Single Coils That Work Well With Humbuckers

So you’ve been lured by a guitar with the HSS (humbucker/single coil/single coil) pickup configuration. Don’t worry, so have I. The promise of rockin’ tones with the bridge pickup alongside sweet, quacky vintage neck and middle pickups is too much to resist. This mullet-of-the-guitar-world (business in the front, party in the rear) is as old, as, well, the mullet. Can you really have it all in one guitar? And, if we can get all the sounds we need in one guitar, does this mean we don’t need any more guitars? The answer to this, like many things, lies somewhere in the middle. In fact, you can get single coils and humbuckers to work together, although it might take a little planning on your part. This article is about finding the perfect single coil (with as much classic sound as possible) to blend well with your humbucker.

See, here’s the problem…

Choose wisley. OR DIE! Don't choose, YOU DIE! I am just kidding. We don't kill here.
Choose wisley. OR DIE! Don’t choose, YOU DIE! I am just kidding. We don’t kill here.

The initial problem is one of output. The traditional sound of single coils is one that we grew up with. It is a low output pickup into a clean amp, or boosted with a lower-gain overdrive into a slightly crunchy amp. When we think of Strat players, this is the sound that comes to mind: SRV, Jimi, Ritchie, Yngwie. The sound of humbuckers is seemingly on the other side of the spectrum. Where single coils are lower output, clean, and clear…humbuckers are beefier, with more lows and mids, and, oh yeah- quiet.
The output ‘problem’ is a problem because humbuckers are simply louder than single coils. Sometimes just a little, but often a lot. You hear this by switching your pickup selector between pickups: if you hear a big volume boost between the single coils and humbucker, you may just have a balance problem. This makes interacting with an amplifier tricky, and playing with a band difficult as you scramble to be heard when using your neck or middle pickups. Also, don’t forget that you can also adjust the pickup height, and easy procedure described by Orpheo in his article.
Choosing the right balance isn’t as simple as just getting a higher-output single coil either. The higher output a single coil is, the less clean & clear glassiness you get. In other words, as a single coil increases in output, we lose the tone that makes us like that sound in the first place.

Get All Vintage-ish

Vintage Rails
Vintage Rails

Do you know what kind of humbucker you have in your guitar? If you have a vintage output humbucker in the guitar (like something modeled after a PAF), and want a quiet alternative to a traditional single coil, the Vintage Rails and close cousin, the Duckbucker make great choices, as they retain the quack of a single coil, but are very quiet, so you don’t have any 60-cycle hum issues to worrry about.
However, you might not like the look of rails-type pickups, and even though they sound great, they just don’t fit the look of the guitar for you. I would then suggest a look at one of my favorite pickups, the Classic Stack Plus for Strat. This retains the look of a traditional single coil by putting the coils on top of each other rather than side-by-side. It is still quiet, and blends well with vintage-to-medium output humbuckers.
If you want a traditional single coil, you have some great choices too. The Antiquity Texas Hot is a pickup with looks to match its overwound Texas tone. The Five-Two is also a great choice, if your tastes lean more toward warmer single coils. I have one in my Strat and love it.

Stuck in the Middle

You can't tell from the picture, but the Vintage Hot Stack Plus sounds great, and is less filling.
You can’t tell from the picture, but the Vintage Hot Stack Plus sounds great, and is less filling.

If you have a slightly hotter humbucker in the bridge position, you still have a few choices. These hotter pickups drive the amp harder, and we really start to hear a difference in output between these pickups and vintage-styled single coils. The solution is to use higher-output single coils to make this output difference less noticeable.
The Vintage Hot Stack Plus is an excellent choice for more output, yet quiet operation. And while you might have to practice a lot to achieve his speed, Yngwie’s YJM Fury is a quiet choice too, and has enough output to compete with humbuckers. He still gets a very glassy sound when he uses his neck pickup, and it nails those classic tones without the noise.

For true single coils, the Custom Staggered SSL-5 keeps the traditional tone while notching up the output level. Read Orpheo’s excellent article about the history and use of this great pickup.

This one is too hot!

The Fender Ritchie Blackmore Strat from a few years ago used Quarter Pounders.
The Fender Ritchie Blackmore Strat from a few years ago used Quarter Pounds.

Really hot humbuckers present a challenge. Single coils that are wound that hot start to sound a lot less like single coils as they compress the signal and shave off high-end. You still have some choices to get into the single coil ballpark, even if you aren’t sitting in the front row.
The Hot Stack Plus is usually a bridge pickup, but can be used as a neck pickup with a hot humbucker. The Custom Stack Plus is also a great choice for overdriving that amp without contributing any hum.
For true single coil choices, the Quarter Pound Flat has extra-large polepieces, to increase the output so it is comparable to a P-90. If you have a brighter instrument, the  SSL-3 Hot For Strat has plenty of output, and the reduced treble response can make the hum less noticeable under higher gain.

What about those rails things?

Hot Rails don't sound like single coils, and aren't supposed to.
Hot Rails don’t sound like single coils, and aren’t supposed to.

Pickups such as Hot Rails and Cool Rails are used if you have a single coil slot in your guitar, but want the output and sound to match a humbucker. In other words, they leave the concept of being a single coil pickup behind- except the size.  They are a great choice if you want a humbucker sound and don’t want to carve up your sweet, sweet axe.
For a more holistic approach to HSS pickup selection, check out Matt’s article.

Do you use an HSS guitar? What pickups would you like to get for it?

Join the Conversation

10 Comments

  1. I have an HSS guitar with Fender single coils and a Carvin C22B in the bridge. The humbucker has a lot more output than the singles, what I do is set the amp to work with the singles, and when it comes time for a solo I switch to the bridge. As the pickup is louder and hotter the amp drives harder, giving the boost needed for a solo that’s usually enough but pedals help sometimes

  2. Seymour , My Lonestar Strat had the Pearly Gates plus in the bridge and I replaced it with the SH6 Distortion, what single coils would go best with the SH6?

    1. The SH-6 is a high-ouput humbucker, so hotter single-coil designs (like the SSL-3) will pair nicely. If you want to go hum-cancelling for your single-coils, the STK-S6 would work very nicely. Alternatively, you could always go full-humbucker with some SHR-1 Hot Rails.
      Remember that we have a 30-day return policy. We want you to find the right pickups for your guitar!

  3. I have an HSS Fender Strat. I have a hot a Bill Lawrence L500XL in the bridge.. Fender Alnico 3 in the Middle, and Seymour Duncan SSL-2 in the neck. I love this combo, because I want my guitar to sound alive. The L-500XL gives me a nice voicing even on the lower strings, toppy and percussive sounding. Then the middle gives me a punchy a the same time punchy surf rock type of tone. and the Neck gets you to feel the sparkly, clean and chime tone… but the SSL-2 is not only for vintage stuff… it goes from one genre to another. This combo, gives my tone and my guitar, “life” in a sense of character it gives. Ever since the day I installed the Bill Lawrence and Seymour Duncan on my guitar, I always look forward on going home and play my guitar because I have found the tone that I was looking for.

  4. I have a project guitar (ash body, maple neck and fretboard) with an H-S configuration. To offset the natural brightness of the guitar I installed a SH-11 Custom Custom in the bridge, which is really nice and warm without too much high shrills. Decided to go with an SSL-6 for the neck – it is really great!! Doesn’t sound like a traditional Strat neck pickup but it does complement the SH-11 really well. Not much issue with the output balance, as that can be mostly settled by adjusting the pickup height (although both pickups naturally do have similar outputs in this configuration). The SSL-6 is beefy and powerful to do most of my rhythm (and some lead) works; I switch to the SH-11 when I want to kick things up a notch. Not really a fan of coil splitting so I didn’t wire the middle position.

  5. When I click on the antiquity Texas hot hyperlink above, it goes to the page of the bridge pickup, so do you recommend the bridge single coil pickup to use on neck position while pairing a paf on bridge ? Thx

  6. Hello Seymour, i don`t know what i should choose to put on middle positon on my strat configuration!
    I have a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the Bridge and Jb.jr on neck, but i wanna put a single coil in the mid, to have some “single“ coil sound, what is the best option for me?

  7. Would you have any suggestions for the middle and neck pickups on a strat with a custom custom in the bridge?

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