Humbucking Pickups – Less is more

For single coil loyalists, the humbucking — or dual coil — pickup has always been a conundrum. The extra power and fatter lead tone is attractive, but not at the expense of clarity and attack.

The humbucking pickup was originally developed as the name implies to fight hum. In this case the enemy was 60-cycle hum and noise induced by lighting, appliances, and grounding issues. The late 50’s Gibson PAF gets the credit as the first humbucking pickup, but Gretsch and others companies were producing similar designs during the same period.

While elimination of hum was the goal of the PAF and other pickups, the phase cancellation of high frequencies provided a warmer tone, and the series resistance of the two coils produced greater output and more midrange content. Almost by accident, the humbucker pickup was not only quieter, but more powerful and less shrill than the single coil pickups from Fender.

As distortion became a greater part of the musical landscape, players realized than the humbucker pickup could push the front end of their amp much harder, making it easier to distort. Mind you, this was before the huge explosion of pedals — and master volume amps were in also their infancy — and having a pickup that could help produce distortion was pretty handy. Play a humbucker through any small Fender tweed amp and you’ll get the picture.

But given human nature, if a little of something is good, too much will certainly be wonderful. In order to drive amplifiers into a frenzy, pickup makers started to build pickups with more windings and stronger magnets. The grandaddy of them all is the Dimarzio Super Distortion; one of the first if not the first hot humbucker. Favorites of hard rockers and metal players, nearly every established pickup manufacturer offers at least one type of  high output humbucker.

But while human nature is predictable, so is physics. Pickups are inductors, and adding more windings to a pickup increases it’s output, but also it’s DC resistance and inductance. In general, increased DC resistance tends to increase midrange and reduce high end response. While how a pickup sounds is a result of many factors and the manufacturing process itself, as pickup output increases clarity tends to diminish and the sound gets darker. This is true of any pickup including single coils, and a “hot” single coil Strat pickup will generally be less glassy and clean than it’s vintage equivalent (not a bad thing at all if used in the bridge).

Tonally, the sound of a hot humbucker is a matter of taste, but to players used to the clean, transparent nature of a good single coil they sound dark, stiff, and dull. While they can create some pretty good crunch tones, their clean tones sometimes border on useless.

It doesn’t have to be that way though, and today there is a cottage industry of small builders trying to nail the sound of a “true” PAF pickup. Partly this is the dubious mojo of anything old and vintage, and partly because there is a realization that the original pickups sounded darn good. But while there “could” be some magic to a pickup wound in 1957 in Kalamazoo, the majority of the magic is magnet strength and DC resistance. And technically neither of those two things are magic, just physics.

With today’s cascading gain amplifiers and vast array of pedals, a really hot pickup is not necessary. Lower output pickups by their very nature will have a more even frequency response, more clarity, and better note definition. Even if you rarely play clean, the improvement in sound quality is noticeable even with pedals. Plenty of hard rock players known for their fiery licks use relatively mild pickups. The Duncan Alinco II Pro is one such pickup, and Seymour Duncan even now has a Slash signature version of the Alinco II. One of my favorites is the Duncan SH-1, which is used by Knaggs in their Kenai. This is also a fairly low resistance pickup (8K bridge) but I like the attack of the Alnico V magnet versus the Alnico II. The Arcane ’57 Experience is similar in nature to Alinco II Pro, and uses Alnico II magnets and moderate DC resistance. The result is good clarity, open midrange, and a balanced round low end.

How you wire up your pickups is important too. For humbucker pickups, 500K pots are the way to go, and a 1 Meg pot for the tone control can help improve the brightness of the pickup. For tone capacitors, .022mf is the general rule, but I like using a .015mf for the neck pickup. It does not roll high frequencies as aggressively, which is handy at the neck. If you are using “modern” wiring, a treble bleed capacitor/resistor is also a nice modification, but less so for “vintage” wiring. Wiring is a hole ‘nother blog post, and Premier Guitar Magazine has run a series of great articles on guitar wiring.

If your guitar is not loud enough, turn the amp up! Using a pickup purely to increase volume has detrimental sonic effects. You paid for all those watts, use them.