Single coil pickups, humbuckers, and P90s are the three main types of pickup designs, each having very clear characteristics in terms of tone, look, and use, and it’s so important for a guitar player to know about these pickups.
In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the history, their tonal characteristics, pairing with various guitars, and we will also take a look at the best possible options that are available on the market today.
Explanation of Each Type of Pickups and Key Differences
For those of you who prefer learning through video content over reading, here is a good video explaining the differences between single coil pickups, humbucker pickups, and P90 pickups.
Here is a good video that tests all three so you can see the sound differences:
Single Coil Pickups
Single coil pickups are probably the most widely used across different styles of and with all levels of guitarists. Single coil pickups generally have a bright, biting, cutting, and even gritty tone when mixed with some drive. When compared to humbuckers, single coil pickups are not as “hot” when it comes to the overall output. One of the more common single coil pickup configurations is the Stratocaster style with a pickup in the neck, middle, and bridge positions each different in characteristics that can be utilized for various tones and music across different musical styles.
The neck pickup position with single coil pickup has a relatively warm and silky tone. You can play genres like blues, jazz, pop, RnB, and rock with the neck pickup. It’s also a great place to find your go-to clean sound as well. The middle pickup has a very unique tone which is literally in-between neck and bridge pickup both physically located as well as tone-wise. It’s often used in funk music and sometimes in rock and blues as well. Lastly, the bridge pickup position is the strongest of them all, and it provides the most cutting and biting tone of all the single coil pickup positions. Therefore, many use the bridge pickup for rock, hard rock, and metal. The cutting nature of the pickup position makes it ideal for leads and solos. The 2nd and 4th positions also have their own distinguishable tone, and they are often used for funky guitar playing.
Single coil pickups provide such a wide palette of sounds, and especially when paired with different guitars, the possibilities are endless. They can really be used for everything from rhythm guitar to lead guitar, and anything in-between. And because of their affordable price and great reliability, single coil pickups are great choices if you’re thinking of getting a guitar pickup.
Humbucker pickups are considered the most popular type of pickups alongside single coil pickups, and they are also very versatile pickups that can be applied to many different genres. As the name suggests, Humbuckers are wound in a way in which they cancel out hum. Compared with single coil pickups, humbuckers are known to have strong output and are generally “hot” pickups. The humbuckers also have full, thick, and loud tones that are inseparable from genres like rock and blues. From classic rock, hard rock, and hardcore metal music, humbuckers are often the obvious first choice for guitarists.
Humbuckers are also the most popular pickup choice for jazz music as well. Because humbuckers provide such a full sound, humbuckers on neck pickup position will provide a desirable jazz guitar tone. In fact, humbuckers and hollow-body guitars are inseparable from each other. You will find almost all the iconic hollow body and semi body guitars like Gibson ES-335 or D’angelico guitars are all equipped with humbuckers for both neck and bridge pickups.
In many modern rock or fusion genres, many guitarists like to mix and match both humbucker and single coil pickups. In most cases, the single coil pickups will be on the neck and middle positions while the humbucker pickups are on the bridge. Another common configuration is humbucker – single coil – humbucker, or even single coil – humbucker – single coil. You will find these configurations on a lot of modern rock guitars like the Ibanez JEM guitar.
Although certainly not quite as commonly used as a humbucker or single coil pickups, P90 guitar pickups have been around since the 1950s, first used in early Gibson electric guitars, and are technically a specific type of a single coil pickup. Visibly, they may look more like a humbucker pickup, but they are still a single magnet pole and single coil winding but their design differences from the traditional Fender style single coil pickups result in a raspier and raw output with more distinctive lower frequencies. It’s well earned that the P90 generally gets characterized as the middle-of-the-road option between a single coil and a humbucker. You can create early electric guitar sounds like the early rock’n’roll to early jazz guitar tones, but at the same time, you can use it for modern rock sound and hot blues guitar tones as well. P90s in general have strong mids, full bass, and complex highs, and just chameleon-like ability to blend into the style of music and playing.
P90s had gone through many changes to their alnico magnets over the years. Many of the early P90s came with Alnico III magnets and the later P90s were equipped with Alnico V magnets. Both types of magnets in P90 pickups produce more output than most pickups – somewhere around 6.5k to 8.5k of DC resistance, which is hotter than the previous P-13 or Charlie Christian pickups from Gibson. But they have clear differences, with alnico V magnets producing more output than the Alnico III magnets. So the P90 pickups with alnico V magnets are more geared for music that requires a lot of power like rock and hot blues or metal. P90s with Alnico III magnets might have a more sweet, bright, softer sound that’s great for early jazz guitar tones, RnB, or rockabilly. Nevertheless, the most popular kind of P90s in the market will provide undeniable versatility that can cover everything from jazz, blues, country, rock, to punk and metal.
Examples of Guitars Utilizing Each Type of Pickups
Single Coil Examples
The most common pairing you would find with single coil pickups are most of the Fender electric guitars from Telecasters, and Stratocasters. It’s almost weird to look at Telecasters and Stratocasters without single coil pickups on them. But even just outside of Fender electric guitars, you will easily find single coil pickups on guitars from brands like Epiphone and Ibanez. Nowadays, it’s also common to see a mix of single coil pickups and humbuckers. If you really love the single coil tone but also love the humbucker tone, you can use single coil – humbucker – single coil combination. On the other hand, if you love both types of pickups but prefer humbuckers on your guitar, humbucker – single coil – humbucker combination is another great option for you.
Humbuckers are most known for their association with Gibson guitars. Iconic Gibson guitars like Gibson ES-335, Gibson SG, Les Paul, ES-175, ES-339 – all have humbucker pickups for both neck and bridge. It’s almost hard to imagine Gibson guitars without humbucker pickups on them other than some Gibson with P90s. But humbuckers are also found on modern rock and metal guitars like Jackson, Ibanez, or ESP guitars, where the music requires high output from the pickups. Humbuckers by far have the most amount of output from the pickups, and so you will find humbuckers on many of the guitars designed for hard rock and metal.
Humbuckers can also be found in many of the country electric guitars like Gretsch hollow-body guitars. Humbuckers like Gretsch Filter’Tron is a perfect tool to create some gorgeous country twang tones, so if you are a country guitar player, humbuckers might suit your needs as well.
Our Favorite Single Coil Pickups
1. Seymour Duncan SSL1
Seymour Duncan gives you that classic Fender Stratocasters or Telecaster tone that we all instantly recognize. These are super affordable, and they are one of the best-sellers in the business. The SSL1s are also very versatile, and they are the one pickup do-it-all kind of product that you can buy. The Seymour Duncan SSL1 pickups bring out the best bright and biting tone of Strats, and it carries many of the classic tones from the 1950s. The Seymour Duncan SSL1 also brings out the high-end of the guitar and it’s a very reliable piece of equipment that you can rely on for many years to come.
The SSL1 is generally best for getting the classic clean sounds, blues guitar tones, and even classic funk guitar tones. It might not be the best pickup set for getting a modern rock sound, but the Seymour Duncan SSL1 can cover everything that you associate with single coil pickups.
2. Fender Tex-Mex Strat Pickup Set
Next up, we have another set of single coil pickups that will give you the vintage guitar tones that you’ve been looking for. The Fender Tex-Mex Strat pickup set is designed to bring out the best ‘60s sound to your Strat or even your Telecasters. It’s one of the most popular and most well-received pickups that were specifically built to get the best vintage Fender strat tone.
These pickups are equipped with high-quality Alnico V magnets that will bring out the best of your guitar. It has a bigger sound than you might expect, and it gives out a well-balanced, bright, and even aggressive tone that can be perfect for genres like blues and rock. Overall, the set has a great value for the price and it’s also surprisingly versatile. Although it’s probably designed for musical styles that require a little gain and punch, they can also be used to get gorgeous clean sounds as well. The set comes with an easy installation kit, and it’s highly recommended for all the blues and vintage Fender tone lovers out there.
3. Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot
Here is another best selling model from Lindy Fralin – the Vintage Hot. Just like the name suggests, the Vintage Hot is an Alnico V single coil pickup designed for Strat and Tele guitarists looking for an upgrade into more vintage sound than the pickups that come with the Fender guitar.
The high quality alnico V and other parts on the pickup provide a sizzling, top-quality overdrive tone that can blow you away. It provides a decent amount of clarity and balance, as well as the punch you need when you dig into the strings. This pickup is a great choice for lead guitar players who want to stand out from the band and it’s a great upgrade pickup for all the Strat and Tele guitars.
These are almost boutique-level pickups and some parts of the pickup are even handcrafted and created with excellent consistency throughout. They are, in fact, very similar to Seymour Duncan SSL1 pickups in terms of design and its use. But, the difference lies in that the Vintage Hot definitely gives more output and is “hotter” than the SSL1. Overall, the Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot is a solid upgrade pickup that will make a lot of noticeable changes to your tone.
4. Seymour Duncan Five-Two
Last but not least, we have a revolutionary single coil pickup that combines both alnico 2 and alnico 5 magnets all into one single coil pickup. Alnico 2 magnets are generally the warmest of all the alnico magnet types and alnico 5 is generally much brighter than the alnico 2. Seymour Duncan decided to combine the best of both worlds – combining the smooth high-end of alnico 2 and the tight low end and thin high end from the alnico 5. So in this particular pickup, the alnico 5 magnets on the bass string side while the alnico 2 magnets are on the high string side.
Thanks to this technology, you can get the best of both worlds with this pickup. If you’re looking for a premium, high-quality upgrade for a single coil, Seymour Duncan Five-Two is an amazing choice. The combined tone also makes this an extremely versatile machine that you can really play any kind of genre you want and make it sound great. Overall, it’s a top-rated pickup that you won’t regret upgrading to.
Our Favorite Humbucker Pickups
1. Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 Pearly Gates Pickup
First, on our list, we have one of the popular humbucker pickups in the market today. Seymour Duncan’s SH-PG1 Pearly Gates is taken after Billy Gibbons’ legendary Pearly Gates guitar’s pickups. The pickups were intended to copy the tone of that guitar, and it ended up being a clone of pickups on Gibson ‘59 Les Paul Standard. The pickups are passive pickups that have excellent midrange that stands out from many other popular humbuckers, and it has Alnico II magnets that almost sound like Alnico V magnets.
Because of their excellent bite and attack, these are perfect for playing blues and rock. The pickups give a great sustain on each note, and as well as beautiful midrange, the soaring highs filled with harmonics make this a top-pick for many guitarists. In terms of DC resistance, the neck pickup has around 7.3k of DC resistance and the bridge has about 8.35k. These pickups were initially designed to be put on Les Paul guitars, but they work amazingly with other types of guitars like hollow-body guitars, semi-hollow body, and even for Fender Strats.
2. DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion
The DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion is a historical pickup that has been around since the 1970s. Since then, the Super Distortion humbuckers have been a staple in the rock music world, and you can hear this pickup from many legendary rock records from bands like KISS or Boston. The Super Distortion almost became part of the rock sound in the 70s and the 80s, and it still is a staple humbucker in the rock guitar world today.
As the name suggests, this is a powerful machine that has around 13.68K DC resistance. It’s known for its grand, big low end that makes this a powerhouse of a pickup. The highs are powerful as well, and the mid is certainly strong as well. As you might have already guessed, the Super Distortion is recommended for rock and metal guitars, and you can even an amazing rock clean tone from this pickup.
3. Gibson Burstbucker Pro
Next up, here is the reproduction, or the revival of the legendary Gibson PAF by Gibson themselves. The Burstbucker Pro is aimed to reproduce the tones from the late 50s to 60s Gibson guitar sound, and it also provides a very affordable price point that makes it appealing to guitarists of every level.
With the Burstbucker Pro, you can sound similar to legends like Jimmy Page to Eric Clapton. The tones from this pickup are very vintage-inspired, but at the same time, it has a sweet quality to its sound. The Alnico V magnets on this pickup provide a vintage tone that also has modern qualities to it. You can get the classic biting, attractive blues and rock guitar tones that you have been dreaming about with this set of pickups.
4. Seymour Duncan JB SH-4
Seymour Duncan JB SH-4 and the JB series are some of the earliest pickups that are created by the legendary Seymour W. Duncan. The story with this pickup begins with the one and only Jeff Beck. Seymour was in the studio listening to Jeff Beck recording a session, and he was inspired to create a pickup for Jeff, and that’s how this particular pickup came about. You might have this particular pickup on records like “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”.
The JB SH-4 is a pickup that is perfect for Fender guitars like a Fender Strat or a Tele. JB stands for jazz and blues – meaning you can play both jazz and blues with this pickup. Seymour Duncan JB SH-4 is definitely on the brighter side of the palette and has a lot of mids that can be used to punch through a wall of sound. There is definitely more treble than bass coming from this pickup, and it’s super useful for guitarists wanting to play solos. The pickup has Alnico V magnets and has a particular screaming mid characteristic. This pickup might not be for you if your guitar tone is already too bright and hard on the ear. But if you play a lot of lead guitar, and are looking for blues and rock tone, the Seymour Duncan JB SH-4 is one of your best choices.
Our Favorite P90 Pickups
1. Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat
First, on the list of P90 pickups, we have one of the most popular and one of the best options for P90s overall. The Phat Cats are P90 pickup in the casing of a standard humbucker casing. It features high quality metal casing which reduces the overall hum, and so this particular pickup only fits in guitar with humbucker pickup options.
Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat can be best described as a combination of good bits from both single coil pickups and humbucker pickups. It carries the sustain and power from a humbucker, but at the same time, it has the attack and the clarity that you might expect from a good quality single coil pickup. It’s reminiscent of vintage P90 tones, and it has a lively, dynamic, and powerful tone that can be used for various genres. It is equipped with Alnico 2 magnets and has a DC resistance of 7.98k Ohm for neck and 8.49k Ohm for the bridge pickup.
The Phat Cat packs a lot of punch and liveliness that you might not find in other pickups, and it’s perfect for musical styles like country, rock, and blues. All in all, the Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat is one of the best options out there and I recommend it to all guitarists that are interested in trying out P90 pickups.
2. DiMarzio DP163 Bluesbuckers
DiMarzio Bluesbuckers are modern and versatile P90 pickups that look like a standard humbucker. The pickup is very high-tech, and you can experience an almost noiseless P90 pickup in a humbucker casing. One of the cool features of this pickup is the adjustable hot coil. These solid poles help reduce the hum and noise from the pickups, and it also adds another cool design element to them.
Shockingly, the magnets are ceramic and not alnico magnets, but you can expect very high-quality vintage tones from this pickup. Tones are rich and full and you can really get a good punch out of this pickup. Even with the ceramic magnets, you can get plenty of nice sustain, and this pickup can deliver a lot of power with drive as well. It’s a great choice to play rock, metal, blues, pop, and funk.
3. Lindy Fralin P90
The Lindy Fralin P90 is more of a boutique-level P90 pickup that has one of the best quality P90 tones in the business. It’s beautifully crafted in the USA, and it has an amazing balance of tight lows, thick mids, and very solid highs that can work with most genres that you can think of. Because it’s a boutique-level pickup, the price starts from $110.
When you install this pickup into your guitar, you will notice that this pickup adds another level of clarity and characteristic to the guitar tone compared to P90s from other well-known brands. The Lindy Fralin P90 works well with both Strats and Les Pauls, and if you really dig the P90 sound and have a good budget, Lindy Fralin P90 is a great choice.
4. Fender Pure Vintage ‘65 Jazzmaster
Last but not least, we have classic pickups that will bring you back in time. The Fender Pure Vintage ‘65 Jazzmaster has Alnico V magnets and both the tone and the looks will remind you of the 1950-1960s vintage guitars. The pickup provides a very warm-sounding vintage tone that will satisfy jazz and blues guitar players. Vintage ‘65 Jazzmaster pickups have a lot of clarity and can be used for many different styles. Just like the name of the pickup, many use this pickup as an upgrade on their Fender or Squier Jazzmaster guitars. It’s also a good replacement option if you are into P90 and old Jazzmaster tones.
In this article, we have looked at single coil, humbucker and P90 pickups – their history, their use, and some examples of best single coil pickups, humbuckers, and P90s that’s sold in the market today. Both derived from the Gibson family and were made famous by them, and both pickups are extremely versatile pickups that can be used for many different styles of music. Although humbuckers are much more widely used by guitar players worldwide, I highly recommend also checking out single coil and P90 pickups. P90 pickups are harder to find compared to humbuckers and single coil pickups, but they have very unique tonal qualities and characteristics that you might find very charming. Another thing to consider is using a hybrid of humbuckers, P90s, and single coils, and there are endless possibilities in terms of combining those three pickups to your advantage. In any case, the important thing would be to try out as many types of pickups, models, and brands as possible. Happy pickup hunting!
My name is Chris and I’ve had a passion for music and guitars for as long as I can remember. I started this website with some of my friends who are musicians, music teachers, gear heads, and music enthusiasts so we could provide high-quality guitar and music-related content.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13 years old and am an avid collector. Amps, pedals, guitars, bass, drums, microphones, studio, and recording gear, I love it all.
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My background is in Electrical Engineering, earning a Bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University. With my engineering experience, I’ve developed as a designer of guitar amplifiers and effects. A true passion of mine, I’ve designed, built, and repaired a wide range of guitar amps and electronics. Here at the Guitar Lobby, our aim is to share our passion for Music and gear with the rest of the music community.