If you've ever thought about getting a guitar that features a humbucker/single-coil pickup setup (such as an HSS, HSH, etc.), you're not alone. A lot of players love the ability to switch between the two distinct tones with just one guitar. While a brand new electric using one of these pickup combinations is ensured to work well from the get-go, it's not as easy as just sticking any kind of single-coil and humbucker. It takes a lot of balance to create a good match. In today's article, we'll be looking the important factors that go into properly matching single-coils with humbuckers along with plenty of suggestions for popular pairings from our friends at Seymour Duncan.
Factors To Keep In Mind
The first and most important thing to be aware of when it comes to matching humbucker and single-coil pickups is output. The traditional sound that we think of when it comes to single-coils has a lot to do with their output. Compared to humbuckers, it is much lower. Whether it is used with a clean amp or boosted with slight overdrive, it still has a signature range of tone. Take some of the most popular Strat players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix or Ritchie Blackmore, and a certain sound comes to mind. Then compare that to traditional players that are associated with humbucker-equipped guitars such as Angus Young and his Gibson SG. They are worlds apart. While single-coils and their lower output are known for clean, clear and lighter tones, humbuckers are thicker with more lows and mids.
The difference in output isn't only heard in tone but also in volume. The increased output of humbuckers means that they are simply louder than single-coils. While the difference can be minor depending on what's being compared, more often than not they are much louder. You hear this by switching your pickup selector between pickups: if you hear a big volume boost between the single coils and humbucker, you may just have a balance problem. This will make interacting with an amplifier much harder and playing with a band difficult as you try to compensate for the lower volume when using the neck or middle pickups. Adjusting the pickup height can alleviate some of the difference in volume but that sometimes isn't enough.
Choosing the right balance isn’t as simple as just getting a higher output single-coil either. The higher output a single coil is, the less clean & clear glassiness you get. In other words, as a single coil pickup increases in output, it loses the tone that you probably wanted a single-coil for in the first place.
If you have a vintage output humbucker in the guitar (like something modeled after a PAF) and want a quiet alternative to a traditional single coil, Seymour Duncan's Vintage Rails and close cousin, the Duckbucker, make great choices. They both retain the signature tone of a single-coil but are very quiet, so you don’t have any 60-cycle hum issues that normally plague these types of pickups.
If you don't happen to like the look of these two choices, there's always the Classic Stack series. These pickups retain the look of a traditional single-coil by putting the coils on top of each other rather than side-by-side. It is still quiet and blends well with vintage-to-medium output humbuckers. If you want a traditional single-coil, you have some great choices too. The Antiquity Texas Hot is a popular single-coil that will work well in this setup. The Duncan Five-Two is also a great choice if you prefer warmer tones.
If you have a slightly hotter humbucker in the bridge position, you still have a few choices. These hotter pickups drive the amp harder and you can really start to hear a difference in output between these pickups and vintage-styled single coils. The solution is to use higher-output single-coils to make this output difference less noticeable.
The Vintage Hot Stack line is an excellent choice for more output. Yngwie’s Malmsteen's signature YJM Fury is a great choice and has enough output to compete with humbuckers. You can still have a very glassy sound in the neck pickup along with those classic single-coils tones (and without the noise). For true single coils, the Custom Staggered SSL-5 keeps the traditional tone while increasing the output level.
Really hot humbuckers are a bit more difficult to match with if you want to keep the as much of the traditional single-coil tone as possible. As mentioned above, single-coil pickups start to sound a lot less like single-coils the hotter they are wound. The hotter a single-coil is wound, the more they compress the signal and shave off high-end. You still have some choices but they might not be as close to the traditional single-coil tone as you'd like.
The STK-T2 is usually a bridge pickup but can be used as a neck pickup with a hot humbucker. For a true single-coil, the Quarter Pound Flat has extra-large pole pieces used to increase the output so it is comparable to a P-90. If you have a brighter instrument, the SSL-3 Hot For Strat has plenty of output and the reduced treble response can make the hum less noticeable under higher gain.
Hopefully, you will consider these things when matching up single coil and humbucker pickups to achieve the best tone results from your guitar. Of course, if you have questions or need pickup suggestions don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our friendly guitar professionals here at PAL.
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