Guitar Pickups 101 Series: Part 3

We continue our Guitar Pickups 101 Series with Part 3 on pickup location and the humbucker vs. single coil discussion. Make sure you start at the beginning and read Part 1 on pickup basics, and Part 2 which explains pickup output.

Why Two of the Same Pickups Can Sound Different

The location of a pickup can have a dramatic difference in the sound that it puts out, and this is due to its location relative to the length of the guitar strings. In fact, the pickups themselves may be exactly the same, magnets, wires and all. Simply the location of the pickup will make it sound so much different.

You can demonstrate this effect clearly if you strum your guitar strings at different points along their length. When you strum near the fretboard you get a warmer, fuzzier sound, versus when you strum near the bridge of your guitar, you will hear a much higher, tinnier sound.

Suhr covered humbucker

Seymour Duncan rails single coil

Standard single coil pickup

Single Coil Pickups Versus Double Coil and Humbuckers

Single Coil Pickups are standard on classic Stratocasters and Telecasters. These pickups produced the classic sounds of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and David Gilmour. Single coil pickups tend to be a bit noisy, as they can make an electrical humming noise.

Single coil pickups were all that existed until 1955. In 1955, an engineer at Gibson named Seth Lover discovered that you could wire a double coil pick-up in a way that would cancel out the electric hum, or “buck” the hum. By doing this he invented the hum-bucking pickup, or “humbucker”.

These pickups when originally installed in Gibson guitars, they had a “P.A.F.” sticker on them to indicate “Patent Applied For”. Some guitarists still seek out the classic sound of those original PAF pickups.

Almost all double-coil pickups are humbuckers, though there are some pickups on the market that give you the option of turning off the humbucking function.

SRV played exclusively single coils

So Do I Want Single Coils or Humbuckers? Which Is Better?

There really is no better or worse when it comes to pickups, because it is all about the sound that you want out of your guitar. There are certain characteristics that each type of pickup has. Single-coils tend to produce a brighter, crisper sound, while Humbuckers tend to be a heavier, muddier sound. Your preference for pickups probably will be shaped by the type of music you like to play, to listen to, and what artists’ sounds you are trying to emulate.

One way to judge is to look at the types of guitars that artists are playing. Most Fender Strats and Teles come equipped with Single-coil pickups. This is not always the case, but is true most of the time. The same can be said for Gibson guitars being equipped with humbuckers.

Check out some well-known players of each type of pickups and decide which is more appealing to you.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's installment, part 4 of our Pickups 101 Series.

Be sure to check out Part 1 and 2 of ProAudioLand’s Guitar Pickups 101 Series:

Guitar Pickups 101: Part 1

Guitar Pickups 101: Part 2