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Humbuckers VS Single Coil pickups – A Beginners Guide

Humbuckers VS Single Coil pickups – A Beginners Guide

We guide you through the differences between Single Coil and Humbucker pickups

A question beginners often ask is “What’s the difference between humbucker pickups and single coil pickups?”. In this blog we’ll address the differences and offer some history about each style. Plus, the type of musicians who might play them.

If you play electric guitars you will no doubt have a preference when it comes to your sound. This is especially true when it comes to choice of 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 often how music will sound too. You may be leaning towards a certain style before you even pick up a guitar. You may not even know it yet! There are two main differences in pickups to choose from – the single coil and the humbucker. 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.

It boils down to how you like your guitar to sound. However, there might be a certain type of guitar that is right for you and the music you want to play. So today we’re going to explain the differences between humbucker pickups and single coils to give you a better idea when it comes to choosing your perfect set up.

Similarities and Differences

Before we actually discuss the differences, it’s good to know that all magnetic pickups work in pretty much the same way. Pickups contain magnets wrapped with wire, or more aptly coils of wire. A common pickup found on a six string guitar has six magnetic pole pieces which sits under each string. Modern advances in pickups mean that they can have a single bar magnet which is also wrapped with coils of wire. When you pluck or hit the string, the pickup generates a low powered electronic signal. Then sends it to an amplifier and a speaker. Yes, they work in the same way, but two different pickups can sound very different.

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 are left with a chiming glassy tone often associated with the likes of 60s style guitars. This is where you really get a clean sound 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 and historically surf guitarists. However in modern times, with the likes of prog rock and indie 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 are known for their use of Stratocasters. The capabilities are endless and you are only hindered by your imagination.

Single Coil Pickups

Here’s three guitars with single coil pickups you really should try one day.

gallery of startocaster, gibson and telecaster

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…

Humbucker pickups contain two single coil pickups that have been wired out of phase with each other. This causes the hum associated with single coils to be cancelled out. 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, they can be found 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.
If you are going to try out an electric guitar with humbuckers, you should consider the following models.

Gibson Les Paul

Gibson SG

Gretsch Streamliner

Can I have both style pickups in my guitar?

Yes, you sure can. There’s no need to be bound to one style of pickup 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 couple both a humbucker and single coil.

Ibanez SA460QM

Ibanez SA460QM

Fender American Elite Strat Shawbucker


Sterling by Music Man SUB SILO3

When it comes to choosing guitars, 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. Try out as many as you can and get the guitar that suits you, and above all have fun.

About The Author

Lee Glynn

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. Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.