Are you building your own guitar? Are you upgrading or repairing your current guitar? Or perhaps you want to buy a new guitar, but just don’t know which pickups will work best for you. There are other pickups than just humbuckers and single coil pickups. I’ll explain a bit about the other type too. But these two are the most prolific. These two pickups have been around for decades. Obviously, they both work well.
But which one is right for your playing style? Does it even matter? Yes it does. Just how much depends on you and your preferences. We’ll be getting into all of that in this article. Let’s get into the battle of humbucker vs single coil.
Guitar Pickups and How They Work
There are a few things that determine the sound of a guitar. Pickups are one of the biggest. These pickups essentially transmit current to your amp. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it. But just like dynamic microphones, pickups have small metal poles that are magnets with wires coiled around them that move with the sound waves. These sound waves are turned into electric signals that are transmitted to the amp via the cable plugged into the guitar.
The amp receives this signal and the speaker works the same as a microphone, but just in the opposite direction. Electric signals, a.k.a current, is turned into acoustic energy so that we all can hear it.
This is essentially how every guitar pickup works. But there are still differences, mainly to do with output, you’ll see how in the sections below.
Passive pickups work the way I described above, but they don’t need anything to power them. Most electric guitars use these pickups.
Active pickups also work like I described above, but they are weaker and need to be powered by a 9v battery or phantom power. Despite being the less popular choice, these pickups sound really good and are known for their exceptional clarity. Be sure that if you’re looking to buy an active pickup, that it’s mentioned in the name and/or description of the pickup, otherwise you may be purchasing a passive pickup.
Usually, these pickups look like two rows of little magnets within the casing. Generally, one on top of the other. Sometimes the pickups will only have one row of magnets showing while some may have metal strips in place of the magnets on the outside. Some humbuckers have been sealed so that the casing looks plain.
Humbuckers result in a quiet pickup (as in no hum) that produces a warm, somewhat dark sound. This is because they project more low and mid frequencies. The sound is thicker. They have a higher output than single coil pickups and are often louder too. It’s not hard to see why rockers prefer them.
How Do Humbucker Pickups Work?
They work as I explained about how pickups working in general, just with a higher output. Plus the little magnets and coils are arranged in such a way that they cancel out the hum that electronics usually have. This phasing out of the hum is referred to as bucking the hum, hence the name humbucker pickups.
Which Genres are Best Suited to Humbucker Pickups?
These pickups handle distortion really well thanks to cleaner signals being transmitted. No one wants muddy sounding distortion. Genres within rock, especially punk, hard rock and metal do really well with humbuckers. Playing lead with humbuckers sounds so good.
The warm, clear tones also work well for jazz and blues music. The notes sound pretty clear and smooth just like a good jazz song needs. With blues, it gets the guitar crooning just as well.
A Quick Look at Humbucker Pickups
- Warmer, darker, thicker tone
- Quieter (little to no hum)
- Very versatile (handles distortion and overdrive well, plays well clean)
- They are often louder
- They are slightly less clear than single coil pickups
The Top 5 Humbucker Pickups
You’ll find an awesome pickup, or even a set of two, in your price range.
SAPHUE Electric Guitar Humbucker Pickups
These humbuckers are affordable and work well. The tone is clear and even bright, which isn’t a normal characteristic for humbuckers. Most people find they are great for distortion and effects. They come in black, ivory, or a combination of the two called Zebra. These pickups have a 4-conductor cable and are wax potted to prevent feedback and unwanted noise. The screws are adjustable so you can vary your tone ever so slightly.
Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz Humbucker Pickup Set
A popular name when it comes to guitar pickups, you know you’re getting quality. They have Alnico (another well-known brand when it comes to pickups) V magnets. They have a 4-conductor cable and are wax potted. The tone is tight in the low end, scooped in the middle, with good harmonies in the high end. You can play multiple genres with these pickups. Most people find that these provide clear, full tone. There aren’t many complaints, mainly defective units.
FLEOR Electric Guitar Humbucker Pickups
These humbuckers may not be a big name, but a lot of people feel they might as well be. They are wax potted and the casing is ceramic. The screws are adjustable for a nuanced tone. These pickups have been described as sounding hot and clear. They are versatile enough to work with multiple genres, and when playing clean or with distortion or crunch. There were a few complaints to do with the quality of the materials.
EMG REV Revelation Signature Humbucker Pickup Set
One of the top pickup brands around, these EMG humbuckers were made for Prashant Aswani, producer, guitarist, and songwriter. The Alnico II magnets and custom wound bobbins provide good clarity. There are four connect wires. You can choose between chrome, black, or white. The tone is kind of vintage but has precision rather than the muddiness that is often heard in the music of a few decades ago.
Fishman Fluence Classic Humbucker Pickup Set (Active)
From another big name in the industry, these active pickups have three different voices (tones) that you can switch between using switches or push-pull controls. The pickups are rechargeable if you use the lithium battery pack which is up for purchase separately. This pack provides power that lasts a few weeks. Alternatively you can use a 9v battery. Choose between brushed stainless steel, nickel, or black nickel.
Because of the different voices and being able to toggle between them or combine them, these are truly versatile. They are clear with good dynamics. People love the versatility and how quiet they are.
Single Coil Pickups
Single coil pickups look like what it sounds like, a single row of magnets. These were the first pickups created for electric guitars that were used widely. There were others created first, but because they weren’t as good, they haven’t stood the test of time, and those that did aren’t as popular.
What we generally think of single coil pickups are referred to as horseshoe pickups because they use U shaped magnets.
What About P90 Pickups?
You may have heard of P90 pickups. These are also single coil pickups but they are categorized separately. This is because they have a higher output than regular single coils and are bigger too.
How Do Single Coil Pickups Work?
The same as I described initially with how pickups work, however, unlike humbucker pickups, they don’t phase out the hum since they are just a single row of magnets and coils. They also have a lower output than humbuckers.
Which Genres are Best Suited to Single Coil Pickups?
Single coil pickups usually have a brighter tone than humbuckers and are generally favored by country and surf musicians, basically, people who prefer that twangy sound. But even pop musicians like these pickups because of their clean tone. The downside is that they tend to hum when you’re not playing as they tend to pick up on EMF (electromagnetic frequencies).
A Quick Look at Single Coil Pickups
- Brighter, hotter tone
- Known for exceptional clarity
- Plays clean guitar very well, but handles distortion and overdrive too
- Generally hums when not playing due to EMF
The Top 5 Single Coil Pickups
There are options here for every budget. You can choose between sets or single pickups.
Seymour Duncan SSL-3 Hot Strat Single Coil Pickup
This single coil pickup is meant for Fender Strats. Of course, if you have a guitar that is very similar, this will work for you too. These have Alnico 5 magnets and when put in the middle between the neck and bridge pickups, it’s meant to cancel the hum that single coil pickups generally have. But it’s up to you, some people prefer it on the neck or at the bridge. This pickup provides a hot, full tone and those who use it are happy with it.
DiMarzio Steve Vai UtoPIA Middle Signature Single Coil Pickup
If you’ve been a Steve Vai fan forever, why not get this pickup inspired by him. It looks cool too. This pickup will sound best in the middle position as it’s been designed for that purpose. It has Alnico 5 magnets and has a two conductor wire. If you get the whole set, it sounds like a humbucker when put into split coil mode with the neck and bridge pickups. It’s bound to improve your guitar’s sound even if you don’t have the whole set. The tone has been described as crisp yet warm and strong.
Micovay Single Coil Pickups Set
If you’re on a strict budget, this set of three single coil pickups may be for you. They have a vintage sound and while you can use them for the neck, middle, or bridge, they do very well as middle pickups. Of course, if you’re using all three, this is a moot point. In switch positions 2 and 4, they phase out the hum. They are wax potted to reduce the hum too. Most people find that they’re fairly quiet with a clean tone and good output. They’re compatible with various guitars.
Fender Tex-Mex Telecaster Single-Coil Pickups
If you love the Fender tone, these hot Tex-Mex single coil pickups will give you that. Both pickups in this set have Alnico 5 magnets. They are versatile with a full tone and can handle quick changes between clean and overdrive. Most people love the sound these give their guitars, but there is also a common complaint about the bridge wire being too short. This causes the installation to be harder than it needs to be.
OriPure Vintage Strat Single Coil Pickup
Another budget friendly option for Strat and Squier type guitars, these provide better quality than you would think. They sport Alnico 5 magnets and are wax potted. You can phase out noise in switch positions 2 and 4. Choose between bridge, middle, or neck pickups or order all three. Color options are white, cream, and black.
Can You Put Single Coils in a Guitar Built to Have Humbuckers and Vice Versa?
Obviously, there is a size difference between the two pickups though. So if you do want to switch, you can make the hole for the pickup bigger, depending on your guitar, but you may not be able to make it smaller. Although there may be some savvy carpenters or luthiers who can do this no problem.
Whether you’re upgrading, repairing, or building guitars, the pickups you choose make a big difference to your sound. Now you can even eliminate the noise that many single coil pickups make, so if that put you off, don’t let that stop you. And as long as there are four conducting wires, you can use your humbucker pickups in split coil mode for greater versatility.
Of course, the kind of guitar you have largely determines what kind of pickups you need. If you’re trying to decide which guitar to buy depending on the pickups, this article will have been helpful to you too. And if you want the best of both, choose a guitar that has both humbuckers and single coil pickups.
Enjoy the process and happy jamming!
Cheanné Lombard lives in the home of one of the new Seven World Wonders, Cape Town, South Africa. She can’t go a day without listening to or making music.
Her love of music started when her grandparents gave her a guitar. It was a smaller version of the full-sized guitars fit for her little hands. Later came a keyboard and a few years after that, a beautiful dreadnought guitar and a violin too. While she is self-taught when it comes to the guitar, she had piano lessons as a child and is now taking violin lessons as an adult.
She has been playing guitar for over 15 years and enjoys a good jam session with her husband, also an avid guitarist. In fact, the way he played those jazzy, bluesy numbers that kindled the fire in her punk rock heart. Now she explores a variety of genres and plays in the church worship group too and with whoever else is up for a jam session.