The single-coil vs. humbucker pickup debate is about as old as the pickups themselves. Single-coil pickups, most commonly associated with Fender guitars such as the Telecaster and Stratocaster, are known for having bright and twangy tone. Humbucking pickups, most commonly associated with Gibson guitars such as the Les Paul and SG, have a warm, sometimes jazzy tone that are distinctly hard rock when driven. For players who tend to prefer the bright and articulate top end of a single-coil pickup, humbucking pickups are often perceived as being muddy, lifeless, and unable to cut through a band mix. If you have a humbucker-equipped guitar that is leaving you uninspired, try one of the following options to brighten your tone.
Change Your Tone Pots
The first, most practical, and cheapest option would be to change your guitar’s tone potentiometers (“pots”). If your guitar’s tone pots are valued at 250k, which is highly likely being that they are the most commonly-used pots, trying a higher value, such as 500k or even 1meg, will accentuate the top end and overall brightness of your guitar. Pots should not cost you more than $10 per, and the soldering work necessary can be done by a beginner, provided that you have a micro-tip soldering iron and a proper wiring diagram for your guitar’s model, which can easily be found online.
Alnico II vs. Alnico V
The vast majority of stock humbuckers, especially Patent Applied For (“PAF”)-style pickups, are loaded with Alnico (aluminum, nickel, cobalt) II magnets. These magnets deliver a warm tone which some critics classify as muddy or dull. Some specialty humbuckers, such as Seymour Duncan 59’s, are loaded with Alnico V magnets, which maintain a considerably brighter tone. A5 humbuckers will have a brighter top end while still maintaining the beefiness and growl that humbuckers are so popular for. This is a good place to start with your A2 bucker is leaving you uninspired, but you still desire the power of a humbucker. Fender decided to utilize the Seymour Duncan 59 in their Albert Collins signature model, which guitar expert Greg Koch of Wildwood Guitars “thought was wired out of phase” due to its brightness.
Humbucker-sized Single-coil Pickups
One of the cleanest and most popular modifications for humbucker-equipped guitars is to change the pickups to a single-coil pickup in a humbucker casing. In this golden era of boutique and even mass-produced specialty pickups, options are nearly limitless. A good starting point, however, would be the Seymour Duncan Phat Cat. The Phat Cat is a P90 single coil in a humbucker casing, available in chrome and gold, and is a great replacement pickup that should fit your hardware’s color scheme. Other options include Lindy Fralin’s Big Single and Jason Lollar’s Novel-T bridge pickup, if money is no object to you. But if you are on more of a budget, try out the cost effective but highly reviewed GFS Mean 90 and Dream 90. If you are trying to get the sound of Jack White’s famous red Airline guitar, replica pickups are manufactured by Eastwood Guitars at the present, and are single-coil pickups in a humbucker casing, just like White’s original model.
M Laval, among other manufacturers, including the ubiquitous Guitar Fetish, produce humbucker-sized pickup rings that are cut to accommodate Strat and Tele sized pickups. This is a good option if you already have a certain set of pickups that you enjoy and would like to use on your humbucker-equipped guitar. While the discretion of a humbucker-sized single coil pickup is clean and convincing, there is also something entertaining about using these adapters to outfit a Les Paul with Strat Pickups, which will certainly turn heads.
This technology exists to have tone potentiometers that have push/pull functionality to dial in just one coil of a dual-coil humbucker that has four conductor wire. This allows you to have the girth and power of a humbucker and the sparkly clean twang of a single-coil at the pull of a knob — with seamless humbucker aesthetic.
With all of the options that are presented to the modern guitar player, there is no reason why you should settle for pickups that don’t inspire you. Having a humbucker equipped guitar leaves you with many physical and aesthetic opportunities to upgrade your tone to something that may better suit you. If you have been pining for that Gibson SG or Les Paul for their timeless look and feel but without the muddy humbucker tone, use one of the tips above to have the best of both worlds. All of these modifications can be done in-house at Martel Music. Bring your guitar in today!
Author: David Elliott, writing for Martel Music