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Humbucker vs. Single Coil – Which Pickup is Right for You?

31/07/2022

The birth of the modern guitar. Pickups are what makes an electric guitar… well, electric! Designed to “pick up” your string vibrations and hurl them through an amplifier, they’re responsible for the glorious roars we hear through our speakers. They come in two main flavours, humbuckers and single coils, each having a vast difference in tone to suit different musical needs.

Indeed, out of all the things that contribute to your electric guitar sound, pickups are arguably the biggest factor. So, with this in mind, which pickup is right for you?

In this article, we’ll discuss the humbucker vs. single coil debate, go over the benefits of both types of pickup, and suggest some guitars that feature each type.

In a hurry?

Here’s a quick breakdown of the main differences between each pickup:

 

Single coils

  • Are generally lower output and “quieter”, but brighter and clearer in tone
  • Often possess a “twangy” sonic character with plenty of bite and high-end cut
  • Great for soulful blues and indie rock genres
  • Also respond well to FX pedals and sound shaping thanks to their clarity

Humbuckers

  • Are essentially two single coils bound together in reverse polarity, creating a thicker sound that cancels out the “hum” found in some single coils
  • Thicker in tone, have higher output, and respond well to distortion – extremely popular for rock and heavy music and even jazz for their warm tones
  • However, a humbucker design means your tone is naturally coloured and lacking in sharp clarity, giving them slightly less responsiveness and “bite”
  • Ideal for achieving higher volumes thanks to their powerful output

What is a pickup and where did it come from?

But first, a bit of history. Why was the pickup introduced to the guitar?

Well, acoustics simply weren’t loud enough! Musicians would often struggle to be heard over big band ensembles and consequently would play their fingers raw trying to stand out in the mix. This need for volume led to some ingenious inventors cobbling together the first-ever guitar pickups.

Made from magnets and copper wires, these new-fangled pickups converted the vibrations of the strings into an electrical signal, which could then be amplified. With this extra volume and electrified tone, the guitar was free to evolve into the many wild and wonderful forms we see today – all thanks to the gizmo at the centre of the instrument.


Pickup output

The most common term you’ll see thrown around when pickups are discussed, “output” simply refers to the strength of the signal that the pickups generate. In simplified terms, the stronger the signal that passes through your amp, the more readily it will distort or break up.

Therefore, the higher output your pickups are, the more dirty or crunchy the resulting tone will be. It’s not the only way to create distortion, but it helps establish that base sound. But for now, it’s useful to know that moderate output leads to cleaner sounds, whereas a higher output will generally produce much frothier distortions.

Seymour Duncan and Fishman pickups

Humbucker vs. single coil

To give you an idea of the musical strengths of each pickup variety, we’ll look at which genres you’ll typically find each set in. That said, it’s important to remember that it certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule, and part of the joy of music is experimenting with equipment in different genres!


Single coil

The original pickup. Single coils are often found in blues, jazz, country, funk, and indie pop music. They emit a rich, twangy sound which is excellent for lyrical blues and funk songs. Meanwhile, jazz, indie and pop styles benefit from the brighter sounds that single coils produce.

Because they’re so responsive to playing dynamics, you can generate rich clucks and twangs when striking the strings with more energy, making them great for the quick stabbing rhythms of funk or the soulful string bends of blues.

Modern single coils come in a massive variety, ranging from low-output vintage-style pups that recreate the warbly sounds from classic rock ‘n’ roll records to hot rail-style pickups that cram two magnets into one single coil housing, effectively doubling the output (but also not quite making it a humbucker).


Humbucker

The mighty humbucker. These formidable pickups have rock written all over them. Made by essentially sticking two single coils together in reverse polarity, they were originally conceived to “buck” the 60-cycle hum present on early pickups. And while they did this successfully, sticking two magnets together also resulted in a much meatier sound!

From crunchy classic ’70s through to the rowdiest modern metalcore, you’ll find humbuckers at the heart of any heavy style. That’s thanks to their naturally increased output and darker sonics that make your guitar’s tone much thicker and chunkier. But it’s not just metal and rock that’s made a home for the humbucker – jazz musicians love them too! Their warm tones and rich sustain make them a favourite for clean players.

And just like with single coils, the design variations are endless. There’s everything from vintage windings and plain enamel wire that lend a mellower, bluesy sound to modern ceramic pickups that offer an aggressive attack for metal styles.

You can also get yourself high-output ‘super’ versions that are designed specifically for higher gain playing, just bear in mind that the typical humbucker will also sound darker and thicker than the typical single coil.


Others?

You may also encounter pickups called P90s or wide single coils. They’re excellent for capturing classic ’50s rock tones before the advent of the humbucker or for those times single coils just aren’t powerful enough. As a result, they’ve thrived in indie rock scenes due to their thicker yet still bright sound.

humbuckers

How does pickup construction affect sound?

Now that we have a general idea of humbuckers and single coils, the next matter is how their components affect the sound they produce. It helps to understand these components as you’ll often see mention of this in guitar specs. Terms like “alnico”, “windings”, and “output” often crop up, and if you’re not familiar with them it can be a little confusing as to what they mean. So, let’s break it down.

We mentioned that a pickup is basically a magnet with wire wrapped around it. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the type of magnet used plays a huge part in deciding your sound. Luckily, there are basically two types you’ll encounter, which makes it easy to distinguish them. These two types are alnico and ceramic magnets.


Alnico

So, we sort of cheated back then, alnico is the first type of magnet, but it most commonly comes in three varieties: II, III, and V. Confusingly, the numbers don’t correspond with how much output they give. III is the weakest, with II in the middle, and V yielding the highest output. Alnico IV does exist, but it’s a rarer find than the main three, and tonally it sits beneath V with a more pronounced clarity.

Alnico is an alloy of aluminium, nickel, and cobalt. Different blends of these materials result in varying pickup characteristics, which is why there are multiple types!

Alnico II – Usually found in vintage voiced pickups or pickups aiming for a cleaner, sweeter sound. That’s because these are the lower output, capturing a rich, lyrical sound as it picks up a greater amount of your string vibrations. You’ll see them in humbuckers that are aiming for a more classic rock style or in the middle position of single coils for bold-sounding chords.

Alnico III – The lowest output. Because it has the least magnetic strength, it captures all the details of your string vibrations. These work great in neck positions where your string vibrations travel the most, leading to a sound that’s developed and twangy – especially in single coils. It does mean that these would struggle for any sort of heavy genre that needs lots of drive or distortion.

Alnico V – The strongest of the bunch, these are fantastic for anything that needs a bit of punch and power. Their higher output means you’ll see these crop up in pickups designed for rock, heavier music, and even metal.

Ceramic: Usually found in metal and hard rock-focused guitars, ceramic pickups offer the highest level of output due to the strong magnetic field they produce. This will draw out a huge signal to blast through your amp, leading to some crushing distortion.


Windings

There are magnets, then there’s the wire wrapped around them. That’s what “windings” is referring to, the number of coils around the magnets. Generally, the more windings you have, the higher the output there’ll be. Pickups with a lot of winds are known as “hot-wound” pickups, as your tone will be that little bit extra hot.

Fender single coil

Active vs. passive pickups

So, there’s one last thing we need to discuss, and that’s active vs. passive pickups. Passive pickups are the “normal” type with no extra circuitry, just like we’ve discussed so far. Active pickups are a bit different as they contain a battery-powered preamp that boosts the pickup signal and can shape your tone.

Active pickups are by far the highest output sets available, that’s thanks to the extra juice their preamp gifts your signal. Designed to maximise signal and minimise noise, they deliver a formidable punch which is loved by metal and rock players.

But it’s not all just about heavy scenes, as some players use them in cleaner genres to great effect. With bright tones and minimal noise, they can also shine in any style where your guitar needs a clear voice.

That’s the basics of active pickups, but as you explore the range, you’ll find ones which do exciting things to your tone with in-built switches. Fishman Fluence pickups, for instance, are known for the multiple-voiced pickups that can change up your sound on the fly.

With all that said, there are many players that prefer passive pickups (and they are by far the most common) for their softer dynamics and more natural tone. With passives, you’re also free from the hassle of replacing batteries!

What’s out there

It’s time to get inspired! Here’s a choice selection of guitars with differing pickup layouts to get your tone tongues salivating.

For the ultimate classic in humbucking guitars, look no further than the Les Paul. The first guitar to wield the mighty pickup, this iconic instrument has bags of vintage charm updated for the modern-day player. Expect rich tones great for rock and blues.

For a similar rock ‘n’ crunch but with more versatility, the PRS SE Custom 24-08 features humbuckers with individual coil taps, allowing you to think out the sound with the flick of a switch.

If you’re looking for the quintessential single-coil twang on a budget, the Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Tele delivers the vintage voicing that so many guitarists adore. It’s great for everything from blues and surfer rock to indie-pop and rock.

But for a classic single-coil vibe in the vein of Hendrix and SRV, PRS’ SE Silver Sky uses a triple single-coil layout and a five-way selector to afford you heaps of versatility. These particular pickups are wound to John Mayer’s specification, tuned for minimal muddiness and maximum clarity in each note.

How about a best-of-both-worlds approach? The Fender American Pro II Strat features a humbucker in the bridge and single coils at the middle and neck for a truly flexible voicing. The bridge humbucker counteracts the sometimes-overly-bright bridge voicing and comes in handy for punchy rock leads or rhythms.

FAQs

What is the benefit of humbucker pickups?

Humbucker pickups offer benefits like reduced hum and noise, thick tone, high output, and versatility. They excel in rock, metal, and high-gain styles, providing a warm, powerful sound while minimising interference. They’re ideal for players seeking a reliable and noise-free performance.


Do humbuckers have more sustain than single coils?

Humbuckers generally have more sustain than single coil pickups. The dual-coil design of humbuckers creates a wider and stronger magnetic field, resulting in increased string vibration detection and better sustain.


What are the disadvantages of a humbucker?

Humbuckers have disadvantages like increased size and weight and reduced clarity and dynamics compared to single-coil pickups. Coil splitting options may lack authenticity, and they might not suit all genres. Despite this, humbuckers remain popular for their warm, noise-free, and powerful tones.

Final thoughts

Now you have a good grounding in the main pickup types out there, and have been enlightened on the humbucker vs. single coil debate, why have a look at the range of pickups out there? Our intro to G4M’s new lineup of exciting guitars has plenty of pickup options for every style, while the 11 best electric guitars for beginners can help you decide if you’re just starting out!

 

Content Writer (Guitars)

Mark has been a guitar aficionado for around twenty years. A lover of all things 6-string, he spends his days putting pen-to-paper about all manner of interesting instruments. From entry level Squiers to the most coveted Custom Shop desires, Mark's written about them.

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