Guitars with one humbucker and two single coils always seem to be a compromise. The idea is to get that chimey, jangly, quack from the neck and the middle single coils and the rock and roll from the humbucker in the bridge position. The HSS (which stands for humbucker-single-single) pickup configuration gained popularity in the 80s, much like everyone’s favorite haircut, the mullet. And much liked the maligned mullet, we get, in theory, business in the front and party in the rear. This article is my take on this pickup configuration, and how I came up with a way it could work for me.
The Best of Both Worlds, Right?
On the surface, why would anyone need another pickup configuration? For many players the wonderful sound of the Strat is defined by the sound of the neck and middle single coils, and that quacky sound of them both played together, in parallel. The most-used sound of a twin humbucker guitar is that bridge pickup with the tightness and definition, especially in heavy music. If we combine these great sounds, we should have a Guitar That Rules the World. It’s true. You can’t argue with that. That’s science*.
*That’s not science.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Well, a lot, actually. Single coil pickups hum, and humbuckers don’t. Even if you get a reverse wound/reverse polarity single coil pickup for the middle position, there will be hum when the neck single coil is used alone, as well as when you use the middle single coil alone, and the middle single coil with the humbucker. That is three out of the five positions that have that annoying 60-cycle hum. While I can tolerate this in a Strat with three singles because the noise is always there, it’s hard for me to deal with it coming and going, especially with distortion.
Also, we have balance problems. The volume difference between single coil pickups and a humbucker can be huge. So when the humbucker is selected, sometimes there is a huge jump in volume. This was certainly a problem for many 80s era HSS guitars. They used hot humbuckers to send that guitar signal through a rack of effects. And what I didn’t like about many of the HSS guitars back then was the huge volume jump when you put that humbucker on. Oh, I also didn’t like the bright pink, yellow and green colors in the 80s too, but that is another article.
The Solution We Have Been Waiting For
When building a guitar using Warmoth Guitar Parts this past year, I set out to build the ultimate HSS guitar. I wanted to solve the the hum and balance problems between the pickups. I also know that I never use the middle pickup alone, even on my Strat. I love it in conjunction with the neck or bridge pickup though, so it was important for me to have.
Seymour Duncan makes noiseless Strat pickups using either a stacked or side-by-side design. I started with this idea, choosing the Classic Strat Stack Plus for the neck position. This pickup can be split, so when it is used in conjunction with another rw/rp single coil, it will cancel the hum, and give a better quacky, notchy sound. This pickup is dead silent by itself, and makes an ideal neck pickup if you like the tone but not the hum.
The middle position was something I really had to consider. It was going to be used only with the neck or bridge pickup, and never by itself. I chose a true single coil, the Seymour Duncan Five-Two. This uses Alnico II magnets for the treble strings, for a warmer tone, and the brighter Alnico V magnets for the bass strings.
The bridge humbucker I chose was the ‘59/Custom Hybrid. It is a little more powerful than most PAF-type pickups, and comes with 4-conductor wire which means the pickup can be split. This would be important because of the switching scheme used. Please check out Orpheo’s great article about splitting humbuckers.
Um, How Are You Gonna Make This All Work?
Once I got the pickups picked out, I went to work on the wiring. This is based on the fact that I don’t want any switch positions that I won’t use, and only ones I do. I don’t like having tons of options either, as it makes it harder to get to the sound I want.
I used a 5-way switch and I wanted this:
- Bridge Humbucker
- Bridge Humbucker (split) with middle
- Neck (split) & Bridge Humbucker (split)
- Neck (split) & Middle
The big wrench in the works was that I wanted all positions to be humbucking. This can be accomplished with a Super Switch, but I had an idea. Reading more about available switches, I decided on the Schaller MegaSwitch Model E instead. This switch eliminates the center pickup being on all alone (which I never used, anyway), and instead allows the neck and the bridge together in position three, a much more useful combination to me.
According to Schaller, the switch has to be used with a rw/rp neck pickup, if you want all positions to be hum cancelling. This is a little different than a stock Strat switch and important to know when you buy the switch.
According to the diagram on Schaller’s website, this switch has seven pads. This allows automatic splits in two, three and four, and keeps the sound hum-free in those positions as well. The split Stack pickup blends well with the Five-Two true single coil, and also sounds great with the split humbucker. The pickup combinations are pretty close in volume, which is what I was going for. Even cooler, the humbucker splits to a different coil in positions two and three.
The switch has seven numbered pads, and you solder the wires like this:
|1||Hot lead of middle pickup|
|2||Hot lead of neck pickup|
|3||to volume input|
|5||serial link of neck pickup|
|6||serial link of bridge pickup|
|7||Hot lead to bridge pickup|
I used a 250k YJM High-Speed Volume Pot for the volume control, and a 250k for the master tone control on the neck and middle pickups. The bridge pickup got a 500k pot for the tone. This is one of the most fun and useful switching systems I have ever used, and is the best HSS wiring scheme I have come across. If you’d like to read about the process of building a guitar from Warmoth, check out my previous article.
What are your favorite pickups for an HSS guitar? Who are some of your favorite artists who use an HSS setup?