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I've seen mention of dynamics on the Internet generally associated with single coil pickups, and it seems that people assume that those have more dynamics.

However, there is an interesting forum topic in which someone argues about that with convincing arguments.

And there seems to be consensus on the fact that the word dynamics may be used with different meanings, that people tend to repeat stuff they read on the Internet which leads to unsubstantiated rumors...

Dynamic range definition

What I'm talking about is the way the pickup outputs low volume when I pick gently and huge volume when I slam hard. I've seen mentions of dynamic range and I think this is it. Is this correct?

For instance, my friend has this Telecaster with a single coil, and it is remarkable how much he can play softly them strum harder and get a huge volume difference (huge dynamic range). On the other hand, my SG is equipped with humbuckers and I don't get that much of a difference. Even strumming very hard, I don't get that volume increase (low dynamic range).

The enemy of dynamic range would be compression. Compression increases the volume on low level signals so that everything is loud.

Pickup and amp influence

We've been swapping amps for the sake of testing. His amp (Powerball, 100 W) is much louder than mine (Ironball, 20 W), and it seems the difference is attenuated but his guitar still wins with the dynamic range contest.

Those tests would indicate that the pickups do matter, but in this comment, user Gnobuddy says that pickup answer can be considered linear and lack of dynamic range is due to compression in the amp only.

Maybe a way to conciliate both theories is to say that high gain humbuckers tend to reach max volume earlier while single coils exploit the lower volume range. Basically what is developped here.

Does this mean I should get more dynamics by just lowering the gain on my amp?

In other words, would using lower gain pickups help just because I would get a lower gain, which I could achieve just the same by lowering the gain on the amp?

Right now, I play with master at 100% but a relatively low gain on the clean channel to avoid crushing on the arpeggios. I don't think I can lower the gain any more. I would like to get more expression by having some notes sound louder, for instance get a huge boom when strumming the lower string, and I'm thinking of getting a single coil or P90 neck pickup.

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First note that, amplification completely aside, guitars have different dynamic range. To name the extremes, a Tele with high action and .012 strings will not respond strongly to gentle stroking, but allows you to put in really a lot of mechanical power if you want. Whereas a Les Paul with low action and .009 strings plays like butter, but is quickly “saturated” in terms of power when the flabby strings hit the fretboards (leaving only transversal motion, which all magnetic PUs are bad at picking up). So that's something you should always keep in mind: even electric guitars are actually acoustic instruments; the mechanical aspects are in many situations more important than the electric ones.

For a fair comparison, you should therefore stick to a single guitar and compare different pickups on it. That's easily possible on a superstrat with humbuckers that allow coil splitting.

Even there, I'd agree from experience that the single-coil option tends to, subjectively, “feel more dynamic”. The main reason for this is probably that dynamics are frequency-dependent: quiet notes are not so much “softer” in an amplitude sense as they are mellower, because the higher harmonics are proportionally more excited by heavy picking. The fundamentals are already convincingly brought in action by gentle finger-stroking, so a high-inductance humbucker already puts out a pretty strong amplitude when you're playing mezzopiano.
A low-inductance single coil puts out a much lower amplitude in that situation (it has a lower voltage-amplitude in general), however it can in a sense make up for that with a strong resonance above 4 kHz, which sounds in principle a lot more present / agressive than the <1 kHz stuff that the humbucker is so good at transmitting. Only, those frequencies require more strong playing to get out at all. With a humbucker, they'll not be so strikingly twangy because the fundamentals already dominate the signal level.

Add to this the amp's compression characteristics and the upshot is

  • A high-Z humbucker is always loud, and it doesn't get very much louder with forte playing because this usually just saturates the amp with unspectacular low-mid frequencies. Nice fat/bluesy singing, but hardly agressive. To make a humbucker sound agressive, you need to cascade multiple stages of distortion as is usually done in rock/metal – that works very well thanks to the PU's high signal-to-noise ratio, but it reduces the dynamic range even further.

  • A low-Z single coil is generally quieter, however it can transmit some really in-the-face higher frequencies which only arise when you play forte. Even if you saturate the amp: when done with these higher frequencies it results in a very different sound, not just smooth compression but piercing crackup.

All this applies only under the assumption that the humbucker has a high inductance and the single coil a lower one. That's a typical situation but not universal. You can get low-impedance humbuckers as well; in fact you can hack one yourself by wiring the coils of a normal humbucker in parallel rather than series. (You'll find that this sounds indeed much brighter and probably also feels more dynamic; however standard-size humbuckers can sound rather unpleasantly harsh in a low-inductance configuration – probably because the overtone cancellation falls in a critical frequency range.)

Conversely, single coils with higher inductance won't give you the dynamic twang of a Tele either. In particular the old fat jazz-guitar models sound tame, and also a P90 is probably not a sensible choice if you want lots of dynamic range.

Instead, I'd recommend to try and get out more of the pickup configuration you already have. A coil split is a very effective simple option. But you can also make the signal more SC-agressive after the guitar – a classic option is a wah-wah pedal. Less obvious but very effective is a low cut filter, which prevents flooding the amp with fundamentals. You can do that with any EQ pedal.

The best option would be to include all of that as an active circuitry in the guitar.


One might argue that a split humbucker is not in every regard the same as a single coil; in particular, it still has the extra magnets. I don't think these are an important aspect here, but ideally, you'd literally test a guitar with a humbucker, then take that out and put a single coil in its position and test again. I would be interested whether such a test gives much different results from a coil split of a single PU; I rather doubt it.

Even if you have the gain very low, you may get compression from the power stage.

  • Thanks you for this very detailed answer. I understand that this (SC being > to HB regarding dynamics) is a general assertion that assumes HB is high gain / high Z and SC is low gain / low Z, therefore it doesn't apply to exceptions to this rule (low Z HB, high Z SC). I suspected P90 would fall into the not so low Z SC category. Thanks also for the pointing out frequency issue. I have a wha pedal, I shall try using it as a low-cut filter. – Jérôme Oct 18 '17 at 7:29
  • Another way of comparing without having to mechanically change the pickups would be to use a P-Rails: it allows to switch between CS, P-90 and HB. – Jérôme Oct 18 '17 at 7:30
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The way to find the "true" answer to this is to compare a single-coil pickup vs a double-coil pickup Having Identical Sensitivity. Even knowing that two different pickups have the same Impedance isn't going to be conclusive. Different pickups even using the same exact coil(s) are likely to have different magnets (of different gauss ratings). The question is therefore, IMHO, Too General to have a deterministic answer. Pickup "specs" generally don't even list an impedance; you're stuck with "subjective" terms like "Hot" and "Mellow". Assuming an identical magnetic field, a coil with a larger # of turns (same size wire) will generally produce a higher max output voltage (i.e. will appear to have a larger "dynamic range", in your terms). Short of having detailed specs, you're unfortunately stuck with trial-and-error comparisons or folklore to drive your choice.

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    This speaks to an important point: there is a dramatic range of possible output voltages between individual humbucker designs. It is not true that all humbuckers are hotter or output higher voltages merely because they are humbuckers. It is also not to be expected that every single coil pickup design has the same voltage output. – Yorik Oct 17 '17 at 20:37
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Dynamics is only part of the issue, but yes, single coil pickups should give you a better response for a couple of reasons:

  • single position on the string as opposed to two positions energising the pickup means you don't have interference between frequencies: hence faster response, better highs etc
  • only one magnet set rather than a pair means better sustain, as magnets in pickups damp string vibration

However humbuckers do provide noise reduction (hum bucking) and greater signal strength, as well as a bit of perceived boost to lower frequencies. If, however, you can reverse one of the pair (phase shift) you can bring out those transients and dynamics once again.

  • How does this adress the question? – leftaroundabout Oct 17 '17 at 21:55
  • @leftaroundabout question asks "are single coil pups better at it" - my answer says "yes," and explains why plus some other associated info. – Doktor Mayhem Oct 17 '17 at 21:56
  • Doesn't look like it to me; question asks “are single coils better at X” and you write “X is only part of the issue [what issue?], but single coils are better at Y and Z”. – leftaroundabout Oct 17 '17 at 22:01
  • Sentence 1 - I don't know how to write "yes" any simpler, I'm afraid. – Doktor Mayhem Oct 17 '17 at 22:01

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