Single Coil vs P90 vs Humbucker Pickups

An age-old guitarists’ question. There are three popular types of pickups, but which combination would suit you best? We’ll explore what sets each apart and why this should be the biggest factor when buying a new guitar.

Cian Hodge

Cian Hodge

Pickups are the single most important factor in producing the sound and tone of a guitar. There are three core types of pickups: single coil, P-90 and humbuckers. But the variation doesn’t end there. Pickups can be made in a number of ways to create different levels of frequencies and textures.

Obviously, there is no one best pickup – everyone has their own preference and musical context they feel a pickup is best used. Each of the main three pickup designs do lend their tones to certain musical genres, but there’s nothing to stop you from taking on your own creative journey. Here are the big three types of pickups explained…

Single Coil Pickups

Leo Fender was the first guitar builder to equip a solid body guitar with single coil pickups. These set the standard for what a guitar should sound like – and even look like. Over 60 years on, single coil pickups remain largely the same design. They’re made using a magnetic pole wrapped in wire that ‘picks up’ frequencies and subsequently sends them into an amp. Single coils have a distinct twangy, glassy tone. They sound crisp and bright, with less of an emphasis on midrange frequencies. Many pickup designers might describe their sound as full and broad.

single coil pickups

Because they only consist of the one pole piece, they have a lower headroom than their humbucker counterparts. This means they have an overall smaller output but detect more interference and are acutely responsive to how you pick the strings. They can get quite noisy when you crank your amp or add substantial amounts of gain, so it’s a bit of a balancing act to get a great sound when playing at high volumes. Modern “hum-cancelling” designs from the likes of Fender go some way to eliminate any unwanted feedback.

Famous players like Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler and John Mayer developed their distinct tones with the use of single coils. Most single coil guitars are attributed to rock, indie, folk and blues music. But you can still get excellent hard rock and metal tones with a bit of tweaking.

Popular Single Coil Pickups

Humbucker pickups

Humbucker Pickups

While single coils are largely associated with Fender, humbucker pickups are synonymous with long-term rival company Gibson. There is, of course, plenty of crossover as many guitars utilise a combination of both. But the larger bodies of Les Pauls are perfect for housing humbuckers, which are twice as wide as single coils due to their two magnetic bobbins.

A humbucker’s pole pieces are wired out of phase with one another in order to cancel out hum and sound smoother. They offer more focus on midrange frequencies and are characterised by a thick, warm tone. A lot of blues, jazz, rock and metal players favour humbuckers because they handle gain and distortion with less interference than single coils. Some would, however, argue they have less dynamism or character to their tonal range. Guitarists such as Slash, Angus Young and Kirk Hammett are well known for using humbucker pickups. It’s very easy to get a punchy, aggressive tone with little hassle.

Popular Humbucker Pickups

P90 pickups

P-90 Pickups

P-90 pickups are of a different nature to humbuckers, despite their fairly similar-looking aesthetic . They only house the one pole piece, meaning P-90s are in essence, single coil pickups. They started out life used in classic Gibson guitars before the arrival of the humbucker in 1955.

Characterised by their gritty, dirty nature, P-90s make for something of a tonal bridge between single coils and humbuckers. They’re like the best of both worlds; the raspy raw sound of a single coil through a driven amp and the chunkier lower frequencies of a humbucker. This is down to a wider, yet shorter bobbin than the average single coil pickup.

P-90s came into their own during the punk movement. The aggressive sound perfectly suited the intense style of music. They found their way into prominent guitars of the time such as the Les Paul Junior. Although not as popular as humbuckers or single coil pickups, they are just as prominent in contemporary music as ever and make it into many modern spec’d guitars.

Popular P90 Pickups

What is the Best Guitar Pickup?

Single coil pickups are best for bright, clear and crisp tones. They add bite to cleans and sound light and agile through gain. You really can use them for any type of music. And if you do ever fancy a drastic change of tone at any time, companies such as Seymour Duncan make humbucker pickups the size of a single coil so you can fit it into your guitar without cutting chunks out your precious instrument.

If there were a direct opposite to single coil pickups, humbuckers are it. They sound warm on both clean and overdriven settings and provide a punchier frequency selection. These handle distortion the best of the three detailed here. They’re not ideal for your ambient jangly clean tones, but work well for rock and metal in particular.

P-90s play a role as the balancing act. They have the grit of single coils with the blend of humbuckers. P-90s do a great job of bedding in with a rhythm section of a band, as well as leading the charge on hot solo tones.

If you enjoyed reading this, check out more of our Labs articles!

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Cian Hodge
Cian Hodge
Cian is a writer for the Andertons web team. He shares his birthday with Muse frontman Matt Bellamy and believes he will one day reach the same level of stardom. Cian is a big prog/modern metal fan so naturally loves Bare Knuckle pickups and pointy guitars.

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