Humbuckers are by far the most popular type of guitar pickup used in metal, but can single coils be used too? Of course, they can! This article will explore some of the reasons how and why you can make them viable for the genre, as well as show you some of the best single-coil pickups for metal that will make a massive difference in your guitar tone.
Table of Contents
- The Types of “Single-Coil” Pickups
- How Single-Coils Work
- What Are Single-Coil-Sized Humbuckers?
- What Are Stacked Single-Coil Pickups?
- Reasons To Get A Single-Coil Pickup For Metal
- You Don’t Like Your Cheap Stock Pickups
- You Want To Upgrade Your Neck or Middle Pickups
- You Simply Like The Sound of Them
The Types of “Single-Coil” Pickups
In the past, single-coil pickups did have a reputation for being noisy and brittle, and while this is true, many pickup manufacturers have made great strides in providing options for consumers who have different types of guitars.
While true single-coil pickups can certainly be used in metal, there are different types of variants that can make it much easier to find a sound that works for you without having to worry as much about extra humming or if your tone is beefy or not.
Since then, pickups have been created that resemble single coils but can sound or function (or both!) just like a humbucker. These are known as:
- Single-Coil-Sized Humbuckers
- Stacked Single-Coils
Before covering the differences between single-coil-sized humbuckers vs. stacked single-coils, let’s start by explaining what a real single-coil pickup is first.
How Single-Coils Work
As you can guess, a single-coil pickup merely consists of one coil around a magnetic pole, and you can see these windings if you were to remove the pickup cover.
On a regular 6-string guitar, there will be six of these poles, but extended-ranged instruments will have more.
Naturally, single-coils will have a sound that is bright and snappy, but the poles are prone to picking up extra electromagnetic interference, which leads to its noisy reputation mentioned earlier.
Because of this, humbuckers were created, and these work by using two coils that are out of phase with one another, which helps “buck the hum.”
In my experience, when people are looking for a single-coil pickup for metal, they aren’t necessarily looking for the sound of a single-coil; rather, they want something that can fit in the slot on their guitar but sounds more like a humbucker.
Luckily, you can have the best of both worlds, and there is a lot to choose from. In the next section, you will learn more about these other options.
What Are Single-Coil-Sized Humbuckers?
Single-coil-sized humbuckers are a great innovation and allow you to get the same thick humbucker tone while also taking advantage of one of the main benefits of humbuckers, which is to reduce hum and noise while simultaneously being compact enough to fit in a single-coil pickup slot.
The Seymour Duncan JB Jr. is a fantastic example of a single-coil-sized humbucker, so you still get the tonal qualities of the actual JB (one of the best metal pickups of all time), but it’s just made smaller so that you can swap it in and enjoy it in a Fender Stratocaster with all single-coils, for instance.
Similarly, there is the Seymour Duncan Lil ‘59, which is based on the ‘59 humbucker that is frequently paired with the JB and typically installed in the neck position.
Many of the best single-coil-sized humbuckers look similar and work the same as regular humbuckers, but there are the “rail-style” pickups too, and you may have seen these on the market before.
Another classic guitar pickup used in rock and metal is the DiMarzio Super Distortion, and there is also a single-coil-sized version of this pickup now too that uses this rail design.
In these pickups, to reproduce the qualities of a humbucker but keep it compact at the same time, the coil is wrapped around two blades twice, and a magnet is placed underneath so that it can pick up the vibrations of your guitar.
Check out the Super Distortion S (DP218) in action:
What Are Stacked Single-Coil Pickups?
Stacked single-coils might sound a lot like single-coil-sized humbuckers at the very surface to many people who are exploring the best single-coil pickups for metal, and it can lead to some mix-up, but they’re actually fundamentally different from each other.
Stacked pickups are basically two single-coil pickups placed on top of each other. It looks and sounds just like a regular single-coil pickup like you’d find in most Strats, but the stacked design helps reduce the humming noise that can be problematic with true single-coil pickups.
These are ideal for people who like that brighter tone that is heard in some types of metal, and the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickup is one of the best stacked single-coil pickups that is great for metal. After all, it is a Yngwie Malmsteen signature pickup model, and you can grab the entire set if you really enjoy his sound.
Hopefully, none of this is too confusing; however, one of the main takeaways and the easiest way to tell the differences between single-coil-sized humbuckers and stacked single-coils is that one is trying to be a humbucker, and the other isn’t.
The main purpose of the single-coil-sized humbuckers is for people who are looking for higher output and a thicker sound while also dealing with the hum, which you’d expect from a regular-sized one.
On the other hand, the stacked single-coils are to keep the brightness and overall sound of a traditional single-coil but address the noise complaints that can come with them.
Reasons To Get A Single-Coil Pickup For Metal
There are a handful of reasons why someone could use a single-coil or single-coil type pickup in metal, and here you will read about some of the most common issues people face that lead them to swap to single-coils that are more geared towards playing heavy metal. Sometimes it can be a combination of issues, and you will learn more about these below:
You Don’t Like Your Cheap Stock Pickups
One of the main reasons some people believe that single coils aren’t great for metal has to do with the quality of pickups that are currently installed in their guitars. The problem isn’t necessarily related to you having single coils, since this is a problem that can affect people with humbuckers too – people frequently upgrade their humbuckers too to try to achieve the sound that they’re looking for.
Stock pickups aren’t always the best if you’re chasing a good metal tone, but this also depends on the type of guitar that you own. I’m mostly referring to the entry-level guitars that use cheap pickups that are designed by the company themselves and not manufacturers that specifically make pickups, like Seymour Duncan, DiMizario, and EMG.
These guitar pickup brands can come stock on a ton of guitars, but they are most often seen on ones that are geared to intermediate, advanced, and professionals. These aren’t what I am talking about here. However, some guitar companies have really good pickups that use their own brand. A lot of the Japanese-made Schecter and ESP guitars are some that come to mind here, and these are an exception.
If you’re unhappy with the sound of the stock pickups but you like everything else about your guitar, look into upgrading your pickups first before buying a new instrument entirely, as it can be a more affordable solution for you.
I recommend getting a new bridge pickup first, as this is what you’ll use the most when playing metal. The Seymour Duncan JB Jr. that I talked about earlier is a good choice because it is an adaptation of the original Seymour Duncan JB humbucker, which is one of my personal favorites and I have had in many of my guitars over the years.
Therefore, if you have a guitar that consists of all single-coil pickups, the bridge pickup is the one I’d think about getting first, but if you’re looking to upgrade more than just your bridge one, there are definitely additional options for you, and the next section will discuss this further.
You Want To Upgrade Your Neck or Middle Pickups
Although having a good bridge pickup is paramount to a solid metal tone, there are situations where it could be beneficial to swap out your other pickups too, when applicable.
There are many scenarios where this could happen, especially regarding pickup configurations. For example, in addition to having all single-coil pickups like on a Fender Stratocaster, there are also common figurations on guitars such as:
- humbucker, single, single (HSS)
- humbucker, single, humbucker (HSH)
- humbucker and single (HS)
Having a single-coil neck pickup is actually pretty typical, and while you’ll use your bridge pickup a lot, there are many guitarists who have made great use of using their neck pickups; they do have a place in metal.
For example, Yngwie Malmsteen uses all single coils, and a large part of his sound involves flicking the pickup switch into the neck position when he needs to. Personally, regardless if it’s a humbucker or single-coil, I think neck-pickups sound great for sweep picking and playing scales because it sounds smoother.
If you’ve already upgraded your bridge and you’re looking to improve the other ones you have, there are a lot of options out there. Starting with the neck, the DiMarzio Air Norton S is an awesome choice.
The original Air Norton humbucker is associated with John Petrucci, but just like the Seymour Duncan JB Jr. mentioned earlier, this one has also been modified to fit into single-coil positions. Currently, Joe Satriani is a player that comes to mind that uses an Air Norton S in the neck position, but this pickup can be effectively used in any position because it’s so balanced sounding, and the rail design gives it the same qualities as a humbucker.
The middle pickup is typically the last one to be upgraded because a lot of players prefer to use just the bridge or neck pickups more often, but there are also many who will make use of their middle one and try to blend them with the other pickups, by using the pickup switch on their guitar.
An Air Norton S in the middle is an excellent choice, but if you’re looking to have something slightly different, the Fast Track 1 is one that I can highly recommend as well because it’s a hot pickup that also uses the two-blade or rail technology.
You can either mix and match or get the same model for all of the positions you’re looking to upgrade. I think what’s more important is that you try to get pickups that are within the same brand.
For example, if you have a Dimarzio bridge pickup already and you want to upgrade your other ones, I’d go with another DiMarzio for these other positions. The same goes for any brand out there; perhaps you’re partial to Seymour Duncan and like them more; there are choices out there.
Additionally, manufacturers have created some pickup sets and loaded pickguards that you can purchase to make it easy, such as these Seymour Duncan Hot Rails or YJM Fury Strat Sets or the EMG 81/SA/SA Set depending on your guitar’s configuration or if you prefer passive or active pickups.
You Simply Like The Sound of Them
Some of the most prolific guitarists have made excellent use of the single-coil pickup for a great metal tone to varying degrees.
Aside from Yngwie, other individuals in metal who I can think of immediately off the top of my head who includes single-coil pickups in their signature guitars, are Jake E. Lee, who is known for his guitar work in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, George Lynch, who is most famous for his tenure in Dokken and Lynch Mob, and Paul Gilbert, from Racer-X and Mr. Big.
The traditional single-coil works for these classic metal styles, but if you want something less-noisy but with more output, there are always alternatives, and in my opinion, for people who are into metal but want something more versatile, the single-coil-sized humbuckers are probably your best bet.
These will be able to cover those cool 80s metal tones as well as the modern ones without having to go out and purchase another guitar with humbuckers.
If you’re ever stuck, try to look up some of your favorite artists and see what kind of pickups they are using on their guitars. There is a good chance you’ll be able to find exactly what you need or something very similar to it, even if they are using humbuckers.
Below, the guitarist in Concerto Moon, Norifumi Shima, shows you that you can make incredible thick-sounding riffs with single-coil pickups:
Pickups have grown to be one of the most diverse markets when it comes to guitar gear, and perhaps, by reading this article, you’ve learned something new about them. I personally believe that single-coil-sized pickups are ideal for metal, but if you’re, say, a Strat enthusiast and you’re looking for something closer to the traditional sound, you can always find options in regular and stacked single-coil models. Hopefully, the info and recommendations here will lead you to find the perfect single-coil pickups (or single-coil-styled ones) for you and will help you discover a guitar tone that you think is inspiring.