Humbucker versus Single-Coil Pickups

Humbucker vs. Single-Coil Pickups Explained

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How they work and sound and what to consider when choosing guitar pickups.

As you probably already know, the type of pickups used in electric guitars have a big impact on their tone. But before we dive into the sonic differences between the two major types—single-coil versus humbucker pickups—let’s look at how all guitar pickups are the same.

All magnetic guitar pickups basically work in the same way. They contain magnets wrapped with coils of wire that react to disturbances caused by the guitar’s vibrating metal strings. A modern pickup designed for a six-string guitar typically has six poles, each pole corresponding to the string positioned above it. Less commonly, some have a single bar magnet, also wrapped with wire windings.

Plucking a string causes the pickup to produce a low-powered electronic signal that corresponds to the string’s vibrations. The signal is then amplified to a level capable of driving speakers. By producing sound waves, the speaker converts the electronic signal back into mechanical energy, mirroring the string’s behavior.

Check out our interview with Fender pickup designer Tim Shaw

Single-coil Pickups Came First

With bands growing ever louder coupled with the evolving role of the guitar as a lead instrument, guitar pickups first began appearing in the 1930s. While they helped guitarists get heard in the band mix, single-coil pickups act like small antennas, picking various types of electromagnetic interference usually heard as hum.

As guitarists turned up their guitar and amp volume knobs, buzzes and hums grew louder too. To solve this problem, the humbucking pickup was born. Championed by Gibson among others, humbuckers contain two coils that are wired out of phase with each other. This causes the hum generated by each coil to be canceled out by the other coil.

Mojotone '59 Clone' Strat Pickup Set 

Here is Mojotone's "59 Clone" Strat pickup set, available at Musician's Friend.


How Do Single Coil Pickups and Humbuckers sound?

Single coil pickups tend to have brighter, crisper tone. Humbuckers typically have what guitarists describe as a “thicker” sound; one that is perceived as rounder and warmer. Humbuckers also tend to emphasize the sustain produced by the guitar’s tonewoods.

Single-coils are often described as having more “bite” and attack than humbuckers. They can also sound “gritty” when overdriving small tube amplifiers. Depending on the type of amp, effects and playing techniques used, single-coils can also produce the glassy, chiming tones associated with classic ‘60s pop guitar.

While you’ll see all kinds of exceptions, single-coil pickups are generally preferred by country and surf guitarists who are going for maximum twang. Conversely, humbuckers tend to be more popular with jazz, heavy rock and metal players. With their emphasis in the midrange and a broader spectrum of distortion effects, humbuckers are also popular with blues players seeking overdriven tube sounds.

With all that said, it has become harder to make generalizations about pickup characteristics. New, hotter single-coils can compete with humbuckers output-wise. Groundbreaking ceramic and magnetic metal alloys in humbuckers are delivering the high-energy signals demanded by sonically intense genres such as thrash metal. Active pickups and electronics that contain their own preamps are another way to go for guitarists seeking the hottest possible signal to feed to their high-gain amps. The pairing of EMG 81/85 active pickups in the Zakk Wylde Set is a classic setup for these players.

Explore the world’s largest selection of guitar and bass pickups at Musician’s Friend.

Swapping Pickups On Your Guitar

Upgrading the pickups on a budget-friendly electric guitar can deliver a lot of bang for your buck. The quality of the pickups in most inexpensive guitars is a place manufacturers often make compromises in an effort to keep the price tag down. Step-up pickups can add new power, depth and articulation to your guitar’s current voice.

As we detail in How to Install Gibson Pickups in an Epiphone Guitar, this upgrade is easy enough for many guitarists to do themselves. A guitar tech can also install your new pickups for a modest charge if you’re uneasy about doing the modification.

Coil splits and taps

While these terms are sometimes wrongly used interchangeably, they’re actually two different things.

As mentioned earlier, humbuckers have two coils wired out of phase with each other. Some humbuckers allow you to isolate or split one of its two coils, giving you a more single-coil type sound. A coil tap is created by wiring a specific switchpoint in the coil to a switch or button that controls it. The switchpoint is chosen to provide distinctively different sound from the full coil winding, giving the pickup added versatility.

Learn more about coil tapping and splitting with our Mods to Give your Guitar a Whole New Voice

Will it fit my guitar without making mods?

That depends on what pickups are in your guitar now and what you want to replace them with. The good news is that there are more choices than ever. For example, if you want to swap out a single-coil for a humbucker, you’ll find stacked single-coils such as the Seymour Duncan STK-P1 that drop into the cavity for a P-90 single coil pickup.

Another route guitarists take is to choose a pre-wired pickguard such as the EMG DG-20 David Gilmour set. It incorporates sophisticated electronics to control presence plus an expander circuit. Many sets come complete with all wiring and parts to make installation straightforward.

If you’re unsure about what will work with your guitar, call one of our Gear Heads at (877) 880-5907. We’ll help you find the right pickups to give your guitar a new lease on life.

Raise your gear IQ with our Electric Guitar Buying Guide.

Tags: Electric Guitars Electric Bass Pickups Guitar Accessories & Parts Guitar Repair & Maintenance


# Ugur 2016-11-30 13:45
Single coil better
# Joe 2016-09-08 12:00
I have a 1960 or? Vintage Kay Parlour acoustic guitar!
I have a L Baggs M1 I think it's a dual coil humbuck pickup! Could change to a single sound hole pickup for it?And what's the best make of single coil pickup,will fit in the sound hole like my L Baggs that fits in the sound hole perfectly! Thanks if you could let me know?
Yours hope to find out for single exchange sound hole pickup that will fit? Joe C Johnson.
# Mark M. 2016-08-29 05:59
Enough misleading information!!! Wood does not affect tone (in a solid body guitar) as has been proven time and again. This is merely a marketing ploy at this stage of the game.
# Aerowise 2017-01-12 18:57
How wrong you are sir, so wrong. Wood certainly does affect tone as has been proven time and again. DO some more research and realize it. If you had a solid metal for guitar body would it sound different? You bet it WOOD! Try it!
# Aldo Naletto 2016-07-30 12:30
Humbuckers usually have their coils connected "in series", what doubles its impedance. This filters out part of the high frequencies, producing a "thicker" sound, - a collateral effect of the humbucking system.
The Stratocaster Fender with 3 single pickups also provide a humbucking scheme: the middle pickup has reversed polarity relative to the other two, and when connected to the bridge or neck pickups (positions 2 and 4 of the pickup switch) provides hum cancellation. The humbucking effect is less efficient, however, and the sound doesn't become "thicker" because the pickups are connected in parallel rather than in series.
# Kate 2016-07-20 13:49
There appear to be a lot of videos on YouTube about this. I have made several modifications to my guitar by watching various instructional videos; maybe you can do it yourself after watching some of these. My search read: "how to replace guitar pickups." Good luck!
# Rolando Lopez 2016-07-18 11:56
I have a gibson guitar J-160e and the pick up needs to be replaced but I can nota find any one who can help me any suggestions?

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