How to Pick Your Pickup
Single coil or humbucker? Find your perfect pickup.
By Nick Stoubis
What makes an electric guitar sound so amazing? Many things, the wood, the neck, the player … but mostly it's the pickups. There are many types of pickups, but we're going to focus on two of the most popular: the single-coil and the humbucker.
What's a Pickup?
A pickup is a magnet that picks up the guitar string’s vibrations. The vibrations are turned into an electric signal that is sent to an amplifier to make the sound of the guitar louder.
How Are They Different?
Single-coil pickups have been around for longer. They are characterized by having a sound that is clearer and with more high frequencies. They are a noisier design and can have an unwanted hum while you are not playing. Although they sound great with distortion, when played without distortion they sound bright and clean.
A humbucker is made up of two single coils that are wired in opposition of one another. They were made in an effort to combat the unwanted hum of a single coil pickup, hence the name humbucker. This wiring changed the sound captured by the pickups, which is characterized as thick sound with more volume. A humbucker also works great with distortion.
Guitars can have different combinations of either single or humbucker pickups. Some might even have both.
If you’re searching for the “right” pickup, you might start by listening to your favorite guitarists and identifying what they used to get the sound they have. For example, Eric Clapton used humbucking pickups for much of the '60s, but single coils ever since the early '70s.
The best way to choose what type of pickup you want is to think about the tone you’d like to have when you play. You may find some guitarists use one, both or even switch.