What is a humbucking pickup? What does it do? What does it sound like? And why is it called that?
A humbucking pickup is a type of pickup that is especially good at doing two things. First, they’re designed to solve the problem of suppressing external noise; built with two coils in a way that makes them cancel the annoying electrical hum and other extraneous noises that can affect single-coil pickups, while leaving the string signal intact. In other words, they cancel (“buck”) unwanted hum—hence the name. Second, this configuration has the advantage of producing a big, loud and warm sound that contrasts with the bright, snappy sound of many single-coil pickups.
Since guitarists often want the bright-and-snappy single-coil sound and the big-and-warm humbucker sound at their disposal in one instrument, it’s now commonplace to see electric guitars designed using both pickup types.
Single-coil pickups basically consist of a magnet wound with wire (a coil). The vibration of a guitar string induces a mild current in the coil, producing a signal that is then sent to the guitar amp and converted into sound. Magnetic coils, however, also make excellent antennas that are keenly sensitive to electromagnetic interference caused by mainstream domestic electrical grid power and appliances such as transformers, motors, computer screens, fluorescent lighting, etc. Guitar pickups—especially single-coil pickups—pick up this interference, and it gets amplified, too. It can clearly be heard as an annoying humming or buzzing noise (“60-cycle hum”).
Humbucking pickups solve this problem by using two signal-producing coils instead of one. The two coils have opposing windings and polarities, an arrangement that—through complex principles of physics—results in the reduction or cancellation of unwanted electromagnetic interference while actually improving the quality of and increasing the output level of the signal. The annoying hum goes away, leaving a big, warm guitar sound prized by players worldwide.
The development of the humbucking coil actually preceded the development of the humbucking pickup by a couple decades. The humbucking coil was invented in 1934 at South Bend, Ind.-based professional audio company Electro-Voice®, which specialized in portable public address equipment such as microphones and loudspeakers.
A very few guitar makers experimented with pickups arranged in humbucking patterns in the early 1950s, but signal problems persisted. The first successful humbucking pickup was developed in the mid-1950s by inventor Seth Lover, then with Gibson®. Fender hired Lover in 1967 as an engineer, and it was he who designed Fender’s first foray into the world of humbucking pickups, the Fender Wide Range humbucker. These first appeared in 1972 on Fender’s Telecaster® Thinline and Telecaster Custom guitar models, on 1973’s Telecaster Deluxe and on the 1976 Starcaster® guitar model. Lover worked at Fender until 1975, and production of Fender’s Wide Range humbucking pickups ceased a few years later as the Telecaster Thinline was discontinued in 1979, followed by the Custom and Deluxe models in 1981 and the Starcaster in 1982.
Fender Stratocaster® guitars were not offered with humbucking pickups until the late 1980s.
Today, many Fender electric guitars are fitted with humbucking pickups, including reissues and new versions of the Thinline, Custom and Deluxe Telecaster models. Some Stratocaster models are fitted with one humbucking bridge pickup and single-coil neck and middle pickups, an arrangement Fender calls “HSS” (humbucker-single-single); these are also referred to as “Fat Strats” because of the fatter tone produced by the humbucking pickup.