This article reveals the differences, pros, and cons of humbucker pickups vs single coil. Most guitar players favor one type or the other, while some like them both.
Opinions vary, but there are definite reasons to choose one coil configuration over the other.
What type of pickup person are you? Read on 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 pickup experience!
Humbucker Vs Single Coil Pickups – Quick Comparison
This table will show you the most important differences between the humbucker (double coil) and the single coil design pickups.
|Humbucker (Double Coil) Pickups||Single Coil Pickups|
|Two coils||One Coil|
|Higher Output||Lower Output|
|Easier To Overdrive An Amplifier||Harder To Overdrive An Amplifier|
|Thicker Sound With Midrange & Bass Emphasis||Tighter Sound With Treble Emphasis|
|Pickup Coils Can Be Split||Pickup Coil Can Be Tapped|
|More Robust Harmonics (typically)||More Harmonic “Sparkle” (typically)|
|“In-Between” Sound With Pickup Combos||“Out-Of-Phase Quack” With Pickup Combos|
|More Magnetic String Pull||Less Magnetic String Pull|
|More Likely To Feedback With High-Gain Amp||Less Likely To Feedback With High-Gain Amp|
For more specific information, keep on reading!
What Makes A Humbucker Different From A Single Coil Pickup?
The most apparent difference is that a humbucker has two coils instead of one. As its name implies, the two coils are wired differently to remove the hum in the audio signal 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, emphasizing the midrange and bass frequencies.
Single Coil Pickup
The single-coil pickup design has no reverse magnetic field to cancel out the noise. Still, its magnetic field is “tighter” and therefore more focused on the overlying guitar strings.
This tighter magnetic field gives it a brighter, thinner, and crisper sound, emphasizing the guitar’s higher frequency range.
Which Pickup Type Is Best For You?
The answer depends on the type of music you play, your playing style, guitar, amp, and the overall sound you are trying to achieve.
Sometimes, “s__t” just happens, and destiny plays its part. Of course, if ditching the noise is your primary concern, the choice is much easier.
Musical Style Is Often A Factor
Indeed, country artists generally prefer single coil pickups and these pickups also essentially gave birth to the surf guitar sound.
Modern jazz and fusion guitarists tend to be associated with the more balanced and “thicker” humbucker sound.
Personal Preference Can Select Pickup Design
However, there are more exceptions than similarities among players. For example, compare the humbucker guitar sound of Angus Young to the single coil sound of Jimi Hendrix, both phenomenal guitarists in their own right! Which sound rocks more than the other?
And, how about the pickup converts? Eric Clapton changed from the humbucker sound of a Les Paul in the Blues Breakers and an SG in Cream to the single coil sound of a Strat for the remainder of his career.
Also, Jimi page went the other way, recording Led Zeppelin I with a single coil Tele and everything else with a humbucker-equipped Les Paul.
Destiny Can Sometimes Play Its Part
Finally, Tony Iommi switched from a single coil to a humbucker guitar when his Strat malfunctioned during the recording of Black Sabbath I. He finished the album using his SG “backup” guitar, and the rest is rock history!
Combining Humbucker And Single Coil Pickups
How about the best of both worlds? Single coil pickups can work marvelously with Humbuckers, especially if the double coil has a split switch (more about splitting humbuckers later on).
Flexible Pickup Combinations
Combing the sound of a split humbucker with a single coil pickup can give you a nice out-of-phase option. One popular combination is a single coil in the middle position with a split humbucker in the neck and bridge positions.
Rock And Metal Strat Guitars
Guitars with a humbucker in the bridge position and single coils in the middle and neck positions are designed to get you that extra oomph for playing solos and lead tones!
Beefed Up Tele Guitars
Telecasters also come with combo pickups, which non-country players mostly use. Country artists cherish the single coil twang of the Tele.
I have owned Telecasters with the following pickup configurations:
- Single Coil (bridge), Humbucker (neck) – Twangy leads with more bass for rhythm playing
- Single Coil (bridge), Mini-Humbucker (neck) – Twangy leads with more midrange for rhythm
- Humbucker (bridge), Single Coil (neck) – Thick overdriven lead with a tight rhythm
All three pickup combinations have their pros and cons. I think the second combination is the most versatile if you’re looking for a Tele sound on steroids. An overwound bridge pickup with the mini-humbucker in the neck will “peel the paint off the walls” if you use it with the right amp!
Here are some of the most common humbucker pickup variations.
Note: 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 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 distortion.
I was like a cross between a Gibson SG and a Strat, 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 humbucking pickup that looks like a single coil pickup. Compared to standard single coil pickups, they are hum-free with a stronger signal output.
They come preinstalled on many Fender guitars, like the Eric Clapton (vintage noiseless) and Jeff Beck (ceramic noiseless) signature Strat models.
The noiseless models do not have the same iconic tone and brightness as the traditional single coil pickups, but 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 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.
Advantages Of Humbucker And Single Coil Pickups
Here are some of the main advantages of humbucker and single coil pickups.
The most obvious advantage of humbucker pickups is that they are “hum-free” and generally cause less electrical interference than the single coil design. Don’t confuse this with the noise generated by an effects pedal like a distortion box or a high-gain amp.
Humbucker pickups generally produce a warmer and more balanced tone than single coil pickups, making them a favorite among jazz and fusion guitarists. They typically have a more prominent bass response and a flatter midrange.
The double coil design creates a higher signal output, making a humbucker ideal for pushing an amp into natural overdrive. The amp cleans up nicely by simply backing down the pickup’s volume control a little.
On the other hand, humbuckers sound great with distortion pedals and can give you a “heavier and darker” type of distortion than single coil pickups. Think Zakk Wylde or Joe Satriani.
Humbucker pickups have two coils that can be split to give you more of a single coil sound. Guitars with a humbucker split switch give you the versatility to have the tonal characteristics of both the double and single coil design.
Double coil pickups can give you more robust harmonics than a single coil design, especially when a guitar is played through distortion pedals and high gain amps. Think the octave harmonics of Steve Vai or the pinch harmonics of Billy Gibbons.
Single Coil Pickups
I find that single coil pickups are less likely to cause unwanted feedback, even with high-gain and Class-A amps. This does not mean that they won’t give feedback on-demand. Jimi Hendrix was the absolute master of single coil feedback!
Some of the over-wound, higher-output, single coil pickups are potted in wax to help reduce unwanted feedback and squeal.
One of the main advantages of single coil pickups is their tone profile. They have a tone that is generally leaner, tighter, and more focused on the high frequencies. This is the typical Strat and Tele sound that nurtured surf, rock, country, and electric blues in their earliest years.
Single coil pickups generally overdrive an amplifier cleaner and brighter than humbuckers. Their overdrive is less aggressive but smoother sounding. Think an Albert Collins blues onslaught or Brad Paisley’s inimitable avalanche of chicken pickin’.
If you are looking for distortion with the attack and precision of a stinger missile, then check out a Strat plugged into something like a Fuzz Face pedal and a Marshall high-gain stack. I’m talking about that “Voodoo Child” Hendrixian soloing-tone or a Stevie Ray Vaughn out-of-control sound.
Let’s not forget those great-sounding single coil combinations, like using both the bridge and middle or neck and middle pickups on a Strat. If you’re someone that can’t get enough of that “out-of-phase quack,” then you really can’t go wrong with a standard Strat setup. Think Mark Knopfler’s Sultans Of Swing solo.
Although humbuckers typically have more robust harmonics, single coil pickups really shine in terms of harmonic “sparkle.” Pinch and octave harmonics really pop off the strings in a more three-dimensional way. If you play both single and double coil guitars, you know what I mean.
Magnetic String Pull
Single coil pickups have less magnetic string pull than humbuckers, assuming their height is properly adjusted in relation to the bottom of the strings. This can make the strings easier to bend and do finger vibrato. Too strong a magnetic pull can also decrease note sustain and throw-off intonation.
Disadvantages Of Humbucker And Single Coil Pickups
Here are some of the main disadvantages of humbucker and single coil pickups.
I find that double coil pickups are more likely to cause unwanted feedback, especially with high-gain and Class-A amps. Despite this difficulty, many artists, like Joe Satriani, have used humbucker pickups to create very musical feedback.
Higher-output, over-wound, double coil pickups are almost always potted in wax to help reduce unwanted feedback and squeal.
Humbucker pickups may have some downsides for players that like an aggressive but crystal-clear tone when soloing. Double coil pickups tend to get dirtier quicker than single coil pickups when the stings are picked too forcefully, especially when playing through some higher-gain and Class-A amps.
Turning down the pickup volume can roll off the high-end in an undesirable way if the guitar is not properly matched to the right amp and effects pedals. Experienced jazz players like Joe Pass know precisely how to get the best sound and tone clarity from their humbucker pickups.
Double coil pickups often lose signal output strength when the coils are “split,” which means one coil is manually switched off to obtain more of a single coil sound.
Some newer designed units, like Fender’s Double Tap™ Humbucking Pickup, can be put into single coil mode without an appreciable loss of volume. For more info, see Fender Tash Sultana Stratocaster Review – A Sinful Treasure!
Splitting a humbucker also makes the pickup susceptible to noise, but not to the same degree as a single coil unit. Tapping one or both coils can lower the signal output without adding hum.
Magnetic String Pull
Humbucker pickups have more magnetic string pull than single coil units, especially if they are too close to the bottom of the strings. This can make the strings more difficult to bend and do finger vibrato. Too strong a magnetic pull can also decrease note sustain and throw-off intonation.
Single Coil Pickups
Although single coil pickups typically feedback less than double coil units, feedback can be challenging to control if you play at high volumes with high-gain equipment. Since they are more likely to pick up electrical noise than humbuckers, equipment grounding and player positioning can be more of a contributing factor.
Hum has always been a notorious problem for single coil pickups and eventually gave birth to the humbucker design.
Improper grounding and electrical interference can be a major drawback of single coil pickups, especially for guitarists who play alone and in environments where background noise is a problem, like a recording studio.
“Noiseless single coil” pickups are really double coil units designed to be replacements that don’t require enlarging a guitar’s pickup cavity to accommodate a humbucker.
Some noiseless pickups can allow players to approximate the sound of a good single coil pickup.
Single coil pickups typically have less sustain than double coil units. “Hotter” single coil units are designed to increase overall sustain. Musicians can also improve sustain by using a guitar body with more mass, a compressor pedal, and a high-gain amp.
Single coil pickups are not as versatile as humbuckers. Double coil units can be split to give players the option of approximating single coil sounds rather than changing to a different guitar for a particular song.
Single coil pickups can be coil tapped to change their tone and to lower the output volume of a hot pickup.
Is Coil Splitting The Same As Coil Tapping?
These two terms are sometimes used to mean the same thing, but there is a difference. When a double coil pickup is split, the electrical connection between them is interrupted by means of a switch. This shuts one coil off and leaves the other one on. Therefore, the net effect is that the pickup is functioning as a single coil unit.
You can’t split a single coil pickup, but you can tap it. One section of the coil’s windings can be electrically isolated and used for the signal output (tapped) while the remainder of the coil is switched off. This can be useful to lower the output of a hot pickup so that it blends well in combination with another standard output pickup.
To Split Or Not To Split (Your Humbucker’s Coils)?
Many humbucker-equipped guitars have their pickups wired to be “split” by manually switching off one of the two coils.
This option allows players to select between a double and single coil sound during a performance without changing guitars. This can be a good compromise for many, but “single coil purists” will often disagree.
Will A Split Humbucker Sound Like A Single Coil Pickup?
Some humbucker pickups are quite good at approximating a single coil sound, but they never sound and perform precisely the same way.
One reason is that double and single coil pickups are designed differently in terms of bobbin size, wire gauge, etc.
There is also an electrical component to be considered. When one of the two coils is manually switched off, it still has a magnetic field that interacts electrically with the active coil.
Additionally, splitting a humbucker can introduce some degree of hum or noise into the system due to the loss of an electrical “canceling-out” effect in the final output signal.
How About Volume (Signal Output) Loss?
The other common problem with splitting a humbucker is volume loss. Each coil contributes to the electrical signal going to the amp, so splitting the pickup can significantly lower the guitar’s volume!
What Is The Fender Double Tap™ Humbucking Pickup?
Fender claims to have achieved a “revolutionary breakthrough” in a humbucker technology with a system designed by pickup guru Tim Shaw. This pickup combines the “full-throated” sound of a humbucker with the “articulate nuances” of a single coil pickup while virtually eliminating volume loss while in single coil mode.
The design is based on a special Alnico 4 magnet with a coil DC resistance of 8KΩ that has a light wax potting to control feedback without compromising tone.
While not a perfect replacement for a single coil unit, the Double Tap pickup may offer you an excellent compromise.
I have not had a chance to audition this pickup, but I’ll update this article with my impression of its sound and performance when I do.
Beware Of Your Guitar’s Volume And Tone Control Requirements!
The volume and tone control specifications for humbucker and single coil pickups are different.
Humbucker (double coil) pickups typically require that 500KΩ volume and tone controls (potentiometers) be installed in your guitar, while single coil pickups typically use 250KΩ volume and tone controls.
Matching the proper resistance values to each pickup type makes them sound and perform correctly. Of course, you can modify the specs on these controls to achieve a custom sound.
If you change pickup types on your guitar, you must also change the volume and tone controls. There may also be disc capacitor requirements on the tone controls. Check with the spec sheet for each pickup for specific information.
Which Pickup Type Is More Legit?
No pickup type is clearly better than the other in all regards. They each have their inherent advantages and disadvantages.
Remember, all humbucker and single coil pickups have their distinct sound. In addition, each pickup can sound different when installed in various guitars.
There is no objective measurement of good, better, or best. For example, original PAF (patent applied for) humbuckers are coveted among blues and rock players, but some jazz players may not like them.
Some players naturally gravitate to the humbucker sound, and others prefer single coil pickups. I own and enjoy playing guitars equipped with both types.
The best approach is to keep an open mind and let your ears be the judge.
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.
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!
If you enlarge (route) your single coil pickup cavities to create space for humbuckers, you could permanently change the guitar’s tone.
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 most commonly asked questions about guitar pickups.
How Do I Choose Guitar Pickups?
Most guitar makers equip their instruments with pickups well matched for each particular model. Choose a guitar with the sound you want, which will automatically define your pickup.
If you are looking for a replacement pickup, try them in a guitar similar to yours and listen to online demo videos of the pickup in various circumstances. There’s always an element of trial and error.
What sounds great to you may not sound very good to another guitar player.
Can You Ruin A Guitar Pickup?
You can damage a guitar pickup by mishandling it during installation or exposing it to a strong magnetic field.
Sweat buildup can be corrosive over time and cause an electrical short in the windings.
For more info, see my article Why Are My Guitar Pickups Cutting Out? – Here’s Your Answer!
How Does Pickup Placement Affect Tone?
Moving a pickup closer to the guitar’s neck will make it sound mellower with enhanced bass response while moving closer to the bridge will progressively accentuate the midrange and treble.
Neck and middle position pickups are well suited for rhythm playing. The bridge pickup is commonly used for guitar solos.
Do Guitar Pickups Get Better With Age?
As guitar pickups age, their magnets lose strength, which gives them a softer tone. A musician’s response to a pickup’s aging process is subjective.
Jazz musicians can find this desirable, while rock musicians will attempt to compensate by raising the pickup closer to the strings.
If the pick becomes too weak, then it will need to be replaced.
Do Guitar Pickups Affect Sustain?
Pickups are one of many things that can affect a guitar’s sustain. Pickups with a stronger output, like humbuckers, can increase sustain. The guitar’s body material, thickness, and hardware can all affect sustain. The neck and nut material are additional factors that can define the instrument’s sustain.
What Height Should My Pickups Be?
A pickup’s height should be set to its “sweet spot,” which is the distance from the top of the pickup to the bottoms of the strings that make it sound best without affecting intonation. Each pickup has its own sweet spot.
Don’t set your pickups as close to the strings as possible. If you want the pickups to sound hotter or more aggressive, use an overdrive pedal or a high-gain amp to compensate.
Who Invented The Humbucker Pickup?
The humbucker pickup was invented in 1955 by Seth Lover. It was initially available on the Gibson Les Paul guitar. The first generation pickups later became known by the acronym PAFs (patent applied for).
Humbucker and single coil guitar pickups come in various sizes and configurations. Each of these two types of pickups has its advantages and disadvantages.
The type of music you play, your playing style, guitar, amp, and the overall sound you are trying to achieve can all factor into your pickup selection.
Some guitars combine humbucker and single coil pickups to give you the best of both worlds. The most common layouts are two single coil pickups with a humbucker in the bridge position or two humbuckers with a single coil pickup in the middle position.
Humbucker pickups can have various design variations that reduce their size. This allows them to fit into a single coil pickup cavity so that the guitar body does not have to be modified. Routing your guitar’s body to alter the size or shape of the pickup cavities can permanently change the instrument’s overall tone.
Double coil (humbucker) pickups can be split to remove one coil from the electrical circuit. This gives the pickup the tonal characteristics of a single coil design.
Humbucker and single coil pickups each have specific volume and tone control resistance values that help give the pickups their characteristic tone.
In a Humbucker Pickups Vs Single Coil comparison, both pickup types are legit, each in their way!
See Are All Humbuckers The Same Size? – What You Need To Know! for more info.
Tell Me What You Think
Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this article, have any questions about humbucker and single coil pickups, or want to give your point of view. I will be happy to help you.
- Which pickup type do you prefer and why?
- Are you happy with the pickups on your guitar, or are you searching for replacement pickups?
- What are you looking for in a replacement pickup?
- What is your opinion on single coil vs humbucker?
- What do you think is the best humbucker pickup? The best single coil pickup?
- Did this article help you understand more about humbucker and single coil pickups?