The History of the Humbucker

Becoming one of the most popular instruments over the decade, it's no wonder that the electric guitar is a pretty common sight these days. They're far from an inaccessible instrument, as was the situation back in the '50s and even the '60s. However, with this in mind, we indeed take this instrument and its technology for granted. Back in the 1930s, we got the first official example of an electric guitar with a magnetic pickup. Of course, this was a fairly simple lap steel guitar, and we soon got a lot of different hollow-body models. There were, of course, some solid-body examples as well, but the first one to commercialize this instrument and set the standards that we know today was Leo Fender with Fender Esquire and Broadcaster guitars.

Eventually, we got the Telecaster and Stratocaster, bearing standard magnetic pickups. But although their tone was great, these pickups produced noise as they served as antennas basically and picked up electronic interference. This is why we eventually got the so-called "humbucking pickups" or "humbuckers." But how did these pickups came to be and why are they so important?

The birth of humbuckers

Although their tone is completely different compared to single-coils, the initial idea was to get rid of the annoying hum. The first examples of humbucking or dual-coil pickups came in 1934 and were made by Electro-Voice. However, these were intended for various equipment, not electric guitars. This principle found its way into the world of electric guitars in the mid-1950s. Interestingly enough, it was Ray Butts of Gretsch and Seth Lover of Gibson who developed them at the same time.

However, both of these versions relied on the same principles. The idea was to have a pair of coils that are reverse-wound and have reverse polarity. This way, the hum is "canceled out" and a guitar player is left with a cleaner sound. Both Gretsch and Gibson applied for this patent somewhere around the same time.

However, Gibson got more credit for it over the years, mostly due to the brand's popularity and the unique tone of these humbuckers. These original versions were labeled as "PAF" which is short for "Patent Applied For." Finding its place in Gibson's Les Paul guitars, humbuckers became associated with this legendary model. And it was these early PAF pickups that defined the sound of rock music, even though other companies also produced very similar products. Rickenbacker is one of the examples as they've had dual-coil pickups about two years before Gibson and Gretsch. Funnily enough, they decided to abandon them due to supposedly unwanted distortion. Little did they know that this kind of tone will change the world.

The tone

While we're at it, one of the most important of its characteristics is the tone. While the humming noise was the initial reason why manufacturers even considered putting humbuckers into their electric guitars, it was their overall sonic output that made the most difference. Although sharp and bright due to a stronger attack in the tone, single-coils did feel a little "thin." While some may prefer this "jangly" or "twangy" tone, it wasn't exactly the best option for those who were looking for something rougher.

And that's where humbuckers come into the play. Instead of focusing on stronger attack and the higher end of the spectrum, these pickups brought more of a mid-end in there. And this proved to be the best way to push those old tube-driven amplifiers over the limit and bring that controlled and "tight" distortion in there.

Even to this day, the rules are almost unchanged. Although just slightly muffled compared to single-coil pickups, humbuckers will get that much-needed push in there. When engaging distortion, even on a solid-state amp, a humbucker will be a little easier to control. And this is exactly why they're still popular even to this day.

Most common use

Of course, there are no strict limitations on what you should or should not do in the world of the electric guitar. The single-coils also found their use in the same settings where humbuckers are popular, but there are still some guidelines on how you can get your "perfect" tone for a specific genre or a subgenre.

Although first used in blues, early rock 'n' roll, and rock music, humbuckers are most common in hard rock, heavy metal, and especially those "extreme" metal subgenres. Due to the slight lack of brightness and the boost in the mid-range of the spectrum, humbuckers manage to work perfectly with a heavily distorted tone. This is especially the case with those chugging heavy riffs on the bottom strings of electric guitars. This is why many guitar companies designed them to work best in these settings.

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