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Chicago area based Audio/Video management pro, guitarist for over 40 years - have seen and heard 1000's of axe-and-amp combos, and still hungry to hear more! I remain a student of the sound, and yet, have a lot to share!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Gibson Tim Shaw pickup

I just connected with one of my guitar engineering "heroes" online.

I own a 1980 Gibson Heritage 80 Les Paul, in a brown case next to my 1979 Les Paul KM. To make a long story longer, 32 years ago, I yanked out the Gibson pickups on my newly bought Heritage 80 (traded a BC Rich Seagull for it, good move on my part), thinking that they were just another not-so-great humbucker created by a then budget-conscious Gibson. 

Gibson Guitars were coming out of a bad period of ownership changes and accompanying not-so-great engineering. Craftmanship on a budget. Success wasn't coming easy for them at this point, as the glorious 1950's and 1960's were a full generation past.
I put a pair of Seymour Duncan JB's in this Les Paul, and proceeded to love the sound for the next 25 years or so. Great pickups, but perhaps not the authentic sound of the 50's vintage originals. I didn't know of any other options.

As the internet grew, I eventually started viewing the various Les Paul websites and discussion forums, and on occasion I used to take note of a name mentioned once in a while, a Gibson engineer named Tim Shaw who had been working on their now infamous humbucking pickups.   Who's Tim Shaw? Whatever....

Gibson was creating the Heritage 80, Gibson's first re-issue of the coveted 1957-1960 Les Paul Standard. They recreated the 50's neck carve, maple top "dish" carve, tuning headstock shape, deep neck tenon (neck joint) and other re-creations to answer the growing call for vintage Les Pauls, an internal decision was made at Gibson to have someone in engineering do whatever it took to re-create the original PAF (patented applied for) humbucking pickups for this model.  It was getting known that Gibson was not making good pickups over the past few years.  Duncan and DiMarzio were creating great products and killing the market for Gibson's pickups.   

Gibson assigned one of their engineers to take apart the old PAF's, analyze the magnets, scope all the electronic data for the wiring specs, output voltage, capacitors, etc, etc. 
Tim Shaw was that engineer.  He created, without any fanfare or publicity from Gibson, an identical 1959 Gibson PAF humbucker.  Nothing out of the ordinary was said about these pickups in the press releases.  

I had recently been reading online that the "Tim Shaw" pickups were now valuable and selling for over $150 each.  Huh?  That's a lot of money for some regular old pickup made by Gibson, I thought.  I was snobby and thought my Seymour Duncans were the best and Gibson was clueless... But his name and public adoration for these pickups was getting a grass roots following.

Hmmm. Uh, wait a minute - I saved those old pickups, didn't I? (I never throw any guitar electronics away to the chagrin of my beautiful wife) Where the hell are they?

After a one week search I found them in my basement in the bottom of a large box full of music cassettes from when we moved to our current house 22 years ago. The mildew was quite aromatic. I checked out the serial numbers and stickers and compared my pickups to now-online photos that others had put online of these special design pickups.  

Holy %@#*! Tim Shaw pickups. I actually own a vintage SOMETHING.

I put the pickups and now faded chrome original pickup covers back on my Heritage 80. Re-strung the guitar and plugged it in with nervous anticipation.  Mesa Boogie Mark IIC. Lead channel, drive at 7, master volume at 1. (it's loud, kids.) 
B string, pick it hard and hit a D on the 15th fret and bend it up to an E. Slight quiver of vibrato.

Wow – do you know how a picture, a smell, or an aroma can instantly bring back a memory?

My guitar sounded like the1957 Les Paul I once played in a music store in Evanston Illinois in the mid 1970s.  That LP was being offered for sale for $1200.  $1200 bucks for an old finish-cracked Les Paul goldtop?  (I'm about 21, so it's like tastes in wine at that age – not refined.) BUT I remembered the sound that old finished-cracked guitar made through the Marshall combo back then. Nice guitar, but I passed. I wanted a new Hamer instead.

Returning to 2008, I am hearing that sound again through a guitar I actually own.  Wow.  I never knew that the "middle" pickup position (both pickups on) had a clear bluesy creamy tone that I never heard with my gear, as my hard rock roots kept me nailed to the bridge position full time. The neck pickup wasn't muddy, it had that jazzy tone that matches up well with a vintage Hammond B-3. And the bridge pickup had a sparkle that even when overdriven through my amp settings, had a definition and a sparkle even with a bar chord in full drive. Welcome back to the future. The former replacement pickups made great sounds in all the positions, but not like this. I never gave the Gibson pickups a chance back then, but no one knew Gibson was working overtime in their lab and opening up the 1950's pickup winding archives. They didn't name the pickups (as they do now) when they had them installed in these Les Pauls in 1980. But now they are being called the Tim Shaw pickups. Is he alive or dead? Did Henry Juszkiewicz retain Tim after he acquired Gibson? Did Tim retire? I never knew. I just speak of his pickups to anyone who plays Gibsons and anyone else who will listen or pretend to listen.

In May of 2012, a name surfaced by accident as I was scouring contacts on Linked In. I'm connected to some people at Gibson, Fender, and many other Audio/Video/Musical Instrument organizations. I always had a dream to represent a guitar maker, so new online tools make it fun and easy to seek out and make connections. As I was rapidly scrolling through a section of Linked In called People You May Know, a name came and went quickly. Tim Shaw. Nah, can't be, common name, must be hundreds online. Let's go back and look. Tim Shaw, Director of Project Management, Guitar Design, Fender Musical Instruments. If I'm a betting man, I think I'd win this one. Got to be him. Fired off a contact request and asked if he was the Tim Shaw that designed the re-issued PAF Humbuckers for Gibson back in 1980. He replied a week later. Yes, that was him, he said, "glad I liked the pickups". Bingo, he's alive and well and now working for Fender. Fantastic. Brought out my Fender Strat Elite from 1982 and got it back in stage playing condition. Tim later indicated in another email that he designed this pickup version closer to the original specs that Seth Lover, the inventor, had intended. The output was lower, and Tim said he preferred this specification in order to hear what the guitar is doing as “a structure”.  

Gibson now makes great pickups and some of the best guitars in their history, but I can't help but think that Tim started the big resurgence in electric guitar pickup design when this re-issue was released.

Well, this man is a living legend to me. He quietly turned the guitar pickup world around for Gibson, and the rest of the pickup manufacturers upped their game from that point forward. No headlines, no big publicity for Tim in the trades. He does what he loves, and now Fender will certainly benefit from his expertise, experience and passion in their instruments. Who's Tim Shaw? 

 Doesn't matter – I know.