What is the difference between a guitar with humbucker vs single coil guitar pickups? Aside from personal preference and the type of music you’re playing, here is a summary of the technical differences, the common sounds associated with both and why you may prefer one over the other for your next guitar or customization.
Let’s talk about the history of each and how they work.
Single Coil Pickups
The single coil guitar pickup was the original electric amplifier for the guitar. It is said to have been first invented by a guitar player named George Beauchamp, with the support of none other than Adolph Rickenbacker, during the 1920’s.
A single coil pickup has two magnets and one coil attached to a multimeter. This device changes the voltage as the strings vibrate. It’s this direct connection to the strings that made the guitar electrified, but also created a lot of uncontrollable noise.
This was the standard until the humbucker came to the market.
Until the mid-1950’s the humbucker pickup style was not widely known. Single coils pickups were how you transmitted the electricity to make your guitar scream. But they delivered a lot of extra buzzing and humming on the strings.
This was common in other electric equipment, particularly speakers and microphones. So in 1934, the dual coil or humbucking coil was designed and utilized to improve the performance of this type of equipment.
A year later, this twin coil humbucker design was installed in a guitar. It took that electricity and sent it through two coils with two magnets set up to oppose each other. Bottom line, the hum was gone, the sound was smoother and heavier, and the humbucker pickup was born.
In 1955, a Gibson engineer named Seth Lover, filed a patent for his design of this device. Gretsch guitars followed suit and humbuckers have been the standard ever since.
Looking for something that works well with a humbucker pickup?
Single coils are known for their clean, bright sound, and there are still a lot of popular guitars made with them today. Of course, digital amps and pedals can give any guitar a library of sounds, but a bright, crisp sound is where the single coil starts.
Guitars and Guitarists that use Single Coil Pickups
Most Fenders Use Single Coils
There are still many guitars made with single coil pickups and they have been the go-to choice for names like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and many others. The majority of Fender guitars have single coil pickups, including the Fender Telecaster.
Danelectro is also well-known for their vintage sound (and style) based on guitars with single coil pickups.
Although most Gibson guitars are fitted with humbuckers, they were one of the first to install the original single coil, what they called their “bar pickup” in their Hawaiian lap steel in 1935, and in the ES-150 Spanish guitar in 1936.
It’s interesting to note that Jimi and Stevie Ray got a wide variety of sounds from their single coils, particularly Jimi Hendrix. This was due to his extensive experimentation inside the studio and out, but it demonstrates that it’s as much about what the guitarist wants to accomplish, than what the pickup can deliver.
Guitars and Guitarists that use Humbuckers
As mentioned above, Gibson guitars uses humbuckers almost exclusively, as does Danelectro. And this pickup has become so popular that using a guitar with one single coil is usually done if the guitarist wants to differentiate their sound from the masses.
That said, designs like the Fender Stratocaster use 3 single coils that the player uses a switch to flip through. One pickup is for the neck, one is for the bridge, and one is for the mids. The neck pickup corresponds to deeper, heavier sounds. The mid-range emphasizes mid-tones, and the bridge pickup amplifies highs and treble tones.
As with so many things today, we have a lot of quality choices. Whether you prefer humbucker or single coil pickups comes down to whether or not you like the way a guitar feels and plays, first and foremost.
After that you have to consider what kind of sound you want from your guitar pick ups and how to sound great with them! As a general rule, humbuckers are smoother with a richer sound, and single coils have a more vibrant sound. But rules were made to be broken, and technology can do a lot to change either sound.