Music Industry How To is supported by readers. When you buy via a link on our site, we’ll possibly earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you.
What is the magic behind how a guitar’s sound becomes amplified? In short, the answer lies in the pickups it uses.
You’ve likely seen the many different types of pickups used in a guitar. Have you ever wondered about what the difference is?
In this article, we will cover the differences between humbucker pickups and single coil pickups. Let’s take a closer look at these two iconic pickups widely used in guitars today.
But first, if it's your aim to do music professionally, you'll want to check out our free ebook while it's still available:
Free eBook: Discover how real independent musicians like you are making $4,077 - $22,573+ monthly via Youtube, let me know where to send the details:
How Is A Single Coil Pickup Made?
At its most basic level, a single-coil pickup is made of a few parts. These include:
- Magnetic pole pieces
- A coil of metallic wiring
- A frame (also known as a bobbin) around which the wiring is wrapped
Each pole piece is designed to pick up the string vibrations of each guitar string. For instance, the pole piece below the low E string will pick up the vibrations of the low E string.
For the most part, that is a very basic overview of how a single coil pickup is constructed. However, there are finer details that go into how each pickup sounds and the methods used to create such qualities.
Ever heard the term “hot pickup”? This refers to the magnetic strength of the pickup itself.
The more magnetic strength that exists, the more output the pickup will produce. How does a manufacturer create a hot pickup based on this simple construction design?
To create a hot pickup, manufacturers will create more windings around the magnetic pole pieces. More windings increase the magnetic field of the pickup itself, causing the pickup to pick up and create more signal.
For the most part, copper wire is the choice material to wrap a pickup. Copper is known to be an excellent conductor of electricity.
However, even the thickness (gauge) and the length of wire used can play a role in the tone of the pickup. A thinner gauge allows for more wraps on a bobbin, which in turn, creates a higher voltage.
What Are The Different Types Of Magnets Used In A Single Coil Pickup?
There are a wide variety of different magnets that are used in single coil pickups. As you might guess, the type of magnet does play a role in its sound.
However, certain magnets also play a role in the way the single coil pickup operates. Each magnet has its own inherent strength and affects the tone of the vibrations being picked up.
Starting with the most common, these are some of the magnets you will find in a single coil pickup:
- Alnico II
- Alnico V
- Alnico III
- Alnico IV
- Ceramic (used in noiseless single coil pickups, as well as those designed to be hot)
- Bar (used in P-90 pickups, which are a form of single coil pickups)
Alnico magnets are comprised of a combination of Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt, hence the name. Each type has its own inherent qualities and strengths.
Manufacturers spend a great deal of time finding the perfect combination of wire wrappings and magnet type. This is partly the reason why there are so many different variations of the same type of pickups available today.
What Issues Do Single Coil Pickups Have?
Have you ever played a single coil-equipped guitar in a high-gain setting? You’ll likely have encountered quite a bit of noise interference.
Heck, you might have even encountered this without the use of high gain. In these situations, you can be left scratching your head wondering what is wrong with your rig.
The reality is that single coil pickups are actually quite prone to picking up interference noise from other devices. This is what is commonly referred to as “60-cycle hum” and is unmistakable once you hear it.
Single coil players have to take great care when playing in certain locations. Sometimes, even the hum of a light or refrigerator is enough to cause interference with a single coil pickup.
Generally, single coils tend to be most affected by power tools and other devices that have a circulating power supply. Depending on the circumstance, you might even encounter radio wave interference, which comes across as a static sound.
All of this is related to the fact that the pickup relies on a magnetic field to pick up sound. Each powered device can have its own magnetic field, causing interference with the pickup’s magnetic field.
This type of occurrence is fairly common with single coil pickups and comes with the territory of using them. Single coil players put up with it because there isn’t anything else that sounds like a single coil pickup.
Of course, with today’s advancements in technology, there have been some innovative breakthroughs. The most notable is the creation of noiseless single coils, designed to eliminate interference noise.
However, before noiseless single coils were created, a whole different kind of pickup found its way into the market. This new kind of pickup, called the humbucker, was designed to eliminate the possibility of interference altogether.
How Is A Humbucker Pickup Made?
You might not guess it, but the humbucker is actually very simple in concept. In some ways, it’s almost unbelievable how something so simple can be so effective in its utility.
At its most basic level, a humbucker pickup is essentially comprised of 2 single coil pickups. How then, does a humbucker cancel out the noise heard on single coil pickups?
The answer lies in the polarity direction of the magnetic pole pieces. If you look at a humbucker pickup, you’ll notice that the coils are slightly different in appearance.
This is because one coil faces upwards towards the strings as usual. The other coil actually faces in the opposite direction.
Both coils are usually wound in the same counter-clockwise fashion, despite their different pole piece direction.
The result of this is an effect that essentially cancels out the hum that exists with single coil pickups. This connection is what is known as an out-of-phase connection, referring to the fact that the magnetic poles are opposite.
Humbuckers tend to have a variety of different items used as magnetic pole pieces. Perhaps the most common tend to be screws.
By using screws in a humbucker for pole pieces, the guitarist can adjust the height for each pole piece. This, in turn, affects the tonal characteristics of that string’s reception to the pickup.
Today, there are a wide variety of different humbucker pickups that can be found in guitars. Some of the more common ones you might find in the wild include:
- Stacked coils
- Rail humbuckers
Many guitar manufacturers also have their own specific types of humbucker pickups. Perhaps the most notable is the Gibson PAF (Patent Applied For) pickup.
Because of its use of an extra magnetic coil, humbuckers have a stronger magnetic pull than single coil pickups.
What Do Humbucker And Single-Coil Pickups Sound Like In Comparison?
Single coil and humbucker pickups sound vastly different from one another. However, this creates variety within the guitar world and possibilities for innumerable tonal combinations.
Generally, the type of pickup a guitar has will be the first decision a guitarist will consider. Purchasing a guitar without this consideration could cause an imbalance between how the guitar sounds and their ideal tone.
Quite often, guitarists will have an ideal tone for how they would like their guitar to sound. This might be subconscious but is undoubtedly formed by years of listening to music.
As such, single coil pickups are generally much brighter and provide a level of clarity in the treble EQ. You’ll often hear these pickups referred to for their bell-like quality, providing a bit of chime on the top end.
Single coil pickups do tend to have a weaker signal due to the magnetic strength of the pickup. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it can make the signal feel a bit thin.
When compared to a humbucker, the tone from a single coil is definitely much thinner.
Humbucker pickups tend to provide a thick tone with quite a bit of warmth and a darker timbre. There is a bit more of an emphasis on the low and mid-range EQ levels compared to a single coil.
Sustain is another quality that also tends to be more pronounced with humbucker pickups.
These types of pickups generally have quite a bit more of a presence in an overall sound mix. However, they can become fairly muddy, whereas the single coil can cut through the mix.
Does The Pickup Cover On A Humbucker Make A Difference?
You’ll often see humbuckers come in different varieties. Some have a shiny pickup cover, while others have no cover at all.
Is there any difference in whether a humbucker has a cover? What is the purpose of this cover?
The obvious purpose for many of these covers is to provide a degree of aesthetic sensibility to a guitar. Some people prefer a chrome cover to the look of a barren humbucker.
There is definitely no denying that the pickup cover on some guitars really do help convey an overall look.
However, because humbuckers tend to be a little lacking on the treble side of things, many will remove the cover. This does help the pickup to receive more treble-ranged tones.
The amount of difference this difference makes might be fairly negligible in some cases. You might have an easier time adjusting the pole pieces to receive more treble EQ.
Guitarists are always keen on experimentation, however. So, if you’re wondering about your own guitar, give it a try.
What Are Some Guitars That Have Single Coil Pickups?
There are many guitars that are equipped with single coil pickups. Perhaps the most famous of the entire bunch is the Fender Stratocaster.
Since its inception in 1954, the Stratocaster has become the most identifiable source of the single coil sound. This guitar remains as popular and effective today as it was in the past.
Another very famous single coil guitar is the Fender Telecaster. This model is actually one of the first Fender designs put into full production.
Some guitarists hail the Telecaster as one of the most versatile guitars you can lay your hands on. It’s often seen in genres ranging from country to rock, funk, and everything in between.
However, the Nashville Telecaster effectively has 3 different single coil pickups, much like the Stratocaster. The effect is a guitar that is much more versatile than an already incredibly versatile guitar.
Not interested in Fender guitars? The Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘50s P90 Gold Top offering might be more up your alley.
This guitar features the same build quality that Les Paul guitars are known for. The biggest difference here is that it’s equipped with P-90s (a single coil pickup designed by Gibson).
Another guitar to consider might be the Reverend Jetstream 390. This guitar is stocked with 3 Reverend-designed P90 pickups for a fat, bitey tone.
Take some time to try these guitars out, as each will have its own unique tone, despite having similar pickups.
What Are Some Guitars That Have Humbucker Pickups?
If single coil pickups aren’t your thing, humbuckers will likely be the choice pickup for you. There is a much wider variety of guitars equipped with humbuckers than any other guitar.
By far one of the most popular humbucker-equipped guitars is the Gibson Les Paul. This guitar has been an absolutely iconic instrument and is still revered as one of the best humbucker guitars.
You can still find worthwhile Les Paul guitars today. One notable model is the Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘60s.
This Les Paul is crafted to reflect the same schematics as was seen in the golden age of the 1960s. It remains one of the more popular and positively reviewed Les Paul models in the recent Gibson catalog.
Another thing to note about the aforementioned Les Paul is its pickup covers. This is a model that really benefits from the crisp look of a pickup cover.
A guitar that doesn’t have pickup covers is the PRS SE Custom 24 (see price on Amazon or Sweetwater). Despite its cover-less design, this guitar is equally as beautiful and certainly built to perform.
While there are semi-hollow and full hollowbody guitars with single coils, there is a much larger humbucker selection. One notable (and affordable) choice is the Ibanez AS73 (see price on Amazon or Sweetwater).
The AS73 is built just like traditional semi-hollowbody guitars and is equipped with 2 humbuckers. Despite its affordable price, it plays like you would expect an expensive guitar to play.
Of course, these are by no means the only humbucker-loaded guitars available on the market. This small inclusion actually only barely manages to scratch the surface.
These inclusions were provided to give you an idea of just how versatile a humbucker guitar can be.
Which Type Of Pickup Is Best For Me?
The best pickup for you ultimately depends on your tonal preference for guitars. Another factor to take into consideration is the style of music you are playing.
Generally, heavier music will fare better with humbucker guitars. This is because humbuckers have a thicker and more present tone compared to the thin chime of the single coil.
However, outside of heavy styles of music, both types of pickups are largely used. You’ll find both types of guitars in just about every guitar-related genre you can imagine.
Take some time to take stock of some of your favorite guitar tones. This will help to give you a guidepost to finding a guitar that can provide your ideal tones.
Do you like the whining cry of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar tone? You’ll only be able to accomplish that tone with a single coil pickup-equipped guitar.
Similarly, if you prefer the rock and roll tinged tones of guitarists like Slash or Alex Lifeson, look at humbuckers.
The simple reality is, there likely is no single guitar that can achieve all of the tones you absolutely love. Quite often, guitarists are forced to compromise to find a middle ground or gravitate towards what they like most.
Many guitarists are guilty of owning more than one type of guitar. After all, different situations require different tools, and the guitar is no different.
Sometimes, the chime of a single coil is required. Other times, the punchy presence of a humbucker is what’s needed most.
Each of these pickups is worthwhile and has useful qualities. Neither is better than the other as they are both equal by bringing different things to the table.
However, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the road. You still have options when it comes to pickups.
Are There Any Alternatives That Might Be Better?
The guitar industry is always shifting and evolving to find new sounds and accommodate different players. As such, different types of pickup combinations have become quite popular.
In fact, it is not uncommon to find a guitar most commonly equipped with single coils to have a humbucker. Stratocasters and Telecasters are some of the most notable examples of this.
Both of these models have variants with a humbucker placed at either the neck position or the bridge. The result is an added punchy presence in a location where some might feel the need for such a thing.
These aforementioned guitars are also available in all-humbucker offerings. This can provide a sound similar to its original but is more influenced by the humbucker qualities.
Of course, these are just 2 examples of guitars that have undergone this treatment. The moral of this story is to experiment with different types of models with different pickups.
Sometimes, having a different type of pickup than what would traditionally be found in a position makes all the difference.
This isn’t your only option. In fact, in recent years, a fairly new development has started to become a mainstay feature on humbucker guitars.
You’ve likely heard of a coil tap. This coil tap essentially allows the guitarist to split the humbucker pickups into single coil pickups.
Coil taps are generally very easy to operate. Quite often, they only require a push of a button, generally on a volume or tone knob.
By having a coil tap, you essentially get the best of both worlds without having to sacrifice one for the other.
That’s not to say that a Les Paul will sound like a Stratocaster by any means. But it does create a larger tonal palette for more musical possibilities.
Humbucker Vs Single Coil, Final Thoughts
Both the single coil and the humbucker pickup are unique in their own right. As such, each pickup has its own characteristics that are far different from the other.
No pickup is better than the other in terms of what it does and the way it sounds. At the end of the day, your preferences will be far different than another person’s preferences.
Take some time to try both of these pickups out to get a feel for how each pickup sounds. Only then will you know what is right for you and your playing style.