coils together or use multiple magnets underneath to try to cancel or minimize hum.

After World War II, as the electric guitar became prominent, manufacturers looked for ways to improve the power response, smoothness and sound of their pickups. They did this in response to the players of the time, who were by and large playing jazz and pop songs that required a mellow tone. Even the country players of that era wanted a mellow tone, although they wanted theirs with a little bit of twang in it.

The major builders seemed to choose a path and stick with it. Paul Bigsby stayed close to the P-90 single-coil design. Leo Fender began experimenting with a single-coil design that looked similar to the De Armond pickups designed by Harry De Armond for Rowe industries. De Armond himself tried to get the mellow tone by putting fewer winds around the high-string poles in his jazz-oriented Rhythm Chief. He also used larger pole magnets in his model 200 pickup, appropriated for use by Gretsch as the Dynasonic.

Ray Butts was an innovator par excellence who is best known for designing the EchoSonic amplifier in 1954. The EchoSonic had an on-board tape delay unit that gave it a sound very in-tune with the times. The amp immediately found favor, especially from Chet Atkins, who turned to Butts when the Dynasonic pickups in his signature Gretsch model failed to live up to his exacting specifications. Butts designed a sophisticated hum-canceling stereo pickup for Atkins, who was so excited about them that he pressed the Gretsch company into working with Butts on a production model of the pickup. The result was the dual-coil Filter’Tron (filters out the electronic hum). First appearing on Gretsch guitars in mid-1957, the Filter’Tron became the standard Gretsch pickup. In an interview, Butts once stated that he had submitted a patent for a dual-coil, humbucking design in 1954. However, the only patent record for a pickup with Butts name on it shows a filing date of January 1957, and an issue date of June 1959.

Gibson began issuing guitars with humbuckers in early 1957. If you can think of all the men involved in hum-canceling design as a football team, all pushing together down the gridiron, then Seth Lover is the guy who took the ball over the goal line and into the end zone.

Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933-2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone