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Why the humbucker pickup sucks

Gibson PAF

Eventually, you come to realize that a humbucker sucks.

Why does the humbucker suck?

Before I tell you why the humbucker sucks, let's talk about what's good about it.

Two things make humbuckers good:

  1. Greater output
  2. Hum cancellation

...and that's it.

What makes the humbucker suck is that it's voiced "flat."

Any modern electric guitar with a humbucker in it, be it cheap, expensive or anywhere in between, is designed to have a flat output. If you took a 5-band equalizer and set everything to dead center, that's pretty much what a humbucker output sounds like...

...which is utterly boring, and that's where the suck happens.

Are there any humbuckers that do NOT suck?

Yes, but you'll laugh when you find out the reason why.

Humbucker that does not suck: DiMarzio Bluesbucker.

Reason why it does not suck: Voiced to sound like a P90 single-coil.

When you want a genuinely good sounding pickup, you either go single-coil or get a humbucker voiced to sound like one.

Why does the single-coil always sound better?

Humbuckers are voiced flat where its dynamics are, by design mind you, limited to the point where you hit a tonal wall that you can't break through. The best way I can describe this is that you'll always be wanting that "little extra" out of a humbucker but never be able to find it.

Singles - even for the dirt cheap kind - have no such tonal wall. You don't have to go hunting for that "little extra" with single-coil tone. It's there.

The humbucker is the easier pickup, but that will work against you

A big reason why so many players prefer the humbucker over the single-coil is because it's easier to deal with. Because the pickup is voiced so flatly, it'll pretty much sound good through any effect, any amp, etc..

With a single-coil, you have to work at it to make that thing sound right. It does not sound good in every amp. It does not take well to every pedal. In fact, some setups will sound absolutely awful with a guitar that has singles in it.

In the end however, an "automatic" pickup like a humbucker has a tone that's just lifeless, bland and dull. A single, as "quirky" as it might be, has actual tonal personality to it. Yes, it takes work to wrangle a good tone out of one, but that's the fun of it. (Yeah, fun. Remember that? The thing that's the reason you play guitar in the first place?)

Does this mean you should stop buying guitars with humbuckers in them?

No. But it does mean that you shouldn't go chasing after single-coil tone with a guitar that has humbuckers in it.

What's the best single-coil guitar for the guy "addicted to humbuckers?"

Telecaster or Les Paul with P90s in it.

Yeah, you could get a Strat if you wanted to - but - the Telecaster has a higher-output single in the rear/bridge position, and the P90 also has higher-output singles compared to a Strat.

The cheapest options are the Epiphone Les Paul Special I P90 (very cheap but very good) or pretty much any Squier Telecaster.

If you're a Les Paul guy, I'd suggest the P90 'Paul specifically. If not a Les Paul guy, get the Tele instead.

There are two more reasons why I don't recommend Strats to guys addicted to humbuckers. You'll keep whacking that middle pickup constantly, and the fact cheaper Strats have no tone control wired to the bridge-only pickup position (which you will want, trust me on that one.)

If you've been bored with your guitar lately...

...get a guitar with singles in it. Tele or Les Paul P90 are the easiest and cheapest way to get That Sound you've been looking for. It's there. You just needed the right pickup for it. And it's not a humbucker.

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