Humbuckers vs Single Coil: Ultimate Electric Guitar Pickups Guide

The Ultimate Electric Guitar Pickups Guide

In this Ultimate Guide on Electric Guitar Pickups, we’ll explore Humbuckers vs Single Coil Pickups, Active Pickups vs Passive, and the overall question of How Do Guitar Pickups Work? We may even talk about Leo Fender, and the two little known Guitar Companies he founded before he died! (Neither of these companies are Fender.)

Guitar Pickups are a deep, truly complicated topic for discussion, but I’m gonna do my best to walk you through the basics. I promise, by the end of this article you’ll be an expert on electric guitar pickups. To get started, let’s define what a pickup is before we get to far down this rabbit hole of humbucker vs single coil pickups.

What is a "Guitar Pickup"?

Learner’s Dictionary defines a guitar pickup as follows:

“a device on a musical instrument (such as an electric guitar) that makes sounds louder by changing them into electrical signals.”

Great, super helpful, thanks so much Learning’s Dictionary. Lets get to some real talk shall we?

Guitar Pickups

Electric Guitar Pickups: Whats the big deal?

It doesn’t matter whether you hear it in conversations with other guitarists, on guitar forums, or in social media…Guitar Pickups are a big deal to guitar players, and there is good reason for it.

Pickups are what made THE Electric Guitar…Electric!

And it’s not just that. Pickups heavily influence Guitar Tone. For Guitar Players, Tone is EVERYTHING! The type of pickup, style of pickup, era of pickup, particular manufacturer of a pickup, etc. all influence the tonal properties of an electric guitar.

No wonder its so easy to find yourself in an infinite scrolling argument on a guitar forum about which guitar pickup is the best. (Been there.)

Guitar Pickups
RickenbackerFryingpanPatentDiagram

Rickenbacker "Frying Pan"

Many people (myself included) assume that it was Leo Fender or Gibson who invented the first production electric guitar and electric guitar pickup, but in reality it was George Beauchamp. Eventually it was manufactured by Rickenbacker Electro in 1931. The guitar was made of aluminum, and was given the nickname “Frying Pan”.

How Do Guitar Pickups Work?

Before we get into the Humbuckers vs Single Coil, and Active vs Passive Pickups, lets make one thing crystal clear. Magnetic guitar pickups are composed of the same basic materials, and those materials make these pickups work on the same basic principles.

Guitar pickups (whether Humbucker or Single Coil) are composed of a coil of super thin copper wire wrapped thousands of times around central magnet. Within those coils will be individual pole pieces for each guitar string. The ends of the copper wire are connected to leads that in turn, attach to the output jack.

Its kind of complicated to picture it, so lets list the components and look at a simplified diagram of a guitar pickup.

Guitar Pickups Single Coil Diagram

Thanks to the guys over at ProAudioLand.com for this awesome expanded view of a single coil pickup's components.

Exactly How the Guitar Pickup Works:

The function of any magnetic pickup is to “pick up” the variations or disturbances in the magnetic flux field generated by the vibrating guitar strings. When this string is plucked, the pickup simultaneously converts these magnetic disturbances into a weak electrical signal that can be sent, and then amplified by a speaker.

The exact science behind it is quite complicated, and there is still a bit of mystery to all the interactions happening within this magnetic flux field.

Guitar Pickups can be grouped into two basic types: Humbuckers vs Single Coil

Single Coil Pickups

Single Coil Guitar Pickup

Double Coil Pickups

how guitar pickups work humbuckers

The differences are quite simple when it comes to Humbuckers vs Single Coil Pups.

Single Coil Pickups consist on just one coil. They produce a thin, airy tone.

Humbucker pickups are just two single coil pickups joined together to cancel the 60 cycle hum produced by single coil pickups. They have a more rounded, full, and bassy tone.

Single Coil Pickups

Single Coil Pickups are the first type of guitar pickup to be invented. They utilize one coil of copper wire wrapped around a magnet and pole pieces. They produce a very bright, crisp, and thin guitar tone.

They sound particularly good for clean and low gain guitar parts. When talking about Humbuckers vs Single Coil, the single coils are always going to be go to choice for a classic vibe, and nostalgiac feel.

Stratocaster_Single_Coil_Pickups
Single Coil Pickups in Fender Stratocaster

Single Coil Pros and Cons:

Pros:

  • Bright, Crisp, Clean Tone

  • More Tonal Character

  • Easy to Install

  • Classic Choice

Cons:

  • Can sound a bit harsh and thin.

  • Noisy (The 60 Cycle Hum) 

  • Not ideal for high gain (distorition) guitar tone.

  • Less pickup combination possiblities than humbuckers.

Humbucker (Double Coil Pickups)

To get really get specific, the humbucking coil was invented in 1934 by Electro-Voice, an American professional audio company. Al Kahn and Lou Burroughs incorporated in 1930 for the purpose of manufacturing portable public address equipment, including microphones and loudspeakers.[1]

However it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the true humbucking pickup was designed. The most credited designers for the humbucker have been Seth Lover and Joseph Butts, two well known names in the industry at Gibson and Gretsch.

Les Paul with Humbucker Pickups
This Les Paul is equipped with Humbucker Pickups.

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Humbucker (Dual Coil) Pickups are the response to need for quieter (hum cancelling) guitar pickups. This is where the battle between humbuckers vs single coil pickups began. They consist of two coils of copper wire wrapped around a magnet and pole pieces. When paired together, these two coils cancel out the hum created by the single coil.

In light of the greater overall discussion of Humbuckers vs Single Coil, the humbuckers will always take the cake in any genre requiring high gain guitar like rock, metal, and punk. Thats because they produce a very strong and thick guitar tone. Lots of low and middle frequencies. They have a bit flatter EQ for clean playing, but really shine when it comes to heavier (high gain) guitar tone. 

guitar pickups humbucker expanded

Double Coil (Humbucker) Guitar Pickup

Thank you to StewMac.com for this amazingly detailed expanded view of humbucker guitar pickup.

Pros:

  • Versatile
  • Thick Bass and Mids, Warm Clean Tone 
  • Noiseless
  • Great for high gain (distortion, fuzz, overdrive)

Cons:

  • Duller Clean Tone
  • Can be harder to cut through a full mix.
  • Twice the size of single coils.
  • Wiring is a bit more complicated.

Where do I stand when having to choose between Humbuckers vs Single Coil? I prefer humbucker guitars myself. I find they are more versatile and can always be modified with push/pull potentiometers to get the single coil sound if need be.

Most electric guitarists have at least one single coil guitar and one humbucking guitar. This ensures they are prepared for a wide range playing styles and genres. 

Active Pickups vs Passive

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there is even more classifying left to do. Active vs Passive Pickups. The difference between the two, in terms of how they work, is quite simple.

Active means powered by a battery. (Usually a 9 volt.)

Passive means no battery power. (Or powered by magnets.)

Passive
Active vs Passive Pickups Seymour Duncan Invader 726488932_1cd15e043a_z
No Battery Needed (Magnet Power)
VS
Active
Active vs Passive Pickups 640px-EMG_85
Battery Powered (9 Volt)

The vast majority of Electric Guitars are equipped with Passive Pickups. They are the standard. Its only a very small minority of guitars that are equipped with some form of Active Pickup (Mostly just Metal Genre Guitars). So, why would you want to have Active Pickups?

 

Active Pickup Pros:

  1. They sound consistently great no matter how junky the guitar is.
  2. They solve a problem that Passive Pickups suffer from. They are super quiet and produce very little noise.
  3. They can handle much longer runs of instrument cable due to their increased signal output.

The metal genre, with it’s high gain amp settings, and brutal distortion pedals can be problematic for Passive Pickup Guitars. Without a dedicated noise gate, standard pups can be noisy and create excessive feedback.

If you’ve ever clicked on a high gain distortion pedal on a cranked amp, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You get a loud hissing, humming sound that will screw up your leads, and be a nuisance to deal with.

Active Pickup Cons:

  1. They require consistent battery power. (Signifigant tone performance drop-off after 10% use.)
  2. Active Pickups sound dynamically flat, cold, and dull. They don’t have the dynamic range of passive pickups.
  3. If you ever want to swap active for passive pickups, you’ll have to replace all of the electronics in the guitar. They use different impedences of potentiometers than passive pickups.

Passive Pickup Pros:

  1. Passive pickups sound warm, natural, and let the tone of guitar’s wood to resonate through in your sound.
  2. They have huge dynamic sound capability. Very sensitive to touch and pick attack.
  3. Passive Pickups perform consistently all day, everyday.

When all is said and done, there’s a good reason why Passive Pickups are the standard for the entire Guitar Industry. They sound better, and they are easier to use. I’ve played in several metal genre bands, and despite having used active pickup guitars, I still prefer passive pickups for metal.

Passive Pickup Cons:

  1. Feedback or line noise in high gain settings can be an issue.

2. No matter how great the quality of pickup, if it’s in a crap guitar then passive pickups won’t cover that up.

Hybrid Pickups: Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker

There is a third option when it comes to active vs passive pickups. The Hybrid Pickup. Its a rare beast combining the very best properties of the two. Technically its still powered by a battery, but it allows you to have the best of both worlds. Some models, like the Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker, even allow switching between active and passive voicings.

Some of the more popular hybrid guitar pickup models are:

  1. Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker Pickups
  2. Seymour Duncan Duality Pickups
  3. Lace Alumitone Deathbucker
  4. EMG X Series Pickups (EMG 81TWX)

Breaking Guitar Pickups Down Even Further:

Guitar Pickup Varieties 2

Now that we have the two major pickup types defined, lets move onto the next means of categorizing them. Manufacturer/Models.

No doubt somebody somewhere will say:

“HEY, you forgot about such and such pickup!”

To which I will say:

“Yes, that is entirely possible considering there are hundreds if not thousands of guitar pickup manufacturers worldwide, and this is not an exhaustive list. Its mearly my best attempt at cobbling together a guide on guitar pickups as I know them.”

Guitar Pickups Varieties

Single Coil Sub-Types

  1. Strat Single Coils
  2. Tele Single Coils
  3. Jazzmaster Single Coils
  4. Lipstick Tubes
  5. P-90 Pickups
  6. Doublestacked Single Coils
  7. Overwound or “Hot” Single Coils
  8. Gold Foil Pickups
  9. Gretsch Dynasonic 

Humbucker Sub-Types

  1. Full Size Humbuckers
  2. Single Coil Sized Humbuckers
  3. Mini-Buckers
  4. Gretsch Filtertrons
  5. Gold Foil Pickups
  6. Double Single Coil Sized Humbuckers
  7. Humbucker Sized P90’s
  8. Extended Range Humbuckers
  9. Hybrid (Passive & Active Blended)
Best Options for a Humbucker Bridge Telecaster?

Now for a topic that is near and dear to my heart. When I mention the words “Humbucker Bridge Telecaster“, what kind of feelings does that evoke? Do you recoil at the thought? Or do you want to keep reading, because you too, love the idea of a humbucker in the bridge of a telecaster?

I hope you love the idea, but I most certainly do. Don’t get me wrong, the classic fender telecaster as invented by the one and only Leo Fender, is a work of art. But I never really fell in love with that snappy single coil in the bridge position. I want my telecaster to be extra versatile, so I never have to set it down for a humbucker equipped guitar. 

You basically have two options when it comes to having a humbucker bridge pickup in a telecaster. 

1. Full Sized Humbucker with a Specially routed body and humbucker cutout bridge.

2. A Telecaster Single Coil Sized Humbucker in a standard ashtray tele bridge.

Unless you specifically buy a humbucker tele, for most guys a single coil sized humbucker is going to be the easier option. I’d like to share with you some of the better Humbuckers I’ve found for the bridge position on a tele. Here goes.

  1. Dimarzio Tone Zone T (Very capable single coil sized humbucker.)
  2. The Wide Range Humbucker by Fender
  3. Seymour Duncan Little ’59
  4. Bare Knuckles
  5. Dimarzio Super Distortion T
  6. Seymour Duncan Hot Rails
  7. Pioneer Pickups Grizzly Humbucker PAF’s
For more info on telecasters check out a few of my more in depth articles here:
  • 1. How Do Guitar Pickups Work?

    The function of any magnetic pickup is to "pick up" the variations or disturbances in the magnetic flux field generated by the vibrating guitar strings.

    When this string is plucked, the pickup simultaneously converts these magnetic disturbances into a weak electrical signal that can be sent, and then amplified by a speaker.

  • 2. Humbuckers vs Single Coil Guitar Pickups, what is the difference?

    The answer is quite simple. 

    Single Coil Pickups consist on just one coil. They produce a thin, airy tone.

    Humbucker pickups are just two single coil pickups joined together to cancel the 60 cycle hum produced by single coil pickups. They produce a more rounded, full, and bassy tone.

  • 3. Active Pickups vs Passive, what is the difference?

    Active vs Passive Pickups. The difference between the two, in terms of how they work, is quite simple.

    Active means powered by a battery. (Usually a 9 volt.)

    Passive means no power. (Or powered by magnets.)

  • 4. Who invented the first Electric Guitar Humbucker Pickups?

    To get really get specific, the humbucking coil was invented in 1934 by Electro-Voice, an American professional audio company. Al Kahn and Lou Burroughs incorporated in 1930 for the purpose of manufacturing portable public address equipment, including microphones and loudspeakers.[1]

    However it wasn't until the 1950's that the true humbucking pickup was designed. The most credited designers for the humbucker have been Seth Lover and Joseph Butts, two well known names in the industry at Gibson and Gretsch.

  • 5. What is a "Guitar Pickup"?

    Learner's Dictionary defines a guitar pickup as follows:

    a device on a musical instrument (such as an electric guitar) that makes sounds louder by changing them into electrical signals.

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