A guitar’s pickups and electronics have a huge influence on its basic tone, as well as what it will sound like through effects—so it’s important to choose the right pickup for the right job. Most people feel single-coil pickups have a brighter, thinner sound while humbuckers sound warmer and thicker, but there’s more to the story than that.
Several of Gibson’s 2014 model year guitars—Les Paul Futura, Les Paul Classic, Les Paul Signature, SG Futura, and SG Standard—feature a coil split switch that lets you choose either a single coil or humbucker sound. Great—but how do you know which one to choose? (Note that other models include a coil tap feature, which we’ll cover in a future article.)
So, let’s look at how to get the most out of humbuckers and single-coil pickups. For basic information on pickups, there’s an informative tutorial on the Gibson.com site.
Humbucker vs. Single-Coil Sounds
You don’t necessarily need single-coil pickups to obtain single-coil sounds—Coil Split converts a humbucker into a single coil pickup by switching out one of the humbucker’s two coils. However, you can’t do the reverse and convert a single-coil pickup into a humbucker. Gibson guitars typically use a push switch located on the volume controls (push to change modes; knob “up” is the split position) to make selecting each sound as easy as possible.
Let’s compare single-coil to humbucker sounds by starting with the Futura’s neck pickup.
Neck pickup response
The purple line is the single-coil response of playing all open strings, while the green shows the humbucker. The single-coil has less bass, but starting around 2kHz, the high-frequency response is the same as the humbucker. The reduced bass gives a thinner, brighter overall sound.
Next, here’s the bridge pickup, where the high-frequency boost is more dramatic.
Bridge pickup response
Again, the purple line is the single-coil response. You can see less low-frequency response, and a relatively flat response up to about 3kHz—but above that frequency, there’s a considerable high-frequency boost. The increased highs extend over a wider range than for the neck pickup.
So much for theory—here are applications for humbuckers and single-coil pickups. Of course tone is subjective, but these ideas will help get you started.
Glassy, chorused sounds. A single-coil sound is well-suited to clean, glassy sounds, particularly if you want to add a chorus to it—the brighter sound gives the chorus more signal to process in the range where the ear is more sensitive.
Rich power chords. Humbuckers excel for these “big” sounds—there’s a reason why the “Les-Paul-with-Marshall-stack” sound has become an iconic part of rock music. This carries over to amp sims as well. The humbucker’s warmer sound complements distortion well, as the high end doesn’t become harsh. Humbuckers also sound good with emulations of naturally bright amps (e.g., Orange), as the overall sound becomes richer.
Humbuckers work well with Marshall and Orange amps—in both the “real” and virtual worlds (this screen shot is from Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig).
“Chimey” sounds. Vox amps are famous for their characteristic “chimey” sound, and a single-coil sound will accent that bright, “pop” vibe. Generally, a single-coil sound coupled with a relatively clean amp is the ideal path to chimey sounds.
Modern scooped/nu metal. Humbuckers are a good choice here, as their warm sound works well with the heavy amounts of distortion these amps provide. Scooped amps also tend to make humbuckers sound brighter than normal, but make single coil pickups sound really bright and sometimes, harsh.
Moderate distortion. Moderate distortion allows the pickup’s inherent characteristics to come through, so this is an “equal opportunity” sound. Humbuckers will sound meaty, while single coils will sound raw yet defined. The choice here really depends on what kind of effect you want, as both pickup types are valid.
Clean sounds. This allows each pickup type to “speak” in its natural voice—warmer for humbuckers, brighter for single-coil types.
Because Gibson has made it so easy to choose between humbucker and single-coil sounds on many of their guitars, there’s no reason not to experiment with both options. But hopefully, the above has given some useful guidelines to get you started.