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 pickups 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.
Want to get real nerdy about pickups? 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 in the 1950s. The earliest designs are credited to Seth Lover, an engineer at Gibson, who introduced the P.A.F. (Patent Applied For) pickup in 1955, and Joseph Raymond "Ray" Butts, of Gretsch, who invented the Filter'Tron pickup around the same time. Championed by Gibson, Gretsch and 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.
Here is Mojotone's "59 Clone" Strat pickup set, available at Musician's Friend.
How Do Single Coil Pickups and Humbuckers sound?
What are the key tonal characteristics of single-coil pickups and humbucker pickups? Single-coil pickups tend to have brighter, crisper tone. Comparitively, 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.
Looking for a new sound? Check out our closer look at six of our best selling humbuckers.
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
What are the differences between "coil splits" and "coil 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 which 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.