Electric Guitar Clinic: Would you like single coils or humbuckers with that?

In this article we will take a look at some of the differences between Humbucking pickups and Single Coil pickups, both technically and tonally. Many think, “Isn’t a Humbucker just two Single Coils side by side?” The answer is both yes and no as they both yield quite different tonal and technical characteristics. There have been many attempts to harness both sounds in one guitar or pickup, but the general consensus is that a guitar is either a Humbucking guitar or a Single Coil. Like they say, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. 

How a Pickup Works

To start out, let’s talk a little about how a pickup works. A guitar pickup is essentially a magnet that creates a magnetic field right above the pickup. The magnet picks up the vibrations of the strings and sends the signal to your amplifier to be amplified. Most pickups in electric guitars are passive which means that they don’t have any kind of pre-amp and it is the amplifiers job to boost the signal. Contrastingly, an active pickup uses weaker magnets than passive pickups but has a pre-amp to boost the signal output to a reasonable level. Active pickups are most common in acoustic guitars but can be found in a few electric guitars as well. 
Single Coils: The First Pickups

Single Coils were the first pickups. The first single coil guitar pickups came in the late 1920’s. A single coil pickup, as the name implies, is made up of a single coil of wire wrapped in one direction (either clockwise or counter clockwise) around the pole pieces. The pole pieces are the circular metal pieces under each string. One of the problems in early single coil pickups was that they picked up a lot of electromagnetic interference from other electric machinery or radio waves, which caused a buzz or hum 

Why Humbuckers Were Invented 

Humbuckers were invented to cancel out the electromagnetic interference. They use two coils, which are wrapped in opposing directions to give each coil opposing polarity. This would cancel out the electromagnetic interference and help get rid of the hum, thus creating a “hum-bucking” pickup. Humbuckers did not start showing up in guitars until the mid 1950’s. When it comes to tonal differences, it gets a little harder to explain and really comes down to personal opinions and preferences.

Common Misconceptions About Humbackers

Many people think humbuckers are for distortion and overdrive, and single coils are for clean patches. This isn’t necessarily the case because many guitarists use single coils for high gain distortion and others use humbuckers exclusively for clean tone. Humbuckers tend to be hotter pickups because they utilize two coils which does make them easier to distort. However, many jazz box guitars have humbuckers and are almost always used for a clean patch. They produce a thicker and darker clean tone than single coils do. The clean from single coils is a more sparkly high type clean that is often associated with country or “Eric Clapton Style” blues. They also are not as quick to overdrive as humbuckers. When single coils are played through a smooth tube overdrive, you can still hear the clean coming through where it gets lost with a humbucker.

Typical Guitars that use Humbuckers

Typical guitars that use humbuckers are the Gibson Les Paul, Gibson SG, most PRS models, most Ibanez guitars, and almost all hollow body Guild’s and Gretch’s. The most common single coil guitars are the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster. 
Increased Versatility of Both

Over the years, each style of pickup has become more versatile. Some humbuckers have the option of coil splitting or tapping. This is the ability to essentially shut off one of the coils in the pickup which can provide a fairly good representation of a single coil pickup. Single coils have gotten much better about electromagnetic interference and there are several “noiseless” single coil pickups available. However, this does not solve the single coil vs. humbucker conundrum because you only get a solid emulation. 

The "Fat Strat"

Fender has attempted to solve the problem by creating the “Fat Strat,” which utilizes a humbucking pickup at the bridge and two single coil pickups in the usual Stratocaster location. It does thicken the sound when using the humbucker, but there isn’t the option running two humbuckers together as you can in a Gibson Les Paul or SG for a truly saturated overdrive. The guitar also loses some of the ability to get the really twangy bridge sound you can achieve with the single coil pickup.

Single coils and humbuckers are very different animals, and if you want both sounds, you need two guitars. If you need to choose one guitar, the best way to go about it is to go play several different guitars with different pickups through different amps and choose the one you like best.