What is the difference between a humbucker and single coil Electric Guitar Pickup

Author: Ian-Bush  Date Posted:20 January 2012 

So what is the difference between a Humbucker and a Single Coil?

How did pickup design all start?

The first commercial pickup design went into mass production in 1932 by the company that would end up becoming Rickenbacker Guitars. Many people had experimented with pickup design, Les Paul (the inventor of the famous Les Paul Gibson guitars) had experimented with microphones but nothing had achieved mass production status until Rickenbacker.

Guitar pickups were designed as the Big Band era came into life; orchestras were becoming bigger and soon it became too difficult to hear the guitar amongst the rest of the band. Little did they know how it would turn out years later, with the birth of rock and roll and all that came with it!

Humbuckers were invented in 1934 by Electro Voice (a company that these days make speakers), but it wasn't until 1955 that they were used in a guitar by Gibson.

Enough of the history - What is the difference between a single coil and a humbucker?

The first pick-up designs were single coils. Basically, these are magnets and pole pieces wrapped with lots of wire. People have experimented with changing the magnets, altering pole piece size and amount of wire windings over the years in order to get different sounds, and with great success! But, these pickups have one big disadvantage. When used with a high gain amp or a distortion pedal they can get really noisy. The noise comes from the fact that the pickup will find any magnetic or electrical source nearby and try and amplify it, resulting in what is called 60-cycle hum.

A humbucker pickup uses 2 pickups (basically 2 single coil pick-ups) and puts them back to front. This combination effectively cancels out the noise signal. A side effect of this design is that it gives significantly more output,  which drives amps harder and would lead to a more distorted sound than single coils would give. In these early years this it was a side effect that was actually considered a design flaw, as the focus was on clean guitar signal. These days, there are many different types of Humbucker and Single Coil, with different output levels and features to suit different genres, but the technology remains largely the same.

Single Coil Single Coil

This is a single coil Wilkinson pickup; we use these on our ST and TC Range of guitars


This is a humbucker Wilkinson pickup; we use these on our LP and SG Range of guitars. Some humbuckers have chrome covers on them that make them look like a big single coil pickup.

Comments (1)

humbucker vs single coil

By: Anonymous on 23 January 2012
nice clear explanation with a bit of history thrown in.

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