Last Updated on February 10, 2022.
Pick-ups. One of the most important features of the electric guitar that has evolved the instrument, and modern music, since its creation in the mid-1920’s.
Since then, there have been a wide range of different styled pickups created to accommodate the ever-changing musical landscape.
In this article, I will be covering the two staple legends of electric sound, the single coil and the humbucker.
Are single coils or humbuckers better for playing rock?
Humbuckers have a fuller sound than single coils, plus they are designed to reduce hum and interference, making them better for overdriven tones in general, plus you can “coil split” them, allowing you to only use a single coil of the humbuckers, giving you a very similar sound to that of a traditional single coil pickup.
Psychedelic, Grunge, Thrash, Metal and good old fashioned Rock n’ Roll guitar all have their unique tones and this is, more often than not, down to perfect choice of pickups and volume adjustment.
In this modern day it isn’t hard for me to plug a Fender Strat into my DAW, with its extensive library of amp emulators and effect plug-ins, and shred through the November Rain solo.
However, if I truly was aiming for the sound of Slash’s Gibson humbuckers, well that just wouldn’t cut it – or shred it. This is the difference between the pickups.
Differences between Humbucker and Single Coil pickups
Firstly, let me cover the basics of how a pickup is built and what differentiates the single coil from the humbucker, and for this I will be comparing a Fender Stratocaster (single coil) against the Gibson Les Paul (humbucker) ; two guitars that serve as the foundation of both pickup styles.
Inside of any pickup can be found a magnet that has been wrapped with several thousand turns of finely tuned copper wire which creates the magnetic field.
When looking at a single coil on the Fender, for example, these magnetic fields can be seen as the round metal areas of the pickup. This acts as a transducer, converting acoustic waves into electrical signals, which is then converted into sound waves.
It is through this process that the strings become magnetized so that when they’re played a current can be sent from the guitar to the amp for the sound to then be amplified.
The single coil outer design is long and slim with either rounded magnets for each string, or a single magnet that covers all. The magnets are made of magnetized steel or a magnetic alloy like alnico, neodymium or cobalt, although ceramic magnets are also used for cheaper versions.
Due to their narrow and precise magnetized areas, the single coils are capable of producing a high-frequency response; which in turn gives its sound a shimmering clarity, however, a disadvantage to this precise electromagnetic area is that they are known to pick up noise/hums, otherwise known as the 50/60hz hum.
Humbuckers, created by the Gibson engineer, Seth Lover in the 1950’s are somewhat related to the single coil in that they are basically two single coils mounted together, side by side, with one coil having its polarity reversed – the coils are then connected in series.
The reversing of the polarity prevents external sound from affecting the signal thereby canceling out the noise/hum problem found in single coils. In contrast to the single coil, humbuckers produce a heavy, fuller sound with the potential for more power due to the double mounted single coil design.
Pros & Cons of Both Pickups
In my view, there are no real pros and cons between the two designs, only differences. The single coil for example is capable of producing a beautiful high-frequency response, which when combined with effects such as distortion or modulation creates a certain sonic clarity which is near impossible to reciprocate with the humbucker.
On the other hand, the humbucker has a power output unrivaled by most single coils which creates that iconic warm sound that can be heard on a lot of hollow-body jazz guitars; this more well-rounded, mid-range sound is also great for effects such as Overdrive.
One person’s gain is another’s loss and this, I believe, is no better applied when comparing the two pickups.
If I had an issue with the single coil, it would be of the potential ‘thinness’ it produces in contrast to the humbucker; theoretically I understand why, although in practice this perceived issue is reversed when in performance or recording the humbuckers lack of high-frequency response can leave the signal sounding muffled and somewhat dead in comparison to the single coil.
To play the devil’s advocate even further, the single coils bright resonance can often cut through the mix too well and may not do justice to a rhythm line as well as a humbucker, the overall sound of the mix being easier to control due to its range of volume control.
And this line of reasoning is near endless and so: it completely depends on the sound the player wants to hear.
The smaller humbucker
There are alternatives to single coil/ humbucker without needing to modify the guitar.
In 1954, Nathan Daniel, founder of Danelectro, started manufacturing guitars with an innovative difference. After receiving a large amount of lipstick tubes from another manufacturer Daniel started attaching these to his guitars and thus, the lipstick pickup was born.
Unlike the traditional single coil with a casing for individual magnets, the lipstick pickup was just one single bar magnet, which gave it a more open magnetic field area. The sound created by these pickups are characterized with trebly high-ends, scooped-mids and a lower bass response.
This lends itself to more rhythmic playing, much like a humbucker due to its ability to produce better translations of chord playing than being able to pick up single notes.
Another option would be to go with a stacked humbucker design like the DiMarzio Chopper T pickup, famously used by Richie Kotzen, which provides you with most of the benefits of a humbucker without taking up as much space.
What is a “Coil Split” and how could it benefit you?
What if I want my humbucker to shine through like a single coil? Introducing, the coil split.
As I mentioned before. humbuckers are two single coils connected in series, with the other polarized giving the humbucker the louder power output and ‘fullness’.
Now with the coil split, guitar and pickup manufacturers have created a way of grounding one of the single coils in the humbucker to then create a single coil alternative; this is done through the push-pull pot.
To boil it down in its simplest understanding, the push pull pot takes the wiring from the coils and, when pulled up, the lead from the polarized coil will be electrically grounded; therefore transforming the two-coil humbucker into a single coil alternative.
This can be extremely useful when trying to switch between tones without having to rely too much on external effects and mixes. My personal experience with a push-pull pot model would be when I purchased a Yamaha Pacifica 112V as throughout my musical experience I always either had single coils for one guitar or humbuckers for another; the push-pull model on the other hand lends itself to a versatile experience, one that also doesn’t break the bank.
It’s for this reason alone that I believe that the modern day, coil split humbucker is victorious in the battle of pickups.
Can any humbucker be split?
Yes, any humbucker can be split so long as it has four output wires. Some older models may only have two, though this is rare and can be quickly checked with a google search. You can also split multiple humbuckers, although you will also have to have another matching volume/ tone pot to go along with it.
In conclusion, whether it’s a fuller sounding overdriven rhythm part or a sparkly clean and angelic lead line, the choice of pickup choice will go a long way in creating that perfect tone.
Whenever I want to understand the tone I am looking for better, the internet is my best friend, I search YouTube for references, listen to certain guitarists and cross-reference what pickups and effects they were using – but sometimes there’s nothing better than heading down to my local music shop and just sitting there for an hour or so trying out all the new and wonderful designs offered by the multitude of manufacturers these days.
Which pickups are better for rock? It all depends on how you want to rock.