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Own the Tone: Choosing the Right Humbucking and Single-Coil Pickups

Ted Drozdowski
|
08.11.2014

The biggest factor in purchasing a guitar is often the way it sounds. And when it’s an electric guitar, the most important component of that sonic allure is the pickups — the magnetic devices that are mounted in the guitar’s face beneath the strings. They turn the vibrations of those strings into electrical impulses that ultimately make awesome tones pop out of an amp’s speaker cones.

The two common types of pickups are humbucking pickups, called humbuckers, and single-coils. Single-coil pickups came first. Their purpose was to make the guitar simpatico with the volume level of small combos and big bands. Their history predates rock ‘n’ roll by about three decades, although the snarl and bite of single coils has made them an essential part of rock’s landscape since the music’ beginning.

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.

Ceramics

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.

Gibson has been an innovator in pickup design nearly since the beginning, hefting the torch lit by Beauchamp in the 1930s, when Beauchamp pickups were initially used to fire up early electric lap steel guitars. Gibson designed its own “bar” pickup on the heels of Beauchamp just in time for the jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christian to pick up a Gibson ES-150 outfitted with one and play it into history. Gibson then improved on that design in 1946 with the introduction of the P-90, which fell into the hands of such guitar greats as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Pete Townshend, Leslie West and other giants of tone as the rock era arrived and flourished.

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 Gibson catalog 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.

57 Classics

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.

Dirty Fingers

The quest for sonic fire has produced increasingly hotter pickups with more output as the years have rolled on. Gibson’s pickups cover all the evolutionary stages of that quest, with the Super Ceramic, Hot Ceramic and Hot Alnico pickup series generating the kinds of tones that became prevalent in the ’70s through the ’80s, stylistically bridging the eras of punk rock and Guns N’ Roses metal. There are also Mini-Humbuckers, which recreate the classic voicings of great guitars like the Gibson Firebird and Les Paul Deluxe, and the Dirty Fingers line, which are ceramic magnet based and specifically go for ’70s crunch.

BurstBucker

Gibson’s two popular signature model pickups are designed to recreate the sonic thumbprints of AC/DC’s Angus Young and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. There are also the popular Burstbucker and Burstbucker Pro lines. These come in a wide variety, offering different magnets and other functions like coil splitting, but every BurstBucker provide a hotter variation on the original PAFs. Gibson’s entire line of pickups can be viewed in the “Pickups and Electronics ” pages of the company’s online catalog.

And several new pickups are coming next year. The P-90SR and P-90ST, have Alnico V rod magnets as originally used in the ES-125 model between 1946 and 1950 and are designed for the neck and bridge positions, respectively. They are created for balanced output and a cleaner, articulate voice, and provide hum canceling when used together.

Another new arrival is the Sidewinder P-90H, which debuts in the Les Paul and SG Futuras. It’s a hum-canceling P-90 based on historic Gibson technology previously used on the EBO and Grabber models. The pickups’ two side-by-side coils are rotated 90-degrees to create a center-point humbucker in P-90 form. It can also be coil-split for more cut and shimmer.

The 1959 Humbucker is currently featured in the Les Paul Traditional 2014 model, boasting Alnico II magnets, chrome covers and historically “unmatched” bobbin windings for a vintage humbucker tone with enhanced highs. The unbalanced windings are similar to those in the Burstbucker line, except their coil offset is reversed to provide balance between the coils.

And the fourth new arrival is the 1961 Humbucker, which uses Alnico V magnets and is current in the Les Paul Junior 2014, the LPM, the SG 2014, the SGM and the 2014 Les Paul Peace. They come in an exposed zebra (black and white) configuration, save for the Peace model, which has chrome pickup covers. The 1961 Humbuckers also have a reversed coil offset to provide balance between coils while preserving a vintage humbucker voice.

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