At some points in life, such as when choosing a new guitar or repairing an old one, we find ourselves faced with the age-old question: which pickup to pick up?
The two best-known types of guitar pickup are without doubt the humbucker and the single coil, but whilst seasoned guitarists often adamantly favor one over the other, it can be difficult to understand what the crucial differences are.
Today, we’re going to explore the differences and the importance of choosing your pickup wisely and aim to shed some light on each type, to help you make the best decision for you.
Why Does It Matter Which One I Choose?
In short, your choice of pickup matters because it has a huge effect on the sound that your guitar makes and consequently, on the sound of the music you play. But, whilst they produce different sounds, the humbucker, and the single coil work in a similar way.
For us to better understand the difference between them, we need some background knowledge on what exactly a pickup does and how it does it.
Basically, a pickup does exactly what it says on the tin: it picks up vibrations from guitar strings and converts them into electronic signals which are sent through the amplifier, and ultimately to the speaker.
In terms of mechanics, all magnetic guitar pickups are constructed of tiny magnets that are encased in coiled pieces of wire. Classic pickups that can be found on six string guitars contain six poles, which are each assigned to a string, whilst more modern pickups may instead have one singular bar-shaped magnet which is encased in coiled wire.
The main significant difference that distinguishes the humbucker from the single coil is the fact that the former, aka the double coil, simply use two combined single coil pickups.
Single Coil: The Originator
Historically speaking, the single coil came first, since it was invented in the mid-1920s. Right from its early days, this original pickup has been responsible for some seriously great things. Being the classic style of pickup, it has accordingly been a key component of some truly classic guitars, including the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, and the Gibson Charlie Christian model.
These single-coil pickup guitars, which have gone down in history, are just as iconic as the legends who have famously played them: think Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and of course Jimi Hendrix.
The sound that is produced by a single coil pickup is often described as crisp, boasting an unparalleled bright and clear tone. It is this very sharpness that allows the guitar to cut through the sound of other instruments when playing in a band.
However, other variables matter too: when paired with an overdriven amp, single coil pickups produce a coarser, harsher sound. In contrast, with the overdrive sound off, they create the smooth chiming tone which is characteristic to the sound of the sixties.
While this diverse pickup is suitable for playing pretty much any genre of music, it is typically favored by country and folk guitarists who value a ‘twangy’ sound, as well as the likes of prog rock guitarists who frequently switch between softer and heavier sounds.
However, the main downfall of the traditional single coil (and the reason for the subsequent birth of the humbucker) is the fact that it makes a humming noise. Now, there are some noiseless single coil pickups available which keep the crispness without the hum, but these are recent innovations.
Traditionally, the higher the level of distortion is, the louder the hum will be. The volume of the humming noise produced also depends on the distance between the guitar and the amp, so whereas in some set-ups this may not be an issue, in others, it may cause the guitarist (as well as band members and other people in the surrounding area) to get a little hummed off!
Humbucker: Bucking the Hum since 1934
This is where the humbucker comes in, having been invented by Electro-Voice to ‘buck’ (or cancel) the humming sound inherent in single coil pickups. Another key individual in humbucking history is Gibson’s Seth Lover, who optimized this new type of pickup for electric guitars.
As previously mentioned, this pickup is constituted of two single coils, which are wired in the opposite direction to one another to cancel out the hum. This double mechanism also operates at a higher output than traditional single coil pickups, meaning that a more powerful signal is sent to the amp: perfect for heavier genres such as glam rock and some heavy metal which demand a tight, powerful sound.
The sound produced by a humbucker is often described as being ‘thicker,’ fuller and more intense. The fact that they don’t make a humming noise means that levels of distortion can be increased with no fear of electronic interference, which is a massive plus-point for many guitarists.
Capable of producing more rounded tones, a humbucker lends itself to genres such as rock and blues. Despite its natural ability to sound great playing heavier music, it is by no means limited by this and can also work incredibly well in a diverse range of other genres such as jazz, reggae, and pop.
This style of pickup is most commonly associated with Gibson guitars, being an integral feature of models such as the legendary Les Paul, as well as the SG.
However, other big names such as Gretsch and Epiphone also use humbuckers in some of their best-selling models. Famously, guitars built with double coil pickups such as these have been favored by rock legends such as Dave Grohl, Tony Iommi, Angus Young and Billie Joe Armstrong.
Despite their many benefits, humbuckers are not completely flawless; specifically, they can lack in their ability to cut through other sounds. While this is not a problem to guitarists who choose heaviness over clarity, it means that typical humbuckers are unsuitable for others, such as guitarists who are going for a classic polished sixties sound.
Additionally, highly-powered variations can compress the sound produced, reducing the playing sensitivity by outputting all sounds at an intense level.
Although, it’s important to note that it is possible to combat these downfalls by modifying your guitar, through means such as splitting a humbucker into two single coils and installing taps which enable you to switch between single and double coiled pickups quickly.
Which Should You Pick(up)?
It goes without saying, your preferences are of course subjective and whichever style of pickup that you go for is ultimately your choice. It’s an important part of your set-up for influencing your sound, but it is not the only variable.
Your style of playing, the special effects and levels of distortion that you use, and your amps and speakers are also intertwined in the array of factors which create your sound. These are also the factors to consider when choosing between humbucker and single coil pickups.
To fully understand the two styles of pickup and make an informed decision, it is useful to compare their attributes closely. Traditionally, single coil pickups are a good choice for producing a crisp, ‘twangy’ sound, whereas humbuckers have a fuller, rounder tone. Both styles of pickup are versatile and can be used for playing many genres of music.
However, single coils are especially suited to genres which value clarity such as prog rock and country, whereas double coils are more suited to genres valuing heaviness, like metal and blues.
Where classic single coil pickups may fall flat in terms of their inherent hum and a comparatively low output frequency, humbuckers succeed in canceling this interference and providing a higher output frequency. Equally, where humbuckers may fall flat in their ability to cut through other sounds and in their lack of sensitivity, single coils succeed in their aptitude for cutting through and are highly touch sensitive.
But whilst having hiccups with your pickups used to be more of an issue in times gone by, modern advancements mean that both single coil and double coil have a high aptitude to produce a wide range of sounds and styles.
Consequently, choosing a pickup is not a ‘black or white’ decision, but rather is a spectrum of grey tones – including humbuckers renowned for their clarity and noiseless single coil pickups. Therefore, it’s so important to consider each pickup for its individual characteristics, rather than making an assumption based on which category it fits into.
It may also be a useful exercise to go to a guitar store where you can try out different guitars, in order to see which pickup style you prefer playing on. If you’re still not sure, you can always consider getting mods installed which enable your guitar to have both single coil and humbucker pickups, allowing you to enjoy the best of both worlds!