Guitar Tricks Blog

Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickups - What's the Difference?

Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickups

If you're totally new to playing the electric guitar and are still taking beginner guitar lessons, you may notice that there's a wide variety of electric guitars.

The electric guitar comes in all shapes, sizes and colors -- it's something that guitarists love about the instrument. With so many out there, you can choose one that perfectly resonates with your personal style. In addition to visual differences, guitars can greatly vary in sound, too.

A lot of this comes down to the guitar's pickups. While there are tons of pickups out there, from DiMarzios, to Seymour Duncans to Bare Knuckles, the majority fall under two types - humbuckers and single coils. In this article, I'll explain the differences between them and what kind of guitars you can find them in.

First things first, what is a pickup?

A guitar's pickup is a key part of what makes it an "electric" guitar. Played unplugged, an electric guitar, especially compared to an acoustic guitar, can sound relatively thin and quiet. Not ideal if you're playing with a loud drummer! However, once you plug it into a big amp - you can conjure up a powerful sound with solos or barre chords that can bother neighbors, fill stadiums and bring down buildings. It's the pickup that helps makes this happen.

How does a guitar pickup work?

A pickup can be thought of as acting like a microphone that amplifies the guitar's acoustic voice. It does this by "picking up" the vibration of a guitar string and converting it into an electrical signal. 

Electric guitar pickups are magnetic. This means they use electromagnetic induction (moving a magnetic field around a conductor) to change a metal string's vibration into an electric signal. These signals are sent through any onboard controls such as a volume or tone knob, then through an instrument cable that's plugged into an amp.

Many guitar pickups use magnets that are wound with thousands of turns of copper wire. The magnet and copper wire create a magnetic field which is focused on the pickup's pole pieces. Pole pieces are cylindrical magnets that run through the coil and act as magnetic conductors for the individual strings. Often, an electric guitar with six strings will have a pickup with six pole pieces - one for each string. Some pickup designs use one long pole piece, also known as a blade, to pick up the strings' vibrations. How the pole pieces are aligned and spaced affects the pickup's tonal character. 

Pickups with more windings tend to have a higher output and a hotter signal. A guitar with "hot" pickups can get an amp to overdrive and distort quicker as they push the amp harder. They also have a darker tone compared to lower-output pickups. This is why many prefer the brightness of low-output pickups for cleaner guitar sounds, which are great for hearing your guitar scales or more complex guitar chords.

Single Coils

First, let's take a look at single-coil pickups. The first successful single coil was designed by George Beauchamp, who created it for the Hawaiian-style "Frying Pan" guitar. They're closely associated with Fender and Squier models such as the Stratocaster, Telecaster and Jaguar. Single coils are known for having a bright, clear and detailed tonal character. This works especially well when playing in a group, where you want your sound to stand out without being too loud or "cut through the mix".

Snap Central

The crisp, articulate and snappy sound of a single coil pickup means they excel at cleaner tones with less distortion. You'll often see single coil-equipped guitars used in Pop, Indie, Funk, Country and Blues styles where clean sounds are common. On the other hand, Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine notoriously creates a thick, heavy tone using the neck pickup of his Telecaster and a Marshall stack. During your guitar-playing journey, it's important to remember that there are no rules. If it sounds good to you - do it!

The Dreaded Hum

A drawback of single-coil pickups is that they're prone to extraneous noise, hum and feedback. This means you need to be careful when using them with a lot of gain or distortion. A Strat can get around this by using positions 2 or 4, where two pickups are engaged (more on this later). While a lot of single coils, especially vintage ones, have this flaw, some modern single-coil pickups employ a noise-cancelling design. 

A Closer Look

Single coil pickups are called so because it describes exactly how they're built. Most single coils are made by wrapping copper wire around six pole pieces that are held in place by the top and bottom flatwork. Check out the diagram below to see exactly how a single-coil is constructed. 

Pros of Single Coils

Bright, crisp and clear tone with superb high-end response.

Cut through the mix, making it easier for you to be heard in a band setting.

Excel with dense, effect-laden tones a la Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine.

Ideal for expressive playing styles where you want to hear the detail of individual notes.

Cons of Single Coils

Prone to 60 Cycle Hum and squealing feedback, especially with a lot of gain/distortion.

Thinner tonal character and lower output may not be ideal for high-gain tones.

 

Humbuckers

Secondly, we'll discuss dual-coil pickups -- more commonly known as humbuckers. Although the first humbucking coil was created by Electro-Voice back in 1934, it wasn't designed for use with electric guitars until the fifties.

There's debate as to who created the first humbucker for guitar. Gibson's Seth Lover and Gretsch's Raymond "Ray" Butts were working on humbucker designs independently of each other at the same time. Although there's evidence that Butts created the Filter'Tron earlier (at the request of Chet Atkins), Lover's PAF is often cited as the first humbucker. The association with the Gibson Les Paul, one of the most iconic electric guitars of all time, is a major reason why.

Ultimately, both Lover and Butts' creations had a huge impact on guitar technology and their contributions are on par. Popular music wouldn't be the same without them!

Two Coils Are Better Than One?

A typical humbucker is essentially two single coils mounted side-by-side. These coils are wound in opposite directions, which cancels out or "bucks" the hum and noise that can arise with single-coil pickups. As well as reducing noise, this design results in a sound that's thicker and punchier with more pronounced mid-range frequencies. That's why humbuckers are often used for high-gain guitar styles like Rock, Metal and Punk. They're also favoured by Jazz guitarists, who appreciate the warm tone a humbucking pickup provides.

Best of Both Worlds

While a humbucker delivers less noise and a warmer, fatter tone, it's at the expense of a single-coil's crispness and clarity.

An advantage of a humbucker is that it can be "coil-split", where one of the humbucker's coils is disabled. This brings it closer to the tone of a single-coil. A lot of electric guitars are equipped with both humbuckers and single-coils for extra versatility. The most common format is "HSS", with a single coil in the neck and middle position and a humbucker in the bridge. This is ideal if you're playing a song where you need to switch between crisp clarity and thick punch.