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…
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
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
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!
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?
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?