Single Coil or Humbucking Pickups – What is the Best for your Electric Guitar?

by Men Leblanc

In this article we will take a look at some of the differences between Humbucking pickups and Single Coil pickups, both technically and tonally. Many think, “Isn’t a Humbucker just two Single Coils side by side?” The answer is actually yes and no as they both provide quite distinct tonal and technical characteristics.

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There have been lots of attempts to utilize both tones in one instrument or pickup, but the over all opinion is that a guitar is either use one or the other. Like they say, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

To begin, let’s talk a bit about how a pickup works. A guitar pickup is more or less a magnet that puts out a magnetic field directly above the pickup. The magnet picks up the vibrations of the strings and sends the signal to your amp to be amplified.

The majority of pickups in electric guitars are passive meaning that they do not have any kind of pre-amp and it is the amp’s job to boost the signal.

On the other hand, an active pickup uses weaker magnets than passive pickups but has a pre-amp to boost the signal output to a reasonable level. Active pickups are usually in acoustic guitars but can be seen in a few electric guitars too.

Single Coils were the earliest pickups. The initial single coil guitar pickups were released in the late 1920’s. A single coil pickup, as the name implies, is composed up of a single coil of wire spun in one direction (either clockwise or counter clockwise) around the pole pieces. The pole pieces are the circular metal pieces under each string.

One of the problems in the first single coil pickups was that they picked up a lot of electromagnetic interference from other electric machinery or radio waves, which caused a buzz or hum.

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Humbuckers were invented to eliminate the electromagnetic interference. They use two coils, which are wound in opposing directions to give each coil conflicting polarity. This would stop the electromagnetic interference and help stop the hum, thus creating a “hum-bucking” pickup.

Humbuckers did not start showing up in guitars until the mid 1950’s. When it comes to tonal variations, it gets a little more difficult to explain and really comes down to personal opinions and preferences.

Lots of people believe humbuckers are for distortion and overdrive, and single coils are for clean patches. This isn’t necessarily the case because many guitarists use single coils for high gain distortion and others use humbuckers exclusively for clean tone.

Humbuckers tend to have a greater output because they utilize two coils which does make them simpler to distort. However, several jazz box guitars have humbuckers and are nearly always used for a clean patch. They make a thicker and darker clean tone than single coils do.

The clean from single coils is a more sparkly high type clean that is often associated with country or “Eric Clapton Style” blues. They also are not as quick to overdrive as humbuckers. When single coils are played through a smooth tube overdrive, you can still hear the clean shining through where it gets lost with a humbucker.

Typical guitars that have humbuckers are the Gibson Les Paul, Gibson SG, most PRS models, most Ibanez guitars, and nearly all hollow body Guild’s and Gretch’s. The most usual single coil guitars are the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster.

Since their introduction, each sort of pickup has become more versatile. Some humbuckers have the alternative of coil splitting or tapping.

This is the capacity to effectively shut off one of the coils in the pickup which can give a fairly nice interpretation of a single coil pickup.

Single coils have gotten a great deal better about electromagnetic interference and there are quite a few “noiseless” single coil pickups available.

However, this does not solve the single coil vs. humbucker conundrum because you only get a solid emulation.

Fender guitars have tried to solve the question by producing the “Fat Strat,” which makes use of a humbucking pickup at the bridge position and two single coil pickups in the common Stratocaster position.

It does thicken the tone when using the humbucker, nevertheless there isn’t the option running two humbuckers at once as you can in a Gibson Les Paul or SG for a really saturated overdrive. The guitar also loses some of the capability to make the very twangy bridge tone you can achieve with the single coil pickup.

Single coils and humbuckers are completely different animals, and if you want both sounds, you need two guitars. If you need to choose one guitar, the best way to go about it is to go play several different guitars with different pickups through different amps and choose the one you like best.

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