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What is the Best Pickup Configuration – Part 2

Guitar pickup configuration

What is the best guitar pickup configuration? Could the Ibanez Jem Humbucker, single coil, humbucker be the ideal combination?

In the previous part of this article on the best guitar pickup configuration we looked at the most popular guitar pickup configurations. Now it is worth us looking at the impact that those pickup configurations will have on your sound and tone.

First up what is the impact of the humbucker versus the single coil pickup on your sound and tone. As you will know the single coil pickup has one small drawback in that as you crank up the volume it starts to hum; which can be considered a little annoying.  It must be said that a lot of modern single coil pickups have been designed in such a way that either there is no hum or the hum is greatly reduced.  However, the way that pickup designers originally overcame the hum associated with the single coil pickup resulted in the development of the humbucker pickup.

The humbucker has two coils wired out of phase with each other, which effectively cancels out the hum, giving a hum free pickup. But in doing so the humbucker pickup gives a different sound quality compared to a single coil.  Single coil pickups are described as having a brighter, clearer sound with  a more crisp attack.  Humbuckers on the other hand are described as having a thicker, warmer sound with more resonance and sustain.  Each pickup therefore contributes a unique set of sound characteristics which different musical genres have used to their advantage.  For example the surf pop genre of the 60s would not sound so bright and jangly on a guitar loaded with humbuckers.  Similarly the driving heavy metal guitar sound would sound quite a lot different if it wasn’t for the humbucker.  That is not to say that proponents of heavy metal will only use guitars fitted with humbuckers or surf guitarist will only use guitars fitted with single coil pickups, but the sound typical of these musical styles are more often than not created using those pickup types.




It is perhaps stating the obvious that humbuckers will have a different sound and tonal quality compared to single coil pickups. However, their position on the guitar can also impact significantly on the sound that they create.  Consider a Gibson Les Paul fitted only with humbuckers or a Fender Strat with single coil pickups only.  Play the neck pickup and the sound that it creates is significantly different to that of the bridge pickup.  If you want to know why this happens then we discuss the reasons why in an earlier article on why neck and bridge pickups sound different.  But it can be said that a single coil pickup in the neck position can sound as warm and resonant as a cheap humbucker fitted in the bridge position.

When you consider all these factors it becomes difficult to answer our original question of what is the best pickup configuration.  There are advantages as well as limitations in most pickup configurations.  For me the answer lies in the music that you want to play.  If you are interested in playing a particular musical genre then the best pickup configuration is the one that is best suited to that music.  So going back to the earlier example of surf pop and heavy metal if you want to play these types of music then the best pickup configuration is fairly straightforward.  But what if you like to mix it up and play different musical genres?  In that case the best pickup configuration is the one that gives you the greatest flexibility.  In this case for me the choice is simple.  A guitar fitted with humbuckers in the bridge and neck position with a single coil in the middle gives you the greatest flexibility.  This is especially true if you have a coil tap fitted on the humbuckers which allows you to play them as single coil pickups as well as humbuckers.

You may well disagree with my choice, if so let me know what you think is the best pickup configuration?

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