1935 The History of the Electric Pickup

1937 Gibson ad taken from Catalog Y

See Gibson Catalogs for the complete listing of prewar catalogs.

Also see Gibson Prewar Electric Guitars to view the 7 prewar electric models that Gibson produced.

Very first, original, commercial Gibson pickup 1935. Note the very large bar magnets.

History of Gibson's Electric Pickup

'Bar' Magnet Used 1935-1938 in Lapsteels and 1936-1939 in Guitars. Note the blade attached to the large magnets and the wire coil in the black bobbin.

Gibson electric instruments began in 1935 with the very first metal body lapsteel, the E150. The above photo shows how crude the pickup (the little square thing mounted on all electric guitars) was. 

I have photographed my electric collection including most of the pickups in order to give the reader some understanding about the evolution of Gibson electrics.From the begining gigantic magnets and metal blades to the smaller alnico magnets and polepieces. Please look through every instrument catagory in order to see this evolution of where Gibson electrics started. It may not touch on everything, but should be very informative. 

How A Pickup Works

The following is quoted from 'Gibson Electrics The Classic Years' by A.R. Duchossoir.

'Electromagnetic pickups feature two essential components: one or more permanent magnets and a coil wrapped around either the magnet (s) or soft iron polepieces magnetized by contact with the magnet (s). The pickup is placed on top of the guitar so as to create a strong magnetic field crossing the strings. When the strings are plucked and vibrate, they cut the magnetic lines of force and induce an electric current in the coil. This low-voltage current is then amplified and converted into sound waves by the amplifier's loudspeaker.'

Famous 'Charlie Christian' Bar Pickup 1936-1939

The pickup as seen in this photo is known as the famous 'Charlie Christian'. It is a bar pickup, as in it has the two large magnets as shown in the photo above. The only difference is that the magnets are slightly thinner and are attached to the underside of the top panel of the guitar, thus they are invisible to the eye. The bars are held in place by the three visible screws in a 'Y pattern'. The only part showing is the black and white bobbin and blade protruding from the top of the guitar. In 1939 the short-lived ES250 had the same pickup, only the blade had six individual blades protruding through the bobbin.

'Horseshoe' Magnet 1938-1940 used in Gibson Lapsteels only

Next caption is taken from 'Vintage Guitar' Oct. 2008.

'Gibson's team, headed by Fuller, had initiated changes. By late fall of '37, the dual nickel-steel heavy double bar magnets of the electric Hawaiian guitars had been replaced by a smaller, lighter, cast horseshoe-shaped unit that was attached to the bottom of a now split bar polepiece. The design's inagural use was in Gibson's first electric banjo, custom made for Roy Smeck and shipped November 11, 1937.'

1938-1940 'Horseshoe' magnet, blade and bobbin
1938-1940 Horseshoe magnet
1938-1940 'Horseshoe' magnet
October 1940-Spring 1941 Short lived long pickup on introductory model Es300

'Vintage Guitar' October 2008. 

'In late 1939, Walter Fuller was experimenting with magnets made from the lighter, stronger alloy called Alnico, searching not only for a competitive design, but also proper placement for the best tone in the new generation of ES guitars. The idea for the 6 3/4" P-90 was to capture "full tonal range," as close to an acoustic as an electric could get. The length allowed him to span then distance from the end of the fingerboard to the bridge.....utilizing the basics of the original bar-pickup design, this new coil is comprised of an iron core threaded for the height-adjustable polepieces; a top and bottom of tortishell celluloid complete the coils of the new thinner-profile bobbin. The iron core extends below the bottom plate, and along its exposed length are four Alnico magnets. The coil is attached with two screws...' and is mounted to the guitar, as in the photo above.

Metal P-90 with individual pole pieces used on ES100 & ES150 guitars 1940-1943. It replaced the famous 'Charlie Christian' pickup of the 30's

'Vintage Guitar' October 2008

The Chicago Musical Instrument Trades Show...held in late July, 1940, heralded the debut of Gibson's new electric lineup. The new ES300, in blonde finish (above).....The new ES100 and ES150 would be fitted with a smaller version of the new P-90 hidden under a metal cover next to the bridge. This positioning gave the guitars a more defined lead tone......This point marked the end of regular production for the flagship bar magnet design that had five years earlier launched Gibson into the electric race.'

1941-1943 short-slant P-90 pickup on new ES300

'Vintage Guitar' October 2008

'By Spring of '41, the long P-90 had been replaced by the smaller unit which, though still at a slight angle, was placed just in front of the bridge.' 

As one can see, electromagnetic pickups evolved extensively from 1935 to wartime of 1943. Due to the war, the scarcity of metals and materials, also keeping in mind the war effort had transformed most of the Gibson factory into producing airplane skids and sub-machine gun parts, Gibson's electric pickup evolution came to a standstill until the war ended in the mid-1940's.

1940 P-13 Pickup

Gibson's MESG, budget brand Mastertone Electric Spanish Guitar ad sporting the lower end P-13 pickup without adjustable polepieces.
P-13 pickup (lft) attached by shielded wiring harness to a potentiometer (volume control) and then to an input jack (plug-in for instrument).
Base of the P-13 soldered to the shielded wiring harness. Screws on either side are for raising and lowering the pickup once installed on the instrument.
Side view of the soldered shielded wiring harness and the potentiometer without the bakelite knob.

To see more prewar bakelite knobs, click prewar bakelite knobs.

Side view of how vintage and modern pickups are raised and lowered with the turn of a screw. Raising and lowering helps adjust for tone.
1941 ES150's new P-13 pickup with adjustable polepieces. Just above is the 1940 MESG P-13 without adjustable polepieces. Note that both of the new P-13's were built the same except for the polepieces.