Types of guitar pickups explained: learn the difference between single coils, humbuckers, P-90s and active designs

Fender Strat single-coils
(Image credit: Future)

GUITAR SHOWCASE 2023: Today, it’s harder than ever to describe the sonic characteristics of electric guitar pickup types – there are so many configurations, both stock and aftermarket, that blur the lines of each core design. 

For every classic single-coil pickup there’s a stacked noiseless unit; for every vintage-voiced humbucker, there’s a high-output face-melter for metal. However, there are a few key categories of pickup to know about.

A little knowledge of each one’s origins and uses will help you identify your own tonal requirements should you wish to swap out your axe’s pups.

Single coils

Fender Stratocaster

(Image credit: Future / Phil Barker)

Early designs appeared in Rickenbacker lap steels, Gibson and Gretsch semis, and then later in Fender’s Telecaster predecessor, the Esquire, but perhaps the archetypal single-coil pickup is that found in the Fender Stratocaster.

The Strat’s later five-way (originally three-way) switching design has become integral to common perception of what this type of pickup should sound like, and guitarists as varied as Jimi Hendrix and Cory Wong have made the sounds of these pickups their own. HSS/HSH-style Superstrats are arguably only simple variations on the original theme.


Gibson PAF pickups

(Image credit: Future)

Humbucker pickups solve the problem of noise inherent in passive single coil designs. Two coils are employed in a “reverse-wound reverse-polarity” configuration that cancels out the hum. 20 or so years after the first humbuckers appeared, Gibson released its PAF unit in the 1950s, setting a much copied template for passive ’bucker design that remains essentially the same to this day.

Typically, humbuckers sound fatter, bassier and have less treble than single coils. The Les Paul tones of Jimmy Page and Slash wouldn’t be the same without ’em. 



(Image credit: Future)

Designed by Gibson’s Walt Fuller in the 1940s, the P-90 is sonically distinct from other single-coil designs by virtue of a fuller-bodied sound that falls somewhere between the fatness of humbuckers and treble-rich presentation of Fender-style single coils. 

They’re most famously deployed on the Les Paul Jr (though also commonly on LP Standards and SGs), as used by Bob Marley, Leslie West and Billie Joe Armstrong,      among countless others.

Active pickups

EMG pickups on a Jackson guitar

(Image credit: Future)

Active (ie, battery-powered) pickup systems gained popularity in the ’80s, notably among many metal acts, but also in the hands of David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler, who, let’s face it, are no strangers to quality tone. 

The active circuitry gives higher output levels than passive units and ensures both single coils and humbuckers alike deliver next to no audible noise. Typically, these systems would have a ‘hi-fi’ style tight, crisp top-end befitting of ’80s high production value music.

Fishman Fluence pickups 

A later active innovation developed by Fishman, here the electronic gubbins is printed onto a ‘Fluence Core’ circuit board instead of being wound around a bobbin. 

The high-performance, low-noise units offer some of the ‘organic’ experience of passive pickups, plus the power, low-end clarity and low noise that only actives can give. 

Often used on seven-, eight- and even nine-string guitars, the units are well-suited to ‘modern’ styles. However, clearly not wishing to pigeonhole their tech, Fishman have also created Fluence versions of classic-voiced humbuckers, single coils and P-90s.

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Chris Bird

Chris has been the Editor of Total Guitar magazine since 2020. Prior to that, he was at the helm of Total Guitar's world-class tab and tuition section for 12 years. He's a former guitar teacher with 35 years playing experience and he holds a degree in Philosophy & Popular Music. Chris has interviewed Brian May three times, Jimmy Page once, and Mark Knopfler zero times – something he desperately hopes to rectify as soon as possible.