Single coil vs humbuckers

The biggest factor in purchasing a guitar is often the way it sounds.  The two most common types of pickups are humbucking pickups, called humbuckers, and single-coils. Single-coil pickups came first.

Humbuckers were developed in the 1950s to address the buzzing that was typical of single-coil pickups. Single-coils are, essentially, magnets — magnets with wire that wraps around a series of single poles or one single bar, and they have a tendency to collect all kinds of electromagnetic interference from stomp boxes, bad stage wiring, lights, etc. Generally, the louder a guitar with single coil pickups is turned up, the louder these buzzing noises become. That was especially true with the single-coil pickups prevalent into the ’50s.

Humbuckers were designed to correct this by using two coils wired out of phase with opposing magnetic polarity making it in phase and canceling the hum.


Of course, these different pickup configurations produce different sounds. Adjectives typically used to describe single-coil pickup guitars tones are “biting,” “snarling” and “bright.” Humbuckers are usually perceived as “warm,” “dark” and “heavy.” In general, humbuckers have a burlier distortion palette as well.

These days the roles pickups play in defining tone aren’t so clearly defined. Some pickups are wound hotter than others to produce a gnarlier, more slamming signal. Some get a boost from 9-volt powered preamps. Some can function in either single-coil or humbucking mode via coil splitting. And the variations go one from there. All of this is worth considering when purchasing a guitar or thinking about replacing pickups to improve tone.


Let’s look at some specific pickups in today’s market and examine how they work and what they sound like


Currently the P-90 still rules the roost for single-coil pickups made by Gibson. There are three models available. The classic model is the so-called Soap Bar pickup, named for its distinctive round-cornered rectangular shape. Warm and yet cutting with a rich midrange, it is equipped with an Alnico V magnet and has a responsive tone that’s great for rock, jazz or country.


The P-94 pickup was designed as a replacement pickup for humbuckers. It puts the brighter, more sizzling tonal qualities of the Soap Bar in a humbucker–sized body cavity without routing. Better yet, the P-94 comes in two flavors: the P-94R and the P-94T. The neck-pickup P-94R has reverse polarity. When it’s used as a replacement in, for example, a double-humbucker designed Les Paul or ES-335 with a P-94T in the bridge, both pickups in conjunction have a hum canceling effect. The result is buttery P-90 tones sans unwanted noise.

Gibson offers a wider variety of humbucking pickups, which the company began manufacturing in 1955 with the introduction of the classic PAF. The PAF defined the sound of the historic Gibson Les Paul Sunbursts of the late ’50s and a host of other classic guitars. In addition to the PAF, the other pure vintage sounding pickup in the Gibson catalog is the ’57 Classic. These are equipped with Alnico II magnets and are made to the exact specs as the originals, without the inconsistencies that came with the less sophisticated wire winding machinery of the day. If you’re looking for the kind of epic tones created by a wide berth of Les Paul players from Jimmy Page to Jeff Beck to Charlie Daniels to Toy Caldwell, these are the real deal.


The Modern Classic line is edgier, recreating the hotter, more aggressive sound that players demanding during the late 1960s, when volume and distortion were highly prized among rockers. The Modern Classic neck and bridge pickups function as either humbuckers or single-coils in guitars equipped with push-pull knobs for coil splitting. And there’s also a ’57 Classic with coil-splitting abilities.


So that should do for now.


See you all soon

London guitar school

London guitar school

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