Beginner Guitar HQ is helping you upgrade your guitar with a new set of tapers. We’ve compiled the list of the top 10 best single-coil pickups you can buy right now. Brands include Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, EMG, Fender, and more.
The truth is you no longer need to buy a new guitar to drastically improve your tone quality. Instead, choosing the right guitar pickups is the most effective way to enhance your guitar gear on a budget.
The good news is today’s market is filled with a wide variety of quality pickups selling for affordable prices. Go for the right models and your muddy guitar could turn into a rock goddess.
Let me guide you, then, into the exhilarating world of the best single-coil pickups for guitar. Read my guide and you’re going to make the right choice.
Changing your guitar’s pickups can solve issues on your guitar like buzz noises or thin sounds.
Top guitar single-coil pickups buyer’s guide
Welcome to Beginner Guitar HQ’s buyer’s guide on best single-coil pickups for guitar.
In order to help you, I divided this guide into three parts:
- The first part includes the basic info you need to go on;
- The second part is the actual list of the best single-coil pickups;
- The third part includes what you need to know before you buy a single-coil.
If you need some beginner’s insight into guitar pickups, check our prior Dimarzio pickups guide. We’ve also covered the top P-90 pickups before, as well as the top Gibson pickups. Go check those resources if they sound good to you.
About guitar single-coil pickups
There are three kinds of pickups: single-coils, humbuckers, and P-90s. Single-coils are usually gentle and vintage, but they produce noise. Humbuckers are noise-free rocker bars. And P-90s sit comfortably in-between.
Single-coil guitars usually look vintage and elegant. Their features enhance playability for chords, bends, and solos. Their output levels are usually moderated.
Pickups are the most essential part of any guitar because they generate the actual sound. These are metal coils wrapped around magnetic pole pieces. This combination creates a magnetic field that catches on the string’s vibration to send it as a frequency to the amp.
The construction quality of the pickup determines the quality and the output and the overall sound. It also determines the weaknesses and strengths of the tone it produces.
Humbuckers have higher outputs than single-coils. They are also noise-free, which means they can’t produce the same levels of feedback as single-coils.
Now, forget what you know about single-coils because these devices have advanced and improved a lot compared to their noisy and low-output ancestors.
That said, let me give you some context.
A piece of history
Single-coils first entered the stage by the late ‘30s. They are the result of various decades of studying ways of amplifying a guitar. One of the pioneers was a Lloyd Lear, a Gibson engineer who developed a viola pickup in 1924.
The “Frying Pan” reached the market in 1932 as the first commercially produced guitar packing a singe-coil pickup. It was a Hawaiian-style instrument made and sold by Adolph Rickenbacker and Geroge Beauchamp.
However, the company that made single-coils popular, even the standard-issue, was Fender. They included this bobbin on their first solid-body guitar, the Fender Broadcaster, in 1950.
Two years later, Fender launched the Telecaster and they revolutionized the market. That’s because the single-coil-fueled Tele is the world’s first successful mass-produced solid-body guitar.
Are you interested in vintage budget Fender guitars? Check the Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster ‘50s.
Since then, these devices have been a permanent choice on a huge range of guitars, which includes Stratocaster and Telecaster models, mostly. That’s why brands selling single-coil alternatives focus heavily on imitating or improving over Fender’s early Telecaster and Stratocaster sounds.
Single-coils are present in almost every modern music genre nonetheless, as these devices have found ways to cancel-out their disadvantage, which is background noise.
So, it doesn’t matter if you’re upgrading the default pickups on an affordable guitar, or if you’re just looking for a bit more power and clarity than what your existing coils can offer. Beginner Guitar HQ has put together a list highlighting the best and most popular choices within this niche market.
Let’s dive into the list…
After the list, stick around a bit more to learn everything you need to know about the best single-coil pickups.
Top 10 best single-coil pickups reviews
Here’s our pick of the top 10 best single-coil pickups for electric guitars. These are items you can buy right now at Amazon or your local store. They also represent top value for the investment.
I’m covering all budgets on my list. That means these alternatives are great for players looking to:
- Upgrade their guitars;
- Restore their guitars;
- Change the tone of their guitars;
- Replace damaged pickups;
- And solve issues with the sound and tone of their guitars.
Pickups were created because acoustic guitars just couldn’t cut it playing live next to other band members.
Best Overall Single-Coil Pickups: Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot
Lindy Fralin sells this model as Stratocaster vintage pickups. As you’d expect by the name, they feature a classic rock sound: smooth like silk but hot as fire.
Like so, they represent a great upgrade for Stratocaster, Telecaster, and similar guitars.
These are the overall best single-coil pickups. They are also an Amazon best-seller and the brand’s best seller.
The sound is so balanced and premium the Vintage Hot tapers have become the go-to pickup for Strat players looking to upgrade their gear. Keep in mind a Strat guitar can last for decades, even if it’s a Squier.
In fact, most Strat and Tele guitars sound better as they age, for the sound, as people say, “opens up.”
Overall, the tone of the Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot single-coil pickups is open, balanced, pristine, and with a bit of sizzle at the higher end and a bit of dirt at the middle. It’s great for lead players looking to shine on the mix.
Specs-wise (more on pickups specs on the last section), these tapers are made of Alnico V.
The bridge neck is as hot as possible with its series wiring made of Heavy Formvar wire. Meanwhile, the neck and middle pickups are built to ‘50s specs.
In particular, the middle pickup is a reverse-wound design that cancels out hum and noises.
Whilst these are not cheap pickups, the brand sells the whole set for a great value. I highly recommend changing the whole set for the Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot.
For us, this is the best single-coil pickup there is. This model has over 30 years since its launch, and its popularity has always been very high.
These pickups deliver the classic Strat high-end sparkle. They can really re-invent your tone and make your guitar feel new and expensive.
Lastly, these pickups have an extra layer of sensitivity that slightly changes how they work depending on the position you place them.
If you’re looking for the best affordable single-coils, the Tex-Mex offer the most for the less.
The sound is beefy (even beefier with overdrive) and gritty. It’s able to cut through the mix like cheese.
What I like the most about the Tex Mex single-coil pickups is its output. Fender decided to boost the levels for rock. And even with their obvious increased power, they feature a clean & country sound without overdrive or distortion. The sound is what you’d call “the Tele twang.”
You can buy the Fenders Tex Mex either as a set of three or a set of two, both options featuring friendly price tags. I recommend going for the set of two Tex Mex pickups.
Keep in mind people consider the Tex Mex as their first humble upgrade. The next step towards quality is, naturally, the Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot pickups.
The traditional Tex Mex are high-output pickups with bright treble and warm mids. They are made of Alnico V. That means these pickups have plenty of versatility.
The Tex Mex is part of Fender’s Traditional pickup series, which is all about the classic Strat and Tele sound. Different models vary in output levels and deliver either vintage or modern sounds.
In particular, the Deluxe Drive Strat pickups have the highest output of the series. The middle pickup is a reverse-wound taper that cancels noise and hum on positions 2 and 4 (more on that below).
The EMGA SA is known as the best hum-canceling single-coil in the market.
It does lack the vintage character many people are looking for. The reason is the EMG SA model trades the old-school rocker tones for modern open Strat sound.
That means the tone is plummy and light at the bottom end, clear at the mids, and bright at the highs.
Hence, the EMG SA eliminates the main drawback of single-coils, which is hums and noises. And while we can overlook background interferences during practice, rehearsals, and even live presentations, it becomes a challenge in the studio.
This is the pickup that convinced David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) to install the EMG brand on his red Stratocaster guitar. That means the EMG SA is great for driving effects and playing expressive and emotional blues and classic rock music.
Personal advice: EMG SA pickups go along especially well with EHX and TC Electronic pedals.
The EMG SA is a medium output active single-coil pickups made of Alnico 5 material. They ship in either white, ivory, or red plates to match your guitar’s pickguard.
I’m sharing a bundle that includes bridge and neck EMG SAs plus an EMG 81 humbucker for the neck (SA/SA/H). It’s a versatile and professional combination.
In particular, the SAs are aggresive at the bridge and smooth in the middle. And the 81 is a fat humbucker ready to play metal genres.
If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, here’s an individual EMG SA:
DiMarzio DP419 Area ‘67
The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was where Jimi Hendrix played his first big show, and the audience witnessed how the Stratocaster guitar was supposed to be used.
In light of the event, DiMarzio created the Area ‘67 pickups as a tribute to the Purple Haze single-coil sound: light, bright, clean, and punchy.
They succeeded and created an affordable and modern single-coil with an organic crisp. These pickups also enhance treble and create punchy mids.
Unlike the original pickups, though, DiMarzio created single-coils with no background hum, which is a very attractive extra.
The Area ‘67 are hum-canceling pickups with a light and bright sound. They use Alnico 2 material and vintage wiring setups.
DiMarzio’s patented Area technology reduces magnet pull by 40%, which improves clarity and sustain. The Area technology is also in charge of eliminating background noises.
I recommend the Area ‘67 for neck and middle positions because it offers better sustain and intonation than on the bridge position.
DiMarzio DP172 Twang King
The Twang King is a pickup I love because of its sleek case and silky sound. These are creamy and elegant pickups live up to their name: the Tele Twag doesn’t get any better than this.
The sound is as elegant as the aesthetics, and the tone brings loads of the vintage and degraded Fender scratch.
Simply put, this is the sound you’d want from a Telecaster, or this is the Telecaster sound you’d want for your custom guitar.
And because the tone has a lot of brightness, it’s able to replicate familiar Stratocaster tones as well.
The Twan King has an Alnico 5 hand-calibrated magnet, a special wire, and double wax-potting. All of these features imitate Telecaster tones and improve the attack of the guitar.
It’s special wiring also delivers a soft and silenced tone with plenty of dynamics. That means picking creates a stronger output, whilst arpeggios and similar create smoother results.
I’d say the dynamics of this single-coil pickups are higher than any other. Imagine playing that on a tubular amp!
This model comes covered in chrome, another quality feature for a quality pickup selling for an affordable price.
Lastly, this model is easier to install than most single-coils. It ships with instructions anyone could try and follow.
However, this pickup only fits on Telecaster guitars, unless you do some complex modifications on the pickguard.
Seymour Duncan STK-S2 Hot Stack
The STK-S2 represents two things. First off, it represents the classic Strat tone for your modified guitar. Secondly, it represents a beefier upgrade from default single-coils on either bridge or neck positions.
I commend this as a top-notch powerful pickup. It’s both clean and dirty. It means the tone stays pristine and naturally overdriven.
Also, it moves away from traditional single-coils as it doesn’t have any hum. It’s a truly quiet pickup, and that’s an impressive feature on itself. Furthermore, that makes these coils a great partner for both the studio and the stage.
This is a high-output stack coil, which is a modern design that couples two coils, one on top of the other. It’s made of ceramic magnets.
It works as a single-coil, though, whilst offering the power and the noise-cancellation features of a humbucker (more on that in the last section). That’s why it could replace a humbucker on a custom modified guitar.
More so, it ships on an elegant vinyl casing, available in either black or white.
Meanwhile, the blade-style magnets are made of ceramic, which results in a balanced sound across the strings. Also, this construction enhances sustain and improves string sensitivity.
This Hot Stack pickup is designed to replace thin-sounding single-coils. The STK ships for the bridge position (STK-S2b) or neck/middle positions (STK-S2n).
The brand recommends this item for country, blues, pop, classic rock, and heavy rock.
Seymour Duncan STR-3 Quarter Pound
The Quarter Pound is the greasy cheeseburger of the single-coil pickups. As you’d expect, it delivers beefy tones for rythm guitar players of all genres.
This STR-3 is Seymour Duncan’s highest output Telecaster single-coil. It delivers a huge tone for rythm guitar, so it works nicely for lead players. The overall tone is crispy and aggresive at the high end; powerful and fat at the mid, and balanced at the bottom.
Another thing I love about the STR-3s is how affordable they are. And it comes from one of the best pickup makers in the market.
Overall, these tapers sound great with Start and Telecaster guitars and especially well on guitars with rosewood fretboards. And because they are beefy and fat, they could replace a humbucker on a custom modified guitar.
You need to know this pickup is twice as powerful as most single-coil tapers.
These are high-output Strat and Telecaster pickups for the neck position. The Quarter Pound models are made of Alnico 5 with oversized magnets for its fat and punchy sound.
The big pole pieces of this device generate a stronger magnetic field that requires a special wire. As a result of this material, the output is higher and the tone is full.
Its design looks clean, humble, and non-intrusive with its chrome-plated cover.
Finally, I must add this is not a hum-canceling single-coil. However, this model is wax-potted to reduce squeals and feedback.
Seymour Duncan recommends this pickup for the neck position, although you could also install it on the bridge or middle positions.
Lance Sensor 44468 Red/Blue/Silver Set
The Lance Sensor is a high-value series beloved for the particular combination of sounds it offers. More so, they do a great job imitating the sound and features of fat humbuckers within single-coil designs.
Fender used Lance Sensor pickups until the mid-nineties. They were also heavily used by Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. That’s because the Lace Sensor single-coils mixes early Fender tones with fat humbucking punch for heavier styles. It’s also a noiseless set, so it can handle distortions.
Let’s go into detail. The Lance Sensor 44468 is a value pack shipping with three single-coil pickups:
- Lance Sensor Red: it has the highest output amongst the trio. It’s made for the bridge position as it offers a humbucking-like output. It’s fat, punchy, and aggresive.
- Lance Sensor Silver: it’s the middle pickup made to imitate a ‘70s single-coil sound, with a vintage output and an enhanced mid-range.
- Lance Sensor Blue: it imitates the sound of a ‘50s humbucking pickup, with a “degraded” noiseless signal. It goes on the neck.
The Red is the highest output single-coil of the series and it’s filled with innovation. It packs a Field Barrier system plus the brand’s patented Lace Micro Combs. Both features deliver a wider tonal range as well as clean trebles and meaty low-ends. All of that whilst keeping background noises silent.
The Red pickup excels on high gain, even distortion. It’s perfect for rock and metal. What’s best, traditional single-coil seekers will love the classic Fender tones on the Silver and Blue vintage pickups.
I’d say the overall tone is both hotter than gold and classier than vinyl:
Lastly, these tapers come with a mini data CD that includes wiring diagrams (to install the devices on your guitar) in color.
Specs-wive, we’ve got one high output (Red), one moderate output (Silver), and one vintage output (Blue) single-coils. They are all made with Alnico 5 magnets and have noise-cancellation features.
This Ultimate Triple covers everything you’d ever need to play.
Budget Choice: Wilkinson Strat SSS
The affordable Wilkinson Strat SSS single-coil pickups are the perfect choice for trading up the pickups of a budget guitar for dirt-cheap models. I chose the SSS model because it’s widely popular on Amazon, although other models from the brand are equally cheap and equally surprising.
Don’t let the price tag fool you, though. Nothing beats these puppies on the same price level, and they can truly improve, for instance, a Squier Affinity or a Squier Bullet guitar.
The Wilkinson SSS set is a must-have if you’re building a budget guitar. As you’re probably thinking of upgrading a few items (like the saddle, a paint job, tuners, strings, or the potentiometers), saving some money on the most important feature of your guitar is a welcomed grace.
Specs-wise, there’s not much to be said. These are medium output ceramic pickups. And although there’s nothing special with the looks, its sound may surprise you.
Budget choice: Musiclily 48 mm Schwarz
The 48m Schwarz single-coil pickups by Musiclily are the cheapest alternatives you can find. To be honest, there’s nothing too special about them, but the tone is decent, even above its price point.
I decided to include these on the list because the 48mm is the most popular choice on Amazon. If you’re a musician on a tight budget or a pinch to change damaged pickups on your humble guitar, these represent the best choice in the market.
The overall tone is bright, round, and crunchy. On the highs, though, the treble is not as clear as other premium coils.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video demo. You would have to try them yourself, and for the price they cost, there’s not much you could lose!
These are ceramic-made pickups with moderate output. They are perfect for middle and bridge positions.
Up next, the technical stuff about single-coil pickups. The following information will help you make the right choice.
How single-coil pickups work
Most guitar players can play for their whole life without knowing a single thing about how their pickups work. While there’s nothing wrong or limiting with that, I believe knowing a bit more can help you tweak and manipulate your sound better.
This technical stuff is also a great help when you enter the studio to record your music.
Furthermore, this info satisfies the most curious players, so let’s take a look at how single-coils work.
A single-coil enjoys a pretty simple construction, although the process changes brand to brand.
In general terms, a single-coil pickup is a magnetic piece wrapped on a coil of wire. This construction sits within the chrome material you see beneath the guitar.
What happens inside is the magnet and the coil creates a magnetic field that catches the string’s vibrations. Then, it turns this vibration into a signal to send it forward to the amp.
The construction materials and design of a guitar pickup determine how it catches and reproduces the string’s vibrations.
About Fender pickups
These devices were perfected and popularized by Fender in the early ‘50s, in particular for their first solid-body guitars. Since then, musicians think of Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars when they think of single-coil pickups.
Now, almost all single-coils are descendants of Fender’s original designs.
More specifically, the Strat single-coil uses a set of magnetic poles wrapped in thin-as-hair wire. There are two flat pieces of metal, one at each side of the pole (a top plate and a base plate. There’s usually some vinyl protecting the plate, or maybe chrome or brass.
There’s only one truly different pickup design I can think of, which was made by Silvertone guitars over 5 decades ago. Instead of using flat pieces of metal to case the wire and the pole, the brand used an actual lipstick to fit everything together.
Lastly, not all single-coils are identical in shape and size. For instance, a Telecaster neck pickup is bigger than a Telecaster bridge pickup. There’s no exact formula, but neck, middle, and bridge single-coils sound different. That’s the whole point of installing more than one taper on guitars.
Bridge, middle, and neck pickup sound different, even if you install the same pickup on each position.
How do single-coil pickups sound?
While the electric guitar amp, EQ controls, and pedals also take part in your instrument’s tone (the amplifier especially), a single-coil has a typical sound most musicians can recognize.
These devices sound bright. jangly, twangy, sparkly, crispy, and clean. When you put it through overdrive, the tone gets gritty; but distortion ends up with a noisy, muddy sound for the most.
Single-coils are known mostly for their twang, which goes especially well with blues, country, and surf rock, pop, alternative rock. Vintage tunes and classic rock genres also combine perfectly well with single-coil pickups.
On that regard, legendary players that have used these tapers include Jimmy Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, John Frusciante, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Jerry Donahue, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Keith Richards, ad many more.
Single-coils are present in almost every classic rock band.
Single-coils are prone to hum, in particular when the output or the distortion increases. That’s why plugging a distortion pedal to a single-coil guitar is not a good idea, as it might create a muddy and ugly tone.
There’re some exceptions, though, like the EMG SA or the Lance Sensor Red. Keep in mind these two alternatives deviate from Fender’s original ideas on how single-coils work and sound.
There’s another notable downside, which is single-coils don’t have as much output as humbuckers, although I did choose a couple of high-output single-coils for this list.
But as much as I listed these facts as a downside, most musicians covet the single-coils because of their disadvantages as well. That’s because the thing that makes them different from humbuckers are the things that create their classic signature sound.
Mixing single coils and humbuckers on the same guitar often yields the best results.
Why should you change the guitar’s pickups?
If there’s a guitar that looks like something you want to hang around your neck but it lacks some power and clarity once you plug it, then buying new pickups is the best way to trade up the tone for much less money than what a new guitar would cost.
Like so, a new set of pickups is the right way to revive an old guitar you love.
Remember, though, that is not enough to change just one of the guitar’s pickups. You’d probably need to change all of the tapers on your ax in order to see a real change.
All in all, you can save money and greatly improve the sound of your guitar by simply swapping these pieces.
However, if the guitar doesn’t feel nice on your hands and it’s not something you’d want to play often, then why should you invest anything on it? You’d be better off searching for a budget electric guitar here.
When to change the pickups?
If you’ve done your research, you’ll likely buy the best guitar your particular budget can muster. The one that’s perfect for your style, that feels right in your hands and sounds awesome with your band.
This might not be the case for your prior or existing guitars. And whilst many guitar players accept the original pickups of their instruments, the simple act of changing the stocks can bring a whole new life into that old ax.
Guitar manufacturers tend to keep down costs in the pickup area because this is the most expensive feature guitars pack. So, when it comes to budget models, the pickups are probably not going to be the best thing.
That means you can change the pickups on a budget or mid-level guitar once you’re ready to improve the sound. There’s nothing wrong with starting out with a humble sound, but once the circumstances and your skills call for better guitar gear, you can rise to the moment with a few bucks. If you’re smart.
Imagine the wonders you could do if you place quality brand-name single-coil pickups on beautifully crafted budget guitars like the Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster ‘50s, the Schecter Omen 6, or the Epiphone Les Paul Studio Goth. You could potentially build yourself a premium, triple-zero guitar for less than half the price of the actual thing.
That’s why affordable guitars that look and play great are the perfect platforms for pickup upgrade. That’s also why some players will take the stock pickups and replace them immediately with something better.
Lastly, keep in mind there’re pickup cavities. Each pickup ships with a particular size and fits in a particular section of the guitar (neck, middle, or bridge). P-90s often fit in either cavity.
Pickup household names include Lindsey Fralin, Fishman, DiMarzio, EMG, Fender, Gibson, and Seymour Duncan.
Understanding guitar pickups
Here’s what you need to know in order to make the best choice possible.
A pickup may contain one magnet or several magnets. They also vary in shape, construction materials, and circuitry (quality and build).
The magnets serve as the pickups’ engine. Traditional single-coils, like the ones on Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, have rods made of magnetic materials reaching up the metal chassis. These rods are pole pieces: they direct the magnetic field to each of the guitar’s strings.
Single-coils vs. humbuckers
Single-coils are susceptible to hum and interference noises because they only have one wire coil. On the other hand, humbucker’s two coils create a reverse polarity that blocks the hum. Furthermore, the two coils increase the magnetic field, which in turn adds more sustain.
That means single-coils are usually good for softer, more classical genres. Their versatility starts in jazz & blues, and it goes all the way up to alternative rock, indie, and pop.
The fact that single-coils produce noise also creates feedback, which many musicians use to their advantage. In fact, one of the main reasons why semi-hollow and hollow guitars exist is because they generate even more feedback than solid-body guitars.
Now, humbuckers are noise-free, but their versatility is decreased. They shine in rock and metal genres and subgenres nonetheless.
With some tweaking and the right use of guitar pedals, single-coils can go into humbucker terrain and vice versa.
A P-90 pickup is a larger single-coil with a wider coil that enhances mid-tones. It’s a pretty good solution if your guitar is constantly getting lost in the mix.
Gibson designed the P-90s in 1946. Many people refer to them as soap bars because of their shape. Many iconic guitar players like Tony Iommi, Pete Townshend, Dean DeLeo, Mike McCready, and Billie Joe Armstrong have harnessed the power of a P-90.
Active pickups use active electronic circuits to power an active preamp build into the pickup. These models usually require a 9V battery and offer extra power versatility. Likewise, active pickups are more difficult to use because their tonal shaping options are wider.
These babies have been adopted by iconic players. The list includes Pink Floyd and solo artist David Gilmour, as well as Metallica’s frontman James Hetfield.
They can have either one coil or two coils. The overall sound of active pickups is more powerful, versatile, and more compressed. More so, active single-coils feature much less noise than their passive counterparts.
Active single-coil pickups are part of the modern branch of pickup markets.
Newer designs include variations of the two standard models, which are there in case you want to swap a humbucker for a single-coil.
- Stacked coils (also known as coil-tapped humbuckers or reverse-wound) are single-coils built for humbucker cavities. These devices use a fraction of each coil and us the rest to cancel hum and noises.
Stacked coils offer single-coil clarity and twang with humbucker silence and output. Their existence goes a long way in blurring the lines between single-coils and humbuckers. This design is about stacking two coils top to bottom instead of sideways.
- Coil-split humbuckers are single-coils made for humbucker cavities. These shut down one of the coils to sound like a vintage pickup, but they don’t cancel the hum.
These normally include a “push-pull” option to switch one of the coils on and off. They can also ship with the regular humbucker size.
- Rail humbuckers are half the size. They fit in single-coil cavities and have lower, vintage-like outputs.
You could fit a single-coil on a humbucker cavity if the guitar’s pickguard can hold the piece in place.
There’s a couple of extra things you’re going to see every time you see a pickup review:
First off, there’re high output pickups (known as “hot”), moderate output pickups, low outputs, and vintage output pickups. The vintage category features the lowest volumes as it mimics the weakened magnets found in old guitars.
Naturally, higher outputs handle distortion better, but their dynamic range is the worst. By “dynamic range,” I mean the distance there’s from the highest hearable note to the highest hearable noise. As a result, you could get a noisy sound in a matter of seconds if you’re not careful with the settings on your amp or your pedals.
Lower outputs are cleaner and brighter. Meanwhile, the in-between moderate output models pair great with overdrive pedals.
Magnet & construction
The design and construction materials on the magnet is also an important factor.
Let’s see the magnet shape first:
- There’re magnets with steel poles on each magnetic bar. These have a fatter and darker sound, which is why it is the common choice on high output humbuckers (like Gibson guitars).
- Blade style magnets have a single metal bar. these offer balanced and consistent sounds.
- There’re magnets with individual magnetic poles. These give a brighter and thinner sound, which is why they are common in lower output single-coil pickups (like Fender guitars).
Pickup magnets are commonly made of “Alnico,” which is a mix of aluminum, cobalt, and nickel. Meanwhile, ceramic is the common choice for budget pickups.
Let’s see how magnet construction affects tone and output:
- Alnico 8 features the most aggressive sound.
- Alnico 5 has the highest output and fattest sound. It’s also very versatile which is why it’s the preferred choice of guitar builders.
- Alnico 3 has a softer tone. It’s common on vintage Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars.
- Alnico 2 offers a vintage tone and a strong output.
- Ceramic has hotter and more aggressive output than Alnico 8, which is why it’s common for heavy metal genres and subgenres.
Lastly, “wax-potted” coils are protected against feedback.
Most ceramic pickups are humbuckers.
The position of the pickup inside of the guitar also plays a role in your tone:
- The neck position features a warm and full sound. It also has plenty of sustain.
- The bridge position has a bright sound and a short sustain.
- The middle position is right in the middle.
Likewise, the pickup combination within the guitar also plays a pivotal role.
As you can imagine, combining two humbuckers is best for metal, whilst combining two single-coils is best for blues and classic rock. Now, mixing the two kinds of pickups is taking the versatility path.
Now, the pickup configuration of any guitar or bass reads like so:
SS / HH / SH / SSS …
“S” meaning single-coil, “H” meaning humbucker. The letter at the left represents the bridge pickup, the second letter is either the middle or neck pickup, and the third letter is the neck pickup.
Likewise, brands sell their pickups in sets. Most times, single-coil bundles are “SSS” (3 single-coils, one for each position). Seldom times, the sets are “SSH.”
Some brands offer “overwound” 3-pickup sets. That means the middle pickup has a reverse-wound design that’s able to cancel the noise, just as long as you put the pickup selector switch on positions 2 and 4.
Finally, there are three types of pickup circuitries:
- Series wiring: the signal travels a single path. It delivers warmth and power.
- Parallel wiring: it splits the signal into two and re-combines at the end. It delivers brightness and clarity.
- Vintage wiring: it splits the signal and recombines at the end, like parallel wiring. However, it “degrades” the signal along the way. The result is a lower-output signal with in-built dirt.
The wiring material also affects the output of the signal. However, this varies brand to brand.
Knowing the technical stuff about pickups can help you build the exact tones you want.
What are the best electric guitar pickups?
I commend the Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot pickups as the best choice for people looking to have the best vintage Stratocaster sound they can imagine.
Otherwise, DiMarzio is building some of the most modern single-coils out there. These alternatives will always give you a modern, versatile sound for half the budget of the Lindy Fralin alternative.
Similarly, Seymour Duncan has handcrafted its reputation as the best replicators of the early Fender sound.
But, if you ask me, the most interesting single-coils are the Lance Sensor Red, Silver & Blue. They are the most versatile models of the list, probably the most versatile on the market, as they can play anything from vintage jazz to modern progressive metal. Like so, the advanced Lance Sensor technologies give you truly noiseless single-coils with vast tonal possibilities.
What single-coil pickup would you choose?
Whether you’re changing one pickup or the full set on your guitar, I hope my best single-coil pickups buyer’s guide helps you make the right choice.
Naturally, there’re many more single-coils you could consider, but my chart tried to offer the most popular value tapers you could buy right now.
If you’re taking the trouble of changing your guitar pickups, make sure you buy the right ones. Also, please consider going to a tech expert for the actual job of swapping the pieces. But if you already know how to do it yourself (or have a friend who does), then, by all means, go ahead!
I advise you to watch videos, read reviews, and listen to the reviewed pickups in action before you spend your hard-worked money.
Good luck with your hunt! I invite you to leave your comments down below!