You are currently viewing Single Coil vs. Humbucker Pickup – Bright or Thick?

Last Updated on March 19, 2024 by Justin Thomas

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Author: Tyler Connaghan

Tyler Connaghan is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Tyler has been playing the guitar since 2007. In between writing for guitar publications, he produces music for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.

Expertise: music industry, producing, acoustic & electric guitars, songwriting

Bachelor of Science in Music Industry Studies, Music Industry

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Editor: Edward Bond

Edward has been playing the guitar since 2002. So Edward has over 20 years of experience as a guitarist, has authored 15 guitar books, has written for renowned music blogs, and spent a decade teaching music. He began merging his passion for writing and music in 2020 and has written for big guitar websites such as Guitar Head Publishing and KillerGuitarRigs.com.

Originally from Seattle, Edward moved to Norway in 2021 for a master’s in music. He’s studied at the Jazz Institute Berlin and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and currently resides in Trondheim. His education includes a European Jazz Master’s, a diploma in Film and Game Scoring from Sofia, and a Bachelor’s in Jazz from University of Oregon.

Edward has played in numerous bands and currently, Edward works on his own project Starship Infinity


From the crispy twang of a vintage Fender Strat to the thick, soulful roar of a Gibson Les Paul, choosing between a single coil and humbucker pickup is a sonic crossroad many guitarists find themselves at.

Each of these pickup types offers a distinct flavor, and you will likely get a different answer from every guitarist as to which one is better.

However, whether you’re getting ready to buy a new guitar or upgrade your current pickups, I want to ensure you know exactly what you’re getting into.

Let’s dive in and explore the ins and outs of each pickup in our humbucker vs. single coil smackdown.


Single Coil and Humbucker Pickups: A Head-to-Head Comparison

Summary (if you’re in a hurry!)

Key Differences Between Single Coil and Humbucker Pickups

Single Coil PickupsHumbucker  Pickups
ToneBright, clear, and crispThick, warm, and chunky
Noise LevelMore susceptible to noise and humLess susceptible to interference
OutputRelatively low outputRelatively high output
ConstructionOne wire coilTwo wire coils
MagnetsUsually six pole magnets (one for each string)Two bar magnets (one per coil)
Sustain LevelTypically shorter sustainTypically longer sustain
ClarityVery articulateSmooth and more rounded
Best UsesBest for blues, country, surf, and clean tonesBest for heavier blues, rock, and metal tones
Common GuitarsStrats and TelesLes Paul-style guitars

When Should You Choose Single Coil Pickups?

  • You’re looking for a brighter, more transparent, and more articulate tone.
  • You don’t mind a bit of background noise.
  • You want a more dynamic playing response.
  • You enjoy playing country, blues, funk, or surf music.

When Should You Choose Humbucker Pickups?

  • You’re looking for a thicker, warmer, and more powerful tone.
  • You don’t want to deal with noise or interference, especially when playing with high-gain amps or pedals.
  • You like playing rock, metal, or jazz.

How Do They Work?

Single Coil Pickups

Single coil pickups are made of a single wire coil wound around six magnetic poles. The first iteration of the single coil came about in the 1930s, thanks to George Beauchamp, who invented it for the Hawaiian-style “Frying Pan” guitar.

image showing the rickenbacker frying pan guitar with the george beauchamp horseshoe single coil pickup
George Beauchamp’s “Horseshoe” pickup on the frying pan guitar

By converting string vibrations into an electrical signal that could be amplified, the need for guitars to have resonant, acoustic bodies was gone. This was a major game-changer, and by the 1950s, they found their way into one of the most iconic single coil electric guitars of all time — the Fender Telecaster.

image showing a very pretty 1952 Fender Telecaster in Blonde with the iconic bridge single coil pickup
Just because it has to be the 1952 Fender Telecaster in Blonde (I love the butterscotch too! Which is more iconic? Answers in the comments below!)

These pickups are often much brighter and clearer than their humbucker counterparts. However, because they act like small antennas and pick up EMI fields, they tend to have a lot of hum.

Humbucker Pickups

The humbucking pickup was invented to solve the bothersome hum that single coil guitar players faced in the 1930s and 1940s. Many historians attribute its invention to Seth Lover, an engineer for the Gibson Guitar Corporation. 

By 1955, Gibson began introducing these humbucking pickups on their flagship guitar models, such as the Gibson Les Paul.

image showing a gibson les paul standard with the traditional dual humbucker pickup arrangement
Humbuckers in their traditional home, the Gibson Les Paul!

So, how do humbuckers remove unwanted hum?

They do so with two adjacent wire coils wound in opposite directions. Because one coil is the opposite polarity of the other, it is “out of phase.” Because they are so close to one another, they cancel out the hum that they would otherwise pick up alone, leaving us with a thicker and warmer tone.

Sound Comparison

Single Coil Tone

Single coil pickups are often known for their brightness, clarity, and articulate high-end. Compared to humbuckers, single coils have a more pronounced attack and a sharper and more immediate response to each pick or pluck.

Because they are so sensitive to dynamics, they’re great for expressive playing styles like funk and blues. Just look at dynamic guitarists like Jeff Beck, a major fan of single coil pickups!

However, while they provide clear articulation, they also have a lower output level than humbuckers. This means they often require more gain to match humbucker output.

Humbucker Tone

On the other hand, humbucker pickups are generally thicker and warmer. The humbucker sound provides plenty of lower midrange with less work. However, you don’t get as much articulation, so people often refer to humbuckers as smooth and round.

One of the nice things about this roundness is that it comes with better sustain, which can be extremely beneficial for lead players. They also have higher output than single coil pickups, making them better for distortion-heavy playing.

Suitable Genres and Versatility

Single coil pickups are highly versatile. You will find them used in various genres, from country to pop to blues. For years, the single coil sound has been a staple for surf rockers and funk guitarists.

Humbuckers are also highly versatile, though we mainly see them in rock and metal genres, thanks to their ability to handle heavily overdriven and distorted tones. With that said, there are few limitations to what you can use a humbucker guitar for, as even jazz guitarists dig their warmer, fatter tones.

Famous Songs Showcasing Single Coil Pickups

  • “Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix: Jimi Hendrix’s famous Strat was equipped with single coil pickups used to create the psychedelic tones in “Purple Haze.”
  • “Sweet Home Alabama” – Lynyrd Skynyrd: Everyone and their mothers know the opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama,” though not many know that that classic twangy tone came from Ed King’s single coil Fender Stratocaster.
  • “Layla” – Derek and the Dominos: The solo in “Layla” is one of Clapton’s most iconic, and that bright, crystal-like tone could have only come from a single coil Fender Strat

Famous Songs Showcasing Humbuckers

  • “Whole Lotta Love” – Led Zeppelin: The iconic riff that sets the foundation throughout “Whole Lotta Love” was played on Jimmy Page’s Gibson Les Paul with humbucker pickups. 
  • “Sweet Child o’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses: Slash might be one of the most famous Les Paul players of all time, and beyond “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” just about every lead guitar tone you hear on a Guns N’ Roses song used humbuckers.
  • “Back in Black” – AC/DC: Angus Young’s legendary riffs on “Back in Black” were played on a Gibson SG with humbuckers, as with most of AC/DC’s signature hard rock songs.

Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickup Tone Comparison

Noise & Interference

Single coil pickups are more susceptible to external electromagnetic interference than their humbucker counterparts. 

Even if you’re not playing with a high-gain amp or overdrive pedals, you can pick up 60-cycle hum from other power sources, such as computer screens and fluorescent lights. This also makes them more prone to feedback, which can be annoying when recording or playing live in quiet environments. 

On the other hand, Humbucker pickups were specifically designed to combat noise and interference. They’re less prone to feedback than single coil pickups, so they’re great for playing with heavy distortion.

The Impact of Electromagnetic Interference on Performance

The one thing to note about EMI or electromagnetic interference is that it can introduce a ton of noise or hum into your guitar signal. There are a few ways to minimize noise, from having proper shielding in the cavities of your guitar to using higher-quality cables. However, there isn’t any way to completely rid yourself of noise with regular single-coil pickups.

Pros and Cons of Noise-Canceling Technologies

Fender’s noise-canceling pickup technology was introduced in the late 90s to reduce the 60-cycle hum. Many people like them for recording and performing in quieter spaces, as they offer much cleaner and quieter signal transmission.

Plus, there’s nothing quite like playing with heavy, gritty distortion without dealing with feedback.

Now, with that said, as a huge Stratocaster fan, I’ve never quite minded the characteristic hum that you get from standard single coil pickups. I love the vintage sonic aesthetic, and in many ways, I feel like these funky artifacts are key to that style.

In my experience, noise reduction technology can make a pickup sound much warmer, removing the presence often associated with the single coil sound.

Types Of Single Coil and Humbucker Pickups

Strat-Style Single Coil Pickups

Strat-style pickups are made from a single coil of wire wrapped around staggered magnetic pole pieces. They’re best known for their chime-like clarity, perfect for when you want to get those crispy, bell-like tones.

As a Strat enthusiast, they’re pretty good for just about any music genre, from blues to rock to country to funk. Beyond that, I’m a huge fan of how expressive these pickups are.

Tele-Style Single Coil Pickups

The main difference between Tele and Strat pickups lies in the bridge.

The Tele bridge pickup is a bit taller and longer than the Strat pickup, meaning it has a shorter coil. That shorter coil supposedly provides a fuller and rounder sound than the Strat pickup.

On the bottom of most Tele pickups, you’ll also find copper or steel-plated baseplates, which many people say is why traditional Teles sound so twangy.

P90s

P90 pickups are in a unique space in the pickup world, as they sit between single coils and humbuckers. While they are single coil pickups, they have wider bobbins and a larger overall size.

They are hybrid pickups and have a higher volume output than single coil pickups and a lower output than humbuckers, offering a balanced middle ground. If you want a thicker or richer sound, these can provide more sonic depth than a single coil pickup. I’m a massive fan of them for punk and alternative rock.

How about P90s vs Humbuckers? What is best for your tone?

Noise-Canceling Single Coil Pickups

Noise-canceling single coil pickups are a recent invention in the big scheme of things. Thanks to their stacked coils, phasing, and reverse winding, they mitigate that unwanted 60-cycle hum commonly associated with traditional single coils.

The cool thing about these pickups is that you get much of the clarity with traditional single coils with slightly more noise than humbuckers.

PAF (Patent Applied For) Humbuckers

PAF humbuckers are an invention of Gibson that came into existence in the 1950s.

They typically come with Alnico 2 or 5 magnets (depending on the year they were made) and are most often associated with that warm, vintage tone reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s blues.

In fact, compared to most modern humbuckers, they have a slightly more open and uncompressed tone. One unique thing about PAFs is that they also lack the wax potting found in contemporary humbuckers, making them more susceptible to external stimuli like scratches and taps on the guitar’s surface. In turn, they generate harmonics more easily.

Rail Humbuckers

Humbuckers employ a single rail rather than a row of six individual pole pieces. One of the significant benefits of rail pickups is that even when the strings are bent, they never leave the entire magnetic field of the pole piece. On a “traditional” pickup, when a string moves between two pole pieces, it can change in tone or drop in volume.

The result of this design is a clean and balanced signal. Guitarists who want clarity and a high output often look to rail humbuckers.

Coil-Splitting Humbuckers

With a coil-split humbucker, both of the leads on your humbucker’s slug are coiled to the ground, canceling out the coil. This essentially turns a humbucker into a single coil pickup, giving you that brighter, crisper tone that single coils are known for.


Single Coil vs. Humbucker – Pros and Cons

Single Coil Pickup Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Tonally, single coil pickups are brighter and more transparent, perfect for chimey clean tones.Their design makes them susceptible to electromagnetic interference, so they produce a fair amount of 60-cycle hum.
They are very dynamic in the way they respond to the player.Compared to humbuckers, the single coil pickup output is generally lower.
Ideal for a wide range of genres and playing styles.Relatively little sustain.

Humbucker Pickup Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Made to cancel out 60-cycle hum and other unwanted interference.Not as much clarity as single coil pickups. 
High-output design is excellent for heavier genres like rock and metal.Not as responsive to the dynamics of the player.
Better sustain than single coil pickups.
Warm, fat tone.

How Do I Choose The Right Pickup For Me?

Ultimately, your pickup type depends entirely on your playing style and preferences. 

If you like playing heavier styles of music or like warm and fat tones, consider going with a humbucker. On the other hand, if you want clarity and responsiveness (and don’t mind a little bit of noise), go for a single coil pickup guitar. Single coil players looking for that bite can get an axe with Fender’s Noiseless pickups; they buck 60-cycle hum like a humbucker.

Suppose you really like to straddle between genres and tones. In that case, you can get a guitar with an HSH (Humbucker – Single – Humbucker) or HSS (Humbucker – Single – Single) pickup configuration, providing the best of both worlds.


Active vs. Passive Pickups

Another thing you should consider when looking for pickups is whether you want active or passive pickups. Passive pickups use two essential elements — wound copper wire and a magnet. These read the strings’ vibrations as current, which travels to your amp. 

Active pickups work similarly, though they rely on battery power. One of the benefits of active pickups is that they provide a much more powerful and consistent tone than their passive counterparts. 

If you’re on a budget and looking for a more expressive or dynamic pickup and are okay with a slightly lower output, a passive pickup should be more than suitable. On the other hand, if you have a bit more money to spend and want a cleaner, more consistent pickup that can handle high-gain distortion better, get yourself a guitar with active pickups.

Just note that if the battery runs out on your pickups, they won’t work until you change them. It can be a little disconcerting when you try to amplify your guitar, and no sound comes out!

Active vs Passive Pickups! – Can You Hear The Difference?

Coil Splits And Coil Taps

Though many guitarists use the terms coil-splitting and coil-tapping interchangeably, they are entirely different. 

When we talk about coil splitting, we’re talking about humbuckers that use opposite polarity magnets and coils, effectively canceling out hum. When you split or break the connection between these coils, allowing only one to remain functional, you essentially end up with a single coil pickup.

Coil tapping, on the other hand, refers to single coil pickups. In this process, you take the signal from another place within the coil other than the end, which reduces the pickup output. In essence, a coil tap might give you the sound of a vintage single coil pickup.

Coil Tap vs Coil Split: What’s The Difference? – Too Afraid To Ask

Replacing Pickups On Your Guitar

If you have a guitar that you love, yet you want to experiment with its tonal possibilities, you might consider swapping or modding your pickups. It’s a neat way to fine-tune your guitar to match your preferred style better. 

For example, I have two Telecasters, one standard and one Thinline. I wanted my Thinline to have a less twangy tone, so I ordered some Wilde Microcoil Alnico pickups from one of my favorite pickup manufacturers, Bill Lawrence.

After swapping out the single coil neck pickup, I was left with a cleaner, glassier tone, perfect whenever I needed a pure sound. 

Of course, there are other reasons you might swap out your pickups, too. You might want to eliminate the noise you get from single coil pickups, upgrade low-quality stock pickups that came with your guitar, or change the aesthetics of your guitar. 

Though some pickups can be expensive, modding is a much more cost-effective way to improve your guitar’s performance and tone than buying a new one. Just note that not all pickups will be compatible with all guitars, and some might require unique mounting changes, pickup height changes, or cavity mods. 


Conclusion

Pickups are one the most essential elements of your electric guitar. The best way to get an ear for the difference between single coil and humbucker pickups is by trying them out on different guitars to get acquainted with their tonal differences. 

Also, just because these are often associated with different styles of music does not mean you can’t experiment. There’s no reason you can’t send a single coil Fender Strat through a dimed fuzz pedal for a heavy rock tone or get surfy with the bridge pickup on a standard Les Paul.

The possibilities with these pickups are endless, and I highly recommend filling your arsenal with both!

Also, check out our article, “Should I Take the Plastic Off My Pickups?” to see how something as simple as a small piece of plastic could affect how your pickups sound.


FAQs

Which Is Better, Humbucker Or Single Coil Pickup?

The answer here depends completely on your playing style and preferences. However, humbuckers are typically best for heavy hard rock tones and noiseless playing, while for cleaner, more expressive playing styles, single coils are better.

Are Humbuckers More Versatile Than Single Coils?

Because both pickups have unique characteristics, I’d say neither is more versatile than the other. 

What Genre Are Humbuckers Good For?

Humbucker pickups are great for heavy rock and metal when played through high-gain amps and pedals, though they are just as great for warm, rounded jazz tones.

What Genres Are Single Coil Pickups Good For?

Single coil pickups are often used in country, surf rock, funk, and blues.

Are Single Coils Or Humbuckers Better For Blues?

I prefer single coil pickups for blues, as they are more expressive than humbuckers.

Can You Play Metal With Single Coil Pickups?

You can certainly play metal with single coil pickups, though you’ll get quite a bit of noise with high-gain tones and a bit less output than humbuckers.

Can A Humbucker Be Used As A Single Coil?

If you split a humbucker, it can be used as a single coil pickup.

Can I Put Humbuckers On A Strat?

Absolutely! In fact, there are many Strat variations with humbuckers and single coil pickups.

How Do I Deal With The Hum Or Noise In Single Coil Pickups?

Beyond using a noise gate, the only permanent solution to dealing with single coil pickup noise is changing to hum-canceling single coil pickups or shielding the electronics with shielding paint or copper foil.

Tyler Connaghan

Tyler Connaghan is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Tyler has been playing the guitar since 2007. In between writing for guitar publications, he produces music for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster. You can connect with Tyler on LinkedIn or just email him.
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