This is a war that has been waged, man against man, for the better part of a century, and here you are, cowering in the middle of the battlefield wondering just what the heck is going on?
Today, we seek to elucidate the difference between humbucker vs single-coil pickups for you, so that you might be better equipped in the future to join the fight of whomever you choose, or perhaps even to join the peace corps and stick to your acoustic guitar, at the very least better informed.
What Is a Humbucker?
In attempting to run through a comparison of humbucker vs single-coil pickups, we must first understand what they are exactly.
Effectively a double coil pickup, the humbucker is a variety of pickup for the guitar that uses two-wire coils to otherwise elide the noisy interference picked and transmitted up by other coil pickups, like the single coil.
Though this term has largely come to refer to electric guitar pickups, the coils at the heart of these pickups are sometimes used in dynamic microphones to cancel the very same electromagnetic hum that can mar the fidelity of the recording and/or playback.
In any magnetic pickup such as this (even a ukulele pickup), a vibrating guitar string is magnetized by a magnet set within the pickup which in turn induces an alternating voltage across the coil within.
Sadly, on their own, wire coils also make function well as antennae and are thus by varying degrees sensitive to interference from mains wiring (which you can hear at almost any live gig if you listen close enough) as well as from electrical appliances like motors, transformers, and computer screens.
Guitar pickups reproduce this noise and, depending on the reproduction, it can be rather audible, most often assuming the form of a constant hum or buzz, which can be in turn exacerbated when using distortion and/or other related effects which reduce the signal to noise ratio and amplify the interfering signals in relation to the connection between the pickup and strings.
Humbuckers thus work to negate these effects, by pairing two coils with opposed shaped magnets that balance the signal and prevent as much as possible external interferences from the mains and poor grounding elsewhere in the signal chain.
The coils are connected together out of phase, enabling phase cancellation which significantly reduces the interfering signal.
What Is a Single Coil?
By contrast, a single coil is a type of pickup for the electric bass and electric guitar which electromagnetically converts the vibration of the corresponding strings into an electric signal via a single-coil mechanism, wherein lies the main difference between the humbucker vs single coil.
Two kinds of noise can affect single-coil guitar picks: the first, hum, is caused by magnetic fields exacerbated by frequency currents in electrical equipment imbalanced by power; the second kind, buzz, is bred as radio transmissions and sounds more like static.
Owing to the panoply of different kinds of electrical equipment, there are many sources and reasons for buzz, though a seminal example would be an AC power tool fitted with a brush motor, which makes and breaks electrical contact countless times each second at a varying frequency which, though depending on the load it is bearing, will still produce this low-frequency buzzing and noise no matter what.
The single-coil has gone through a hell of a number of forms in its time, with the original iterations coming from Gibson themselves, who introduced the bar-type pickup in 1935 to accompany its production line of lap steel guitars at the time.
The following year, they introduced an electrified Spanish-style acoustic guitar, fitted with its very own bar pickup. This really was the beginning of something special, for its use by jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Orchestra caused the popularity of the ‘electrified’ guitar to soar throughout the western world.
Such was the correlation between Charlie Christian and the rise in popularity of this particular model of guitar and this particular pickup that, since this fateful time, the pickup itself has come to be referred to as the ‘Charlie Christian pickup’.
Why Use Humbucking Pickups?
There are several reasons why you might favor humbucking pickups over single-coil pickups mounted, not least for the improved signal response and lack of background interference and ground hum.
Less External Interference
The main pull, though not the least important, for using a humbucker vs single-coil is going to the reduced interference from external sources, which is almost entirely the point of the humbucker in the first place, for it was designed to negate just such signals.
Thus, any external signal that is getting in the way of the reproduction of the sound of the guitar’s strings through the pickup and out of an external amp will be muffled and, if not completely eradicated, at least significantly reduced as to make it no longer a problem.
This will of course depend on what kind of external gear you are using, however, some pieces of electrical equipment are far more prone and vulnerable to external ground hum than others, and there does seem to be a direct correlation between how old a piece of equipment is and how much hum it produced.
While older and more vintage equipment is fawned over for its supreme and ultimate tones, it is by no means up to the job when it comes to negating low-frequency hum, which will no doubt be a deal-breaker for the more audiophile readers.
Since the external signals are being muffled, the overall tone and sound that is heard upon output are no doubt going to be at least a little warmer, bolstered by double the number of coils than you might otherwise have on a guitar fitted with one or more single-coil pickups.
This warmer sound is something that humbuckers are prized for and heralded over, where the vibrations of the string as plucked by the musician is absorbed through the body of the guitar as well as through the double coils trained on the strings themselves, all serving to provide that signature warm tone.
This is particularly prevalent for hollow-body guitars as made famous by brands such as Gibson, where the internal vibrations are carried around and picked up on the inside, much like they would be through an acoustic guitar’s sound hole, providing the characteristic warm and wooden and grounded sound, where an electric guitar sound like acoustic.
Humbuckers have equally found a home in jazz and heavy metal music, providing each with their own set of benefits, whether of warmth and/or sustain and power. There is a significant emphasis on the mid-range of a humbucker pickup which makes them particularly good for use with effects that do not rely on too much distortion such as when you naturally overdrive a tube amp.
However, my favorite use is precisely the opposite, when one uses so much distortion that the note can almost infinitely sustain, an effect rendered devastatingly effective when using a hollow body guitar whose inner sound hole makes it immensely prone to feedback.
A real selling point that is vastly underappreciated by too many guitarists is the fact that humbuckers give you a considerable depth of control when it comes to the control of volume between pickups and thus the control of the overall tone, an aspect that is exacerbated even further if you are using tube amplification to edge a guitar into the red with the volume knob.
Since the whole point of the humbucker vs single-coil is to keep out external interference as much as possible, then it stands to reason that there is going to be less interfering with the signal, allowing you to better hear the minutiae of the total inputs and outputs as filtered through the volume and tone knobs.
If you are using a guitar with two or more humbuckers, then this is going to be rendered even more prevalent, allowing you to subtly blend each of the pickups’ volumes in to achieve your own perfect blend of tones, enabling you to achieve and find the tone that is best suited to you and the styles of music that you want.
In most senses, the humbucker seeks to democratize the experience of playing guitar and to prevent external influences from getting in the way of you, the player.
Why Steer Clear of Humbucker Pickups?
The main downside of the humbucker vs single-coil is also aligned with one of its selling points. Certainly, the warmth of the tone might be a winner for some and might indeed complement their playing style to the utmost.
For some, however, this is not the case, and it would only seek to smudge the styles and timbres of musicians looking for more clarity, such as those who rely on a lot of harmonics in their music, for example.
It obviously won’t eat up your notes like it would if you had the tone knob rolled all the way back, but there will be a significant and, in some cases, insurmountable warmth and muffling to the sound that simply will not suit the style or taste of a lot of guitarists.
There is, after all, a reason that single coils are still alive and kicking despite the humbucker attempting to come along and iron out all of its shortcomings.
Why Use Single Coil Pickups?
Inversely, there are several reasons that, despite the humbucker attempting to come along and iron out some of the shortcomings of the single-coil, you might still choose to use a single coil setup instead of a humbucker setup today.
One of the central reasons the humbucker vs single coil debate is still ongoing, and one of the reasons that people still are on the side of the single-coil, is that it inherently provides a far brighter tone and is essentially unparalleled in terms of clarity.
Their magnetic sensors are usually not covered up, nor are they entwined with another coil, so they are far more susceptible to the bite and twang of the raw guitar string, separating out the guitar notes and offering forth sharp and distinct tones before and through your fingers.
The single-coil is going to, at least spiritually, more closely honor the note you have played initially and the intention behind it, whether that be light or dark, hard or soft. There is no intermediary – the sound goes directly into the mechanism and out through the innards and in through the out.
Higher Frequency Response
Owing to the inherent construction of the single-coil pickup, it is inherently going to be more representative of what you have been playing yourself, down to the very smallest and minute hesitation, it renders you naked.
Nothing of the tone is muffled and they are far more responsive in almost every sense, so if you are a guitarist who is enamored with the details and/or uses a lot of harmonics and such, then this is surely the pickup setup for you.
Why Might You Avoid Single Coil Pickups?
As with the humbucker vs single coil, there is really only one major flaw, aside from the already touted fact that a single coil is going to receive far more external interference with regards to grounding and hum, though this is inherent to its construction.
Since the coils of a single-coil guitar pickup are open to the air like a kind of antennae, they are very much prone to feedback, owing to this background hum. Despite a single-coil being incredible for distortion in all its gory details, it can also render this distortion insurmountable if you are not at all interested in pursuing the open horizon of possibilities that guitar feedback can offer you.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, this geopolitical issue of the western world has been elucidated for you somewhat, and you are somewhat wiser on how to navigate this complex issue, how to dive into yourself, and perhaps where you stand in the whole debate.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Humbucker pickups are perfect for a whole manner of things, though their main purpose lies at the root of their inception. They were initially conceived to negate a lot of the background interference and low-frequency hum that single coils can be so prone to. The clue is in the name ‘single coil’, whose only coil in each pickup renders it defenseless against external interference. Thus, the humbucker seeks to provide this single coil with another coil on the opposite end of the polarity, so that, through a process called phase cancellation, the external signals can be canceled out at the root.
It would be hard to say which is more versatile than the other, and I imagine anyone truly wanting to answer this question would be partial to the kind of pickups they preferred using in their own musical peregrinations. My gut reaction is to say single-coil, though I have no doubt this is at least somewhat influenced by my own penchant for the single-coil pickup when making music for myself. I also feel as though the single-coil can kind of be made to sound like a humbucker through the use of the tone knob, whereas the inverse can’t be said to be true for the humbucker.
There are such things as humbuckers that can be split into single coils and vice versa, and these obviously have their own series of benefits. While not doubling down on either a humbucker or a single-coil, the fact that they come as one package means that any aspiring guitarist will not necessarily have to choose a side in the ever-waging war between humbucker vs single coil. The tonal properties of both the humbucker and single coil are available to the guitarist who chooses to use such an apparatus on their guitar at the click of a button, usually attached to the volume and/or knob.
In some ways, a single-coil pickup can certainly be made to sound like a humbucker more than a humbucker can be made to sound like a single-coil pickup. My go-to method for this kind of tonal espionage would be to back off the tone knob considerably so that the tone of the individual single-coil pickups is warmer and less clear, much as a humbucker would be.