Finding replacement pickups for a Les Paul can be challenging because you have 5,000 options. But it’s also tricky to know how to achieve the sound and output you’re hearing in your head.
There are many reproductions of 1950s “golden age” pickups, and plenty of modern high output designs, as well.
This article focuses on finding a vintage sound with some modern variations. There are too many options available to explore metal and active pickups in the same list.
This may make you feel angry. Do you need your diaper changed? Actually, I think your mood will improve after exploring some great pickups.
Before getting into the 9 best Les Paul pickups, let’s cover a brief history of this iconic instrument. It is not boring. You’re boring.
History of the Les Paul
Guitars are made from wood. The first trees appeared 400 million years ago. Just kidding. I’m not going that far back.
The Gibson Les Paul emerged in 1952 as the first Gibson solid-body guitar. Everyone was “going ape” over the Fender Telecaster, and Gibson needed to get something on the market.
There was some reluctance toward solid body guitars at Gibson. Some designers felt there was a lack of the artistry found in creating hollow body and semi-hollow body guitars.
But money talks. Ted McCarthy ran Gibson during this period, and he is credited with guiding the company through its most brilliant, creative era. Ted was responsible for the Korina Flying V and Explorer which are now worth $$.
Gibson approached Les Paul, a famous guitarist of the day, about helping design some solid bodies. Les reminded everyone that he had pitched a solid body guitar to Gibson in 1945 and had nearly been tossed out in the street.
There is a bit of confusion over who designed what, but the original Les Paul Gold Top was the first guitar off the production line.
The gold color was created with bronze powder. You will see green coming through the finish on used Gold Tops. This bronze/green patina lets you know you’ve got the real deal.
The bridge on the first Gold Tops contained a design flaw. The Trapeze tailpiece was designed to wrap the strings under the tailpiece. This meant that there was no way to mute strings with the right hand.
Les Paul wanted the strings to wrap over the tailpiece, but Gibson told him to shut it. Gibson quickly acquiesced when people complained and the bridge was corrected the following year.
The Les Paul Custom and Les Paul Junior were released in 1954. The Junior was a less expensive offering featuring one P90 pickup. It also had the same under-wrapped bridge issue that had already been corrected on the Gold Top. Why?
The humbucker was created by Seth Lover in 1957. These pickups changed the game with higher output, hum cancellation, and robust tone. These pickups were called P.A.F. (Patent Applied for). Collectors really go insane for the original P.A.F. sticker.
The original P.A.F.s were built by hand, so they all sounded a bit different. This of course led to guitar dorks searching out the sweetest options and making trades.
Sunbursts came on the scene in 1958. The original bursts are some of the most sought-after guitars of all time. The design process resulted in a unique finish for each instrument.
You know what this means. Nerds go nuts trying to find the best finish! They are never satisfied.
The 1958 – 1960 sunbursts are still highly collectible. There were minor changes made during this period, and these guitars were not successful upon release. The limited production run only adds to the modern allure of these guitars.
The Gibson SG was introduced in 1961 to replace the bursts.
The Best Les Paul Pickups
Now that we know what we’re working with, here are 9 of the best pickups for your Les Paul. Follow the links for more details and to check prices.
As stated above, Seth Lover was the engineer who invented humbuckers for Gibson. These pickups are warm and smooth, with Alnico 2 magnets providing a sweet vintage sound. These are still handmade according to Seth’s specifications.
Seymour Duncan still uses a Leesona winding machine that came from Gibson’s original factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Every Seth Lover pickup is made on this machine, and you can hear it in the final product (I think).
This pickup is modeled after the original Gibson P.A.F. with increased output. The Modern still provides a vintage sound, but it’s deeper and stronger with more coils and Alnico 4 magnets.
Call Van Halen, because this pickup is the best of both worlds. This versatile pickup lets you really shape your tone. The Modern P.A.F. works well for blues, classic rock, and more modern sounds with heavier distortion.
These pickups are cloned from a set of ’50s P.A.F.s down to the winding pattern and coil offsets. Throbak also uses a vintage Leesona machine for hand-winding. Who was Leesona?
These are incredibly period-correct down to the screws. The craftsmanship will make your Levi’s rise.
The neck pickup uses Alnico 2 magnets and the bridge pickup uses Alnico 5s, and the combination can go from mellow to biting depending on what you’re after.
ThroBak also makes vintage-style wiring harnesses if you really want everything to be perfect.
Modeled after ’59 P.A.F.s, The Mule comes bursting with vintage sounds and clear, singing tones.
These pickups are very responsive and have fantastic dynamic range. Clean tones are sweet, and The Mule can easily kick into powerful overdrive.
Punchy mids, controlled highs, and responsive bass make this a powerful pickup indeed.
Like ThroBak, all details are considered. Wire, bobbins, spacers, slugs, and covers are all vintage correct.
These re-engineered P.A.F.-style pickups are articulate and smooth. DiMarzio actually uses computers for winding design which lets them tweak the frequency response. I wonder if this makes other companies mad.
The 36th Anniversary has a weak magnetic field that allows for increased string vibration. I get it, less pull on a string elongates the vibration. Smart.
Even tones across the board. The bridge pickup has slightly higher mids.
These are 1950’s P.A.F.-style pickups with several output options available:
- Standard Imperial: Neck 7.6K, Bridge 8.4K
- Low Wind Imperial: Neck 7.0K, Bridge 7.9K
- High Wind Imperial Humbucker: Neck 8.4K, Bridge 9.4K
The low wind Imperial has shimmering treble and more controlled bass than the standard. The high wind sounds thicker and heavier while remaining clear and responsive. These are nuanced humbuckers.
Like ThroBak, Lollar offers pre-wired harnesses if you really want the best. I say you’re worth it.
This P.A.F. clone is another pickup with crazy vintage-correct materials and specs. If you are a true purist, this is your new favorite find. Bobbins, frames, wire, spacers, screws, and slugs are all meticulously designed to match the originals.
Warm tones that stay smooth on the high-end and clear on the low-end. Lots of space for the mids to expand while providing great clarity for pick attack.
Mojotone makes some interesting and unusual pickups that are worth investigating.
P.A.F.-style humbuckers that have amazing tone at any volume level. Your amp will break up a bit naturally despite the low output.
These are great for Allman Brothers and AC/DC tones. Dimensional and responsive. Great balance between the neck and bridge pickups.
The Dr. Vintage is a good coil-splitting candidate. You can obtain clean single coil tones, and this isn’t always the case when splitting humbuckers.
This is a high output pickup with a low output feel. These are actually the highest output Suhr pickups. Tones remain clear even with high gain. Very responsive to pick attack.
The Aldrich can handle heavier styles than the others on the list. Hard rock works well and roll-off the volume for a P.A.F. vibe. Great high-end bite.
Clean sounds are surprisingly clear. A controlled brightness encompasses smooth, mellow tones. This is a very versatile pickup.
How is your credit? Do you have a credit card? Get it out and order these!