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The Showdown: Humbucker V. Single Coil

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The showdown: Humbucker v. Single coil
Michael Heinerth
Eng 220-university academic writing
March 16, 2015
Jennifer Malia

The showdown: Humbucker v. Single coil While it’s important to some people, mostly guitar geeks, most folks can’t tell the difference in tone--that is, the subtle nuances that make up the overall sound that an electric guitar makes. The average listener could tell you if the sound is “thick” or “twangy”—but what makes those differences? Dispelling with differences in effects, amplification, etc, the root of tone is in the pickups. “What is a pickup?” you may ask. In the 40’s, a few people (notably Leo Fender, Les Paul, and Seth Lover) were working on a technology that would change the face of music permanently. By wrapping thin, coated, copper wire around magnets, and applying a current, a new means of “hearing” the guitar was born. This construction is not entirely from the concept of an electro magnet. The substitution of a magnet for a steel bar changes the device into somewhat of a magnetic sensor. In essence, the pickup “feels” the vibrations of the strings disrupting its magnetic field, and translates that into an electrical charge [ (Henshall, 2011) ]. “The basic science behind pickup function is Faraday's Law of Induction. It states that a changing magnetic field causes an electric field to be set up in a nearby wire, causing a current to flow if the wire is part of a closed circuit (a loop of wire for example)” [ (Wallace, 2004) ].
The first design that everyone used was later referred to as a “single coil pickup”. While designs varied slightly from one manufacturer to another, the basic construction was the same. Typically, several small magnets, stood on end, are wrapped with a coil of wire. This construction accomplishes the task well, creating an open sound due to more pronounced high frequencies. Many guitarists prefer the sound of single coil pickups for their bright sound and versatility—the single coil pickup is featured heavily in many forms of popular music, most notably blues and country. Despite their popularity, single coil pickups have one major design flaw; noise. While attempts were made to shield single coil pickups from noise, not many of these techniques were effective. The problem obviously required another solution; which led Seth Lover to design the humbucking pickup. The humbucker is named for its ability to “buck the hum.” The hum is mostly caused by the resonant frequency of the power supplied by the wall socket; the frequency at which 120 volts travels is 60 cycles per second. A cycle is the measurement of one oscillation, as illustrated here: [ (positive nergy, 2012) ]. While that energy is absolutely necessary to activate and run electric amplification systems, it causes an annoying hum that bothered some folks greatly. To combat the issue, two single coil pickups were wired together, out of phase. Referring to the illustration above, imagine that one pickup sits at the top of the curve, and the other sits at the bottom. What each coil sees on this curve is opposite each other, and thus cancels out. What this means, in terms of tone, is the ability to raise the volume of the amplifier without any hum. Additionally, the dual coil setup accentuates the mid range frequencies, resulting in what most guitarists refer to as “beefy” or “fat.” Due to the thicker sound of these pickups, and their ability to work at higher volumes, humbuckers are the preferred pickup of heavy rockers and metal heads everywhere. Conversely, owing to the low noise and mellow sound of the humbucker, they are also favored by jazz players. The differences of these two devices can only be highlighted more by their similarities. Both types have the same basic job—send the vibration of the strings electrically to the amplifier. While the way that this is accomplished may be different, the end result is decidedly similar. Owing to the similar output of these designs, one might argue that there shouldn’t be a debate with such polarization. This author certainly doesn’t care for all the fuss! All things considered, I am certainly glad that there are choices available when it comes to pickup design. With all of the possible uses, it is extremely helpful to have different options. For all their similarities and differences, both designs hold prestigious places in the history of the electric guitar.

Works Cited
Henshall, M. (2011, February 17). The history and development of magnetic pickups. Retrieved March 6, 2015, from Sound Matters: http://www.soundmattersblog.com/history-development-magnetic-pickups/ positive nergy. (2012, April 30). Photovoltaics: Notes on Inverters. Retrieved from PoSiTiV nErGy Sustainable-y Solar Designs.: http://positivnergy.blogspot.com/2012/04/chapter-8-photovoltaics-inverters-types.html
Wallace, H. (2004). How do Guitar pickups work? Retrieved March 06, 2015, from Atlantic Quality Design: http://www.aqdi.com/pickups.htm…...

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