Way back when… and I mean way back when, I was working in a guitar shop and it was right about the time that the concept of the Superstrat REALLY took off. It was the early 90’s and affordable guitars that allegedly bridged the gap between a Strat and a Les Paul were just about everywhere.
Every month I opened up Guitarist magazine be treated to the latest advert from companies like Washburn, Jackson, Ibanez, Charvel and countless others stating that the perfect gigging guitar was available to you. People wanted the power and the balls of a Les Paul (remember, this was before high gain amps were readily available, so you had to push a tube amp to get it to clip in that perfect way) and they also wanted the option to get that bitey, cutting through tone of a Strat/Tele.
Every advert contained the words of either “Coil Tap” or “Split Coil” Humbuckers to give you the best of both worlds. The trouble is, none of them were ever convincing, they always did the HB sounds well, but the SC tones were always kinda meh.
One of the things that became evident to me is that those two features became a solid marketing point for guitars, and guitarists appeared to buy into it without ever really knowing what makes a Humbucker sound the way it does, or why a single coil sounds the way it does, and why it’s virtually impossible for any player to get the sound of both convincingly from their guitars. In fact, there are SO many issues involved in this that I think I can safely say it’s not virtually impossible, it is impossible.
Let’s look at what makes these things react the way they do.
This is not a one size fits all description and all the names associated with them are used interchangeably. I won’t go into that, but instead we shall concentrate on the pickup developed by Seth Lover, for Gibson, called the PAF. PAF means “patent applied for” and now appears to be one of the generic names for a HB pickup, the irony of that is delicious! Now, a PAF style pickup has two magnets (sitting with opposite polarity) that are wound individually. As the magnets were of opposite polarity it cancelled out the hum, it bucked it completely, therefor giving the name we enjoy today. The generic Humbucker.
This is probably the most common of all the switching types, using a four wire system from the pickup, the switch completely turns off one of the coils therefor giving you a ‘single coil’. This, in theory, appears to be a ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself down Son, job done” moment but as we all know, the first thing that happens is that you get a drastic drop in level (as well as the return of the hum) and it always sounds kinda disappointing.
This does not just apply to HB style pickups, it can apply to single coil as well. Basically, what this does is offer an alternate ‘out’ point from the winding, cutting out some of the coil therefor reducing the power coming out of the pickup – because the more winds a pickup has, the higher the output it has. This, in practice, and rather obviously, only serves to reduce the output of the pickup and doesn’t offer any effective change tonally.
The best way to distinguish these two is like this.
Coil Split - Removing 'one half' of a double pickup.
Coil Tap – Reducing the output of a pickup.
The real issue when thinking about these, for me, is that I was completely hooked by the concept of “Yay, I can have a strat and a Les Paul, all I have to do is flick a switch” and all I was left with each time was a feeling of disappointment. Even today, my main gig guitar is a PRS Brent Mason signature that has the ability to tap each HB independently. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a really convincing SC sound out of a HB sized pickup, amazingly, there is no level drop between the two either, the SC is just a ‘loud’ as the HB. I don’t know how they did this, but I like it. However, when I pick up a Strat or a tele that little bit of spank you get from a great SC guitar is just that little bit more prominent, that extra little something that is worth it’s weight in gold.
The most important thing to remember is that tele and Strat pickups are NOT the same. A tele pickup is generally bigger, allow for more winds around a wider coil that a Strat. This increases the output and because the pickup is general mounted on a plate (often brass), giving the whole thing more output, or as I like to call it, balls. This will come from all of the above also gives it a little more high and a little more low end (partly because the pick up is at a slightly more severe angle), so when running into a decent tube amp, it’ll clip quicker giving it the reputation of being a more powerful system. So, any guitar advert that tries to tell you it can do humbucker, and sound like a Strat and a tele is really making an outrageous statement that it probably can’t live up to. Because not only are the pickups are constructed differently enough to cause tonal differences, you then have to take into consider that the neck pickup on a tele is completely different again from the bridge which is then completely different from a neck pickup on a Strat… then you go into the wood within the guitars, the amount of wood, the bridge style and you get more and more distinctions.
Can a guitar ever truly sound like a Les Paul, a Strat and a Telecaster just by flicking a switch?
I’m a creature of habit, 100%. Borderline OCD makes me happy when things are “normal” and in a routine. It’s something I’ve noticed for many years that permeates through all of my daily life, down to food choices, what deodorant I use, all that stuff. When I go to one of our local restaurants, I’ll normally order one of the three or four different dishes I usually get. This same thing was overtly apparent after getting a Suhr a few months ago, then the PRS Silver Sky. My OCD kicks in, and when things are out of place, it’s just impossible for me to bond with instruments, pedals, amps, etc. A lot of it is expectation versus reality, then adding my desire for consistency it makes for a lot of gear flipping.
I was very fortunate to find an incredible deal several months back on a Suhr Antique heavy relic, with three Thornbuckers in it. It was an incredible sounding guitar, and the neck felt great in my hands. I had it for about two weeks, to where I was enjoying it but there just wasn’t something quite right. At the time, I had it built up in my mind that “It’s a Suhr, it has to be something wrong in my mind, these guitars are supposed to be perfect.” I played it for another couple weeks and found myself still feeling like it wasn’t quite where I wanted it. Despite my better judgment, and complete lack of experience, I watched a couple of YouTube videos, changed to my favorite strings that I use on every guitar (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s, I’ve been using them for over a decade now), and adjusted the truss-rod and the saddles on the bridge. Threw a set of Dunlop strap locks on there, and sure enough, that’s what it needed. It came down to it being a comfort level thing, where those strings and the security strap locks give me mentally helped complete the puzzle.
The strap lock thing is entirely for a reason, and to this day I’ll put a set of strap locks on every guitar I ever own in the future. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I had a PRS Custom 22 in Scarlet Red. That PRS was a guitar that I had saved for over two years for, and it was my first genuinely nice guitar. I was in a hard rock band and did a lot of jumping around and carrying on, and we were practicing before a gig in a garage. We were mid-jam when I jumped in the air, and when I landed the back of the strap broke and my beloved PRS went flying and hit the concrete floor. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I was fortunate because it mainly took a 1’ chip of finish off down to the wood near the jack, but the back as absolutely scratched to death. I couldn’t repair the considerable chunk of finish that chipped off, but I was able to at least wax some of the scratches out of the back. No guitar to this day feels safe unless I have strap locks on it now. I soon stopped jumping around pretty permanently after that.
The string situation comes down to preference and comfort. I’m used to the tension and tone that the Regular Slinky’s (10’s) give me, and although I’ve played guitars with other strings that worked just fine, nothing quite feels like home like a set of Slinkys’. I’ve gone through the phases of trying heavier and lower gauge strings, and for me, heavier than 10’s make my carpal tunnel act up, and anything lower than 10’s feel like playing spaghetti. I’ve tried various brands, from NYXL’s, D’Addario’s, and even boutique strings, and though they all sounded good and played fine, it always comes down to a manner of familiarity and what my ears expect along with how the strings feel under my fingers. The same thing went on with my PRS Silver Sky, where I just wasn’t comfortable until I put my favorite strings on there, adjusted the truss rod how I liked it, and even adjusted the pickups down to better suit my tastes. After those small adjustments (and a set of strap locks), it immediately felt sturdier and like I was “at home.” It just proved that I’m horrendously set in my ways, sometimes to a fault. The irony is that I’ve changed “favorite picks” so many times that I can’t count on my fingers and toes (albeit most revolve around a thicker, JazzIII XL shape).
Am I weird and the only one who does this? Not sure. I guess one way to look at it is that I know what I want more-so than in years past. The same has occurred recently with pedals too. I’ve moved more OD’s and fuzzes and dirt boxes on and off my board for so long now that there were days when I had a board full of nothing but dirt, to try them all. Now, I’m down to 3 dirt pedals that have stayed relatively consistent on my board, and they’re about what you’d expect: Klone (depends on the board size as to whether it’s a mini or a large one), Tubescreamer, and a Bluesbreaker of some sort. I like them versatile enough to cover lots of ground, but not so much that they overlap a whole lot. The same goes for most of the rest of my board, and I think it’s what it means when people talk about finding their own personal tone. I still flip pedals, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I think in that situation, getting in the comfort zone can be kind of nice (especially financially).
When you think of tone, what comes to mind? For me it is all encompassing, from the wood the guitar is made of, the pickups, what type of wiring is setup, the string brand and gauge, to the cables, to each pedal and what it does to the signal, the pre-amp and power amp, the speaker, the wood that the speaker cab is made up. For me tone is the culmination of the effort you’ve put into selecting each part of your signal chain, and factoring in the tonality of your individual playing style and how it reacts to different gear.
I’m also 30 and a total gear nerd, and I love that stuff. My thought processes have changed over the years. When I was 15 and learning and playing punk rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine and Incubus covers, my friends and I always had the same frame of mind: Hottest pickups and amps you could get in your hands, and ALL KNOBS ON 10! Our guitar volume was either on 10 or 0, and there was no in-between unless by accident. At that point we didn’t even see the need to have a tone knob, because it was never below 10 (and we dreamt of custom guitars that included no tone knobs, just volume). This served me well for many years until I grew up some and learned the subtle differences just those two knobs make on you overall sound and some of the amazing tones you can get by adjusting them in small increments.
Today, I set my amps pretty neutral EQ-wise to be pedal-friendly, except for the fact that I add a touch of extra treble and cut the mids a bit to use pedals and my guitar to fill in those tone frequencies. I normally roll the tone knob back on my guitar to about 7.5-8 depending on the guitar at all times (more with Tele’s than my Les Paul), reserving that extra bit of top end for when I really need to get out front in a hurry, or if I’m in the middle of playing and it sounds too muddy I’ll roll it up without having to change anything other than my guitars. This works on the other viewpoint as well, so if I’m changing guitars and something is too bright (my Strat bridge pickup) I will roll it down a bit more. That’s how I approach the tone knob when playing personally, but it’s definitely not a hard fast rule.
When talking with Brian and Jason, they both still keep their tone knobs on 10 and never roll them down, though they do use their volume knobs pretty heavily. How do you use the Tone knob on your guitars?
For the sake of discussion, here’s Joe Bonamassa discussing how he uses the knobs. He forgot to add that the interaction with the pedals is a thing of tonal beauty as well: