Choosing the right pickups for the tone you want doesn’t need to be hard work
A question that beginners often ask is “What’s the difference between humbucker vs single coil pickups?”. In this article we’ll address the differences between them whilst touching on guitar models and musical styles.
Everyone’s got their favourite
If you play electric guitars you will no doubt have a preference when it comes to your sound, and this is especially true when it comes to choosing pickups – even if you don’t know it yet. The pickups within an electric guitar have a huge impact on how a guitar sounds, and you may be leaning towards a certain tonal character or style before you even pick up a guitar. There are two main types of pickup to choose from: humbucker and single coil. Saying which one is right for you is like saying which band you prefer: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. It’s all subjective and there’s no right or wrong answer as you can enjoy both.
Why do some people seem to be one-sided when it comes to humbucker vs single coil?
It boils down to how you like your guitar to sound, what musical style you’re playing at the time, and how you want your guitar to interact with your other gear, i.e. amp and effects, as well as how your tone stands up against other members of the band. However, certain pickups and configurations will make the job infinitely easier. Players who crave versatility have a bit of everything on the go, whereas straight up hardcore metallers want it loud and proud and won’t settle for anything less.
Let’s run through the differences between humbuckers and single coils so that you’re more informed when it comes to crafting your ideal setup.
How does a pickup work?
The construction and principle functionality behind most pickups are the same. Cylindrical polepieces (magnets) or ferrous metal slugs with bar magnet beneath them (P-90s) are wound with copper wire. Small voltages are created in the wire cold when the magnetic field of the magnet is disturbed. The polepieces/slugs are spaced out in alignment with each string on the guitar, which can obviously vary depending on how many strings the instrument has. By making the winds smooth and even, the pickup produces a characteristically darker response. However, scatter-wound coils produce a much sharper result and it is these scatter-wound types that are widely regarded as some of the most coveted pickups ever made. Perfection isn’t always the best.
The method of construction described above could be used as an example of a single-coil pickup. The single-coil design detects and responds to the vibrations of a guitar string, which is then amplified and turned into sound. Characteristically bright sounding, single coils also allow interference to be picked up quite easily.
Simply put, humbuckers have two coils rather than one. These coils are wound and then set out in such a way as to reject noise and interference using phase cancellation. The result is a deeper, louder and smoother sound compared to that of a single coil.
Active or passive?
Though, we cover this in greater deal in our article “What is the difference between active and passive pickups?“, we’ll touch on a brief description here.
Passive pickups don’t require an external power source to do the job, which in many ways is more favourable to guitarists who don’t fancy having an endless supply of 9-Volt batteries within easy reach.
Active pickups do require an external sound source, but they make the most of it by incorporating many features such as onboard active EQ and a consistency of tone that is perfect for those who want to create a sustained sonic assault, i.e. metallers of the world unite!
But, which pickup is right for me?
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s best to discuss how each pickup sounds first as both single-coil pickups and humbuckers have their individual tones.
Guitarists will tend to say that single-coil pickups have a brighter or twangier sound, often describing them as having more of a bite. When coupled with an overdriven valve amp however, they can really sound gritty. Alternatively, turn that overdrive sound down and you get a chiming glassy tone often associated with the likes of 60s-style guitar sound, where you get a clean tone that cuts through the mix.
Although you can use a single-coil guitar for any style of music you wish, they are often favoured by blues, country, rockabilly and surf guitarists. However, in modern times, with many different musical genres and styles taking over the airwaves, they are favoured by those who want to be able to flit between softly-does-it melodies to harsh riffs in an instant. The likes of Bruce Springsteen favours Telecasters, whereas Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro and the late Jimi Hendrix go hand-in-hand with Stratocasters. The capabilities are endless, and you are only hindered by your imagination.
Jump straight to our selection of single-coil models on the Dawsons Website across various configurations such as:
Here’s some guitars with single-coils/P-90s you really should try if you haven’t already:
1. Fender Player Series Stratocaster
2. Fender Player Series Telecaster
3. Epiphone Riviera Custom P93
4. Gibson Les Paul Junior Tribute DC
Single-coil pickups, like those found on Telecasters and Stratocasters as well as Gibson Les Paul’s first began to appear in the 1930s. Since then they have become one of the most widely sought-after pickups in the world. However, when they first appeared there was an inherent hum.
Even today, the louder you turn your amp up the more noise a single coil will emit. The new Fender Elite range feature N4 noiseless pickups, which do a great job of cancelling out that hum though, so they’re definitely worth checking out.
To combat this hum back in the day, Electro-Voice, an audio company based in Indiana USA created the “humbucking coil” in 1934. This was then further developed for electric guitars by Seth Lover of Gibson whilst Ray Butts from Gretsch was also working on a version.
Enter the Humbucker…
As noted above, humbucker pickups contain two single-coil pickups that are out of phase with each other. This cancels out the hum associated with single coils. Their high tolerance for hum and noise reducing capabilities, amongst other benefits, has seen the humbucker become favoured more with the likes of rock and metal guitarists.
Humbuckers are often seen on the guitars of heavy rock and metal players and associated with the likes of Gibson guitars. However, feature in a wide variety of guitars such as Gretsch and ESP for example. Bands such as Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin made great use of guitar with humbuckers in and rock and metal bands still use them to this day. However, they are by no means a one-trick pony as the likes of softer rock bands such as Band of Horses for example use Les Paul guitars to great effect.
The sound of a humbucker is often described as thicker, heavier and fuller sounding. They often tend to lack the cutting or biting sound associated with single coils. However, they offer a much fuller sound which is why it’s favoured by bands that player darker, heavier music. If you’re a fan of rock and metal, maybe guitars with single coils would be right for you. But by no means should you feel that you can’t play blues, jazz or even pop with a humbucker.
There are even such things as mini humbuckers, which offer the power and punch of a humbucker in a delightfully compact form.
Head here if you want to check out our selection of guitars with humbuckers.
However, we’ve cherry picked some absolute beauties for you:
1. Epiphone DC Pro
2. Gretsch G5655TG Electromatic Centre Block Jr
3. PRS SE Custom 24 Roasted Maple
‘But wait, what if I want a bit of both?’
Well you’re in luck my friend. There’s no need to be bound to one style of pickup or have to choose between humbucker vs single coil, when there are so many guitars out there incorporating both in the same set up. Thanks to brands like Fender, ESP and many more, you can switch between the cutting, chiming tones of a single coil, then throw yourself into a huge humbucking solo at the flick of a switch.
This offers players far more versatility and a variety of different tones. So, if you can’t decide what sound you like, maybe try out a few of these guitars that marry humbuckers and single coils to perfection.
1. Ibanez SA460QM
2. Yamaha Pacifica 212VQM
3. Ibanez TQM-1 Tom Quayle Signature
Making the final decision
When it comes to choosing humbucker vs single coil, you should always choose the one that you think sounds best. If you want to play heavy metal with single-coils or classical music with a Gibson SG – you go ahead. There is all manner of pickup configurations on there, and not only that but different manufacturers utilise different materials and different proprietary construction techniques in the process.
The key as always is to try out as many as you can and get the guitar that suits you and your preferences. Sure, take guidance, read books/blogs/magazines, watch tutorials and reviews, but ultimately it comes down to what is right for you.
Above all…have fun!
Get in touch
Check out our complete range of electric guitars over at the Dawsons Website. Alternatively, head to your local Dawsons Music store where our in-store specialists will be more than happy to help you out.
If you liked that then you might like this
So, we’ve gone through the humbucker vs single coil debate, but what about the other biggie? As noted above, we go into greater detail with regard to “What is the difference between active and passive pickups?“, which you should definitely check out if you’re unsure.
To find out the difference between coil split and coil tap, check out our aptly titled article “How Do Coil Tap & Split Coil Pickups Work?“.
Fancy yourself as a bit of a Gibson aficionado? Then make sure that your already impressive knowledge of the brand is up to date with our “Guide to Gibson Pickups“.
Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns. After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery.