How to make a humbucker sound like a single-coil?

When you are stuck with a guitar, whatever the reason, you have to know how to get the most of it.

Many players will feel really constrained when, for instance, the pickup setup doesn’t match their preferences.

Or hey, maybe you have just picked the guitar up a few months ago and you are in that wonderful experimental phase and you want to try out new sounds.

Whatever the case, if you are wondering about how to make a humbucker sound like a single coil, here’s a short answer:

A humbucker pickup will never sound like a single-coil, however, there are many things to do to achieve a similar sound. First, pick near the bridge and roll up your tone knob. You can also upgrade your guitar with a coil-splitting or phase-shifting pickup circuits and/or higher value pots.

For those who want to stay on the topic for a bit longer, in this article I will discuss several alternatives to approach the sound you have in your head.

However, and as a disclaimer, the base truth is that you won’t ever get a 100% single coil sound with a humbucker pickup.

There are some workarounds, though that can get you pretty close.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

Change the way you pick

To start things off, I will begin with the things that you can try out right away.

And what’s simpler than just working on the way you pick?

Of course, this is far from a silver bullet but might get you on your way.

To recap, what defines a single-coil tone? I would say that most of all, is its bell-like top end and its clarity.

A simpler technique to achieve a more nasal or treble-focused sound on any guitar is just picking near the bridge.

Come on, try it out.

Do you hear that?

I know the single-coil timbre is not there, but hey, this alternative is completely free.

Use the tone knob

To follow up, I have another free idea to try out, bear with me.

If you usually roll down the tone knob of your guitar to cut some treble, do the opposite.

Start making friends with a richer in treble sound.

I know this is a very niche alternative since many players don’t usually pay too much attention to these knobs on the guitar, but if you are one of the few that do, this might help you get that tone.

Also, try different intensities, don’t go exclusively for 0 or 10.

There are many in-between spots, that might not sound like a strat, but might inspire you for other kinds of uses.

Coil splitting a humbucker

As you might know, humbuckers are built by pairing 2 coils of opposite polarity to cancel out the background noise a normal single-coil pickup will generate.

Some pickups will allow you to hook up a switch into their circuit to simply take one of those coils out of the equation, effectively getting a sound closer to the one of a single-coil pickup.

And, I will discuss it at the end of this article in more detail, but I say “a sound closer to…” because what you get won’t be a true single-coil tone, but a fair approximation.

If your guitar doesn’t have this kind of switch integrated, you could think about a pickup upgrade that allows for this alternative.

It’s a very simple mod that any guitar technician could do for you.

If you want to go forward with this, I recommend you look for humbuckers wired with 4 conductors.

This is the number of cables the pickups have, and their having 4 cables greatly facilitates the job of setting up a coil-splitting system.

You can also do this mod with a 2 cable humbucker, but it requires some extra work.

Phase-shifting pickups

Some guitars also have the ability to phase shift your pickups. Throw this on top of a coil-splitting circuit, and the possibilities are endless.

But what is exactly a phase-shifted pickup? Well, to say it in simple terms, let’s say that pickups, in their normal setting, when used together just add up the slightly different sounds they get.

Now, when you phase shift one of 2 pickups that are sounding together, they subtract every sound that overlaps between them. 

You then get a more extreme sound, where most common mid frequencies are canceled out, but the deep bass and high treble of the neck and bridge pickups respectively shine.

This guy did a great job explaining and demonstrating this concept:

Blending a humbucker with a single-coil

Another alternative is to just combine your humbucker with a single bobbin pickup.

This is why the HSH pickup configuration is a thing.

With a single-coil in the middle position, and a 5-way switch you get the chance to combine it with a humbucker in the 2nd and 4th positions.

This, again, is not the same as the mix of 2 single coils or even the sound of a single-coil alone, but it’s a tone that might suit what you look for.

Of course, if you add on top of this a coil-splitting switch, the alternatives grow.

If you are crazy enough, and there’s space in your guitar, you could consider adding a pickup in the middle position.

This mod, however, requires routing the body of the instrument and is a destructive job. This means that when that wood is gone, it’s gone for good (no pun intended).

Changing your guitar’s pots

Finally, this is another slight tone tweak.

The potentiometers that are a part of your guitar electronics also have some impact on how your pickups sound.

The rule of thumb is that higher value pots sound brighter.

So if your guitar is equipped with 250k pots, maybe changing them for 500k ones will help you get that sound.

Why a humbucker won’t ever truly sound like a single-coil

Now finally, it’s important to understand that humbuckers are not just 2 single-coil pickups put together with duct tape.

Although the original intention when they were invented was merely to cancel the 60-cycle hum, the result was a completely different darker and warmer sound.

This is because the whole interaction of all the components is different.

A humbucker pickup normally has a higher output than a single-coil, due to the extra winding around the pickups. But this higher output is rarely 2x the one of a single coil.

When you coil split a humbucker, you disable one of its coils, and you are left then with an underwound single-coil picking up sound.

This is because, as I said earlier, windings equal output, and if the original output is not twice the one of a single-coil, when you shut off half of your pickup, you are left with half of your output.

That’s why coil-splitted humbuckers don’t sound like the real thing and can be described as having a weaker tone.