For Beginners: Single Coil versus Humbuckers

How’s it been, music fans? For our guests coming in from the east coast, hopefully everything is going smoothly after the devastation that was brought by Sandy and life can get a bit easier once again. Alright, this one is going to be for all of the newbie guitarists out there who need a crash-course on some of the very important essentials when it comes to electric guitars. This article doubly important for those newbies out there who are in the middle of trying to buy a brand new axe. So, here’s the question: do you know the key differences between a humbucker and a single coil pickup? Are they interchangeable on any guitar? What are some important differences as far as sound and tone goes? And finally, which one is fight for you? All of the veterans out there can take a break on this one as they probably already learned this a while back, but for the rest of you out there, let’s get some answers.



What is a Pickup?

For those of you unfamiliar with the workings of a standard electric guitar pickup – also known as a single coil for all intents and purposes – they consist of a magnet that is wrapped around thousands of times with copper wire, creating a coil around the magnet and as any of your science major friends can tell you, wrapping a metal coil around a magnet creates a magnetic field, and one that can be measured and altered. When a string is plucked, the inherent magnetism of the vibrating metallic string (usually nickel plated) causes a modulation, or change in frequency, in the magnetic field of the coil which then creates an alternating current that is sent over as an electrical signal to the amplifier (or anything else in between your guitar and amp). Basically, this means that plucking a guitar string causes a magnetic shove of sorts to the copper in the pickups which then causes the magnetism in the copper to push back a magnetic signal of its own (we’ve all played with magnets and noticed how they push back if you have them facing a certain way, same thing). That signal created is what is sent over to the amplifier through the guitar cable. Not too hard, right?

Sometimes there might be a pre amplifier that is located between the actual pickup and the output cable which is used to give the signal a certain trait or effect (usually band EQ, compressors or signal amplifiers) before it is sent out through the guitar cable and into the amp in which case it’s referred to as an active pickup, although these are far more prevalent in electric basses as opposed to guitars.


What is a Humbucker?

One of the earliest problems with the electric guitar single coil pickup has always been their propensity of being affected by electrical interferences.  The interference can come from anything that uses alternating magnetic fields such as transformers and power supplies – pretty much most things that are electrical. When pickups pick up the string’s vibration they also pick up some of this interference, and although it might be slight at first, the more this signal goes through other electrical devices such as an effects pedal or amplifier, the more the interference itself is amplified, resulting in a very noticeable hum from the amplifier during the silent sections of songs while the guitar is not in play. Humbuckers were invented to take care of just that.

It all came about when applying the principles of “common-mode rejection,” which is essentially an electrical device’s tendency to reject the same common signals coming from two different leads. Humbuckers use two single-coil pickups to achieve the “two different leads” requirement of that principle. They are placed right next to each other but in such a way (with the copper wires of each going in opposite directions; one clockwise, one counter) that the “hum” signal is replicated, thereby canceling itself out by the time it hits the amp. Check out the principles of electrical engineering for a deeper sense of how exactly common-mode rejection works.


Important Differences between Single Coil and Humbuckers

Sure, a humbucker is a great way to cancel out that annoying hum when it tries to peak through, but that’s not the only thing a humbucker does with your tone – stuff that you might not like even and would actually rather have the “hum” instead. To give you the general consensus out there between the two, single coil pickups are generally described as having a clear and bright tone while humbuckers are usually described as sounding warm and thick. The two sounds are very distinct so the choice between the two actually becomes very important depending on what style of music you tend to play. As far as guitars go, the most famous electric associated with the humbucker is the Gibson Les Paul while Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster (two single coil and three single coil guitars, respectively) are at the other end of the spectrum – all three of which are considered among the best guitars ever made. Furthermore, having multiple single-coil pickups on a guitar allow them to almost behave like as humbucker guitar (since, as we just learned, a humbcking pickup is essentially two single coils), such as selecting the neck and bridge pickup option on a Strat.

Anyways, if you think about your favorite guitarist and his or her signature tone, you can learn a lot about the guitar they use (but also consider the effects they use, which you can do so by looking through our artists page). When you think of country mega star Brad Paisley’s bright and twangy tone, you can already assume he’s using a single coil guitar, in this case, a Telecaster (which is a popular choice for plenty of country musicians). When you think of hard rockers such as Angus young or Zakk Wylde, you think thick, distorted, chunky guitar. You should also be thinking humbucker, such as a Gibson SG or Les Paul. Be aware though that not all Telecasters, Les Pauls or what have you are created equally as far as pickup configuration goes, such as the Fender Blacktop HH Telecaster which trades in the single coils for two humbuckers. This is also very common with signature model guitars. There are also plenty of guitars out there that use both single and humbucker configurations, such as this Fender Blacktop HSH Stratocaster Electric (note that the HSH stands for its pickup configuration), so be aware


Body Style and Acoustic Feedback

Don’t forget that the body style of your guitar is just as important, especially if you’re considering going the single coil route. So we’ve mentioned hum as being a very pesky noise associated with guitar pickups but unfortunately, that’s not the only kind; I’m talking about feedback – the same kind that happens with microphones in fact. Annoying right? Imagine if you had a guitar that kept on having that same problem every time you were ready to rock the heck out. Oh, they’re out there, they are most definitely out there. To cut to the chase, I’m referring to full hollow and semi-hollow body guitars, such as the very popular Gretsch Country Gentleman. Let’s start off by saying that unlike hum which is caused by electrical interferences, this type of noise is known as acoustic feedback.

To put it as simply as I can, acoustic feedback happens when a soundwave strikes the hollowed inside of the guitar’s body, causing it to resonate. The resonating body then gets the strings vibrating, which are picked up by the pickups, which is amplified by the amplifier, which causes more soundwaves coming from the amp to strike the body again, causing it to resonate... again. This creates a weird sort of perpetual loop that we hear as feedback. Since the root cause of this type of acoustic feedback is too much actual sound hitting the guitar pickups back and forth, the easiest way to combat it is as simple keeping an appropriate amount of distance between the guitar and your amplifier.

Acoustic feedback in hollow and semi hollow body guitars is nothing new – it’s actually been known about ever since their creation. Back then, it wasn’t a huge deal as most guitarists simply weren’t using 100+ watt amplifiers, overdriven tones and maxed out settings – each of which contribute towards the problem. Nowadays, each of those things seem to be prerequisites for most styles of hard rock, so it makes sense that manufacturers would try their best to come up with new designs that would help alleviate acoustic feedback. There are a few tricks to calm it down, but if it sounds like you simply don’t want to deal with it – especially if you will be playing metal, hard rock or punk – it might just be a good idea to stick with a solid body which is immune to acoustic feedback, which is also why you almost never see anything but solid bodies for those genres.


Which One is Right for You?

Well, after knowing what you do know, it all comes down to what kind of style you prefer.  Do you want the bright and twangy tone of a single coil or something more thick and warm such as a humbucker? Maybe a little of both? No matter what choice you go for, at least it’s no longer a shot in the dark! And don’t forget that because humbuckers are essentially two pickups in one, they are bigger than your standard single coil meaning that unless you do some major surgery on your single coil guitar, a humbucker just won’t fit – that is unless of course you buy a humbucker made in the size of a single coil, such as this Seymour Duncan SH-1 Hot Rail Humbucking pickup!

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