Another in the Find Your Tone series, Single Coils are dirty words to some! Resident expert, Stew McKinsey, explores the question, "Why not single coils?"
One thing that comes up again and again in discussion here is single coil pickups. If so many advancements have been made in terms of hum cancellation, why are people still making and buying single coil pickups? There are a lot of answers, so sit back and let me share.
The sounds of some of the world’s most popular guitars and basses are associated with their first incarnations, which used (and in many cases still use) single coil pickups. Consequently some of the greatest players of those instruments, whose tones are now classic, will forever be tied to single coil pickups. Names like David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Jaco Pastorius, Paul McCartney, Chris Squire, Marcus Miller and a host of others, while all regarded as great instrumentalists, are badges of fantastic sound. And that’s the biggest reason people choose single coil pickups: tone. A single wire wrapping a coil produces the most open, detailed sound with a fantastically broad dynamic range. This means that pickups made in this way are among the most responsive.
In addition to that openness tonally and the big dynamic range, one of the qualities people like about single coils is that they can produce great growl and edge when played aggressively. When considering what will cut through a mix, it is tough to beat this particular aspect of single coil design.
But what about noise? Aren’t single coils noisy? Not really. If you’re using one or combining a single coil with something hum canceling, you’ll encounter noise. But the vast majority of single coil pickup sets are made with reverse wind and reverse polarity (or RWRP) so that they actually cancel hum. This isn’t the same as internally hum canceling designs like split coils, stack coils, dual coils or quad coils, but most single coil sets do cancel hum. As long as the instrument is properly shielded and grounded, noise will not be an issue most of the time.
As if all that isn’t enough, single coil designs are significantly less expensive than their hum canceling analogs. Going back to that idea of a single wire used to make the coil means less cost in materials and labor.
This doesn’t mean the designs are flawless or that they’re for everyone, but it can be easy to overlook what’s great in them. If you’re someone who loves to solo one pickup or another, if you spend a lot of time in the studio, if your band plays under fluorescent lights and in front of TV monitors, or if your band generally has to pull power from the same wall socket, single coils may not be the best choice. But if tone is a factor in your search for pickups, it may be in your best interest to at least consider single coils.