Fender changed the world when it mass-produced the Telecaster in the 1950s. But the first electric guitars only used single coil pickups. While these guitars had a distinctively bright and twangy tone, the pickups occasionally picked up unwanted “humming” feedback. Thus, the famous humbucker was introduced on the 1958 Gibson Les Paul. Humbucker pickups allowed guitarists to choose between single-coil or dual-coil pickups, both of which had distinctive sounds.
In this article, I will explain humbucker pickups, how they work, and what type of guitars you will find them on.
What is a pickup?
A pickup is the part of a guitar that “picks up” the organic signal of an electric guitar and transfers it to the amp. Pickups are made out of magnets with wire wrapped around them, and they sit between the bridge and the neck of a guitar underneath the strings. Guitar pickups are either single-coil (one magnet with a wire) or dual-coil (2 pickups with a wire in opposite polarities). A dual-coil pickup is also known as a humbucker.
What are humbucker pickups? And how do they work?
Let’s go back to the beginning of electric guitars to fully understand why humbuckers were created. Prior to the invention of humbuckers, guitar pickups were primarily single-coil pickups, which were known to produce a bright and twangy tone. However, due to their lack of shielding, single coil pickups also generated a significant amount of unwanted hum and electrical noise, especially in live performance situations where the stage is awash with interference.
Humbucker pickups were invented in the 1950s by Seth Lover, a designer at the Gibson guitar company. Lover’s solution was to create a pickup that used two coils of wire, wired in opposite directions and placed together in close proximity. This design effectively canceled out the hum and noise, producing a warmer and smoother tone. The term “humbucker” refers to the pickup’s ability to “buck” or cancel out the “hum”.
Humbuckers quickly became popular among guitar players, and they remain a staple of electric guitar design to this day. They are commonly used in various genres of music, from rock and blues to jazz and heavy metal.
The “hum” of single coil pickups gets louder and more intense the more the gain of a guitar amp is turned up. So, humbuckers are pretty necessary for hard rock, heavy metal, and other genres that use a lot of distortion.
How do humbucker pickups differ from single-coil pickups?
Humbucker pickups and single-coil pickups differ in their construction and sound characteristics.
- Humbuckers have two coils of wire that are wound in opposite directions and placed together. This configuration cancels out unwanted hum and noise, producing a quieter and smoother sound.
- Single-coil pickups have a single coil of wire wound in a specific pattern. This design produces a bright, twangy, and distinctive tone but also generates a significant amount of hum and noise.
- Humbuckers tend to produce a warmer and thicker tone with more mid-range and less treble compared to single-coil pickups. This makes them well-suited for genres like blues, jazz, and classic rock.
- Single-coil pickups tend to produce a brighter and more articulate tone with more emphasis on treble and less mid-range. This makes them well-suited for genres like country, surf, and pop.
The choice between humbucker and single-coil pickups depends on the desired sound and playing style. Both have their unique advantages and disadvantages, and many guitar players use a combination of both to achieve their ideal tone.
Pros and cons of humbucker pickups
While it ultimately comes down to your music style, let’s look at some pros and cons of using humbucker pickups.
- Warm tone: Instead of the characteristically bright tone that comes to mind when you play a single-coil pickup guitar, humbuckers give your guitar a warmer, thicker tone that is perfect for genres like class rock and blues.
- Quieter sound: Thanks to the humbucker “bucking” the unwanted “hum” of the electric guitar, it is ideal for live performances where there is a lot of potential interference.
- Increased sustain: The dual-coil design increases sustain, making notes ring out longer.
- Less definition: The warmer and thicker tone of humbuckers can sometimes lack definition, making it harder to distinguish between individual notes in fast and complex playing.
- Less brightness: Compared to single-coil pickups, humbuckers tend to produce less brightness and articulation, which may not be ideal for genres like country, surf, and pop.
- Increased size: Humbuckers are physically larger than single-coil pickups, which can affect the balance of the guitar and limit their placement options.
Types of guitars with humbuckers
On the lookout for a guitar with a humbucker? These guitars are quite popular, so you’re definitely spoilt for choice. But for the most part, guitars with humbuckers can be divided into two types: solid-body guitars and semi-hollow and hollow-body guitars.
Humbuckers are a staple of solid-body electric guitars, particularly those designed for rock, blues, and heavy metal.
As we discussed earlier, Gibson developed the first humbuckers. So, most Gibson guitars use dual coil humbuckers, including Gibson Les Pauls, Gibson SGs, Flying V, and more.
Fender does not classically use humbucker pickups as often, but they are installed on heavy metal or hard rock versions of classic Fender designs like the:
Semi-hollow and hollow-body guitars
Some semi-hollow and hollow-body guitars also use humbuckers to balance the natural resonance of the hollow body with a stronger and clearer output signal.
Major semi-hollow and hollow-body guitar producers that use Humbucker pickups are Gretsch, Epiphone, and Guild. They produce guitars like:
Humbucker pickups are even used in some bass guitars to provide a full and powerful bass tone. Here are some of the best bass guitars with humbucker pickups:
Humbuckers are a versatile pickup option that can be found in many different types of electric guitars, ranging from entry-level models to high-end instruments. The choice between humbuckers and other pickup types depends on the desired sound and playing style.
Any other questions about your guitar or music in general? Feel free to reach out to me, I am always happy to help.