Choosing the right pickup configuration for your new electric guitar is one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make when narrowing down your options.
HH, HSS, and HSH pickup configurations are some of the most popular and hardest to choose between, and were actually the options I struggled between when buying my second guitar. In this article, I’ll compare each combination so you can decide which is the best choice for you.
The Quick Answer
HSS and HSH pickup configurations are more versatile than HH configurations due to the addition of at least one single coil, however, they look more crowded and are more complicated to use. HSS configurations have a brighter but thinner neck position tone compared to HSH configurations.
The tone of an electric guitar depends heavily on the following:
- Types of pickups used
- Where the pickups are located
There are two main types of pickup: humbucker and single coil. Single coils sound bright and have more of an emphasis on treble frequencies giving them a clearer sound. Humbuckers sound warmer and have more of an emphasis on bass and mid-range frequencies giving them a fuller sound. Humbuckers are generally used more for distorted tones because they suffer less from feedback compared to single coils.
With regards to the location, a humbucker for example can sound different in the bridge position compared to the neck position, due to both it’s location and because most manufactures actually voice the pickups differently to emphasise the differences.
HH Pickup Configuration
The HH pickup configuration is one of the most popular and the simplest one to unpack, so let’s start here. There are just two humbuckers here, with one in the bridge and one in the neck position. The result is a warm and full tone that’s perfect for distorted tones as you won’t get any hum from a single coil when in either the bridge or the neck position.
HH configurations will almost always have a 3-way pickup selector to give you three possible tones:
- Bridge pickup only (brightest and clearest)
- Bridge and middle pickup together (most balanced)
- Neck pickup only (warmest and most mellow)
The only time a HH configuration can get more complicated, is if the guitar has a coil tap/ split function. This allows you to essentially isolate one of the coils in the humbucker to create more of a single coil tone. The tone will never be as true as a real single coil, but it does add some more functionality to what would otherwise be a fairly basic configuration.
|Does not look crowded||Not very versatile|
|Great for high gain||Not as good for clean tones|
|Easy to operate||Lack of brightness and clarity|
HSS Pickup Configuration
The HSS pickup configuration is widely used on many guitars including the Fender Stratocaster and many Ibanez models due to its versatility. It has a humbucker in the bridge position and then single coils in the neck and middle positions and almost always utilises a 5-way pickup selector to give you the following tones:
- Bridge humbucker pickup only
- Bridge humbucker and middle single coil pickups together
- Middle single coil pickup only
- Neck single coil and middle single coil pickups together
- Neck single coil pickup only
There are some variations of this though, the most common being that position #2 uses only one of the coils (usually the outer) from the bridge humbucker with the middle single coil to make it sound brighter but thinner.
This is a very useful configuration for a range of music styles and for using clean and distorted amp settings.
The humbucker in the bridge is perfect for high gain as this position allows it to maintain more clarity and brightness (compared to if it was placed in the neck position), but prevents the hum that single coil pickups suffer from when using distortion. The single coils in the neck and middle positions are great for cleaner tones as they provide more clarity and brightness.
It is also possible to get a HSS configuration with a coil tapped/ split humbucker for even more functionality. In this case, the humbucker in the coil split/ tapped setting would sound more like a single coil to allow you to more closely replicate the tone from a guitar with an SSS configuration.
The only downsides are that it looks a bit more cluttered than a HH configuration and is harder to operate. You also lose the very warm neck neck humbucker tone that you have with a HH configuration, although this is not as useful as the neck single coil for most players.
|Bridge humbucker is great for gain||Looks more crowded|
|Single coils are great for cleaner tones||Some warmth lost in the neck position|
|Suits a wide range of music styles||Harder to operate quickly (due to 5-way switch)|
HSH Pickup Configuration
The HSH pickup configuration is the least common on this list, but it is still seen on guitars by Ibanez, PRS, Fender and Charvel. This configuration has humbucker pickups in the bridge and neck positions and a single coil pickup in the middle position.
They will almost always come with a 5-way pickup selector. There are a couple of options with regards to how the selector is set up though.
- Bridge humbucker only
- Outer bridge coil (from the humbucker) and middle single coil
- Middle single coil
- Outer neck coil (from the humbucker) and middle single coil
- Neck single coil
The advantage here is that it gives you more single coil-type tones in positions 2 and 4, however it doesn’t allow you to mix the humbucker and single coil pickups for a more balanced sound.
- Bridge humbucker only
- Bridge humbucker and middle single coil
- Middle single coil only
- Neck humbucker and middle single coil
- Neck humbucker only
The advantage of this setup is that it gives you the option of blending the humbucker and single coil, however you don’t get the opportunity to use more single coil-type tones (unless you just use position 3).
As you can already tell, this is the most complicated configuration out of the three we’re comparing here, and it also can look very crowded in comparison to the cleaner looking HH configuration. Further complication can be added if the humbuckers can also be coil split, although this does make it incredibly versatile.
The bridge humbucker is well suited to distorted tones, whilst the middle single coil is great for cleaner tones. The neck humbucker allows you to achieve very warm tones in that neck position in comparison to the HSS configuration. This configuration offers the player the most dynamic range (difference between the brightest and warmest tones).
|Ideal for metal/ high gain tones||Looks very crowded|
|Most versatile configuration||Some brightness lost in the neck position|
|Offers the most dynamic range||Complicated to use|
Now that we’ve been through each type of configuration, let’s directly compare the options so you can figure out which will be best for you.
HH vs HSS
The HH pickup configuration provides more warmth in the neck position and will be better for high gain than the HSS configuration. However, the HSS configuration is more versatile due to the single coils and provides the widest dynamic range (difference between warm and bright tones).
If you’re strictly using high gain, then the HSS configuration is unlikely to offer you much benefit. However, if you’re switching between styles and amp settings, then the HSS configuration will be useful.
Remember to consider if the humbuckers are coil tapped/ split as well though, as this adds another layer of versatility. For example, a coil split HH configuration will offer as much versatility as a HSS configuration which does not have a coil split humbucker.
HSS vs HSH
The only difference between the HSS and HSH pickup configurations is which type of pickup is in the neck position. With a HSS configuration, there is a single coil in the neck position which is best for clean and bright tones. With a HSH configuration, there is a humbucker in the neck position which is better for warmer and high gain tones.
The HSH configuration offers the widest dynamic range and more versatility if the humbuckers can be coil split. However, the HSS configuration looks less crowded and is more commonly available. If you are playing cleaner tones as well as distortion, the HSS configuration is usually more useful. However, if you are using primarily distortion, the HSH is likely to be more beneficial.
HH vs HSH
The advantage of a HSH pickup configuration over a HH configuration, is that the single coil in the middle position adds more versatility. However, the HH configuration looks cleaner and is easier to use in comparison to the HSH configuration. HSH guitars are also much rarer.
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