Are you are looking to get a vintage sound with a brighter sound for your guitar, but want to know the most affordable way of doing it? You could buy a new guitar. Whohoo! But it's not going to be cheap (and besides you might have a fantastic guitar you don't want to get rid of).
You could buy a new amp. Nice! But the cost? And it might not get you the sound you were after anyway.
Here's a solution >> Have you thought about swapping out your pickups? They’re far cheaper to purchase than any other way of changing your guitar’s tone, and not that hard to fit.
At a Glance: Our Choice Of The 5 Best Single Coil Pick Ups On The Market
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Buyer's Tips: What to look for when buying single coil pickups
- Single coil pickups all share the same basic elements. There are six poles, with one resting underneath each of your guitar’s strings. The magnetic fields produced by these poles is what allows the vibration of strings to be turned into an electronic signal to be heard through your amp.
- The poles can come in a variety of materials. Ferrous steel, Alnico, and ceramic. Each of these has a different tone. Steel poles have a fuller mid and low range than Alnico. Alnico are characterised by their brightness. Ceramic poles have a hard crunch that suits rock and metal.
- Regardless of which single coil pickup you settle on, you’ll notice there is a “hum” of about 50 - 60 hz as you play guitar. This is an unavoidable element of their sound. However, this gives an authentic vintage tone that many guitarists enjoy, and you can’t really replicate this sound through any other means. Some single coil pickups such as the P90 have tried to alleviate this sound somewhat, but don’t eliminate it completely like humbuckers do (hence their name).
- Single coil pickups don’t all look exactly the same, as there are several different casing designs. Because of this, they won’t all necessarily be the best fit for your guitar, depending on whether they screw into the pickguard or not, their thickness compared to the routing of your guitar and whether your guitar is designed to be fitted with humbuckers or not.
- Single coils have more range of expression than what you would find in a humbucker, which tends to have a darker, flatter sound as a result of the way they cancel out the hum. This means that you can get a much brighter tone with a single coil and higher attack too, even if the magnet materials are the same.
5 Best Single Coil Pick Ups
Ok let's look at each product in more detail. To make things easier for you, we've added pros and cons for each one, as well as a video demonstration so you can them in action.
1. Fender Tex Mex Strat Pickups
A full set of three Tex Mex pickups has a very versatile tone, and they’ve been a staple of Fender’s Stratocaster sound for this reason.
- Uses three grades of Alnico magnets to create an extremely flexible set of pickups that can handle anything from hard rock to brit pop, blues and anything in between
- Very affordable
- More powerful output than the average single coil
- The brightness of the alnico pickups can make them somewhat lacking when playing the heaviest genres of music which need a deeper growl
- Part of the reason they are so cheap is they don’t come bundled with the pots or capacitors you’ll need to get the best tone
- There isn’t the option of getting one of these with the middle pickup reverse wound, which would cancel out the hum, although it does mean you still have the old school sound of early single coils.
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2. Seymour Duncan 11205-02 SHR-1b Hot Rails (Editor's Choice)
Using a different design than the classic single coils, this uses a pair of coils so that it can function as either a typical Single Coil, or as a humbucker that doesn’t lose the reactiveness of a single coil when you make subtle adjustments to your playing. Being so advanced, it’s easily among the best single coil pickups in 2016.
- One of the best hum cancelling single coils available
- The bladed design means that playing bends are smoother as the coils are part of a rail that runs along the length of the pickup rather than individual poles
- Extremely responsive to minute movements so if you’re an advanced player you’ll have a pickup that can keep up with your intricacies.
- Purists might consider this not to be a single coil pickup in the vein of those that would’ve been used by Hendrix and his contemporaries
- The sensitivity of the pickup means that if your playing is the least bit sloppy, you wont be able to disguise it very easily
- Unless you reduce the volume of your guitar this pickup can lead to your guitar sounding too strong compared to the rest of your band
3. Musiclily Guitar Single Coil Tele Bridge Pickup (Budget Choice)
Quick, what’s the cheapest single coil you’ve ever seen? Was it under dirt cheap? This one is, and it’s surprisingly good!
- If you’re just starting out experimenting with aftermarket components, this one is a very cheap introduction that still sounds better than many of the stock pickups that come with cheaper and even mid range guitars, so it’s also a great way to learn how to mount new pickups yourself!
- Has a nice tone throughout all ranges, although nothing fancy in any direction, they respond well to a bit of heavy fuzz or distortion thanks to the ceramic magnets.
- Decent attack and sustain makes these pickups a good choice for long soulful notes or even doom-laden power chord driven metal.
- The hum on these can be pretty overbearing if not paired off with a reverse wound middle pickup
- Being as cheap as they are, these pickups both look and feel exactly that.
- Whilst they are the best value for money, this is mostly because they are so cheap rather than any special design. You will most likely tire of them and want to go for a more advanced upgrade sooner rather than later.
4. DiMarzio ISCV2 Evolution Single Coil
Occupying the middle ground between the highly advanced Seymour Duncan and the cheap and cheerful Musiclily pickups we mentioned, the ISCV2 Evolution is still affordable, has a great sound but isn’t a perfect single coil by any means.
- When partnered with the Evolution Neck and Bridge pickups and a 5 way switch you can completely eliminate any hum and still have a beautifully responsive pickup.
- If you still want the classic single coil sound without any hum cancelling, you can still have that if you only use this pickup rather than two at once.
- Thanks this, using this pickup alongside two humbuckers means you can achieve virtually any sound that’ll match every style of music you can possibly play.
- To get the most out of this pickup you need to be prepared to install a 5-way pickup switch and also pay for the Evolution bridge and neck pickups, but you could also opt for another set of pickups if you felt like being experimental.
- As a very “hot” coil (more power) the single coil sound of this pickup has more hum than you would normally want, even if the vintage sound is what you were going for.
- Although one of the best mid-range budget single coil pickups, they don’t represent the best value in terms of exceptional quality or exceptional cheapness.
5. Lace Alumitone Deathbar 4.0" Extended Range Guitar Pickup
If your guitar features more than the standard six strings, you’ll want a pickup that can meet your needs, which is exactly that the Deathbar does.
- The extra 4 inches on this pickup will allow it to fit up to 10 strings easily.
- The blade-style magnet makes for perfectly smooth bends
- Versatile attack for chugging riffs, huge chords and soloing
- As it’s designed for extended guitars, this simply won’t fit on ordinary bodies.
- As a feature of its design, there is virtually zero hum, which takes it away from the classic single coil sound. However, this is because it’s a single coil designed for a completely different purpose than those used back in the old days.
- This is very definitely in the high-end of aftermarket pickups, and you can buy amps for less.
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So which should I buy?
Okay so we’ve covered a few different pickups, but all of them are arguably among the best single coil pickups for unique reasons.
Personally, the Seymour Duncan has the best quality, but it’s more expensive than most of the others. The DiMarzio also boasts an impressive level of clarity, versatility and the options between single coil and hum cancelling modes, but since you’ll need to use it in conjunction with even more aftermarket gear, the cost of using this pickup can easily jump up faster than you’d expect.
If your guitar needs a pickup that can handle extra strings though, the Aluma-Deathbar has a quality all of its own - but it’s not going to be cheap.
In the end, it comes down to two choices for most guitarists. You can either take the quality of the Seymour Duncan, or you can have the easily affordable Musiclily pickups. Both are still better than your average stock pickups, but there is a world of difference between them both.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.