Hey there! Maybe you’re buying your first electric or want to upgrade a pickup in your old guitar and wondering, are all humbuckers the same size? The answer is no; they come in various sizes and configurations.
In this article, I’ll reveal all the interesting facts you need to know to get totally up to speed with humbuckers. Keep on reading to learn more!
You can use the table of contents below to take you to the area that interests you. Click on the little box to open it and then click on the section of the article you want to read, or you can read from start to finish if you want the full humbucking experience!
The Short Explanation
Humbucking pickups are made in different sizes and design configurations for all types of electric guitars. They all have two wire coils but can be arranged side by side or vertically stacked.
The most common reason players select a particular humbucker size and configuration is that it allows them to install the pickup in the guitar without making any permanent modifications to the pickup cavity.
However, one of the most important considerations is that various humbucking pickups can sound and perform differently.
This article will change your perception of what “humbucking” pickups are!
Keep On Reading To Learn More
What Are Humbucking Pickups?
Here is a brief explanation of what makes a humbucker able to remove the noise that plagues single-coil pickups.
A humbucking pickup has two coils that are wired together differently to remove the hum in the audio signal from your guitar going to the amp.
Specifically, the second coil is wound in the opposite direction, which reverses its magnetic field compared to the first coil.
The humbucking configuration gives the pickup a more balanced sound that is smoother and thicker, typically emphasizing the midrange and bass frequencies.
The “Classic” Humbucker Pickup Design
When Seth Lover designed the first humbucker pickup for a guitar in 1955, it consisted of two full-size, side-by-side coils. These are the humbucking pickups you typically see in a Gibson SG or Les Paul guitar.
They can be installed with or without pickup covers. The pickup cover is not necessary to remove hum. Omitting the cover can make the pick louder and more dynamic.
Some players remove the pickup cover for just that reason. Jimmy Page did it on one of his ’59 Les Paul guitars.
Here are some of the most common humbucker pickup variations.
Most players think of humbuckers as the “wide” pickups illustrated above, but they come in various sizes and double-coil configurations!
The magnetic pole design can also vary. For example, individual pole pieces can be adjusted for each string, while “rails” give more consistent volume while bending strings.
Mini-humbuckers are designed to give you the noise cancellation of a standard-size humbucker with a tighter and more focused sound.
I took in an early ’70s Les Paul Deluxe for repair in 1978 and kept it for a few months before the owner returned to claim it. I loved the way it sounded clean and with a distortion pedal. However, the pickups definitely had less power than full-size humbuckers!
I was like a cross between the sound of a Gibson SG and a Strat, but with the sustain of a Les Paul and great harmonics!
I offered to buy it, but the guy wouldn’t let it go. I wasn’t surprised that he had such an attachment for the guitar!
Single-Coil Sized Humbuckers
These humbucker variations are designed to fit in a guitar’s single-coil-size pickup cavity without altering its shape or size. Two common configurations are the vertically-stacked humbucker and the adjacent-coil humbucker.
Vertically-stacked humbuckers are also inappropriately called “noiseless single coil” pickups. These pickups consist of two small coils stacked, one on top of the other, to fit in a single-coil-size pickup housing.
The idea is to create a humbucker that looks like a single coil pickup. Compared to standard single coil pickups, they are hum-free with a stronger signal output but don’t have as much treble attack and bite as real single coils.
They come preinstalled on many Fender guitars, like the Eric Clapton (vintage noiseless) and Jeff Beck (ceramic noiseless) Signature Strat models.
Although the noiseless pickups do not have the same iconic tone and brightness as the traditional single coil pickups, some of the newer designs do come very close.
These pickups are humbuckers with two mini coils in a side-by-side configuration.
They are designed to be closer in appearance and sound to a classic humbucker than the vertically stacked double coil pickups described above.
They can have quite a hot output despite their coil size, like the Seymour Duncan “Hot Rails” humbucker. I have a Strat loaded with three of them, and they really rock!
Pickups like the Seymour Duncan “Little ’59” pickup give Strat and Tele players the option to add the PAF humbucker sound, resembling a ’59 (holy grail) Les Paul. The pole pieces are all individually adjustable. I have one of these in the bridge position of a Strat that I customized, and it sounds excellent with Fender noiseless vintage pickups in the middle and neck positions!
Double-Coil Configuration Comparison
Here is a table that compares various aspects of double-coil pickups of different sizes and coil configurations. Note that the Tone, Signal Strength, and Metal categories contain typical answers, but exceptions do exist, depending on the individual pickup design.
|Item||Horizontal (Adjacent) Coils|
|“Mini-Humbucker” Design||Vertically Stacked Coils|
|Fits In “Humbucker” Pickup Cavity?||Yes||No||No|
|Fits In Single-Coil Pickup Cavity?||No||No||Yes|
|Tone||Fat with most bass and midrange, with very high output||More balanced toward midrange than a full-size humbucker||Tighter and more focused toward midrange and treble|
|Typical Signal Output Strength||Highest||Higher||High|
|Good For Playing Heavy Metal||Best||Better||Good|
Beware Of Changing Pickups!
Changing the pickups in your guitar can lower its resale value, especially if it is a vintage instrument! If you have to enlarge the pickup cavity, use a router with a pickup template for the best results, and only attempt it if you know what you’re doing!
Removing wood from the guitar body during the routing process can permanently change the sound and sustain of the guitar for the worse, even if you reinstall the original pickup!
Be sure to follow the wiring diagram to correctly install the new humbucker for coil-tapping options and avoid putting the pickup out of phase.
Keep the original pickup in case you want to reinstall it or sell the guitar.
Are You Qualified To Make Guitar Adjustments Or Modifications?
It’s great to work on your guitars, especially if you have a lot of them, but you should always be aware of your limitations. This definitely applies to installing or modifying pickups!
Adjusting things like an electric guitar’s string height (action) or pickup height can be straightforward. Still, some adjustments require the proper training and experience, like adjusting a guitar’s truss rod.
When you doubt your ability to adjust, repair, or modify your guitar, it’s always best to bring it to a competent guitar technician or luthier (guitar designer & builder). You can permanently damage your guitar, and it might never play and sound right again!
Making modifications to your guitar can void its manufacturer’s warranty and cause permanent damage to the instrument. Certain modifications are irreversible, so you may be stuck with them, even if you desperately want to restore the guitar to its original condition!
I learned that the hard way over the years until I did a three-year apprenticeship in a guitar repair shop. Now I have my own home workshop with the proper training and equipment to safely maintain and repair all my instruments.
Remember: “When In Doubt, Send It Out!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions I get asked about humbucker pickups.
If your question does not appear here, please put it in the comments, and I will get right back to you with an answer.
Does It Matter Which Way You Put A Humbucker In?
Yes, it can affect the overall sound of your guitar! For example, if the pickup has staggered magnetic pole pieces or a combination of pole pies in one coil and a rail in the other. The best approach is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when installing any pickup.
Can Humbuckers Be Out Of Phase With Each Other?
Yes, it is possible to have humbucker pickups out of phase with each other if they are wired together incorrectly. If your pickups sound weak or strange when selected together, they are probably out of phase. The best approach is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when installing any pickup.
Can You Take The Cover Off A Humbucker?
Yes, you can remove a cover from a humbucker pickup by unsoldering the pickup cover from the back and gently rocking it with a weak pulling action until it comes loose. Do not attempt this if you do not feel comfortable with the procedure or you could damage the pickup.
Keep the cover in case you want to re-install it or sell the guitar.
Removing the pickup cover could lower the resale value of the pickup and the guitar. You should seriously think twice before doing this to a PAF humbucker!
Also, removing the pickup cover can change its sound for the worse.
Can You Put Covers On Humbuckers?
Yes, you can buy a pickup cover and install it by gently slipping it over the pickup and soldering it to the metallic base on the back. Ensure the cover is the correct size for the pickup and the pole pieces are correctly aligned to the cover’s holes.
Do not attempt this if you do not feel comfortable with the procedure or you could damage the pickup.
Installing a pickup cover could lower the resale value of the pickup and the guitar. Also, the cover could change its sound for the worse.
Does Pickup Height Affect Tone?
Yes, it certainly can! Always set your pickup height for the best tone, not as close as possible to the strings for the loudest output. Begin with the pickup set in the lowest position and slowly increase the height of both sides until you find the pickup’s “sweet spot.”
Use pedals or the gain setting on your amplifier to get more sustain, overdrive, and distortion.
How Do You Clean Humbucker Pickups?
If your humbucker pickup has a cover, use a clean, damp cloth to wipe the top and dry it thoroughly. If it doesn’t have a cover, use a can of compressed air to gently blow the dust from the top and between the coils, keeping the air nozzle 4 to 6 inches above the pickup.
It’s easier to thoroughly clean a pickup with the guitar strings removed.
Not all humbuckers are the same size, and they can have different coil configurations.
Although some guitar players do not think of “noiseless” pickups in a single-coil pickup cavity as “humbuckers,” they have a double-coil, stacked vertically or side by side, to buck hum.
It’s essential to select a humbucking pickup that will fit in your guitar and give you the sound you want to hear. If your pickup is too big, the guitar’s pickup cavity can be enlarged by routing it to size. You could permanently damage your guitar if you don’t have the proper experience or tools. Bing the instrument to a certified guitar tech to get it done right!
Removing or adding a pickup cover could lower the guitar’s value and change the sound in an undesirable way.
See Humbucker Pickups VS Single Coil – Improve Your Guitar Tone! for more info.
Tell Me What You Think
Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this article, have any questions about humbucker pickups, or want to give your point of view. I will be happy to help you.
- Are you thinking about changing your guitar’s pickup(s)? Why?
- What is your favorite humbucking pickup?
- Do you prefer the sound of classic (adjacent coils) or noiseless (vertically stacked coil) humbucker pickup?
- What else is on your mind?