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The cool thing about electric guitars is how much you can change their personality with a single build tweak. One common thing that gives them the most personality is their pickups – those raised areas of plastic with circles of metal that sit under your strings. They’re what pick up the sounds from your strings and send it to your amp so your epic shredding can be heard.
Seems pretty simple, right? But those little workman pieces of hardware do much more than you realize to customize your sound. There are several varieties of pickups, and we’re here to tell you the differences between humbuckers and single coils so you can figure out exactly which type of noise you want to make.
We aren’t exaggerating when we call pickups the soul of your guitar. Electric instruments get their personality from the tools used to carry their soundwaves to your ears, and since a lot of these tools – including pickups – can be customized with little effort and less money than buying a whole new axe, you can make your same guitar sound completely different with just a few adjustments. Plus you can change your playing attitude without having to give up the hard-won quirks you love about your original instrument.
A variety of different types of pickups is great to have on hand if you like changing your music’s tone a lot. And there are plenty of tutorials online to guide you through your own reconstruction. However, we have to warn you to be careful if you’re changing out these pickups yourself. There’s electrical work involved, and if you’re afraid to ruin your favorite guitar, the counter folks at your neighborhood music store will know how to help. It’s an easy fix that will garner huge results for you.
First, let’s go through a quick tutorial in the general technology of pickups. In their simplest form, pickups are magnets. The magnets are wrapped with several thousand turns of finely tuned copper wire, which creates a magnetic field. This magnetic field is concentrated by the magnet’s poles, or the round metal parts you see on your pickups. This process makes pickups into a transducer, a device that translates acoustic waves into electrical signals and then translates those electrical signals back into sound waves.
The poles on pickups make your steel electric guitar strings magnetic themselves with magnetic fields that line up with the pickups’, so when you strum or pluck the strings, the magnetic field moves around with their motion. That, in turn, creates a current that the pickup, well, picks up – they then deliver that current to your amp, which broadcasts it as recognizable sound. You can also use a patch cable to channel the current directly into recording equipment, bypassing open air and capturing the vibrations exclusively from the pickups.
Sound complicated? Don’t fret – if you’re looking for the right kind of pickups, it’s easy to figure out which ones sound the way you want. The difference in pickups has to do with the different ways the magnets inside them direct the sound waves they amplify from the strings.
Single coil pickups are the original pickups designed for electric guitars. They’re the ones you’ll see on most Fenders and their imitators. They are long, thin ovals encased in plastic and embedded with magnetic circles that line up with how your guitar’s strings lay on its body. Their magnets are made of magnetized steel or a magnetic alloy like alnico, neodymium or cobalt. You can also use a ceramic magnet if you’re looking for a cheaper version.
Guitar builders in the 1920s and 1930s started tinkering with electricity to make their instrument be heard over louder ones that were also popular in those days, like drums and horns. They tried simply using microphones at first, but that didn’t work as well as they needed, so they began to explore ways to amplify the sound from the instrument itself.
Single coils are usually mounted around the center of the body, although technically you can put them anywhere the strings touch depending on what kind of sound you’re looking for. And sometimes you’ll see two of them grouped together for a louder bite – this is called a double coil pickup. Double coil pickups are different than humbuckers; double coils are literally just two single coils right next to each other. They’re built and sound like a single coil, only louder because there are two transmuters to pick up the strings’ vibrations rather than one. Since they are still constructed from single coil technology, we’re grouping them with single coils here.
Bright tone. Single coil pickups are famous for the clarity of tone they can produce. Since their vibration sensors are not enclosed, they snap the vibration of your guitar strings right up and produce sharp, distinct notes for your playing. This makes a great sound for anything you want to add a sort of “bite” to because of how the sound goes directly into the transmuter – there’s no time for it to gather resonance or anything else that will make it sound different than the note you play.
Distortion. Unless you want it to. Using single coil pickups makes it slightly easier to play with effects like distortion and delay. You can by any means try these tricks while playing with humbuckers, but you can hear the effects better using single coils. It all comes back to the clarity of tone; because single coil tones are so true, and the notes played are so distinct from each other, the layers of effects are more clearly apparent when they’re run through more distortion. Playing with single coil pickups, you can hear the distinct layers made by each note and variation, and that makes a great gritty, crunchy sound that makes you feel like you’re in a garage with Cream in the 1960s. Or with the Ramones on stage at CBGB’s – whatever your taste. When you control the amount of crunch so easily, you can make a single coil run the gamut for you.
Higher frequency response. Because of how they’re constructed, single coil pickups zero in on the frequencies of your plucked strings more than humbuckers can. This makes them more responsive to the center tone of the notes you’re playing – it doesn’t turn sharp or flat from the frequency you have it tuned to, and it doesn’t muffle any of the tone. Your single coil pickups amplify exactly what you play and lets you hear every single nuance of your playing as it happens. Your slides, your bends, your heroic finger acrobatics – single coils pick up each detail of all of that clear as a bell and keeps all those details when your music is broadcast.
Feedback. Because the parts of single coil pickups are essentially open to the air, they act like little antennae. This is how they amplify your guitar’s sound – but it’s also how they pick up other noises as well. If you hear a hum coming from your amp or another transmuter when you’re not plucking your strings, that’s because your single coil pickups are attracting other sound vibrations; this is called feedback, and it can get really annoying really quickly. It’s responsible for those squeaks and shrieks that cut your eardrums if you hold a mike too close to the speaker, and the same thing happens with single coil pickups – they use roughly the same physics principles to work and take the same kind of care to keep from happening.
Humbuckers were invented in the 1950s by Gibson guitar engineer Seth Lover. He took a pair of single coil pickups, mounted them side by side, reversed the polarity of one of the magnets, and connected the coils in series. So basically, humbuckers are doubled-up single coil pickups with additional precautions against external sound.
Less outside interference. The way humbuckers are constructed is designed to muffle any outside sound vibrations that may be in the vicinity of your pickups in the same way that balancing an audio cable does. This means little to no distracting hum or distortion in the middle of your notes, which is great if the rest of your equipment is not great at handling that.
Warmer sound. Humbuckers are famed for their warm, full sound, achieved by picking up the vibrations of string plucks as they resonate through the guitar’s body. That’s why you often see humbuckers on hollow body Gibsons and the like; it makes the notes more rounded and full with the tiny harmonies on each side of the tone folded in. Jazz and heavy metal players alike have embraced this deeper tone reach; the midrange emphasis on humbuckers make them good for non-distortion based effects like overdriving a tube amp.
Power. If you use humbuckers, you’re harnessing the extended power of at least two single coil pickups; they’re designed with double the pickup for double the power.
Volume control. This also gives you more output to adjust, and therefore more overall control of how you sound. Electric guitars typically have volume controls for each set of pickups – ones on the bridge, ones in the middle of your guitar body, ones near the neck – but humbuckers give more range per volume change. And more range equals more control over the mix of inputs you can use. Since humbuckers keep out exterior interference, they let you hear the difference of their input tones more clearly than single coils. That helps you get to know the combinations that work best with your own personal tastes.
Less clarity of sound. The reason humbuckers are good at keeping away unwanted feedback is the same reason some players don’t like them as much as single coils; the clarity and bite of tone is muffled on a humbucker. It won’t swallow your notes whole, but it will sound less clear because of a humbucker’s construction. The chime effect you get from a single coil pickup will be deadened through a humbucker, so if you like a lot of harmonics in your playing, these pickups aren’t for you.
The most effective way to know whether you should be using humbucker or single coil pickups is to try each in the performance conditions you use your guitar in most. Do you sell out sports arenas every weekend (hi, Brian May!), or do you play the local coffee shop’s open mike next to their espresso machine? Is your music instrumental, where your guitar takes front and center, or do you need to blend into a group that includes lots of other sounds that are striving for cohesiveness?
Even more important is: what sounds best to you? That sounds like we’re just being wishy-washy by lobbing the question back to you, but in all seriousness, you know your guitar and the music you like to play the best, so you’ll know your favorite pickup sound better than any guidelines we can hand out. As we talk about above, certain pickup styles do get associated more with certain musical genres, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with those. Once you learn a tiny bit of physics and a whole lot about your own preferences, you’ll be on your way to deciding whether single coils or humbuckers are more your speed.
And hey, who says you have to pick just one type? Technological advances have brought stronger power to single coils through hotter magnetic powers, and new materials like ceramics and metal alloys have brought higher tone capabilities to humbuckers. Plus, even if you find a guitar that you like with pickups you don’t, it’s easy enough to change them out. Keep one kind of pickup each on there and take advantage of both at the same time, or change out the pickups in an old guitar you don’t play much anymore to see if you can bring new life into it. The possibilities are definitely endless!
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