What Is A Humbucker?

The humbucker pickup is a staple for so many guitar players around the world. But how does it actually work, and what is the history behind it? This article endeavors to give you a brief overview of all these things.

The Rickenbacker Electro Hawaiian, the Frying Pan guitar was the first commercially available electric guitar. (Image source: http://invention.smithsonian.org)

Engineers first invented electrical amplification back in the 1920s, and from there development on what would become the guitar pickup began. Early attempts were not really successful and created a fairly weak signal. It wasn’t until 1932 that the company that would eventually become Rickenbacker produced the first commercially available guitar that used electromagnets to pick up string vibrations.

The “Frying Pan” was a Hawaiian style guitar developed and marketed by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacher. The technology used for the Frying Pan made its way onto hollow body and archtop/semi acoustic guitars.  These first pickups were of a single coil design, and whilst it was great to finally have a guitar that could be electrically amplified, this pickup design had a particular problem: hum.

The basics of an electromagnetic pickup design are a coil of wire, several thousand turns, and a magnet, or series of magnets. The coil of wire – in conjunction with the magnet(s) – forms a steady magnetic field around each guitar string.

When a string is plucked the magnetic field will change accordingly. The coil of wire will pick up an induced current and voltage. This creates a signal that is then sent to an amplifier, which will then boost the signal, and output it through a speaker. The first designs used a single coil of wire, and these evolved into the typical single coil pickups we know and still use today.
Single coil pickups provide great clarity, but they have a problem with picking up electromagnetic interference from mains power (otherwise known as 50 or 60 cycle hum, depending on the mains power specifications of the country). This hum comes from the wiring in the building, lighting, power transformers and motors. A guitar’s electronics cavity can be shielded, but even the best shielding jobs will only do so much. Something had to be created to get rid of the hum. The solution was the humbucker.

What is a Humbucker Pickup
Seth Lover, the man credited with inventing the humbucker pickup, alongside Seymour Duncan.

The first humbucking coil was invented by Electro-Voice in 1934, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a humbucking pickup was created for use in guitars. The invention of the humbucker pickup is typically credited to Seth Lover, who was working for Gibson guitars at the time, but Joseph Raymond “Ray” Butts was working on a design at the same time. His version of the humbucker, the FilterTron was used in Gretsch guitars. Neither man knew that the other was working on the same concept, and Butts may have in fact built his a little earlier than Lover, but in the end the latter is the one credited in the history books.

Lover is credited for inventing the “PAF” (Patent Applied For) in 1955, which is considered by many the first humbucker.

A explained earlier, a typical pickup design uses a coil of wire and a magnet or magnets to create a magnetic field around the strings, and in turn induce a small electrical current in the coils as the guitar strings vibrate. What Lover and Butts did to avoid the 50 or 60 cycle hum was use two separate coils of wire to “buck the hum” as it were. The way this worked was by pairing a coil with the north pole of the magnet oriented up towards the strings, and and the other coil was paired with the south pole of the magnet oriented up towards the strings. Connecting the coils in series and out of phase significantly reduced the hum and interference through phase cancellation.

Single Coil and Humbucker pickup diagram (image source: http://www.guitarplanet.eu)

The goal for developing the humbucker pickup was solely to eliminate hum, but as is sometimes the case with inventions, a lot more came along with the invention of the humbucker. Single coils are typically bright with great clarity and high frequency response. Humbuckers in contrast were darker and fatter sounding than the single coil pickups players were used to. While jazz and blues players liked this new sound, it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that rock players warmed up the the humbucker. Rock players were experimenting with overdriving cranked valve amplifiers to get a distorted tone, and the humbucker’s louder output was far more capable of achieving this sound that single coil pickups.

And since then the humbucker has played a big part in the development and sound of blues, jazz, rock, hard rock, metal and more. It would be hard to imagine the sound of some of these styles being the same without the invention of the humbucker pickup.

If you are new to humbuckers and are looking for some options that may suit your style and musical tastes here is a list of some great pickups that may interest you.

Low output:

  • 59 Model – Available in both bridge and neck models. This is a great reproduction of the original P.A.F. pickups created by Seth Lover in the 1950s.
  • Whole Lotta Humbucker – based off P.A.F. rewinds Seymour made for a number of notable musicians in the UK in the sixties. This new model is available in both bridge and neck models
  • Seth Lover – Created by Seymour Duncan and humbucker creater Seth Lover. This is made just like the original P.A.F. humbuckers Seth Lover made in 1955. Available in both bridge and neck models.

Medium output:

  • Duncan Custom – Take the classic P.A.F. pickup and load it up in steroids! Available in a bridge model, the Duncan Custom is a hard driving pickup with the right balance of power, sustain, and distortion.
  • George Lynch Screamin’ Demon – Take the open sound classic 59 Model humbucker, and take away some bite, and give it some growl. The Screamin’ Demon is available as a bridge model, but also works exceptionally well in the neck position.
  • 59/Custom Hybrid – If the 59 Model sounds a little too low output for you, but the Custom is a little too much, then the 59/Custom Hybrid might be just what the doctor ordered. Available as a bridge model, the 59/Custom Hybrid is an extremely versatile humbucker that will suit a wide range of musical styles.

High output:

  • JB Model – This is THE guitar pickup that really started it all for Seymour Duncan. Available in a bridge model, the most popular aftermarket pickup in the world has slamming output with crazy harmonics and the ability to cut through any mix.
  • Duncan Distortion – Looking to play metal and other heavy rock styles, this is the pickup for you. Available in both bridge and neck models, the Distortion provides massive distortion while still retaining plenty of clarity.
  • Invader – When you are just looking to obliterate everything you turn to the Invader. Available in both bridge and neck models, the Invader is designed to provide the heaviest tones a passive pickup can produce.

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