When getting a new electric guitar, one of the first things players often think about is the diversity and the abundance of different styles they’d be able to perform on it. While the technology has certainly advanced, most of the guitars out there have a more or less narrow scope of use.
For instance, you can use a Gibson ES-335 for jazz, blues, and various subgenres of rock music. But implementing it in something like those extreme metal subgenres, you’ll probably have a very hard time finding ways to adjust your tone. Not to mention the lack of much-needed features and potential feedback that can happen with hollow-body guitars at high gain and high volume settings.
Since a huge portion of your guitar’s tone comes from the pickups, they usually present the biggest “limitation” when it comes to the scope of genres that you can play on it. This story is as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself, and players usually need to choose between guitars with single-coils and humbuckers. We’re all aware of how different their tones can get. Single-coil pickups can hardly ever replicate the “rough” and slightly muffled tone of humbuckers. At the same time, humbuckers can’t really get that “twang” and brightness that single-coils are very well-known for.
However, what some players might not know is that there are a few ways how you can replicate the humbucker tones on a guitar with single-coils and vice versa. In case you’re looking for ways to change your tone without getting a new guitar, or by replacing your pickups, here are some of the methods that you can try instead.
Make Single-Coils Sound Like Humbuckers
While we can get some really bright and twangy tones with a strong attack on single-coils, they usually aren’t able to get some of the tonal properties of humbucker pickups. For instance, it is possible to play some heavy riffage using single-coils, but there’ll usually be a lack of that much-appreciated edge a player will need for those chugging tones. If you want to make it more humbucker-ish, here’s what you’ll want to do.
Setting your EQ
One of the things you can try is to set the EQ on your amp. One of the first things to think of is the reduction of high-ends. This way, you’ll reduce the brightness and even handle some of the buzzing in your tone that single-coils come with. So it’s a good idea to keep it below 50% if possible.
Then we have the bass knob that should be over 50%, sometimes even up to its maximum. Single-coils usually lack in this part of the spectrum and need some additional pushing to add some beefiness.
As for mids, this is where you’ll be able to experiment more. If your amp or a distortion pedal has a parametric EQ, try and boost the low mids. If you have a standard 3-band EQ setting, then try and push the mid knob slightly above 50%. But, again, this can differ depending on the types of single-coils, so you’ll have to experiment and find what works in your case.
Tone Knob on Your Guitar
There’s a simple tone knob trick that can help you with this. Just slightly roll it off, no more than 15 to 20%, and you’ll smooth out the brightness and overall twangy feel of single-coils. In some cases, if the pickups are really bright and twangy, you’ll want to roll off the high-end by setting the knob down to 30%.
Pickup selection is really important in the process as well, and it’s actually a crucial thing in the process. If you’re trying to make your single-coils sound like humbuckers, always use just one pickup. Any of those combinations in the middle are usually too bright and thin to make them sound like humbuckers.
Using the bridge position on most of the classic Strats is usually really difficult as they are, in most cases, unaffected by any of the guitar’s tone knobs.
Pickup selection, amp and pedal EQ settings, and tone knob settings all work together. You should set all three of these aspects together as there’ll be some additional adjusting and tweaking along the way.
Doubling Your Distortion
Next up, we have a distortion pedal selection. One of the methods that can help you here is the use of two distortions. Preferably, one of them should be an overdrive.
The first distortion pedal in your signal chain should be your main dirtbox. This is where you’ll do most of the tone-shaping. The next one in the chain will perform as a sort of a bass boost. It would be a good idea that you use an overdrive pedal in this position and set its tone knob or an EQ in such a way to boost the low-end and cut off the high-end of the spectrum. This way, you’ll add thickness and warmth to the tone.
A great choice for the second pedal here is something like the classic Tube Screamer. It’s one of the perfect pedals that can add much-needed creaminess to the tone. Of course, you’ll need to do some additional tweaking here and find the perfect setting for your combination of pedals and other gear.
While many guitar players tend to completely overlook compression pedals, they’re one of the most important pieces of gear a guitar player should own. Many of the compressors also offer additional EQ settings that can help in the process of thickening up your tone.
In the process of dynamic compression, guitar tone tends to sound a little thicker, even get some additional sustain. This is exactly what you need in order to make your single-coils sound closer to humbuckers.
Chorus or Delay
Just a slight addition of the chorus effect can make the tone sound fuller. It shouldn’t be that saturated and you don’t need it to oscillate in the pitch too much. Therefore, set the mix or blend knob really low and the width setting on minimum. Speed should also be lower.
The chorus effect features just a slightly delayed copy of an original tone. But if you prefer not to have other settings but just a copy of your tone, you can put an additional delay pedal, set the feedback to only one or two repeats and the time setting to 20 to 40 milliseconds.
While it may not be useful in all of the settings, an addition of an octaver pedal can also be of help in the process. However, you should use low-key settings and not over-saturate your tone with bottom octaves.
Pickup Simulation Pedals and Modeling
In the end, it’s worth noting that there are some pedals or even digital modelers that help you change your tone. One of the examples is the Keyztone Exchanger, and this kind of a pedal helps you replicate some basic types of pickups that you can find these days. It’s a very versatile little thing as it features a lot of tone-shaping options.
You can also find different software and plugins that can do the same. For instance, Bias FX 2 has many different guitar modeling options, including the type of tonewood and pickups. Both this and a pickup simulation pedal might be a costly addition to your rig, but they’re fairly good and can work both ways.
Make Humbuckers Sound Like Single-Coils
Humbuckers can find their use for more or less heavy riffing we can hear in hard rock and metal music, high-gain soaring leads, as well as in genres like blues and jazz where you need a slightly muffled tone. But despite their thickness in the lower and mid-end, they often lack the brightness as we have with single-coils.
This might be a more difficult tack compared to making single-coils sound like humbuckers, but it’s still not impossible to achieve. Here’s what you can do.
While EQ setting itself won’t do all the necessary tone-changing, getting rid of the low-end and boosting the high end can always help in the process. Here, you’ll want to do the opposite compared to single-coils. Set the bass knob near the minimum, highs near the maximum, and then adjust the mids according to your needs. If your amp or any other pedals have more detailed controls, you’ll want to slightly boost the higher mids.
Middle Pickup Positions
While it’s not a perfect solution, middle pickup position on a guitar with two humbuckers can add some of those chimy overtones to the mix. Combined with your amp’s EQ setting, you’ll be able to somewhat replicate the middle position of a classic Telecaster.
Coil splitting is, in some way, “cheating,” as it essentially splits your humbucker into two individual single-coils. Many of the humbucker-equipped guitars these days have an option for coil splitting when you pull one of the knobs on it. You can either buy a guitar with coil-splitting option or modify the one you have. However, if you want to modify your guitar’s electronics, it is recommended that you seek professional help here.
While some may not know, coil split and coil tap are technically not the same things. Coil tapping refers to connecting using an additional wire to connect two different parts of winding. And it’s only used for single-coil pickups.
Pickup Modeling and Some Specific Pedals
Just like we described in the single-coil section, you can also use pickup modeling plugins and pickup simulation pedals with humbuckers. But if that’s too complicated for you, or just out of your set budget, there’s one very useful and not that expensive pedal that can help you, called Sonic Stomp MS-92. Made by BBE Sound, its simple Mini version is still in production and it is more popular than the larger SS-02. While it looks simple, it’s more than just a tone knob in a pedal, but more of a “sonic maximizer.” Essentially, this pedal adds more brightness to your tone and pronounces certain frequencies that make your humbucker sound like a single-coil pickup.
In the end, it’s really important to note that you won’t ever be able to completely replicate humbucker tones on single-coils and vice versa. The methods we described above can only help you pronounce certain aspects of their tone but will never completely change their essence.
You can use any of these methods if you need a temporary solution or something that will help you get a different sound for a few songs in your set and you don’t feel like bringing another guitar. Other than that, the best idea is to have two options at your disposal or a guitar with humbuckers and the coil-split feature.