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People keep telling me you need humbuckers to play metal but I want to play some heavy stuff on my strat. How does high gain work on single coils and what are some of the pitfalls?

People keep telling me that it is a blues/country guitar but I'm interested in playing an unconventional style on a strat.

This question was partially inspired by this video.

  • Simplest way may be to go through an effects pedal. – Tim Dec 31 '16 at 14:01
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    People who tell you that you have to use some specific tool to accomplish some artistic goal should be acknowledged politely and then their advice should be disregarded. Also be aware that heavy metal occasionally doesn't mean high gain. Some of the most brutal guitar sounds I've heard have been made with very moderate amounts of gain. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '16 at 14:07
  • @ToddWilcox What about that electric-bow thing in that question about how to get a violin sound from a guitar? music.stackexchange.com/a/24943/27335 – General Nuisance Dec 31 '16 at 16:51
  • I ask, because, from my uneducated perspective, it seems like almost all electric guitar sounds have to do with specific technology that does not occur naturally. Distortion is just that; a distortion of "normal," "natural" sound. – General Nuisance Dec 31 '16 at 16:53
  • @GeneralNuisance There are many other ways to get a violin like sound from a guitar. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '16 at 23:06
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The obvious answer is yes, you can! The question is if you really want it, because it will be easier to achieve an appropriate metal sound with humbucking pick-ups. Today's amps or (modeling) effects provide you with insane amounts of gain, so gain is no problem, even with (lower output) single coil pickups. As explained in topo morto's answer, hum can be a problem, but using a noise gate, not standing too close to the amp or to other sources of interference should be sufficient in most cases. Remember that many rock guitar players use(d) single coil strats at high volumes and relatively high gain settings (Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc.).

One useful option is to change the wiring of your single coil strat to allow a series connection of two pickups. Note that this is different from the parallel connection achieved by two positions of the 5-way pickup selector switch. A real hum-bucker uses a series connection of two coils. I've added that option to my strat and it achieves a hum-bucking (i.e., noise canceling) effect, and a sound that is darker and fuller than the original single coil sound. It does sound different from a "real" humbucker though, and honestly, I don't use it that much because even for high gain sounds I found I like the original strat sounds best (I don't play metal though).

Note that this answer only refers to the single coil pickups in your original stat, not the strat as a guitar model itself, because it's probably obvious to you that you can replace the pickups if you like, even without replacing the pickguard.

In sum, you can play metal with a single coil strat, you can even play metal with a ukulele (

), but the question is if it's worth the additional effort to achieve the sound that you like.

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The only real problem you may have with playing high-gain stuff on single coils is if the pickups are picking up hum, a high-gain signal chain that introduces a lot of clipping (distortion) is going to amplify that hum relative to the level of the actual notes played, potentially to the point where it could sound intrusive. Humbuckers, on the other hand, will 'buck the hum', rejecting some interference to some extent.

If you're not getting problems with hum, then really, there's no problem. You may find that you don't like the sound of single coils through high-gain, but that's where you have to make your own mind up!

bear in mind that two of the 5 pickup selector positions on a modern strat do allow two pickups to sound together and you may find those position somewhat hum-canceling.

Also : you can have true humbuckers in a strat:

enter image description here

my strat has a couple of types of dimarzio humbuckers in, both switchable for series, parallel, AND single coil operation.

  • would you summarize your pickups and switches? I'm always looking for new ideas, and haven't yet built a frankenstrat to accompany my partscaster which features a combination of hb & sc operation. – Kirk A Dec 31 '16 at 12:40
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    @KirkA basically I have a humbucker in each of neck and bridge positions, none in the centre position. Each pickup has a 3-way switch to switch between series, parallel, and single coil operation; there's then just one switch to go between the neck and bridge pickups. No blend, and no volume control either! I'm afraid I can't remember exactly which ones I have - I think one's a 'billy corgan' and the other is a tone zone. – topo morto Dec 31 '16 at 12:47
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    Worth saying that the 2-pickup settings in modern Strats are designed to cancel hum: the magnets and wiring in the middle PU have reverse polarity, so if you connected bridge+middle in series you'd have a humbucker (with very wide coil spacing). These settings actually put the PUs in parallel, which still gives the hum-cancelling but doesn't increase the inductance. Hence this setting doesn't give as much level and fat resonance as a “true” humbucker, but that can be adjusted with effects. – leftaroundabout Dec 31 '16 at 14:59
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    It may be worth noting that some of the sound of a humbucker comes from the interaction of the two sets of magnets; it's also possible to get pickups that have two coils but only one set of magnets which might be useful to someone who decides they prefer what they can do with the sound of a single-coil pickup except for the noise (while the harmonically-simple sound of a single-coil sound itself might be boring, a simpler sound may be easier to shape using effects pedals). – supercat Dec 31 '16 at 17:32
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It is certainly broadly true that humbuckers tend to provide an fundamentally 'heavier' basic tone, especially when you aren't using much in the way of effects, indeed many modern guitars designs specifically for heavy styles have active pickups for even higher output from the instrument.

Having said that metal covers a diverse range of styles and sounds and it is as much about performance and playing styles as the sound and not all metal is just about a wall, of distortion.

For example consider Iron Maiden, undoubtedly a quintessentially metal band but the guitar sound isn't really all that heavy with a lot of the power of the overall band sound coming from the bass lines and harmonising guitar parts. Indeed often the guitar parts are played by two guitars in unison ever so slightly out of tune with each other.

Equally as mentioned in another answer Jimi Hendrix managed to get a pretty meaty sound out of a single coil Strat.

Also with a Strat type guitar you do have the advantage that it is relatively easy to swap pickups around so you aren't stuck with single coils forever if you find they don't work for you. Indeed a humbucker at the bridge with single coils in the mid and neck positions is common enough in heavy rock and metal.

It is also failry simple to wire up a humbucker to be 'coil tapped' so that you can switch between humbucking and single coil modes at the flick of a switch.

Ultimately what matters is that you can get a sound which you like and works with your musical vision and playing style, how you achieve this is largely irrelevant and many players never really stop experimenting with equipment and setup to either get the sound they want or to try to find something new.

  • Good points about how the band mix sounds - though a big thick sound is fun when practicing on your own, a bassy distorted guitar isn't necessarily needed if your rhythm section is doing its job; cutting through in your own space can be a better place to be. – topo morto Dec 31 '16 at 18:01
  • Indeed metal is often very much about the whole band sound and as you say solo practice often needs a different frequency spread than when you are performing with a band. Indeed in some cases you can almost have a swapping of the conventional roles of different instruments eg Korn tend to use very sludgy and bassy guitars with quite a bright bass sounds. – Chris Johns Dec 31 '16 at 18:04
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You can play metal even on classical guitar or harp and sound great but of course your question is not about genre. Metal tone is the sound of humbuckers with a lot of gain. Humbuckers are naturally little compressed so for single you need even more gain (or compressor). Distorted sound will be little buzzy so you will need to use tone knob (or eq pedal, or seymour duncan pickups booster that has humbucker mode). The hum can be terrible in some environments so you will need noiseless pickups or at least second position of selector switch (or gate). A lot of work and compromises without any benefit over real humbuckers.

IMHO the best high gain sound I've ever heard were humbucker and single coil played together.

Anyway you may hear single coil on many metal recordings. Leads are sometimes played single coil to give more treble.

I posted link to a video that shows benefits from double tracking in high gain mode. This effect can be emulated by dedicated pedal or chorus set exteeeeeeemly subtly.

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