We discussed the anatomy of humbuckers in a general sense a while back, and because there are so many varieties of single coil pickups, we thought it was time we should take a look at single coil designs too. Let’s have a look at the internal structure of the single coil in general as well as the various main design ‘families’ of single coil pickups.
There are three basic ingredients to make a pickup: a magnet, a coil and an apparatus to stop the coil from moving or shifting (which is called a bobbin; the ‘frame’ that holds the wire in place). Basically, the magnet ‘projects’ a magnetic field. The metal string ‘disturbs’ that field and as a result, the coil induces a small current.
The strength of the current depends on several things including the magnetic field strength, the thickness of the wire of which the coil is made (i.e.: the wire gauge) and the length of the entire wire.
The most basic bobbin design is having a small plate on the top and bottom of the six magnetic pole pieces. These plates are called flatwork and can be of one of several materials. A vulcanized material is traditionally used, but glass-filled nylon can be used as well, as proven by the Zephyr Silver pickups.
Another way Seymour Duncan makes the bobbin is to inject a polycarbon into a mold, akin to a humbucker bobbin.
The style and type of magnet is kind of dependent on the shape and design of the bobbin. It’ss traditional to use round, cylindrical magnets. Alnico II and Alnico V are the most often used magnets, though Alnico III and Alnico IV are sometimes seen as well. Ceramics are also used every once in a while, but those are often found in the hotter single coils with a noiseless design. If you want to read more about magnets and how they affect the tone, click here.
(I wouldn’t ‘mag swap’ these magnets, by the way! In a humbucker you can swap whatever you like, since the magnet lies under the coils, but in many single coils, the magnet is part of the structural integrity of the pickup, and pushing out a magnet will almost definitely damage the inside of the coil and when that happens, there’s only one remedy: the bin! Nevertheless, if you have a broken single coil from your prized (perhaps vintage) instrument, a rewind is worth considering! Just drop the Custom Shop a line and see how they can help you.)
Bar magnets are also used in single coils. After all, we should not forget that the hailed P-90 is in fact also a single coil. How P-90s differ from other pickups will be discussed later in this article
The Strat single coil is to me perhaps one of the most quintessential, basic single coils around. Two sheets of flatwork, magnets through both sheets and copper wrapped around it. Very basic design but many variations on this theme are possible. If you want to read more about strat single coils, you can click here to see what I had to say about it as a Les Paul lover and you can click here how I started to perceive strats after a few years of playing strats.
The Telecaster has two totally different pickups. Where the Strat, Jazzmaster, Jaguar and many other guitars use two similar pickups (sometimes slightly underwound for the neck or overwound for the bridge, but the design is generally the same). The bridge pickup of the Tele is of a completely different form factor than the neck pickup. The bobbin of the bridge pickup is slightly wider and the baseplate of the pickup has a metal plate underneath. This plate is often brass or steel. The neck pickup has a smaller, more narrow bobbin with a chrome cover (which can be removed if so desired). If you want to read more about the various options, click here or here.
The Jazzmaster was Leo’s attempt to improve the pickups he designed for the Strat. The coil is quite shallow yet wide and the polepieces are not adjustable (just like the polepieces on a Strat and Tele and Jaguar and many other Fender-designed single coil). If you’re wondering what these pickups sound like, just click here for descriptions or watch the clip below. Simply put, they’ve got much more chime, more jangle and much more sparkle in the top end compared to the twangy dirt of the Tele, the quacky cleanliness of the strat or the powerful raunchiness of the P-90. If these terms are bordering on mumbojumbo, take a look at our Tone Dictionary!
The P-90 differs from Fender’s design and design philosophy in various ways. For starters, the P-90 wasn’t designed exclusively for one guitar but rather as Gibson’s ‘To Go’ pickup from 1946 till the mid 50s. Also, the P-90 differs greatly from Fender’s concoctions in terms of construction. For example, the magnets are not round pole pieces. The pole pieces in the P-90 serve the same function as the pole pieces on a humbucker: to focus the magnetic field upwards towards the string. Two magnets lie underneath the coil. Many design elements of the P-90 were incorporated in the design of the first humbucker too, and if guitar history interests you, you may want to consider to read more about the collaboration between Seymour Duncan and Seth Lover, the inventor of the guitar humbucker. Did you know that the first prototype of a humbucker had the form factor of a P-90 and is in Seymour’s possession?
The lipstick pickup was designed for the entry-level Danelectros in the 1950s. These postal order guitars were cheap. Very cheap. For example, the body wasn’t made of what we now consider tonewood. The bridge could hardly be intonated. But the tone… Oh, the tone… Part of the equation that makes the Danelectros so epic, is the pickup. It is a single coil, but without a bobbin. The coil is wrapped around the magnet itself and the entire contraption is put inside a metal casing, akin to a lipstick tube, sealed with wax/epoxy. This is as simple as it gets.
But don’t let simplicity fool you. The lipstick pickup is perfectly capable of creating amazing, versatile tones. I like to compare it to a happy marriage between the twang of a Tele, the sparkle of the Strat but with a character of its own altogether. The Lipstick pickup is bound to give you an amazing tone, no matter in what kind of guitar you stick it into. A note has to be placed concerning the neck pickup of a Tele. Despite its chrome exterior, the neck pickup of a tele is of a total different breed than the lipstick tube. It’s been mistaken for a lipstick pickup, but the tele neck pickup is wound on a bobbin whereas the lipstick pickup, clearly, is not.
These two pickups are old designs. Both were designed after World War II, at the dawn of the 1950s by two major competitors in the field, Gretsch and respectively Gibson. Despite internal differences they have one thing in common: adjustable, magnetic polepieces. Differences in construction, wire gauge, amount of steel in the pickup, winding patterns and of course materials constitute for two totally different tones. The DeArmond pickup sounds twangy, clean, slightly ‘clunky’ and is a great choice for country and rockabilly pickers. The Staple pickup, or the ‘Alnico V’ pickup as it was called (Gibson’s internal naming for the pickup was ‘the 480’ and the modern designation comes from the look of the square magnets) offers a tighter, ‘meatier’ tone while maintaining sparkle, chime and shimmer: a perfect choice to go in the all-mahogany Les Paul Custom from the early 1950s. Let’s not forget that those early Les Paul Customs didn’t have a maple top! Those were reserved for the Standards. It’s hard to find a right replica of these, but rest assured: the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop is well equipped to help you out in this case. They can make a pickup of this design to fit a standard humbucker cavity!
The TriSonic was designed built by Burns, a guitar manufacurer from the UK. Their form factor is such that they’re too narrow for a P-90 rout but too wide for either the Tele or Strat rout: they’re in that respect unique! You need to route your guitar to fit these, making it a kind-off intrusive mod. Internally they’re akin, to some degree anyway, to the lipstick pickup: a wire wrapped around a magnet. But in stead of sliding that inside a metal tube, they’re being put in a metal casing, almost reminiscent of the construction of the Lipstick Pickup.
The Charlie Christian Pickup, or simply CC, is one of the most important pickups ever to have been designed. It was the pickup that started it all. When launched in 1936 on Gibson’s ES-150, their first commercially successful electrified guitar (and arguably the first successful electrified guitar worldwide!), the guitar found its way into the hands of Charlie Christian, a major player from that era (with a continuing legacy to this day).
So… what is it that makes the Charlie Christian Pickup tick? It’s a combination of a unique construction (which includes a unique wire gauge), specifically tuned magnets and a very special mounting system. That’s one of the reasons why the original Charlie Christian Pickups were so hard to use as a retrofit pickup. Fortunately, Seymour Duncan offers the same basic model but in several mounting options, which yields a versatile and affordable package for those who want this pickup but don’t want the cumbersome mounting.
I have designed a pickup with MJ, the Pickup Guru at the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop, to have my favorite two pickups in one package: the P-90 and the Tele pickup. Now I can toggle between those two amazing tones. I wonder, though: what are your favorite single coils?