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What's the Difference Between Single Coil and Humbucker Pickups?

The clean and dirty nitty gritty ...

 

by Chris Loeffler

 

Guitar pickups first began appearing in the 1930s in response to the need for louder instruments to be heard by large crowds. These first pickups were single-coil pickups, which did an admirable job of recreating the sound of the guitar in an electric way, but as volumes continued to get louder, a flaw of the single coil pickup became clear. A 60-cycle hum, due to the open transmitting nature of the pickup design, started to cross the acceptable signal to noise ratio in loud environments. Humbucking pickups were created to address the noise by pairing two coils out of phase with each other to cancel out the hum picked up in the winding. Today, both single coil and humbucking pickups are the standard, with significant improvements in technology addressing much of the single-coil hum.

 

Pickups are one of the most impactful influences in the voice of an electric guitar or bass, serving as the primary component that captures and translates the tones of the instrument electrically. By utilizing magnets wrapped with coils of wire that react to the guitar’s metal strings, the pickups are able to produce a low-powered electronic signal in response to the string’s vibrations. This signal is considered the “core” tone and is what is eventually amplified.

 

Single Coil from a Fender Stratocaster

 

Most modern pickups designed for guitar or bass are passive (non-powered) and contain a magnetic pole for each corresponding string positioned above it (six for a six string guitar, five for a five string bass, etc.). Less commonly, some have a single bar magnet, also wrapped with wire windings, or even a combination of the two, like Railhammers. While there are many common-use pick-up formats, like the P-90 or Mini-Humbucker, those are all variations of a theme of a single coil or humbucking pickup. So what’s the difference?

 

Traditional single coil pickups tend to have thinner, bright tone when compared to a humbucker, with more articulation and a flatter frequency range in the 2kHz -20,000kHz range. Their attack is often sharper and the decay quicker, with a fuller frequency push in distorted amps that can create a gritty breakup with more high-end content.

 

Humbuckers, by contrast typically have a fatter, thicker tone that is perceived as sounding rounder and warmer due to a robust output in the lower to upper midrange. This hump creates the “snarl” or “grunt” that gives humbuckers their vocal quality, and results in a more focused, compressed overdrive when run with gain.

 

Disassembbled Gibson Humbucking Pickup

 

Having covered those generalities, pickup technology advancement has made it progressively harder to pigeonhole a pickup’s characteristics just by its pole configuration!  Hot single-coils can equal or even beat humbuckers in terms of output, and new ceramic and magnetic metal alloys in humbuckers are delivering signals so hot they could be mistaken for an active pickup.

 

To add to the overlap, some humbucking pickups offer coil splitting, which cuts the “humbucking” coil to create a more traditional single-coil sound. Furthermore, Gibson's "tuned coil tap" provides a variation on the traditional "split" sound without requiring active electronics, and some single coil pickups are finding sneaky ways to use magnets to tame the noise without using a full humbucking counter.

 

So Which One is Better?              

 

Trick questions get non-committal answers! Both have their strengths, and both have places where they aren’t the optimal tool to get the tone you are seeking, but there’s nothing that can’t be done on either. Fender guitars are widely known for their single-coil Tele and Strat tones, but they’ve employed humbuckers in hundreds of different guitar runs. Gibson is known how its humbucking pickups, but they’re equally respected for those in the know for their P-90 single coil SGs.

 

While a humbucker may not be the first pickup style that comes to mind for 60’s Surf music, why not try it if that’s what you have!  -HC-

 

____________________________________________ 

 

Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

 

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