Humbuckers vs Single Coils (the basics)
If you took a pie graph of your guitars tone it might look something like this,
A bit of an exaggeration? Possibly. But there is actually quite a bit of truth here. Pickups have a HUGE impact on the way your guitar sounds. They are the place to start when getting into the tone talk and there is no better starting point than single coils vs humbuckers. These are the two broad categories that nearly all pickups can be lumped into. So, let’s take a dive into these two types of pickups and which might be more suited for you.
Single Coils -
Where it all started, single-coils are at the heart of the electric guitar’s history. Before humbuckers, all electric guitars utilized this pickup type. Single coils are essentially the simplest form of a pickup you can have. Most other pickups build off the foundation laid by this rather simple design. So, how do they work? Well, that is a little less simple. The humblest explanation is that a magnet (the pole pieces) wrapped in coil produces a magnetic field. The actual guitar signal is generated when this field is disturbed by the vibration of the guitar’s strings. You can go much deeper into the physics of all this, but hopefully, that at least introduces some understanding of the science going on here.
So, where does this leave us tonally speaking? There are a lot of words that have been used to describe the sound of single coils. Here are some that stand out, clear, bright, cutting, and twang. While the specific single-coil is going to vary, these words are good descriptors generally speaking. For those that enjoy this sound, the main con of this type of pickup is the noise (50/60 cycle hum) that comes with it. In fact, that leads us right into the next pickup type we are going to look at. But before that check out this list of some famous examples of this type of pickup. You might notice that everyone on this list is using either a Fender Strat or Tele. This is because Fender can pretty easily be considered the number one manufacturer of single-coil guitars. While most companies do use single coils in some capacity, Fender is the most iconic by far.
- Keith Richards – Fender Telecaster
- Start Me Up, The Rolling Stones (and most else)
- S.R.V – Fender Stratocaster
- On pretty much everything
- Jimmy Page – Fender Telecaster
- Most of Led Zeppelin I
- Jimmy Hendrix -Fender Stratocaster
- Majority of the time
- A thousand other players I forgot to mention
Looking back at the late ’40s and early ’50s, with rock n’ roll right around the corner, people were looking to play louder with less noise. So, finally in 1955 Gibson engineer, Seth Lover*** came across a solution. The original PAF (patent applied for) humbucker. Think back to the description I gave of how single-coil works. A humbucker builds off that design by adding another set of pole pieces and a magnet. Again, as to why this process bucks (cancels) hum is a little science-oriented. However, it basically comes down to the coils being wound opposite each other bucks the hum.
Not too long after their creation humbuckers started to show up everywhere. As bands started to play through louder and louder amps there was a massive need for pickups that could battle the noise seen in single coils. But if humbuckers had sounded exactly the same as single coils, there would be no need for the inferior noisy design. No, having two coils drastically changed the tonal properties of the guitars they were in. However, to some, this was a welcomed change. Compared to single coils, humbuckers have a much warmer and fatter sound. Not necessarily better, just a very different flavor to single coils. Below are some examples of famous examples of players who were known for using this type of pickup.
*** While Lover is widely credited with inventing the electric guitar humbucker, Ray Butts was also working simultaneously to create the FilterTron pickup. This is different than a PAF but still very much a humbucker.
- Jimmy Page – Gibson Les Paul
- Most tones past the first record
- Eddie Van Halen – EVH Frankenstrat
- Nearly every song
- Duane Allman – Gibson Les Paul
- Most songs, great one to hear the warmth is on is Ramblin' Man
- A thousand other players I forgot to mention
That covers an introduction to the two most important types of guitar pickups. Since the creation of these two pickups there have been countless innovations made to both of them and some things are hard to classify as either. Whether it be p-90s or modern voiced PRS style humbuckers, there is a lot to look into when talking about pickups. However, starting with an understanding of single coils and regular PAF style humbuckers is a great way to dip your toes in. A lot of things matter when looking to get the best tone possible, but so much of it can be boiled down to what pickups are generating your guitar's signal. So, before making your next (or first) guitar purchase, take some time to ensure you're getting the right pickups for your ears.