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Boutique PAF war: Holmes - Throbak - Ox4

mikeymikey

New member
Joined
Dec 30, 2020
Messages
8
Hi guys, I've been playing guitar for the last 10 years and I own a Custom Shop R0 since two years.
I play mostly blues and jazz, I love warm and full tones. I mainly play with a slight overdrive on that colors my sound, making it more "alive".

However, all my favorite bands are strong with distortions: Guns n Roses, ACDC, Gary Moore, Led Zeppelin, Manson, Muse.
With music I don't pay the bills, it's just a passion that I have carried for years, so I don't need pickups that faithfully reproduce the blues sound of BB King or the distortions of GNR, but I would still like to upgrade my guitar.

I have never approached the world of boutique pickups before, but since I discovered there are hundreds of them, I have been thinking about it: "What if I could upgrade my R0? Why not?"

I tried to inform as much as possible on the internet, the ones that seems most popular in dozens of threads are: Holmes - Throbak - Ox4.
I would like your extremely sincere opinion on which of the three do you recommend, based on what I play and what I like?

Thanks for your kind attention
 

El Gringo

Well-known member
Joined
Apr 8, 2015
Messages
4,457
Greetings , i am a serious devotee of Throbak MXV-SLE-101 Plus ( which i request to be wax potted as i play thru high gain Marshall 2555X's and squealing is undesirable ) I first checked out ThroBak website www.throbak.com and read up about there 101 pickup which is a most faithful PAF pickup wound on the same Leesona winding machine as Gibson used in the golden era using the same type plain enamel magnet wire , with American made magnets ( there is a difference with various overseas makers ) the same covers from the same supplier as Gibson used in the golden era .The correct slugs and screws made here in America ,the same base plates . The attention paid to all details that might seem trivial really do matter in the complete build of the pickup from Butyrate boobins tooled and molded in America , baseplates tooled and stamped in the USA ,vintage correct braided wire . These use A5 magnets which are great mid range projection in tone . To me this is a rich tone/sound that does not sound thin , that sustains so well and is a really rich thick tone , unlike a lot of pickups that are weak and thin . The Gibson Custom Buckers are okay , but for me are too vanilla and bland , the Burst Buckers are okay , but i had a set that squealed so bad that i removed them and this was how i discovered the joys and wonders of ThroBak . Check out there website and be free to tell them El Gringo sent you . P.S. i have 8 sets of these exact pickups in my 8 Les Paul's , as for me they are that great !
 

mdubya

Active member
Joined
Mar 31, 2010
Messages
855
I have two pairs of Tom Holmes 450/455 and they are bright and aggressive sounding, almost too much so, especially with volumes and tones on 10. That said, they are very sweet and responsive with tones and volumes rolled down and when blending between bridge and neck positions. The neck pickup is great on its own, too, with volume and tone rolled down. In particular, they record great and almost always get comments about how good they sound on recordings.

I have played several sets of Wolfetone pickups and I have always been impressed with their neutral nature.

I also have two sets of Gibson Memphis MHS humbuckers. The first set, MHS I, are bright and aggressive and respond very much like the Tom Holmes. The second set, MHS II, are much smoother and mellower with a warm, round tone, which I prefer to play, but they don't record like the Tom Holmes or the MHS I's do.

More than anything, I generally prefer P-90's at this point. :peace2

For my money, I would buy Wolfetone or ReWind. I would contact them and let them know exactly what I was looking for in a pickup and trust their direction as to which of their pickups to use. JMHO.

I like my Tom Holmes. And I never dreamed I would own one set, much less, two! Their value goes up and down and I get so many comments on how good they sound, they are staying put for awhile.
 

mikeymikey

New member
Joined
Dec 30, 2020
Messages
8
101 pickup which is a most faithful PAF pickup wound on the same Leesona winding machine as Gibson used in the golden era using the same type plain enamel magnet wire, with American made magnets ( there is a difference with various overseas makers ) the same covers from the same supplier as Gibson used in the golden era. The correct slugs and screws made here in America ,the same base plates . The attention paid to all details that might seem trivial really do matter in the complete build of the pickup from Butyrate boobins tooled and molded in America , baseplates tooled and stamped in the USA ,vintage correct braided wire.
I still haven't figured out one thing: based on what people say that a boutique PAFs "made with the same materials and machinery that Gibson uses" are BETTER than the PAFs currently made by Gibson (Custombuker Alnico III Unpotted)?
I want to specify that it is not a polemic, I'm just trying to figure out if is actually possible an upgrade
 

Sol

Active member
Joined
Oct 26, 2001
Messages
724
Mikeymikey, before you go taking the pickups out of your R0, a rundown of your disappointment with your current Gibson humbuckers will help everyone with any advice you might need. The more detail you can supply makes all the difference with an enquiry like this..

Oh, and welcome to the forum!
 
Last edited:

renderit

Well-known member
Joined
Jan 19, 2009
Messages
10,088
There are no two LP's which will sound the same because of differences in the wood and there are thousands of pickups oot there.

No guitar/pickup combo is a solid lock for me.

My rules (which I break all the time):

If it lacks 'something' and is just fair but not great I start with Thrōbaks every time. Call him and tell him what you have and what you want. He will steer you right. The SLE's are awesome, but I have picked up others which have different characteristics. All good.

If the LP is very 'forward' and clear but I want it woodier and a little more fuzzy I usually try Wizz. I find they are very good at overtones and undertones and a bit more organic sounding than most. Excellent for harder sounding bodies.

If the guitar needs a 'lot' of anything or I need crystal clear piano tones to 'fix' a 'mushy' guitar Lollar Imperials rule the day.

Those usually do the trick. But if I still don't feel it is where it needs to be I usually go OX4, Tyson, Dimarzio Anniversaries, Wolftones, and many others.

And don't overlook some of the cheaper varieties either. Sometimes a Gibson set off of ebay can do the trick. The old standby Seymour Duncans are still sterling in many. If you are into wild distortion and ceramic stuff I have no suggestions or expertise.
 

Señor Verde

Member
Joined
Jan 13, 2005
Messages
515
If you are anything like me, whatever you try first will not be the one you stick with. I play blues-rock, classic rock, blues and some heavier stuff in my band and like playing clean jazz at home. I've tried many high-end PAF clones and some sound better in some guitars than others. Most of my guitars have Wolfetone Legends or Marshallheads because they sound best to me in the guitars they are in, regardless of cost.
 

duaneflowers

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Messages
2,522
Hi guys, I've been playing guitar for the last 10 years and I own a Custom Shop R0 since two years.
I play mostly blues and jazz, I love warm and full tones. I mainly play with a slight overdrive on that colors my sound, making it more "alive".

However, all my favorite bands are strong with distortions: Guns n Roses, ACDC, Gary Moore, Led Zeppelin, Manson, Muse.
With music I don't pay the bills, it's just a passion that I have carried for years, so I don't need pickups that faithfully reproduce the blues sound of BB King or the distortions of GNR, but I would still like to upgrade my guitar.

I have never approached the world of boutique pickups before, but since I discovered there are hundreds of them, I have been thinking about it: "What if I could upgrade my R0? Why not?"

I tried to inform as much as possible on the internet, the ones that seems most popular in dozens of threads are: Holmes - Throbak - Ox4.
I would like your extremely sincere opinion on which of the three do you recommend, based on what I play and what I like?

Thanks for your kind attention

Based on the three you are looking at I would go with the Holmes for what you like to play, although none of those three would even make my top 10 list of the hundreds I have tried. A more serious triad would be Stephen's Design -Wizz - Rewind. If you do go for the Holmes, do keep in mind that Holmes USA are quite a bit different than the Japanese made ones, and early Holmes USA are quite a bit different than the later ones. If you can score a set of those early ones, they would be closest to the ones deserving a spot in my Top 10 list. I have 3 sets of Ox4 and they sounded great when I got them but soon lost their luster. As far as Throwbacks, well the name says it all. Of the three I listed, Wizz might be a bit heavy for you and Stephens will keep you waiting a lifetime... James at Rewind will hook you right up though. James was co-author (with Mario Milan) of the PAF Bible (The Gibson "P.A.F." Humbucking Pickup: From Myth to Reality) which would probably answer a lot of your questions and save a lot of frustration jumping from one to another in search of your tone. I think the Rolph 60 Pretenders (or 57 Pretenders) would also put a smile on your face.

Happy hunting!!! :salude
 

mikeymikey

New member
Joined
Dec 30, 2020
Messages
8
A more serious triad would be Stephen's Design - Wizz - Rewind.
Throwbacks, well the name says it all.
Of the three I listed, Wizz might be a bit heavy for you and Stephens will keep you waiting a lifetime... James at Rewind will hook you right up though.
I think the Rolph 60 Pretenders (or 57 Pretenders) would also put a smile on your face.

Mate first of all thanks for your answer. But I don't understand the criticism of the Throbak: I know they make PAFs with the same materials and the same machinery as those Gibson made in '50s - '60s. This is the main reason that would push me to take them, a sort of intrinsic "authenticity" even without the Gibson brand, in addition to the fact that - unlike Holmes - they do not have a (one year ?) waiting list.
What didn't you like about their PAFs?
 

duaneflowers

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Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Messages
2,522
Mate first of all thanks for your answer. But I don't understand the criticism of the Throbak: I know they make PAFs with the same materials and the same machinery as those Gibson made in '50s - '60s. This is the main reason that would push me to take them, a sort of intrinsic "authenticity" even without the Gibson brand, in addition to the fact that - unlike Holmes - they do not have a (one year ?) waiting list.
What didn't you like about their PAFs?

Its all totally subjective, but I put Throwbacks on a par with Shed, Sheptone, Scatterbrane, Mojo, Anderson, Electric City, Fralin, Lollar, Bare Knuckle, Wolfetone. et. al. They are all very good pickups but to my ear there is absolutely nothing outstanding about any of them and nothing that puts Throwbacks above them in any respect. The set I have are now in an Epiphone ES-345 (which cost less than the pickups) where they sound pretty good... I didn't like them in any of my Les Pauls though. Again, its all subjective and you may like them but for me they are nothing to write home about and just because I use a 50 year old drill doesn't make my holes vintage. Winding pickups is a sonic art and without the ear of Khandekar, Takano, Stephens, Vrhovec, Finnerty, Rolph, et. al., the best you can do is follow the recipes set forth by others whether or not you have a screwdriver from the Kalamazoo shop, which may be cool but doesn't add to the tone. As far as the infamous Holmes waiting list, notice I said Old Holmes were good... he's changed up the mix over the years to save money and to my ear the new ones don't hold a candle to the old ones... so there is no need for the wait list, if you can't find an old set, either used or NOS, I wouldn't bother. :salude
 

mdubya

Active member
Joined
Mar 31, 2010
Messages
855
I know they make PAFs with the same materials ...


This is one of the PAF repro (and Vintage repro in general) conundrums. The same materials are not available, whether it be copper wire, plain enamel insulation, or magnet metallurgy.

Some go the extra mile or say they do in trying to replicate materials available in the 50's.

Throbak does as good a job as any.

If what you read about Throbak appeals to you, you will probably love their pickups.

The two sets of Tom Holmes I have sound much different than what I imagined they would, but I have grown to appreciate their qualities.

I will stand by my statement that the Wolfetones I have played have produced the most neutral and pleasing tones I have heard. That may translate to not having a huge "wow" factor, though.

Unless your guitar is lacking something which you are specifically looking for, I would leave it be.

Buy another guitar. Get something with P-90's. Then you will have more tones and you will appreciate what each delivers, more.
 

Mr. Papa

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Joined
Jan 14, 2002
Messages
1,347
I have two pairs of Tom Holmes 450/455 and they are bright and aggressive sounding, almost too much so, especially with volumes and tones on 10. That said, they are very sweet and responsive with tones and volumes rolled down and when blending between bridge and neck positions. The neck pickup is great on its own, too, with volume and tone rolled down. In particular, they record great and almost always get comments about how good they sound on recordings.

I agree with this. Holmes on tens is a strong sound, but dialed down and balanced they are expressive and the middle position sounds great.
That is, if you like PAF tone. My experience is that some people think they want PAF tone, but they really want a T-Top tone and don't know the difference.
ThroBak Pre-Ts are another good choice for blues/jazz that can also rock with the right amp/pedal rig.
 

El Gringo

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Apr 8, 2015
Messages
4,457
I still haven't figured out one thing: based on what people say that a boutique PAFs "made with the same materials and machinery that Gibson uses" are BETTER than the PAFs currently made by Gibson (Custombuker Alnico III Unpotted)?
I want to specify that it is not a polemic, I'm just trying to figure out if is actually possible an upgrade
Custombuckers with A3 magnets are okay if you like vanilla and a mild output pickup . Check out www.throbak.com and read and listen to the clips , which will tell you a story about tone and sound . Materials do matter in products and make a difference in sound projection in making an instrument sing to it's full potential . I think where Gibson Custom is coming from in using vanilla sounding pickups is an analogy of hospital food or cafeteria food where the cook doesn't wan't the food over spiced as some like there food bland versus some that like it hot and spicy . Check out the website with the link .
 

jwalker

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Dec 10, 2004
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This is one of the PAF repro (and Vintage repro in general) conundrums. The same materials are not available, whether it be copper wire, plain enamel insulation, or magnet metallurgy.

This is a myth.

I can address each detail if you like. But one big myth involves open hearth steel production. The fact is Michigan in 1952 became the first state in the USA to open a modernized steel production process and this mill supplied Kalamazoo industries including the Kalamazoo Screw Co. which supplied Gibson.

The only detail that I can find that may be different is the question of 1016 steel for keeper bars. Vintage pickup keeper bars will lab test as 1016 steel. However some 1018 steel will also test as 1016 because of crossover in tolerances. So was 1016 or 1018 steel used for keeper bars in the 50’s? Who knows. 1016 is not available in the correct bar stock but 1018 is. So you just have to choose a lot of 1018 bar stock that has specs. that crossover into the 1016 tolerance. As far as I have found that is the only thing that has been a challenge to duplicate. We do make every single parts of our P.A.F. repro is the USA, have our own tooling and control all the material and mechanical specs. of every single part. But for makers that don’t do this it would probably not be possible for them to get accurate specs for all parts.
 

duaneflowers

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Aug 13, 2013
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This is one of the PAF repro (and Vintage repro in general) conundrums. The same materials are not available, whether it be copper wire, plain enamel insulation, or magnet metallurgy.

This is so true!!! Adequate reproductions of many of the components are readily available, most of which might add to the coolness factor and marketability but to my ear they certainly don't add to the tone at all and, again, to my ear, while modern magnets (and pots and caps) sound and perform fine (even though they are not being produced the same way they were in the 50s) I've yet to hear an adequate reproduction of 50s PE wire. I don't know if its just the age of the wire, the materials (including pollutants) involved in its production, or the unevenness of the enamel coating, but my current thinking, as the world moves from the information age to the molecular age, is that it probably has something to do with molecular meshing or something on the subatomic, trading of particles level. While I've done similar experiments before, I'm currently in the process of getting 2 sets of pickups wound side by side, one with 50s wire and one with new wire, but all else being exactly the same, in order to validate this (at least to my own edification). In previous experiments the difference is quite subtle, but apparent if you know what to listen for. For example, there is a chiminess, but its a different chiminess. If that makes sense. There are glorious overtones, but they are different glorious overtones. There is great touch sensitivity, but it is a different touch sensitivity. Granted, all guitars sound somewhat different and all sets of PAFs sound unique... but there is an underlying quality that makes original PAFs unique (and hence fetching the beaucoup bucks that they do) and the most copied pickups in history. Next to my original PAFs, my Old Wire PAFs (from Wizz, Rewind and Boogie J) are the ones I reach for the most. Others sound amazing, but to my ear that subtle quality is just not there... and until another explanation is found, I blame it squarely on the wire. :salude
 

corpse

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Jun 9, 2007
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4,186
As I have said before I have spent my entire career in the wire industry. When I started in the early 1980s copper sold for about $.68 a pound – it is now $3.69 a pound so back in the day especially in the 50s when copper was probably in the $.20 range there were not the controls in place to control the diameter. And it was Pure economics not technology at the time that drove this. Also with magnet wire the method for applying the insulation was emulsion – drawing a wire through an open vat of insulating material, versus conventional extrusion. I think this lack of uniformity combined with the winding tensioning, or lack there of, in those early winders makes for the unique sound of a PAF pick up.
I could go really geek on this topic but for the life of me I cannot find my pocket protector and I would hate to damage the carefully crafted “cool” persona I have made here.
 

duaneflowers

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As I have said before I have spent my entire career in the wire industry. When I started in the early 1980s copper sold for about $.68 a pound – it is now $3.69 a pound so back in the day especially in the 50s when copper was probably in the $.20 range there were not the controls in place to control the diameter. And it was Pure economics not technology at the time that drove this. Also with magnet wire the method for applying the insulation was emulsion – drawing a wire through an open vat of insulating material, versus conventional extrusion. I think this lack of uniformity combined with the winding tensioning, or lack there of, in those early winders makes for the unique sound of a PAF pick up.
I could go really geek on this topic but for the life of me I cannot find my pocket protector and I would hate to damage the carefully crafted “cool” persona I have made here.

I, for one, would love to hear you to geek on on this if you happen to stumble across your pocket protector! I'm sure you've forgotten more than I'll ever know about wire, but it really is the one fundamental area involving PAFs that I think holds the key, if not, than a rather huge part of the puzzle. The steel of the slugs, magnet composition, cab composition (as long as it smells right), and even cover shapes/materials don't excite me half as much as the wire. Stephens also blames it on the uniformity of the insulation material more than pollutants or unobtanium in the vats... and you guys are probably right... but I'd still like to get some more of the deets when you have time. Message it to me if you think it might put everyone else to sleep... I'm all ears!!! :salude
 
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