Single-coils vs Humbuckers: What's the Difference?

One thing that's so great about electric guitars is that there are so many different things that you can do to shape your tone for your desired style of music. Among many factors that make an impact on how your guitar sounds, the pickups are definitely up there with the most important ones. It's not rare to see even the most experienced guitar players losing their minds trying to choose between the two slightly different sets of pickups for their main instrument.

While technology has come a long way, the pickups are still divided into two main groups – single-coils and humbuckers. You've probably heard a lot of stuff about which ones you should or should not use. However, there is no right or wrong here and it all comes down to personal preferences.

But in case you're having difficulties choosing the best option for your needs, we will be detailing basic differences between single-coil and humbucker pickups in order to help you pick the right ones.

What is a pickup?

First off, guitar pickup is basically a transducer comprised of magnetic poles wrapped in literally thousands of copper wire layers. By creating this magnetic field, the pickup magnetizes the string and then picks up (pun intended) the movement of the string vibrations. Movements in this magnetic field are then "converted" into the current in the wire coils and sent as a signal out of your guitar. That's a simple way to explain it.

Single-coils

Single-coils are the pickups you find on most of the Fender guitars, even going back to their earliest models in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As the name suggests, they have only one coil, which is basically one "line" of individual magnetic poles, one pole for each string, wrapped in layers of copper wire.

The tone of single-coil pickups is "thin" and bright, often described as "twangy" or "crisp." You can often hear it in classic country music or with old surf rock bands. They usually have more attack, or so-called "bite," compared to humbuckers. Overdriven and distorted tones can get really bright and harsh, really heavy on the high-end.

However, the downside here is that single-coils act like antennas and pick up even the slightest electromagnetic interference. It's especially pronounced when the distortion is turned on.

Humbuckers

Although it is generally accepted that humbucker was invented by Gibson in the 1950s, the concept of dual-coil pickups was developed by Joseph Raymond "Ray" Butts and was already present back in the 1930s with some lap steel guitars. However, the humbucker for conventional guitars as we know it today was perfected in the '50s by Gibson's Seth Lover.

The humbucker has two coils wound in opposite directions. The main idea behind such a pickup was to cancel all the noise, which it definitely succeeded in. But having such a construction impacted the tone. It was no longer so "twangy" and "crisp" and had less attack to it. Although a bit muffled compared to single-coils, tone from humbuckers was darker and "fatter." These became quite popular among jazz guitarists and eventually hard rock and heavy metal players. The distorted humbucker tone is more controlled and often has more sustain. Compared to bright single-coils, humbuckers pronounce the mid-range spectrum, which is especially useful for heavy high gain distorted tones.

What should I choose?

Again, it all depends on what you personally prefer. At the end of the day, there are no strict rules in music. You might hear how humbuckers are for hard rock, metal, and jazz, while single-coils are for country, rock, and pop. This might be true to some extent, but then again, you have a metal shredder like Yngwie Malmsteen blasting some quality high gain tones on single-coils.

It's not rare to stumble upon some "unconventional" uses of single-coils as they often bring more versatility. On the other hand, many prefer humbuckers due to their darker and mid-range-heavy territories. This is why a vast majority of metal guitarists, especially with thrash and death subgenres, go with humbuckers. But if you generally enjoy brighter and crispier tones, you can go with single-coils even if you're into metal music. You just need to bear in mind that you'll have some hum and that it will require some additional EQ tweaking for those rougher tones.

If you're into funk and country though, it is recommended to go with single-coils as humbuckers will interfere too much with sonic territories of other instruments and will sound awkward in the mix. As for blues, jazz, rock, and pop, it all depends on what your goals are.

At the end of the day, it's all about finding your own voice. The best way to do that is to try out as many different pickups that you can and make your own decision.

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