What makes an electric guitar “electric?” It’s all about the pickups! Electric guitar pickups are magnets that literally pick up vibrations from the metal strings, convert them to electrical signals, and send those signals to your amp. They’re the heart of an electric guitar!

Pickups come in two primary flavors: single coils and humbuckers. And they both have their own signature sounds. So when it comes to choosing the perfect electric guitar, do you want humbuckers, or do you want single coils? It’s a decision as old as time. Or at least as old as electric guitars…

Let’s break it down to help you determine which type of pickup is best for your playing style.

The basic parts of a pickup

The two types of pickups might seem very different, but they have more in common than they realize. Sounds like we could all learn a thing from them…

Electric guitar pickups are really just magnets wrapped in coils. That’s it! And it doesn’t matter whether you choose a single coil or a humbucker, they both have the same basic parts:

Image of two guitar pickups, a single coil and a humbucker, with supplemental text identifying individual pieces.
  1. Bobbin
  2. Steel Screw
  3. Steel Slug
  4. Steel Block
  5. Magnet
  6. Coil
  • Magnets – There’s usually one magnet under each string (six on a standard guitar), but some pickups use one long bar magnet across the bottom.
  • Coil – Wire that’s wrapped many, many times around the magnet(s).
  • Bobbin – Holds the magnets in place. Wire is wrapped around it.

That might seem simple, but any little change between these three pieces can affect the tone of a pickup. From the number of coil wraps to the placement and material of the magnets, you can get just about any type of tone you can imagine!

Okay, so we talked about how humbucker and single coil pickups are the same. Now let’s get into the meat of the matter! What makes them different…?

TL;DR (no hard feelings)

Single coils

  • One set of magnets wrapped in one coil
  • Brighter and clearer tone
  • Possible signal interference (hum)


  • Two coils with reversed polarity
  • Darker, meatier tone
  • Higher output
  • Limits signal interference (hum)
Closeup of Fender Stratocaster triple single-coil pickups with white covers on a white pickguard and a TS cable.

What’s a single coil pickup?

In the beginning, there were single coils. As guitarists wanted to play louder and louder, pickups were invented in the 1930s to boost a guitar’s volume. These pickups were super simple with one row of magnets and a coil. Because they had one coil, they were creatively named “single-coil” pickups.

Single coil pickups produce a super bright and clear tone. Some might even consider them “twangy” — especially if you listen to Fender Telecaster players in the country realm. They’re also loved in the blues and indie folk worlds for their ability to get nice and crunchy. The clarity they provide is perfect for playing with pedals.

However, since there’s only one coil, single coils act almost like antennas for outside noise. There’s only one signal going from the pickup to the amp, and any interference that makes its way into the signal will come out loud and clear.

In some ways, the “interference” is good. Single coils pick up all the plucks and clicks that come from plucking the strings, making them highly responsive and adds some dynamic energy.

Of course, they also pick up unwanted outside noise when you crank them up that usually takes the form of a “hum.” And that’s a perfect transition to the other type of pickup!

Closeup of dual gold-covered humbucker electric guitar pickups and a gold bridge on a black guitar.

What’s a humbucker pickup?

Whoever named humbuckers was a bit more creative than the person who came up with “single coil.” They’re designed to stop (buck) the hum!

Humbuckers could easily be called “double coils,” but that’s lame. They’re essentially two single coil pickups put together with one of the coils set up in reverse polarity to the other.

When the signal comes in, it’s split between the two coils with one reversed. Before the signals head to your output jack, one of the signals flips back to leave your guitar sound intact but removing any noise that was picked up in the process.

In non-scientific terms, it cancels the noise — and bucks the hum.

The very first humbuckers were invented by an engineer working for Gibson in the 1950s. They called it the P.A.F. (Patent Applied For) pickup. Gretsch also joined the humbucker game around the same time with their Filter’Tron pickups. You can still find both of these pickup styles in modern guitars! Since then, tons of different types of humbuckers have joined the party.

With their double coils, humbuckers produce more output than single coils. They have a meatier tone and darker sonic character — which is perfect for heavier styles of playing. You’ll find them on almost all heavy rock and metal guitars. But with their no-hum clarity, they’re still good for jazz, blues, and everything in between. It’s a very versatile pickup.

You can also make your humbucker even more versatile with coil splitting — which is a fancy way to take one of the coils out of the signal chain, essentially transforming your humbucker into a single coil with the push or pull (typically) of a knob.

Other types of pickups

There are always shades of gray… And pickups are no different. While single coil and humbucker are the two primary types of electric guitar pickups, there are a few other variations you’ll find out in the wild.

Closeup of person strumming a gold Les Paul guitar with dual cream-colored P90 pickups.

The iconic P90 pickup

Almost all pickups you find will fall into either the single coil or humbucker camp, but there’s one rebel that refuses to be labeled. And that’s the P90.

The P90 pickup was invented by Gibson in 1946. It’s officially a single-coil pickup by design. It has one coil wrapped around the magnets. However, the bobbin on a P90 is shorter and wider than a standard single coil. Since the coil is farther away from the magnets, it produces a more mellow, warmer sound that’s more reminiscent of a humbucker.

The result is a pickup that lands somewhere right in the middle of humbuckers and single coils. The P90 was largely replaced by humbuckers once they came out a decade later, but there are plenty of die-hard P90 fans out there who love their unique tone. You can still find them on guitars today.

Piezo pickups

Okay, I know I said all pickups were just magnets. But there is an exception to the rule. And that’s piezo pickups.

Piezo pickups (pronounced “pee-YAY-zoh”) are sneaky. You don’t see them on the guitar. They’re actually hidden inside the bridge. Unlike magnetic pickups, piezos work by picking up the string vibrations directly — which is why they have to be in the bridge.

You’ll typically find piezo pickups on acoustic/electric guitars under the saddle, but there are some electric guitars that have piezo pickups hidden in the bridge.

Piezos produce a more acoustic-like sound. They pick up the sound of the strings vibrating with the wood of the guitar. It kinda sounds like playing your guitar unplugged, but plugged in… (That totally makes sense).

Piezo pickups add a unique tonal quality to your guitar tone. Most electric guitars with piezo pickups also have magnetic pickups for some super-cool blending options. Acoustic/electric guitars typically just have a piezo and maybe an in-body microphone and preamp system — which doesn’t technically count as a pickup so I’m not going to talk about it here!

Two EMG active electric guitar pickups on a red guitar with black locking tremolo bridge.

Active vs. passive pickups

Do you know what’s stronger than a regular magnet? An electromagnet! And that’s exactly the difference between active and passive pickups.

Passive pickups are your standard, everyday pickups. They’re just magnets with coils that do their thing via physics with no outside help.

Active pickups have a bit of support from a battery. The battery boosts the magnets’ power, adding more output for super heavy styles of music.

You can find both active and passive versions of single coils and humbuckers. Just remember that active pickups need batteries to function — so don’t hit the stage with a less-than-full battery!

Humbucker or single coil: Which side are you on?

In the quest for perfect tone, the main choice comes down to using single coil or humbucker pickups. They both have their pros and cons, so it’s important to know the differences if you’re going to pick the right one for your playing style.

And now that you know all about single coils and humbuckers, IT’S TIME TO CHOOSE YOUR SIDE!

Nah, it’s not that serious. There are tons of guitars out there with both single coil and humbucker pickups to give you the perfect combination of pickup sounds. They both sound amazing in their own special ways!

Plus, who’s to say you can only have one guitar…?

Of course, the best way to find out is to try it for yourself. Grab a guitar from AMS and enjoy an industry-leading 45-day return policy. If you don’t like the pickup configuration, simply send it back and try another! We want to help you find the perfect guitar for your sound, even if it takes a few tries.

Find your dream guitar match at American Musical Supply.