Electric Guitar Pickups - Single coil, Humbucker... Explained!

Posted: 10 May 2013

Synopsis: Whats the difference between a P-90 pickup and a Single coil pickup? Find the answer in our new article about guitar pick ups. Find out also what the great Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Slash used in there guitars and get experimenting.

Electric Guitar Pickups

When it comes to electric guitar pickups, you have two different types to choose from:

  • Single-coil
  • Humbucker, or double-coil

But which of these is best suited for your unique playing style? We'll take a look at the differences here and also offer some examples of the types of pickups favoured by some of the world's greatest guitar players.
Previously, we discussed piezo pickups, which are found in many acoustic instruments. All pickups for electric guitars, however, are magnetic pickups, so that's what we'll be looking at here.

Single-Coil Pickups

All magnetic pickups consist of a coil of wire that is wrapped around a bobbin thousands of times. As the name indicates, single-coil pickups consist of one of these structures, while a humbucker has two combined together.
The single-coil pickup was the first magnetic pickup, and is probably most commonly known for its use in Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars. These pickups are extremely bright and offer great note definition, though they can be prone to hum and other noise caused by magnetic interference from other sources. In fact, it was that hum that led to the creation (and naming) of the humbucker pickup.


Caption: Two single-coil pickups on a Fender Telecaster

Humbucker (Double-Coil) Pickups

A humbucker consists of two single-coil pickups arranged together with their magnetic poles facing opposite directions and their wiring out of phase. This eliminates the hum of single-coil pickups and also created a warmer and louder tone.
Humbuckers were created by a Gibson engineer in 1955, and became associated with the company when used in numerous models including the Les Paul and the ES-335.


Caption: A humbucker pickup

P-90 pickups and Hybrid Guitars

Another pickup name you hear thrown around a lot is the P-90. The pickup was developed by Gibson and was the primary pickup used by the company from the mid-1940s until the humbucker was invented. The pickup is a single-coil pickup, however it's larger and more complex structure give it a warmer sound, falling somewhere in between the crisp tone of the smaller single-coils and the warmer sounds of humbuckers.

Many guitars today employ both kinds of pickups to allow for a more varied sound. Some humbucker pickups can even be switched to become a single-coil pickup.

Caption: Two P-90 pickups

So who uses which pickups?

Jimi Hendrix – Single Coil
Since Hendrix used Strats almost exclusively throughout his solo career, his sound is largely defined by single-coil pickups.

Slash – Humbuckers
On the other hand, Slash, with his predilection for Gibson Les Paul's, largely defined Guns N' Roses' guitar sound with humbuckers.

Jimmy Page – Single-Coil and Humbuckers
Though Page was rarely seen at Led Zeppelin shows with a Les Paul or SG equipped with humbucker pickups, it is reported that he often used Fender Telecasters and Danelectro guitars in the studio. Both of those models use single-coil pickups.

By Tom Graham

Caption: A Fender Telecaster with two single-coil pickups (top two) and one humbucker pickup (bottom) – the toggle switches in the bottom right turn the pickups off and on.