Every guitarists knows that the pickups are one of the most important aspects of an electric guitar is determining the tone. There are so many different pickup types, brands and models out there, that it can be a pretty confusing topic. But to complicate things further, there are so many different possible configurations, that it’s hard to know which is right for you.
I’ve created this post to make this topic as clear as possible. I’ll go through all the main types of pickup configurations, how they affect your sound and which guitars usually use them. So let’s get started!
Guitar Pickup 101
I think it’s best to start by going through what a pickup does and the main types really briefly to clear any misconceptions up before we jump into the different configurations.
- Pickups are used to sense the vibrations of the strings and send a signal to the amplifier.
- They consist of a core material wrapped in coils of wire to form a magnet.
- There are three main types of pickup: single-coil, P90, and humbucker.
- Single coil pickups use one magnet and produce a bright and twangy sound, however you can experience humming if you crank up the gain.
- P90 pickups also use one magnet but have a higher output resulting in less humming and more depth to the sound.
- Humbuckers use two magnets and don’t have humming when you use high gain. They have the warmest and loudest sound of the three types.
Head over to our post on single-coils vs. P90 vs. humbucker pickups for an in-depth comparison between the three main tpes.
Intro to Pickup Configurations
All electric guitars have at least one pickup. However, the majority have either two or three pickups. They can be either all the same type, or a mixture of the three types (single-coil, P90 and humbucker). Using different pickup types allows you to achieve different tones.
You can switch between the different pickups by using a pickup selector switch or blade. Here’s how the pickup position affects the sound.
- Neck pickup: sounds softer and more mellow as it emphasises low-frequency or bass sound (generally used for rhythm guitar).
- Bridge pickup: sounds brighter and crisper as it emphasises high-frequency or treble sound (generally used for lead guitar).
Before we jump into the most popular pickup configurations and how they sound, here’s a quick guide to the terminology.
- S – refers to a single coil pickup
- H – refers to a humbucker pickup
- The order of the letters goes from the bridge to the neck. For example, an S-H configuration has a single coil pickup in the bridge position, and a humbucker pickup in the neck position.
Single coil-only pickups
The S-S-S configuration offers a bit more versatility than the S-S configuration. It’s most known for being the standard on Fender Stratocasters. Again, it will produce the classic twangy single coil tones, but the added pickup between the neck and bridge pickups gives you more versatility. Instead of having 3 possible variations of tone with the pickups, you’ll get 5 which are:
- Bridge pickup alone
- Bridge and middle pickups combined
- Middle pickup alone
- Middle and neck pickups combined
- Neck pickup alone
This is the classic humbucker configuration that gives you two pickups to choose from and the option to combine them both, hence you’ll get 3 possible tones. Usually the humbuckers are located at the bridge and neck positions, however, sometimes one pickup may be located more centrally.
The dual-humbucker combination is well suited to rock music and high gain as they give you a thick and dark tone. However, the option to either brighten or darker the tone by alternating between the bridge and neck pickup gives you added versatility.
Combined Humbucker and Single Coil Configurations
one humbucker and one single coil
First, I’ll start with the possible combinations you can get with a humbucker and single coil each on the guitar. You can either get a H-S combination (humbucker in the bridge), or a S-H combination (single coil in the bridge).
- H-S combinations give you more power in the bridge. The humbucker will have a brighter tone than if it was placed in the neck, so it’s good if you need that powerful sound to cut through. The single coil in the neck will be warmer so is good if you want a more mellow tone.
- S-H combinations give you more power in the neck position. This is good if you want the humbucker to have a heavier and darker tone for rhythm guitar. The single coil in the bridge will be even brighter and sharper, which is good if you want to cut through by using a lot of treble.
The H-S combination on the other hand is has less of a contrast when you change from activating each pickup. This is because the bridge position of the humbucker brightens it up, and the neck position of the single coil warms it up.
Two Humbuckers and one single coil
When you mix humbuckers and single coils together in a three pickup layout, you get a lot of versatility and even more tonal options. With two humbuckers and one single coil, your tone will favour the humbucker sound ie. dark and warm. However, the single coil can be used to brighten the tone. Depending on where the single coil is located, you will get different effects:
- H-H-S configuration: with the single coil in the neck position, it’ll be warmest, meaning it’ll sound brighter and twangier than the humbuckers, but not as much as if it was further towards the bridge.
- H-S-H configuration: this allows you to get a lot of versatility out of the confuguration, as the single coil is in a balanced position, meaning it’s not too warm or bright.
- S-H-H configuration: with the single coil in the bridge position it’ll sound the brightest. This allows you to use it to give you a lot of treble and cut through the mix more than if it was in the middle or neck position.
Two single coils and one humbucker
- S-S-H configuration: with the humbucker in the neck position, it’ll sound the darkest. This is helpful if you need a beefy and warm rhythm tone and don’t want to cut through as much with the heavier humbucker.
- S-H-S configuration: this allows you get the most out of the humbucker. It’s in a balanced position so it’s good if you use distorted tones for both rhythm and lead guitar.
- H-S-S configuration: this is good if you want to use distorted tones without the hum, but you need them to be brighter, for example when playing lead guitar.
I’ve written a complete buyer’s guide for electric guitars which takes you through all the things you need to consider and a step-by-step method to narrowing down your selection and choosing the best option. Here is a link to the article.
More Frequently Asked Questions
Now I’ve been through all the most common pickup configurations, here are some FAQs about pickup configurations.
what is the most versatile pickup configuration?
Whether you want two humbuckers or two single coils will depend on what kind of tone you’re leaning towards. If you use a lot of gain, then I’d say to go for two humbuckers. But if you like the bright and twangy tones, then go for two single coils.
Placing the opposite pickup type in the middle of a three pickup configuration will give you the most versatility. So if you have two humbuckers and one single coil, then place the single coil in the centre of the two for the most versatility.
what is the best pickup configuration for metal?
That’s not to say that you can’t use single coils though, but keep the humming issue in mind. If you need that brighter tone, then consider a coil split humbucker. Check out out post on coil splitting for some more information.
what is the best pickup configuration for blues?
In my opinion, having a mix of humbuckers and single coils is great for blues tones. It gives you the option for darker and heavier tones using the humbucker which can cope with the gain. And it allows you to use more delicate and bright tones of the single coil.
If you want more versatility, then go for a three pickup configuration. But usually a two pickup configuration is a good choice. Having the humbucker in the neck position and the single coil in the bridge will give you the most contrasting tones.
what is the Best pickup configuration for stratocasters?
Fender Stratocasters are well known for having a three single coil pickup configuration. It gives you 5 tonal options so plenty of versatility, however, having only single coils means that you’ll get the humming issue with high gain.
If you want to use a strat for heavier genres, then think about having a superstrat pickup configuration. This means having a humbucker in the bridge position to give you a boost of power.
If you want a classic strat sound, clean, bright and twangy, then go for three single coils. But if you need a boost and use higher gain, then think about a three pickup configuration with a humbucker in either the bridge or center position with two single coils.
what is the best pickup configuration for telecasters?
Fender Telecasters are well known for having two single coil pickups. This is a no-nonsense configuration with three possible tonal options. You’ll get a classic bright and sharp tone that’s great for clean settings. But if you crank up the gain, the single coils will start to hum.
If you want a hotter telecaster, then consider adding a humbucker in place of a single coil. Adding it in the bridge position will give you plenty of beef and adding it in the neck position is good for mellow and soft tones, but that’s not really what the tele is about.
what is the best pickup configuration for les pauls?
Of course, Les Paul guitars are well known for having two humbuckers. This pickup configuration really suits the Les Paul style and is great for a range of genres, particularly those which use quite a bit of gain.
If you don’t want the standard configuration, then adding another humbucker is great to give you a boost for metal music. Generally, single coils aren’t typical on a Les Paul as they don’t usually fit the dark and rich tones associated with this guitar.
Guitar Center are always the first place I look at when I’m interested in a new electric guitar because have a huge range of models for sale and always have some excellent deals on. Here’s a link to take you directly to Guitar Center’s electric guitar range so you can see all the offers available at the moment.
So there you go! That’s the ultimate guide to pickup configurations! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: