When it comes to electric guitars there are a number of design and construction elements that can have an impact on their tone, but none that have quite as much impact as the type of pickups they have installed.
There are a few different types available, but by far the most common are single coil, and humbucking pickups. Both types are effectively designed to do the same job, but they go about things in a slightly different way, resulting in a noticeable difference in sound.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ve taken a deep dive into these 2 popular pickup types. You’ll find some information about their history, their construction and how they work, what type of tones you can expect from them, some pros and cons of each, and which applications they are best suited to.
If you’ve been looking for a new guitar and you’re unsure as to whether you want to go with single coil pickups or humbuckers, you’re definitely going to want to keep on reading.
- Primary Difference Between Humbuckers and Single Coil Pickups
- How do Magnetic Pickups Work?
- Single Coil Pickups
- Humbucking Pickups
- Final Thoughts on Single Coils vs. Humbucking Pickups
Primary Difference Between Humbuckers and Single Coil Pickups
In a nutshell, the most basic differences between humbuckers and single coil pickups are in their tone, and their susceptibility to, or, their ability to protect against interference from external electrical sources.
Single coil pickups produce a clearer tone than humbuckers, with a greater emphasis on the upper mid and high frequencies. They are bright and spanky, making them popular with guitarists who play clean styles of music, but they still handle overdrive and distortion very well. They offer excellent note separation and top performance with time based effects.
Humbuckers are generally warmer, and fatter in tone than single coil pickups. Whereas single coils have a brighter, more treble focused sound, humbuckers reproduce more of the mid range and lower mid frequencies. They have a higher voltage output than single coil pickups, too making them louder at equivalent amp volume settings.
The design of a single coil pickup effectively turns it into a small antenna. The result of this is that they are more susceptible to electromagnetic interference from power sources near to them. Consequently, they produce 60 cycle hum, which is an undesirable buzzing noise, when amplified. In addition to the hum, they also tend to be microphonic, and as a result, can amplify noises heard in the room.
Humbuckers were designed specifically to counteract this interference, and are much quieter. So, while single coil pickups are famed for their clarity, humbuckers are still capable of some fantastic clean tones, and are often favored by jazz and blues players, as well as others who tend to play unaccompanied.
How do Magnetic Pickups Work?
This guide might be about the differences between single coil and humbucking pickups, but ultimately, all magnetic pickups work based on the same principles.
Every magnetic pickup, as you might imagine, contains magnets. Those magnets on their own do nothing, but when they are wrapped in coils of wire, they become capable of inducing electrical current, and that current is necessary to amplify the sound of the guitar.
Most modern pickups have 1 pole piece per string. The pole pieces are the exposed ends of the magnets that interact with the strings as they vibrate. It’s worth noting, however, that some pickups work with one wire wrapped bar magnet oriented across the width of the strings instead, although this isn’t as common.
As the strings of the guitar vibrate, they cut in and out of the magnetic field created by the pickups, causing a low voltage electrical signal to be produced by the coils. The signal travels out of the guitar, into the amplifier, where it is amplified to a voltage that is sufficient to power your speakers.
Single Coil Pickups
Depending on the type of single coil pickup you have, there will either be a single magnet running across the width of the unit, or multiple individual magnets with a pole piece directly under each string. The most common types of magnets in use are alnico and ceramic, although other types are also available.
The first known single coil pickup to be attached to a guitar was invented by George Beauchamp, who later went on to start Rickenbacker Guitars. His magnetic pickup design was used on a Hawaiian style steel guitar known as “the Frying Pan”, named after its unique looks. The pickup that Beauchamp designed made use of 2 horseshoe style magnets, and was referred to as a horseshoe pickup.
Beauchamp’s design proved to be incredibly successful, and led to more manufacturers creating their own single coil magnetic pickups in order to amplify their acoustic guitars.
Good quality single coil pickups produce some of the clearest and brightest tones you’ll hear on any guitar. Players looking for clean tones often turn to single coils for their needs. They typically offer superior note separation, which is a big plus for those who play delicate, nuanced styles of music, particularly fingerstyle.
Players who use a lot of time and reverb based effects also tend to gravitate towards single coil pickups. The additional clarity helps to maintain the integrity of the signal, so there is less muddiness introduced as the input decays over time. The same is also true when layering effects – remember, the quality of the input signal will have the biggest effect on the quality of the output.
Single coil pickups are notorious for how easily they pick up on electrical interference. This noise comes through amplifiers as a background buzzing sound, and is technically referred to as 60 cycle hum. The humming noise can come from almost any electrical equipment, but charging cables and household lighting are the most common sources.
Another notable downside to single coil pickups is feedback, something that they are much more prone to than humbuckers. While feedback can be intentional, and in some cases desirable, uncontrolled and unwanted feedback sounds truly awful, and in extreme cases, can potentially cause damage to the voice coil of your speakers, not to mention your ears and those of anybody listening!
The microphonic nature of single coil pickups is another con that people don’t often consider. Even with strings muted or removed, single coil pickups are capable of picking up ambient noise and playing it through your amp – this is particularly noticible with sharp, loud noises like bangs and claps – so playing close by a drummer can be a real challenge. The effect is much more noticeable with ceramic pickups, particularly poorly made cheap examples.
Types of Single Coil Pickup
The single coil pickup that most people automatically think of is the standard single coil, such as those seen on Stratocasters and other similar guitars. These pickups are easily recognizable by their long and narrow shape, and the 6 exposed pole pieces.
The narrow design means that they are only picking up on a small, but highly focused area of each string, and this increases the frequency with which the strings break the magnetic field. It is this design that gives them their famous high mids and treble response.
The P90 was invented by Gibson engineers way back in 1946. It was their own take on the single coil pickups that preceded it, and due to its unique design, it actually sounds quite different. P90 pickups have 2 magnets underneath a single large, flat coil with individual pole pieces for each string.
The resulting tone from this design is somewhere in between a humbucker and a standard single coil. It’s thinner and brighter than a humbucker, but fatter and more aggressive with high gain than other single coils, and this is primarily due to the fact that the active area of the pickup is wider than a standard single coil.
Telecasters are known for their extremely bright, twangy sound. This comes from the fact that their bridge pickups are mounted on a steel plate. The resulting sound has extreme treble response, similar to that of a lap steel. It’s this classic Telecaster tone that has made this style of guitar so popular in country and surf style music.
Modern Hum Canceling Single Pole Pickups
In the 1990s, a lot of research was conducted into how to create a true single coil pickup that retained the tonal benefits, but without the noise. A brand by the name of Kinman Guitar Electrix produced a number of prototypes, initially based on Fender style single coils, and eventually adapted the design for P90s.
Kinman’s design was unique insomuch as they incorporated iron into the core of the noise sensing coil. The iron content boosted the sensitivity of the coil, and allowed the pickup to better detect the presence of noise. It wasn’t long before the use of iron and differential coil winding methods became commonplace, and major manufacturers like Seymour Duncan adopted the tech and incorporated it into their “noiseless” single coil designs.
Humbuckers were never designed to sound different to single coil pickups. The original intention for their invention was to reduce and remove the 60 cycle hum interference that plagued single coil guitars. At the time of their invention in the 1950s, electrical isolation on equipment was poor to say the least, so the interference was much more significant.
In the simplest possible terms, a humbucking pickup is effectively 2 single coil pickups mounted next to each other. The magnets on the second coil have reversed polarity, and the coils are connected to each other out of phase. This design cancels or “bucks” any hum that is picked up by the first coil by way of phase cancelation, resulting in a quieter, and yet more powerful pickup.
Like the P90, humbuckers specifically designed for guitars were also invented by a Gibson engineer by the name of Seth Lover. It is worth noting that Gretsch partnered with an engineer by the name of Ray Butts and developed their own humbucker around the same time as Gibson.
As briefly mentioned, the purpose behind the design was to eliminate the hum caused by the interference picked up by single coils. What Lover didn’t anticipate was that the humbucker would sound so drastically different. The tones it produced were warmer, and richer than those from existing single coil designs, and because the electrical signal produced by the pickups was stronger, they were louder, too.
The dark, mellow tones made them immediately popular with blues, jazz, and soul guitarists. They got fat, smooth tones, and all without the noise they had previously needed to deal with. As the 60s rolled around, guitarists also realized that the louder humbuckers would net them the heavy, overdriven tones that they were looking for.
The most obvious benefit of humbuckers is that which they were designed to do – they reduce unwanted noise. This is ideal for those who frequently play in venues with high levels of electrical interference, and especially valuable for those who record at home, as cutting the unwanted 60 cycle hum can be challenging with limited equipment and standard household electrical shielding.
While humbuckers are quieter when it comes to unwanted noise, one of their biggest benefits is their ability to introduce noise by way of tube saturation. While all magnetic pickups are also able to do this, the higher output of humbuckers in comparison with single coil pickups means that they are more readily able to saturate the tubes of a valve amp and create ear pleasing overdrive.
Because of their naturally dark tones, humbuckers, especially cheaper examples can lack clarity and sound muddy, particularly when trying to play clean. Additionally, because humbuckers are physically larger than single coil pickups, they take up more space on the guitar – so in some cases, you might be limited to just 2 pickups and a 3 way selector switch, reducing the number of available tones over a 3 single coil/5 way selector setup.
Types of Humbucking Pickup
PAF (Patent Applied For)
The PAF humbucker is the classic design you’ll find in Les Pauls and SGs. In fact, the Les Paul was the first mass manufactured guitar to feature humbuckers, further adding to its historical significance.
PAF humbuckers are rectangular in shape, and usually have a metal cover, although sometimes they are fitted without the cover, exposing the pole pieces and are thus referred to as open coil style. They achieve excellent noise reduction while simultaneously putting out the quintessential fat humbucking tone.
Rail humbuckers are a more contemporary approach to the humbucking pickup. They are closer to the size of a Strat style single coil, and solve the space issue that comes with PAF pickups while losing only a small amount of the thickness of tone. They are made with a single magnet that matches the distance from the 1st to the 6th string, and 2 very slim coils.
These pickups typically fit into the single coil routs in Strats and other S Style guitars, making them (in most cases) an easy drop in for those who want humbucker tones without having to make permanent modifications to their guitar’s body.
Stacked humbuckers blend elements of rail humbuckers and PAF humbuckers to create a compact noise canceling pickup. They get their name from the fact that rather than having 2 coils side by side, the coils are stacked one on top of the other.
Borrowing from PAF design, stacked humbuckers are wired out of phase for noise reduction, and like rail pickups, they can often fit into a standard single coil channel in a guitar body.
Coil Splitting Humbuckers
Some players want to have both single coil and humbucker tones available in the bridge position, or in the neck. With conventional designs, this simply isn’t possible, however with coil splitting, it’s actually quite straight forward.
These pickups are primarily humbuckers, but by activating a switch, or in some cases pulling out a pot, one of the two coils of the pickup is deactivated and they become single coil. In come cases an intentional short circuit deactivates the coil, but most commonly, one of the coils is simply bypassed.
When playing with split coils, you won’t get true Fender, or even P90 type tones, but you will still get a noticeably thinner sound,but, because you’ve bypassed the buzz canceling second coil, 60 cycle hum will be introduced if you play near to sources of electrical interference.
Some guitars, like the Fender Jaguar, even feature blend controls that allow for progressive cutting of the second coil, giving an even wider range of possible tonal options.
Parallel and Series Wiring
While not necessarily a different style of humbucker, pickups with the ability to switch between parallel and series wiring can also produce different tones. In the standard position the coils of a humbucker are wired in series, and this results in the expected thick humbucker tone.
However, when switching to parallel mode, the pickup will sound closer to a pair of single coil pickups being played together, and, it will also retain its hum reduction properties.
Final Thoughts on Single Coils vs. Humbucking Pickups
A lot of newer players research single coils and humbuckers looking to find “which is better”, but in reality, both styles suit different genres and different players, and there is no better pickup of the two.
When you know what style of music it is you’d like to play, or the tones you’d like to achieve, you should have a much better idea of which pickup type will work best for you. If you can’t decide, remember humbuckers and single coils aren’t mutually exclusive! There are plenty of guitars with mixed pickup layouts that can provide all the tones you’re looking for.