Single-coil or humbucker? It’s a simple question, with more depth than you may realize. After all, the electric guitar’s entire functionality is based upon its pickups, and if you only have two main choices, it’s a significant decision.
To the untrained eye, whether a guitar has single-coil pickups or humbuckers goes unnoticed. To the untrained ear, the difference goes unheard. But to guitar players who’ve spent good time with the instrument, the difference between these two styles of pickups is substantial and important.
The Physical Difference
If you’re unfamiliar with how pickups work, you can get a more in-depth explanation from our Active vs Passive article, but in general, you just need to know that for most pickups, copper wire is wound around a bobbin with magnetic pole pieces in the middle. And when electrified, this contraption captures the sound of the strings.
Single-coil pickups started it all. The most basic pickup option is what its name suggests—one coil of wire wrapped around magnets. This is a bit simpler than humbucker pickups. Humbuckers are comprised of two single-coils placed directly adjacent to each other. They are wired in parallel and their magnetic pole pieces are oriented in opposite directions.
The Sonic Difference
Besides having half the coils, single-coil pickups produce a different tone than their humbucker counterparts. Single-coils are great when you want clean, crisp tones, with some nice twang and articulation. However, when you start to add some effects, specifically overdrive and distortion, single-coils lose the clarity in their sound and are burdened with a lot of feedback. That’s where humbuckers come in.
Because of how they’re set up, the two coils of a humbucker “buck” the hum, i.e. remove that extra buzz and feedback you get with increased overdrive and volume. That is essentially what they were created for. But the humbucker also changes the tone a bit, making it less twangy, with dynamics that don’t cut through as harshly, giving it an overall smoother tone. The humbucker lends itself to sitting in a mix better and handles distortion much better than a single-coil. Thus, rock and metal musicians use humbuckers almost exclusively, while single-coils are more common in blues and pop.
Coil-Tapping and Coil-Splitting
As guitar electronics evolved, we came to a point where you could basically have the best of both worlds—a humbucker and a single-coil in one pickup. Humbuckers, which sport two coils next to each other, can be “tapped” or “split” to make them sound more likened to a single-coil.
To achieve coil-tapping, the electrical signal output of one of the coils in the humbucker is weakened to replicate the tone of a single-coil. When a coil is split, one of the two coils of a humbucker is removed from the circuit, so it’s truly just a single-coil pickup. Both are meant to afford you more variety in your sound.
What’s Right for You?
You’ll want to base what pickups you use on the type of music that you play. However, in this modern era of technological wonders, you can find many a guitar that sports both single-coils and humbuckers—the HSS Strat for instance. You can also opt for a guitar with coil-splits or taps, and get the best of both worlds in the most efficient way—like a PRS Custom 24. You can even swap out pickups to find the best sound for you. Whatever you choose, make sure you enjoy the tone of the pickup and how it works with the guitar above all else.
You can check out all our guitars with all the pickup options you can dream of at Sam Ash.com