Humbuckers vs Single Coil Pickups | What’s Best For Metal?

If you want to play metal on the guitar, which pickups are best for tone and overall sound quality – Humbuckers or Single Coil pickups? Let’s investigate…


If you’re not sure about the difference between humbuckers and single coil pickups, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you’re relatively new to guitar.

If that’s correct, it is probably worthwhile covering off a few things before we get into the differences between humbuckers and single pickups.

Let’s start with the absolute basics.

What is a Guitar Pickup & How Does It Work?

In order to make any noise whatsoever, your guitar HAS to have pickups. In its simplest form, a pickup – whatever the style – is a magnet with wire wrapped around it.

This “coil” picks up the vibrations of your strings (hence the name) and turns them into electrical signals. And it has been this way since the electric guitar was first invented.

That’s the ELI5 version of how guitar pickups work. We could take a deep-dive into the science but that’d be boring.

If you’re anything like me, you neither care nor want to know more than that.

And that’s fine – as long as you know the basics, you can pretty much get away with most things.

OK, we know how a guitar pickup works (in a basic fashion), but there are actually more than two styles of pickup available – and they’re all slightly different.

You have single coil pickups, humbuckers, and P90 pickups – these are the most commonly used styles in modern electric guitars.

The Different Types of Electric Guitar Pickups


Single Coil Pickups

Single Coil pickups are extremely popular; you’ll find them on a Fender Stratocaster, for instance, and they produce a beautiful, bright tone that lends itself perfectly to everything from pop music to surfer rock (the Beach Boys) and rock music like Jimi Hendrix and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, for example.

For metal, yeah, they work, but single coil pickups aren’t great with loads of distortion which is why you don’t see many “metal” bands using guitars with single coil pickups. This is also why Jim Root’s Signature Fender Telecaster has humbuckers fitted to it.

Humbuckers

For bigger, heavier sounds you’ll want to use humbuckers. Humbucker pickups are essentially two single coil pickups working together in unison.

The end result is a warmer, deeper sound which lends itself perfectly to heavier tones (meaning tones drenched in distortion). This is why many players, from Melvins to Josh Homme use humbucker pickups in their guitars.

If you want to play metal, use lots of distortion, and you want a “big” sound, you’ll want to be using humbucker pickups.

P90 Pickups

The last option of the major players in the pickup world are P90 pickups, and these pickups are kind of a happy-medium that sit somewhere between a single coil pickup and a humbucker.

P90’s have a higher output that single coil pickups, but they lack the sheer gutsiness of humbucker pickups. With tone, you get a “fatter” sound from P90 pickups than you do single coil pickups, but humbucker-style pickups still have the P90 beat when it comes to overall output and depth of tone.

If you want to play blues and rock, a guitar with P90 pickups will more than get the job done. And quite a few doom bands have used P90 pickups to create big sounds with plenty of feedback, so, yeah, P90 pickups, while not traditionally cannon in the metal scene, do have a place in their own right.

Humbuckers vs Single Coil Pickups – Which is Best For Metal?

As you can see from the above comparison, if you want the highest possible output and you plan on using distortion, you’re going to be much better off with a guitar that runs humbucker pickups.

Single coil pickups are great, and have been used by the greats for decades, but for metal players, a humbucker is just more appropriate. This is why, again, when Jim Root designed his signature Fender Tele, he removed the single coil pickups and added in some humbuckers.

Humbuckers vs Single Coil Pickups | What’s Best For Metal?
Jim Root’s Signature Strat – It’s A Monster w/ Active EMGs (Check Latest Prices)

Jim is in Slipknot. He needs high output and uses an ungodly amount of distortion. Could he do this with single coil pickups? Sure. Would it sound as good or as full as humbucker pickups? No – not even close.

Having said that, if you’re going for a twangy, more precise sound – especially when recording – a pair of single coil pickups can work wonders in a mix. For faster, more complex stuff, single coil pickups – even if it is just to add texture or for lead guitar – work great when recording tracks.

Metal Guitarists That Use Single Coil Pickups

Tom Morello, the dude from Rage Against The Machine, has used single coil pickups his entire career and no one would accuse that guy of not having a good tone.

Tone is entirely subjective; there are no hard and fast rules. You can create metal guitar lines with type of pickup, including single coil.

Iron Maiden uses single coil Fender Strats, for instance, and while they’re not heavy in a modern sense, they do have a great guitar tone and always have.

Why Humbuckers Are Best For Metal

If you’re looking for a thick sounding, heavy guitar tone and you want to tune your guitar down and run distortion, a guitar with a set of humbuckers will almost certainly sound better to your ear than one with single coil pickups.

This is why 98% of metal bands on the planet use humbucker pickups on their guitars – they sound big, full, and nasty. And when it comes to guitar tone in metal music, bigger and fatter is ALWAYS better.

It is also why the majority of the guitars we recommend for new players interested in playing rock and metal use humbucker pickups.

I love me a good single coil pickup in the right setting, but if I had to choose one style of pickups and use them forevermore, it’d be humbuckers every day of the week and twice on a Sunday from here to the end of the universe.

Richard

Richard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.

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