What Is Coil Tapping?

Coil splitting is the practice of shutting off (or otherwise fading out) one coil of a humbucker, leaving behind a single coil for a brighter tone. Coil splitting is often confused with a single coil option known as coil tapping, in much the same way that the terms ‘vibrato bar’ and ‘tremolo bar’ are considered interchangeable even though only one is technically correct. So what is coil tapping, and how is it different to coil splitting?

Coil tapping is when a wire runs off of the pickup windings at a certain point, somewhere short of the full amount. This means you can install a switch to select between a single coil pickup’s full output or a lower output, giving you two distinct levels of power from one pickup.
Coil Tap
The tapped output level will give you a more vintage-like sound, while a hotter, more modern voice is available from the full-powered setting. This can give you more precise heat-of-the-moment control over the output compared to simply using the guitar’s volume knob to reduce the output level. And if you’re using a particularly sensitive tube amp you can even use the tapped level as your default rhythm setting, then hit the amp with higher output for solos by flipping to the full power level. You can also have some real fun by using a coil tap switch in combination with an input-dependent effect device such as an envelope filter pedal.

High-powered single coils such as the Quarter Pound SSL-4 or the Quarter Pound for Tele set can be ordered with the extra wire that turns them into tapped versions, as can medium-output pickups such as the SSL-5 and the Hot for Tele set. And there are many ways to wire a coil tap, including a push-pull pot for each pickup; a mini switch for each pickup (see the diagram here); and ‘Tapped Tele’ style with a five-way pickup selector switch in place of the traditional three-way switch.

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  1. I’m glad someone else agrees with me about the difference between a “vibrato bar” and a “tremolo bar”! I feel like I’ve been on some sort of moral crusade :-p
    That annoys me because it confuses my guitar students when they come to learn about tremolo and vibrato (which are two, very different things).
    However, I wasn’t aware of the difference between coil “tapping” and coil “splitting” as I was told they were the same thing. I guess they both must reduce the output level, but coil splitting changes the tone to that of a singlecoil, and coil tapping doesn’t?
    Very informative post!

    1. Anytime you do a wiring adjustment or permanent switching installed, when you engage the, tap, the split, the phase reversal….. It will drop your power by half. And if you’ve got it tapped and phase reversal you’ve lost like 3/4ths of your power, you’re tone is thin & nasally.

      1. If you see the photo with the multiple taps, if each one has half the power then there would be no point. The tap can be anywhere, 50%, 65%, 75% etc. The out of phase is almost cancelling all sound, so it’s lower than half, maybe 30%, depending on the pickup. Sounding thin is a different thing that maybe because the lack of mid frequencies, not because the lack of power. Don’t generalize things, it’s not that simple!

    2. That’s correct, coil split is literally a single coil, while coil tapping a humbucker is still a humbucker… but neither usually sounds quite the same as a typical single coil, or a typical lower output humbucker. It’s just the nature of the beast. Humbuckers typically have a bar magnet and metal polepieces, but the strat pickup has magnetic pole pieces, and no bar magnet.. so, the design is different, and that’s not the only difference. I’ve realized that you can get cool sounds from nontraditional wiring, but you shouldn’t expect the results to sound like a traditional pickup. You can’t just “have it all” and make a high output humbucker sound just like a PAF or a strat pickup by coil tapping or splitting, for example.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. For me it stopped a little short with there being yet another option…..the difference between switching between parallel and series in a humbucker configuration. How do you know if your guitar is wired for series/parallel or coil split?

    1. One easy way is to tap on the pole pieces with a metal object. If you get a sound out of both coils, you’re not splitting the coil.
      If you can follow the switches and wires, a series humbucker has the negative wire of one coil attached to the positive of the other.. with one remaining wire going to output, and the other to ground. A parallel humbucker has both positives to output, both negatives to ground.. and a split humbucker has one postitive going to output, the other wires to ground. Sometimes the wires going to ground will just be floating, going nowhere. But, if you can determine the positive and negative wires, and figure out your switch positions, this is the most conclusive way of knowing if you’ve got split, parallel, series, etc.

  3. Thanks for the clarification! But one question remains: My guitar has a coil tap, somit sais in the description, but it hums when I activate it. Shouldn’t it reach like a humBUCKER even when it’s tapped, because it’s not a coil split?

  4. Anyone tried this coil tapping thing and think this is worth it ? Or the ammount of reduced gain is kinda the same from the full gain of the pickup without the tapping ? This worth ? Or just rolling down the volume pot is kinda the same story ? Replies ?

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