…the net result is the classic, American Clean Tone™
The single-coil pickup has been with us for the better part of a hundred years now, and although there has been some developments for increasing the output, cutting down on noise and reducing string pull, the basic premise is the same now as it ever was. So, how can we use them to best effect? What do they offer, and are there workarounds to their limitations?
To me, the reference points for single-coil sounds will always be the classic Stratocaster sounds, and – to a somewhat lesser degree – classic Telecaster sounds. There are other single-coil pickups, like Gibson’s P90, in addition to models from Gretsch and others, but I was raised on the sounds from Fender guitars. I won’t go through the technical details of how they work, as there are lots of well-written texts about this subject on the web. I’ll post some links to further reading at the bottom for those who are interested in the inner workings. Suffice to say that they are fundamentally simple beasts.
What does an archetypal single-coil pickup do best? Well, to my ear it does shimmery, glass-like clean tones like nobody’s business. On account of its electronic properties, it filters off far less high end than humbucking pickups. It also lacks the midrange emphasis that humbuckers have. These two characteristics reinforce each other, and the net result is the classic, American Clean Tone™.
A significant drawback to all single-coil pickups is that they are susceptible to noise. This is part and parcel of the whole experience. The very same electronic properties that produce that golden tone, will also produce noise. In addition, if you adjust the pickup too close to the strings, the narrow and relatively strong magnetic field can cause single strings to sound out of tune with themselves and each other. In short, you’ll sound like
arse a mess!
No one told Jimi Hendrix… that it was a bad idea to use overdrive with single-coils.
Again, as a direct consequence of the relatively low output, inherent noise problems, detailed top end, and somewhat lightweight midrange, some feel that single-coil pickups don’t sound good with overdriven and/or distorted tones. Quite a few people end up
hacking up customizing their Stratocasters, and putting humbuckers in the bridge position to get better overdriven tones, thereby sacrificing at least one classic Stratocaster tone in the process: The bridge and middle pickup combined (and no, I don’t think that splitting the coils of the humbucker in this configuration is a satisfying alternative).
Single-coil Pickups and Overdrive
Thankfully, no one told Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Eric Johnson or Yngwie Malmsteen that it was a bad idea to use overdrive with single-coils. Single-coils can bring details and timbre to an overdriven tone that are just beyond what humbuckers can do. I’m not saying better, only different – much in the same way that clean tones with humbucking pickups sound different from single-coils.
A sympathetic amplifier
This has been mentioned in the post about the Fuzz Face, but it’s of no less importance here. Come to think of it, this is actually important in all circumstances. The point here is that you can’t just take an amplifier dialed in for humbucking tones and expect it to sound good with single-coils. For it to sound good it is absolutely essential to dial the amp in while playing the single-coil-equipped guitar you happen to want to use.
…single-coils give you access to other parts of notes than humbuckers
Most good overdrive tones with single-coil pickups have some sort of boost between the guitar and the amp. This can be an overdrive or distortion pedal, but it can just as easily be a clean boost. Usually, some sort of midrange boost is desirable. This makes the guitar easier to play, brings out sustain and fattens the tone. You’re still keeping the single-coil flavour, but adding girth and punch. One of the most
over-used classic Stratocaster lead tones is the neck pickup played through a midrange-boosted, mild overdrive pedal into A Sympathetic Amp, which is also slightly overdriven. This brings out every single-coil nuance, and gives a sound that can be described as “woody” and “organic”.
The Tone Control
Wiring or rewiring your guitar so that you have a tone control affecting the treble pickup is the best modification you can do to a Stratocaster, in my opinion. This gives you the opportunity to shave off just the harshest bit of top end, which can be a problem with the treble pickup on these guitars.
OK, you’ve turned down the treble, you’ve turned up the midrange, you’ve added overdrive and you’ve boosted the signal. Sounds to me like you’re trying to force the whole single-coil business into territory usually inhabited by humbucking pickups. Why not just
hack up customize your Stratocaster and put a humbucker in the treble position? Well – first of all, it still won’t sound identical, albeit more similar. Secondly, that would mean losing one of the classic Stratocaster clean tones. Thirdly, if you have other humbucker-equipped guitars, that would give you tonal overlap between those guitars, instead of different and complementing tones.
Last, but not least: In my humble opinion single-coils give you access to other parts of notes than humbuckers do (I hope that makes sense). For any given overdrive level, the attack is softer with single-coils. Details in the decay of notes are clearer, and this means that any manipulation you do after the initial pick attack – like vibrato, trills or slides – is more present than with humbuckers. Even just letting the note die away, without any vibrato or other ornamentation, is rendered with more detail than with humbuckers. It is absolutely a tone worth exploring!