Cage Match: Single Coils vs. Humbuckers
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.