Electric guitars work by using magnets to pick up the sound of the guitar strings. These magnets are called pickups, and there are two main types: humbuckers and single coils. But which type of pickup is right for you?
The answer depends largely on your playing style, the type of guitar you play, and what kind of sound you want to achieve with your instrument.
If you’re looking to get a new guitar, it’s important that you consider which type of pickup will work best for you and your playing style.
The best way to find out which pickup works better for you is by trying them both out. Guitar tone is, after all, subjective.
What may be pleasing to you might not be for other guitarists, so it’s a good thing to know how different pickups sound and which one you like more.
Of course, it’s possible that you like the sound of both, and many guitars come with single coils and humbuckers.
Some guitars, for instance, have what’s called an HSS pickup configuration. This means that they have a humbucker near the bridge, followed by two single coil pickups in the middle and in the neck position. This is a common configuration on some Strat-style guitars.
Humbucking pickups were first introduced into the market in 1959 by Gibson. They were originally made only for acoustic guitars, but since then, many manufacturers have used them on a variety of different electric guitars.
Today, guitars with humbuckers are generally used for heavier styles of rock music and metal, due to their higher output and fuller, richer sound compared to single coil pickups.
When you think of a classic “single coil sound”, what comes to mind is the sound of the Fender Stratocaster. This guitar is known for its clear, chyme-like clean tones. This is because, compared to humbuckers, their output is lower.
The tone they produce is crystal clear and pure, reminiscent of the tone of a bell ringing. Because of this, these types of pickups lend themselves to styles of music such as country, blues, and softer more melodic forms of rock music.
For a more in-depth look at the difference between humbuckers and single coils, read on at our intensive guide below.
What Is A Pickup?
In an electric guitar, the pickups are a device that converts the vibrations of the guitar strings into an electrical signal, which can then be amplified through a guitar amplifier.
They allow guitarists to play at loud volumes, and add different effects to their signal, such as fuzz, chorus, or wah.
The conversion of mechanical vibration into an electrical signal is achieved through electromagnetic induction. Guitar pickups use magnets that are wrapped with many thousands of turns of wire.
These create an electromagnetic field that focuses on individual points that are approximately centered under each string of an electric guitar.
Most guitars have six strings, so most pickups have 6 pole pieces. The spacing, alignment and power of these individual pole pieces on the pickups affects the sounds they will produce.
Types Of Pickups
These days, there are many different types of pickups, such as active pickups, P90s, and Piezo pickups, but on most electric guitars the two main types are humbuckers or single coils.
Let’s look into what makes these two types of pickups unique.
The earliest electric guitars were made with single coil pickups. Single coil electric guitars are known for their bright, treble-focused sound, and clear, clean tones. They have a much lower output compared to humbuckers.
Various Fender guitars, such as the Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Jaguar are known for their single coil, twangy sound. This sound lends itself to certain kinds of popular music, such as surf rock, rockabilly, country, and funk.
Some guitarists who were known for their use of single coil, Fender guitars include Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Dick Dale, and David Gilmour. They favored the single coil sound thanks to its chimney clean tones and dynamic range.
A humbucking pickup has two coils of wire, one inside the other. These coils act as a “cancellation circuit” – canceling out the natural 60 Hz hum that is created by single coil pickups.
A single coil pickup, on the other hand, uses only one coil of wire to create a signal. This means that there is no second coil to cancel out any unwanted noises picked up by the first coil.
Humbucker pickups are much better at filtering out unwanted noise, making them ideal for recording or live performance. They do not hum at high volumes like single coil pickups do, hence the name “humbucker”.
The original humbucker pickups, which were separately invented by Joseph Ray “Ray” Butt and Seth Lover at nearly exactly the same time (1955), differ in some ways.
Butts’ humbucker became the basis for the Gretsch “FilterTron” pickup, which Brian Setzer was known for using. Meanwhile, Seth Lover saw his design (known as the PAF pickup) being used in several Gibson guitars.
Many Gibson guitars are known for using humbucker pickups, which gives them their own unique sound, separating them from other guitar manufacturers such as Fender.
Some well-known humbucker-loaded Gibson guitars include the Les Paul, SG, and ES-335.
Humbuckers tend to produce stronger bass frequencies than single coils, so they really shine when used for heavy rock or metal music.
Due to the physics of their design, humbuckers tend to be more powerful and more capable of pushing amplifiers into overdrive than single coils.
There are countless heavy rock and metal guitarists that have famously used Gibson guitars that have humbuckers, but some include Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, and James Hetflield of Metallica.
In addition, there are many jazz guitarists who favor the sound of humbucker pickups rather than single coils. For instance, Pat Matheny, Wes Montgomery, and Joe Pass are avid users of semi-hollow Gibson guitars that feature humbucker pickups.
Thanks to the humbuckers higher output, they work very well with hollow body guitar as they pick up the resonant vibrations from the guitar’s body, producing a rich, warm tone.
Main Differences Between Humbucker vs Single Coil
Tonally, the main difference between humbuckers and single coil pickups is that single coils produce a brighter tone, whilst humbuckers produce a warmer, richer tone. These differences make each of them appropriate for different styles of music, but it’s really just a matter of taste.
Despite the differences in design, humbuckers and single coil pickups work in more or less the same way. They’re both magnets that are wrapped in thousands of tightly wound coils of copper wire.
This creates a magnetic field which is concentrated around the magnets’ poles, or the round metallic spots you see on electric guitar pickups.
The process turns the pickups into a kind of transducer, which converts acoustic waves into electrical signals, and then translates those electrical signals into sounds.
The poles on pickups cause your steel electric guitar strings to become magnetic by lining up with the pickups’ magnetic polarity fields, so when you strum them or pluck them, the magnetic field moves with their motion.
Technically speaking, a humbucker is essentially two single coils. One of them is only for canceling out that annoying hum caused by single coil pickups.
What Are The Pros Of Using Single Coil Pickups?
Single coil pickups produce a clear, bright sound. They’re not enclosed so they pick up the vibrations of your guitar string and send them straight into your amplifier.
It makes a great sounding instrument because of how the sounds travel directly into the transducer without having to collect resonance or anything other than the note you’re playing at the moment.
Because single coil pickups have a lower output than humbuckers, they tend to not push the amplifier into distortion as easily. For this reason, they are easier to use with effects pedals such as distortion and delay because they are less sensitive than humbuckers.
With single coils, you have a lot more control over the amount of gain you’re sending to your amp. Using the volume knob, you can go from pristine, crystalline clean tones to a more aggressive crunchy tone.
Clarity of Tone
Because single coil tones sound so pure, and the sounds produced by them are so distinct, the harmonic layers are easier to distinguish, even when running through some different effects and distortion.
With single coil pickups, you’ll be able to clearly hear the distinct layers made by each note and variation, as well as more of the nuances in your playing style.
Wider Frequency Response
Single coil pickups tend to have more of a focus on the vibrations of your strings, rather than the resonance of the guitar’s body. This makes them more responsive to your playing and the nuances in your style and technique.
Your single coil pickups let you hear everything you’re playing as it happens. Techniques such as slides, bends, and vibrato really shine with single coil pickups.
What Are The Cons Of Using Single Coil Pickups?
Feedback and Noise Interference
The main drawback of single coil pickups is that they are prone to unwanted noise from humming, interference, and feedback.
This is because single coil pickups’ parts are essentially exposed to the air, so their function is similar to an antenna. This is how they amplify the guitar’s strings, but unfortunately they can pick up surrounding sounds too.
If you hear a hum coming from your amp when you’re not plucking your strings, that’s probably because your single coil pickups are picking up interference from other sources.
Feedback occurs when a pickup amplifies itself. It’s responsible for squeals and shrieks when you play a microphone too close to speakers, and the same thing happens with single coil guitar pickups.
They use roughly similar physics principles, so the same thing applies. If you get too close to your amp, you may find your guitar squealing with a high pitch noise.
What Are The Pros Of Using Humbucker Pickups?
Less Interference = Less Noise
Humbucker pickups are designed to muffle any outside sounds that might otherwise be picked up.
It means that there shouldn’t be any distracting humming or distortion when you’re not actively playing, which is ideal for recording and live performances.
A Warmer Sound
Humbuckers create a warm, full sound by picking up the vibrations of the strings as well as the resonance through the instrument’s body.
That’s why you often see humbucking pickups used on hollow body guitars; they add a bit more richness and fullness to the sound.
Jazz and heavy metal guitarists have adopted this deeper tone by using humbucking guitars because of the warmer, richer tones they provide. They are also great for pushing an amplifier into overdrive.
Humbuckers are composed of two single coils, so essentially they give you twice as much power in terms of signal output.
Because of this, they are great for louder styles of music such as hard rock and metal because they easily push a tube amplifier to the point of break up.
Electric guitars that use humbuckers usually have volume knobs that allow you to control the volume of each pickup individually.
For example, one volume knob for the bridge pickup and one for the neck pickup. This gives you more tonal options, as you can mix the sounds of the two pickups.
What Are The Cons Of Using Humbucker Pickups?
Less Clarity of Sound
Although humbuckers are widely used because of their noise-canceling ability, this is a double-edged sword. The same design feature that removes that annoying hum also dampens some harmonic frequencies.
This is why humbuckers aren’t as bright and sparkly as single coils. Some musicians don’t like humbuckers for this reason.
Humbuckers won’t gobble up your notes completely, but they don’t have that pristine clarity of single coil pickups. If you want lots of harmonics, then humbuckers won’t be for you.
So, Which Pickup Is The One For Me?
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. One type of pickup is not “better” than another, it’s all a matter of taste.
Although we have discussed how certain kinds of pickups are more suited to certain types of music, there’s no real reason why you can’t use any type of pickup for any genre.
For example, you can use a guitar with single coils to play heavy metal, but it’s stylistically unusual and rare.
To put it simply, single coil pickups are better for playing with clean tones, as the pickups have tremendous clarity and definition. These bell-like, pristine tones can only be created with single coil pickups rather than humbuckers.
If you want to replicate the warm, saturated tones of heavy rock music, then you will definitely want to use humbuckers. The gain and sustain that humbuckers provide due to their increased output can only be achieved with humbuckers rather than single coils.
What Type of Pickup Is Better For My Style of Music?
For most genres of music, both types of pickups work well. In general, you won’t notice a difference between a single coil and a humbucking pickup unless you’re really trying to hear one.
For example, if you were listening to a song where the lead guitarist was using a single coil pickup, you wouldn’t likely be able to tell whether he had a humbucking or single coil pickup – especially when that guitar is playing alongside a full band of other instruments.
When it comes to electric blues, rockabilly, jazz fusion, and heavy metal, humbuckers are generally favored over single coils. This is because of the warm tone, rich sustain, and higher output that the humbuckers provide.
For clean guitar tones that you might hear in pop music, country, singer-songwriter music, and folk, you will likely want to use single coil pickups. This is because of the clarity and definition that only single coil pickups can give you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Humbuckers More Expensive than Single Coils?
Since humbuckers have more parts to them, they are generally more expensive to buy than single coil pickups.
This may be a deciding factor for you to choose between humbuckers and single coils.
Are Single Coils Better Than Humbuckers?
It all depends on the preference of the guitarists. Some guitar players prefer humbuckers because of the low frequency and higher output that makes them louder. This makes it ideal for specific genres, like rock music.
Single coils, on the other hand, have brighter and cleaner tones. Because of this, they are the go-to option for country and even pop music.
What is a Split Coil Humbucker?
Many modern guitars give you the option to “split” your humbucker pickup, essentially turning it into a single coil.
This gives you the option of playing it split or as a humbucker. The tonal variation that this feature provides can be very useful.
Do Humbuckers Hum?
Generally, humbuckers don’t hum as much as single coil pickups because they are designed to cancel out any interference.
This being said, any kind of audio equipment can be prone to noise and hum, particularly if you’re playing with a high gain set up. A noise gate is helpful for eliminating any unwanted noise or hum.
What are P90 Pickups?
P90s are a happy medium between a single coil and a humbucker pickup. They’re great for rock music, but they’re also great for blues, jazz, and country music.
They give you more volume and more sustain than a single coil, but they lack the grit and bite of a humbucker.
Can Metal Guitarists Use Single Coil Pickups?
Of course! There are no hard rules when it comes to playing music. There are many metal guitarists who use single coil pickups, but it is rarer to see.
Iron Maiden, for example, are a metal band who are well-known for using Fender Stratocasters with single coil pickups.
There are many types of pickups, but there is no perfect pickup. A safe bet would be to choose a guitar that has both! This way you get the best of both worlds, and you have more tonal options right on your guitar.
You could strum the chords to a verse using your single coil pickup, and then switch to your humbucker for a heavier, more distorted guitar solo.
My name is Howard Matthews and I have been playing the guitar since I was knee-high. My parents like to joke that I was pulling the strings even before I was born. In fact, one of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my dad’s guitar, wreaking havoc on the chords.
Now, 40 years later, I can attest that I play them much better than I did back then. I have followed in the footsteps of both my parents – much to their delight – and have been the main guitarist in my band for the best part of three decades.
Music has always been my passion, and until recently my life has been so consumed with it that I haven’t had a moment to have a breath (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)!