Cage Match: Single Coils vs. Humbuckers

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

hss wide view

Or…my journey from single coils to humbuckers and back….

For the most part, choosing a type of replacement pickup is based on whatever already comes in your guitar. When exploring the differences between guitar types, it somehow always gets distilled down into 2 categories: Guitars with single coils and guitars with humbuckers.

This article will explore some of the differences between the two. Instead of pitting one type of pickup against each other, I will be describing my own tone-journey between the 2 most well-known pickup types, and some general differences between them.

 

In the red corner…

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ritchie Blackmore, Albert Lee, Roy Buchanan, Jerry Donahue, Keith Richards, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. All of these iconic players use pickups based on the single coil. That clean, clear-as-a-bell sound that translates every nuance of playing down the cable sending rainbows and unicorns flying out of the speakers into our ears. The single coil pickup was the first thing I was exposed to, and in the historical timeline of pickups, it was right there at the birth of electric guitar music. When Charlie Christian put a pickup on his Gibson ES-150, and sent it to an amp in the late 1930s, that was the end of banjo players’ role in the Big Band. Suddenly solos could be heard and a new voice emerged- the horn-based lines of Charlie were an influence on the next generation of bebop players.

The first popular pickup? It was a single coil.

Modern single coil pickups are simple in design. Hair-thin wire surrounds magnetic slugs, sitting between a baseplate and a top piece, which holds the magnets in place. The result is a generally quieter signal than humbuckers, but with clarity and lack of compression. Historically, they were popularized by being the pickup-of-choice on Fender guitars, and remain popular today for most styles of music, including rock, pop, country, blues and punk.

I started out playing a Fender, and listening to those great single-coil players listed above. I didn’t know it at the time, but I used the same guitar for rock, metal and even jazz, and it all sounded great. For the first 10 years of my guitar playing, I didn’t know (or care) any differently. Single coils had the sound I heard on Made In Japan and that was good enough for me!

On the ropes?

Despite what we know now, some still insist the tone is in the hat.

However, single coil pickups (in their original design) have a few drawbacks. They hum. The more distortion, the louder the hum. Some players don’t mind. Sit next to an acoustic guitar, and you hear squeaks. No one complained that Jimi or Stevie had hum on their recordings. But stand next to a loud amp with lots of preamp distortion or compression and it can really squash the vibe. When I was learning, this was a big deal. My metal tunes were accompanied by a chorus of bees in the background. But I also had my gain up to 10.

Now, things are easier. So called ‘stacked humbuckers’ like the Vintage Hot Stack Plus and others have kept the tone and canceled the hum, so single coil players can use all the gain they want while retaining the clarity that single coils are known for.

Tone without hum.The STK-S4 sounds like rainbows.

The other drawback to vintage single coils is the fact that they are lower in output than humbuckers. Back in the day, the single coil-equipped guitar had to be boosted after the fact to get some serious crunch going on, and boosting the signal also boosted the hum. Now, there are pickups like the Hot Stack for Strat, and the Hot Rails which can easily compete in output with the humbucker.

 

In the blue corner…

The father of the humbucking pickup, Seth Lover, with his prototype.

Yes, the humbucker. Allan Holdsworth, Tony Iommi, Eddie Van Halen, Dave Mustaine, Jimmy Page, Dimebag Darrell, Joe Bonamassa, Randy Rhodes, and a whole lot more. Styles as diverse as jazz and metal are almost exclusively the realm of the humbucker. Blues and classic rock recordings are littered with great humbucker tones, and if you started playing guitar in the 80s listening to hair metal, then you wanted a colorful humbucker-equipped guitar to go along with your tiger-striped spandex.

Designed by pickup icon Seth Lover, these pickups used magnetized screws and two coils of wire wound the opposite direction to cancel out hum. This sends a more powerful signal to the amp, full of tight lows and mids. They are also devoid of hum (duh), and can be dead silent with lots of gain at a high volume.

Down for the count?

Despite the seemingly win-win of the humbuckers here, they are not without some drawbacks. The biggest drawback: the lack of Chime. Humbuckers don’t have the brightness or clarity of single coils, and for certain types of music, like country, you need that Chime. Higher powered humbuckers suffer from this more, as well as a compressed feeling when you play- in other words, they can make single notes about as loud as chords. This is great if you playing doesn’t use dynamics, but if it does, you will miss the touch-sensitivity of single coils. Humbuckers can be split, effectively making it a single coil. There are also humbuckers designed to sound like a single coil when split, because they consist of 2 single coil pickups wired together. The Stag Mag is a pickup that does this.

After 10 years playing a Fender Strat with single coils, I needed a change. My next guitar consisted of 2 humbuckers, and I was ready to rock! Humbuckers better suited my new jazzy/prog playing style (influenced by bands like Yes and the Mahavishnu Orchestra). This was clearly humbucker-land, and occasional times when I picked up my old Strat, I couldn’t stand the weak hum-filled output.

 

The winner (for me)?

Funny thing. I hadn’t played a guitar with single coils professionally for 15 years. I took one of my guitars, and fitted it with a loaded pickguard populated with Classic Stack Plus pickups. If I didn’t like it, I would just put the old pickguard back on- takes about 10 minutes to swap them. And ya know what?

I loved it. Not just a little. Like crazy. I missed the chime and snap of the single coils. I missed those notchy 2 & 4 positions. I could again control the amount of overdrive with my fingers and volume knob. Eventually, I went back to a humbucker in the bridge. I love the low mids there, and I usually only use that pickup when there is at least some distortion anyway. I even wired it so the humbucker can split, so I don’t lose my notch positions, and it is all humbucking. It will stay this way for awhile, I think. The HSS setup works for me for now. It might all change somewhere down the road.

No reason you can’t combine ’em. I did.

 

Who are your favorite artists who use single coils? Or humbuckers? What style of pickups do you like the best?

 

Written on November 8, 2013, by Dave Eichenberger

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Comments (26)

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Under Humbucker you should have mentioned Michael Bloomfield…who I knew..Duane Allman ever hear of him..?

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Bruce Kulick definitely one if my favorite humbucker users who was not listed in the article. Nicely written.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    I like a lot of players that use both, such as Joe and Brad from Aerosmith, James Mankey from Concrete Blonde (hideously underrated), Jimmy Page, and many others.

    I use both, but I tend to like at least one real ‘bucker in my guitars…whether it’s the Li’l Screamin’ Demon combined with the Alnico II Pro singles in my G&L Fullerton, or the Seth Lover in the neck position of a G&L ASAT Classic Bluesboy.

    I have an old Les Paul, too, that’s had a ton of Duncans go through it over the years…currently with an Alnico II Pro humbucker in the neck and an SP90 in the bridge.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    i have listened to a lot of grateful dead, which is humbuckers but when i play, i like the clarity of the singles.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      Depends on what you’re listening to. The Dead (and Jerry) used single coils as much or more than HBs – from about ’71 on Jerry played a strat, then a custom guitar with 3 SCs, a Travis Bean with P90-ish things molded into hum bucker routes, then more customs with an SDS-1 and coil-split Super IIs…

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    George Harrison’s Gretsch Tennessean for single coils and Justin Hayward’s Gibson ES-335 for Humbuckers. Oh, and my 2005 ’61 reissue Gibson SG for humbuckers.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    My guitar has double humbuckers and each of them has a toggle switch that can put them in single-coil mode. I WIN. SUCKERS!!!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    i got 4 pickups on my guitar, 2 single coil sized humbucker, 2 single coils, and even a coil split switch for the humbucker, so how do i put this? :v

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Jb jnrs in the neck and bridge on my strat. Coil split on both of em – so I get the quack and the roar. Fuck I love my JB jnrs!!!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    What gets me is the lack of love the P90 receives… A lot of people tend to forget that Gibson made a WICKED single-coil pickup. If I were to ever acquire a Les Paul, it’d be a ’56 reissue with the soapbars!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Great post David – though Page belongs as much in the single-coil camp as the humbucker camp. It is my understanding that the first few Zeppelin records are all Telecaster through a Supro. The list of single-coil players is far more illustrious in terms of “greats” – I will not argue that the Humbucker guys are not great – but their appeal is to a narrower group. The SC group also argues for Fender strats and teles as best ever (with strat leading.)

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Single coils are too weak in tone, I like the power of a nice humbucker way more!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Tony Iommi actually used P-90’s until recently. Just a small thing but it should be noted.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Here I am nearly two years later, reading and appreciating this thoughtful post. I got here via Google (“Single Coil vs. Humbuckers”). Thank you for sharing your perspective. I know more now than when I arrived at this page. Thank you.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      Thank you for the kind words. If you have any questions about any of our products or blogs, please let us know!

      • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

        Cool article, thank you. I’ve been considering changing my single coils for Humbuckers on my favorite guitar from all the things I’ve been reading – I play metal mainly – but from all of the audio I’ve heard comparing the two, I just think that Humbuckers sound “muffled” , they lack clarity and don’t sound very good – I know it’s just personal taste but I don’t understand why anyone would prefer that sound, maybe I have more to learn yet.
        I do have a guitar with Humbuckers that didn’t sound great from when I bought it new – I thought it was the guitar being crappy even though it looks great but now I realize that the muffled sound I was hearing is from the Humbuckers!! All my other guitars are single coil.

        • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

          I recommend playing many guitars with humbuckers before you make that decision. One isn’t better than the other, just vastly different, and as we work on becoming better players, it is easier to hear. That being said, there is nothing wrong with preferences. One person might think humbuckers sound muffled, and another might think that single coils lack power.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    I echo Peter’s words – really helpful in understanding the difference and also deciding which ones to go for. Thank you for the detailed insight.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      Thank you for reading. Keep watching the blogs for more informative articles!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    Very useful article.

    I’m in the market for an electric guitar, my first and after buying and receiving a Epiphone Les Paul Special II (based on reviews on Amazon), I looked more into different types of electric guitar sounds and found out about humbucker and single coil.

    I think I like that brighter sound since I already play acoustic guitar but also think the fuller sound of the humbucker pickup would be nice for variety. After looking around, I saw the Squier Bullet Stratocaster HSS. I know these are cheap guitars but I’m don’t want to spend a lot of money since I’m still learning but I couldn’t find any info on the pros and cons of HSS vs SSS. Plenty of humbucker vs single coils though.

    You converted your guitar into an HSS so I figure you’d know. Would I basically be getting both the single coil sound and the humbucker sound or is there a catch? Like the single coil part of the HSS isn’t as good as pure single coil and the humbucker part of the HSS isn’t really a true humbucker sound?

    I’m planning to return my Epi Les Paul Special II and buy the Squier Bullet Strat HSS hoping to get the best of both worlds and was wondering if I can get your opinion on this.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      You should love the HSS setup. There are no pros and cons of HSS vs SSS, it is just what you like. HSS is more versatile, but it really comes down to what you like. Play lots of guitars, read forums, and watch videos on our site- we also have a pickup compare function to hear them side by side. Ultimately, after you get your new guitar, and decide if you like the HSS sound, you can explore other options like pickup swaps etc.

      • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

        Thanks for your response. I think I might just return the Epiphone guitar I just got and get the HSS Squier Bullet Strat. I should just go to a store and try them out first.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

      Thank you for this question. (As as the answer below.) This is very much the circumstance I am in.

      The article itself was interesting and informative. *And* I get help from the Comments section. What internet is this?

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    I’ve never been much of a single-coil user, but have been leaning more and more towards the idea of having one in my next guitar. One of my favorite sounds comes from Chris Spencer (Unsane, UXO, Cutthroats 9, etc.). ’78 swamp ash Telecaster with a Seymour Duncan Vintage 59 single-coil, to a Mesa Triple Rectifier and a Fender Twin Reverb. Heavy rock, jazz, blues, surf, country twang, and every single tone sounds amazing. I’m not sure how much the amps have to do with it, but I rarely hear sounds this versatile come from just one type of pickup, let alone just one single-coil. Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    When I bought my first Strat it drove me crazy, the hum, the weak signal, the getting out of tube easily, etc… when i bought my first Les paul I was blown away… the sustain, the amazing power of the humbuckers and the warm conpressed cleans… my Fender felt like a toy at times… I played Exclusively Gibson with Humbuvkers for a while… until I grabbed my Strat again just for kick… and yes… same as the writer, I missed the bell like tones, the chine , the whammy bar, and man… the neck! So smooth … the twang! So fun… but I had it loaded with Fender FAT 50’s … amazing pickups for cleans, but they don’t take distortion very well… that drove me crazy all over again… I couldn’t figure out what was wrong… I had a Seymour Duncan SSL-5 on the Bridge and that position sounded great! But the 2nd was unuseable , very metallic and wobbly… almost if the guitar was not set up properly and had some sort of buzz… but that only happened with certain types of distortion… not with a Muff or anythig like that… but a tube screamer or a tube driver it was awful… anyways… I decided to go back to my Les Paul, but this time I wasn’t so impressed… I really wanted the Strat sound and to use the whammy bar… but I wanted the distortion and fuzz to sound smooth, clean and articulate. I got a Seymour Duncan Little ’59 on the Neck, a low output Duckbucker in the Middle and I left the SSL-5 on the bridge… and wow! The strat is a Monster!!! Specially on the neck … which the little 59 basically turned it into a 59 Les Paul! Very nice, very, very nice… although i did lose a lot of high end sparkle and bell tone… but the smoothness of my solos and aingle notes are just amazing with distortion… then on the 4th position I get a little of the chime back… thanks to the duckbucker… the middle position and 2nd position sound very similar but with dofferent dynamics… and of course the Bridge position is one pf the best tones known to me… but the 1st , 2nd, 3rd sounds totally Straty, the 4th… uhm… sounds good but I lost the quack, the twang… and the neck is my favorite even though it doesn’t aound very straty… but somehow in still kinda does…
    I still prefer aingle coil tones… next time I will probably buy an ssl-1 and another SSL-5 for the middle and have an all Si gle Coul setup again. But for now, I’m still experimenting with this setup and gettig used to it.., sounds conpletaly different than before… but I love to have the best of both worlds… I would like to experiment with the little 59 on the bridge, but I got the Neck voiced one… but maybe soon… I need to get a loaded pickguard so I don’t have to re solder everytime… anyways… Seymour Duncan makes the absolute best pickups… they just sounds too sweet…
    So even though I preffer the single coul strat sound, I think that every guitarist should have one of each if he can… a humbucker guitar and a single coil guitar… they are bith great they both do things differently and you will find yourself with a larger palatte for your music

  • Dave Eichenberger • 5 years ago

    I just can’t hear what I’m playing when the other guitarist in my band is playing his Strat and I am playing a Gibson with (mediocre, I think) Hum-buckers.
    I came home and plugged in a Tele. Clear as a bell. I was led to think that hum-buckers had a higher output than single coils but the Tele sounds twice as loud. What gives?
    And my Vox amp won’t take the Hum-Buckers with drive pedals, while the Tele has loads of headroom. What am I missing?

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