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I'm seeking a guitar to elicit the rich fat heavy sound. So as I understand a guitar with the H humbucker (double coil) pickup is what I need for that. But there is a wide range of layouts for the guitars. Some of them have S single (single coil) pickup, for example H-S-H layout. Where single coil pickup is mostly used for blues, funk and jazz guitars. And these H-S-H guitars are also recommended for heavy rock (because of the humbuckers).

And of course, I don't want to drill solely heavy riffs only, I'd like sometimes to play solo-like melodies. Will I ever be able to play acoustic like sound on a guitar without single coil pickup (H-H)? Will I be able to play blues or funky for example?

So my question is: what surely I will not be able to do with H-H guitar and what with H-S-H?

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Jazz is almost exclusively played with a neck humbucker with the tone rolled down fyi –  Fergus Jun 24 at 19:21
It would be helpful to identify those players who exemplify the "rich fat heavy sound" that you are seeking. Then readers here may be able to better describe the nature of the instrument(s) and signal processing chain(s) typically used by those players, together with how they may address your needs and desires. –  Kirk A Jun 24 at 20:28
You can also get HSS and SSH configurations, which give you a few more options. For example, the HSS gives you extra power on the bridge pickup for stuff like punk power chords, while the neck and mid are single coils for more expressive playing. Very versatile. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 24 at 20:33
Please do not forget that for a properly fat sound you need not only a neck humbucker but foremostly a suffiently rich guitar, in terms of mechanical response. Les Pauls and semiacoustics are obviously great, but there's no way to get a "proper" jazz sound out of an average HSH superstrat. –  leftaroundabout Jun 24 at 23:13
I think that there is a lot more that goes into getting a rich sound than just the pickup layout. AYK different pickups also have very different sounds, so if you line up an HH next to an HSH, there are going to be so many different factors that it's impossible to just point to the pickup configuration as the difference, unless they are the same make and model. From my personal experience of wanting a nice HSH many years ago, it's not worthwhile to limit yourself to that configuration because there are so few models. IMHO. Also, I don't think you mention what style of music you play at all. –  JFA Jun 25 at 1:59

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Time was, Fender Stratocasters used a three-position switch, corresponding to neck, middle and bridge pickups. Granted, single-coil, so just bear with me.

Players discovered that, if you put the switch in the right position, you could get the neck-and-middle and bridge-and-middle sounds. Jimi Hendrix is a popularizer of this technique, and it became popular enough that the Strat got wired stock with five-position switches. Eventually the middle pickup was made reverse wound and reversed polarity, so that neck-middle and bridge middle would effectively be noiseless, humbucking positions.

When Ibanez came to Steve Vai about making a signature guitar for him, he said he wanted to get those positions and tones with neck and bridge humbuckers, with coils tapped so you'd get one coil of the neck or bridge with the single coil in the middle, so it's a hum-less Strat setup. This is what you cannot get with H-H setup.

As the H-S-H wiring is usually a variation on Strat wiring, you generally get the middle pickup in middle position, while H-H guitars generally have neck-bridge as the middle position. It is doable to set the circuit so that the middle position is neck-bridge, but generally, you have it in H-H guitars and not H-S-H guitars.

Either way, H-S-H guitars are generally master volume and master tone, while Les Paul-style H-H guitars have separate volume and tone. With Les Pauls, you can set, for example, the neck volume to zero, so the switch becomes bridge-bridge-none, making it a kill switch. This is not available with a H-S-H Vai-style guitar.


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Some good information here, but I'm not sure what you mean by the last paragraph. What are the implications of lacking a "full-coil neck and bridge"? –  Bradd Szonye Jun 24 at 18:56
It's the one position a standard HSH guitar can't do; neck and bridge hum Buckers together. –  Fergus Jun 24 at 19:18
@fergus had it right. It's like the middle position of a Les Paul switch: both humbuckers at the same time. Plus, if you have dual volume controls, you can roll off the volume of, for example, the neck, so the three-position switch gives you neck-neck-off –  VarLogRant Jun 24 at 20:24
I just checked the Ibanez site and my recollection is correct. ibanez.co.jp/products/… It would be easy enough to make the middle position be neck-bridge instead of middle only, but I see either-or, not both. –  VarLogRant Jun 24 at 20:32
Oh! Thanks for the explanation! Couldn't figure out what you were referring to. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 25 at 0:13

You will surely not be able to play a strong single coil in the H-H guitar. You could tap a 4-wire humbucker for a single coil sound, but in my experience the tapped humbucker doesn't sound as "warm" as a separate single coil. I too wanted the best of both worlds and I took the following approach.

Keep in mind that there are further differences in the traditional humbucking and single coil setups, such as pots and caps.

  1. Humbuckers generally use 500K pots, single coils generally use 250K pots. Metal players may use 1M pots for humbuckers.
  2. IIRC, humbuckers often use 0.047 capacitors. Single coils halve that to a 0.022 cap. Of course, vari-tones and similar mods provide a selection of caps on board.

In my own (first) project guitar, I did not know quite what to expect, so I built it with HSH pickups and two complete signal paths. The humbucking path uses 500k pots and an 0.047 cap; the single coil path uses 250K pots and a 0.022 cap. I did this with stacked, concentric CTS 250K/500K pots and an on/on toggle switch, all within the minimal confines of a standard Telecaster control plate. I created a custom 5-way selector switch to isolate the single-coil wiring from the humbucking combinations, but in the end when I flip the switch I opted for just the stand-alone single coil for the warmest sound. As I said above, the tapped humbuckers just didn't compare. This project is a work in progress; I hope this helps you find your own path.

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In my own example, I would compare the "warm" sound to the signature tones of players like Mark Knopfler or Robert Cray. –  Kirk A Jun 24 at 20:40

Even with a H-H configuration, you could utilize coil splitting to achieve single coil-ish sounds. While arguably this does not give a "true" single coil sound, if humbucker sounds are mainly used, this can be enough. My impression is that most people aren't using the middle position that much, I think the way forward is to try different pickup configurations to find out what you need.

A lot of, if not most, blues players use humbuckers, so a good blues tone is definitely achieveable.

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If someone doesn't know what they want thier guitar to do, they should always get HSH. I'd certainly say it's the most versatile set up. Given the usual wiring (5 way switch) with switch position 1 being the neck pickup and 5 being the bridge, HSH gives a great deal of tonal variety.

For my tastes, position 1 on a clean tone can be a bit too boomy. Even if one backs the volume a bit to take the edge off, it doesn't quite suit acoustic-style strumming. Position 2 is perfect for these sorts of things, though. I'd always use it for the small high chords you often find in funk and reggae. Position 2 is also a nice way thinning a distorted tone without it cleaning up too much, like Position 1 with the volume dialled down does. If you have your rig set so Position 1 screams, Position 2 will sing.

The middle S (Position 3) by itself also works very well for chord strumming, and it also responds very well if slapping is something you like to do (A single coil in the middle is literally the textbook choice: Single coils typically have more bite and will bring life to the pops, and it's position will ensure the slaps aren't too boomy (like a neck pickup would be) or too tinny/nasally (like a bridge pickup would be)).

I don't use Position 4 very much, but that's because I think it has a rather specific sound I don't want very much. With a tiny bit of gain, this would be the position I would play the synth parts of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" with. It would be perfect for bassier funk riffs in that sort of vein.

In general, the typical situation is that HSH gives me options of cleaner/thinner/clearer tones which aren't as achievable with HH (even with volume and tone pots in use!). These are options I use very frequently, and I'd feel pretty restricted with HH! Though of course, this isn't the case for everyone. Indeed, I'm quite fascinated at the variety of tones Ron Thal and Andy Timmons get from the overly-simple SH set up they prefer!

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BTW, Superstition is not played on synth but clavinet, a stringed keyboard instrument with magnetic pickups that are, in this song, actually used like two guitar single coils. — I quite agree with all your arguments, however I prefer HSS on a strat-like guitar as it doesn't have the too-muddy-neck-humbucker problem. On a Les Paul or Tele, a neck humbucker is much more useful of course. –  leftaroundabout Jun 24 at 23:28
@leftaroundabout Oh, thanks for the info. I had it in my mind that it was the synthesiser TONTO. I know Stevie used it somewhere! –  FireGarden Jun 25 at 0:11

The short answer is that an HSH guitar can be wired to do everything an HH guitar can, but provides the additional option of mixing in the middle single coil.

HH guitars are usually wired with a three-way switch (neck, middle, bridge) and either master volume and tone or individual pickup volume and tone.

As standard, HSH guitars are usually wired with a five-way switch (neck, neck+middle, middle, middle+bridge, bridge). This gives you two of the three HH tones, but misses out the neck+bridge double-humbucker tone.

However, it is possible to alter this - for example, you could have an HSH with the standard HH three-way switch and a separate switch or volume control to add the middle pickup to any position - this now gives two additional options over the five-way (neck+bridge and neck+middle+bridge).

And all of that is without considering the various coil-tapping options; on some HSH guitars, one or both of the mix positions are sometimes wired with an automatic coil tap, so e.g. neck+middle would be only one coil of the neck pickup mixed with the single-coil middle pickup.

Basically, if you can wield a soldering iron (or get someone to do it for you), the world's your oyster!

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Dont forget that the magnetic attraction of the pickup poles simply being present will affect the string vibration and tend to kill harmonics the more pickups/coils are present. That's why EVH stripped his guitar to just bridge HB.

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