Single Coils: An Appreciation

Guitarists want power, and so everyone has grown so obsessed with humbuckers that they've completely forgotten what single coils have given us and what they have to offer.


The first wave of rock and roll was created before humbuckers were, and rockabilly owes its sound in part to a number of single-coil pickups in their day.
Dynasonics - These featured on all the Gretsch electric guitars of the day.  In particular, Cliff Gallup the original guitarist for Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps played a Duo Jet with a pair of Dynasonics, usually with both live at the same time (i.e., selector in the middle position).  Duane Eddy also had Dynasonics in his Gretsch 6120.  Chet Atkins never liked the sound of these pickups and went with the later Filtertron humbuckers when they came out in '58, saying that no one ever got a good tone out of Dynasonics except Eddy.  However, there are a great many people today chasing the sounds from records made by Dynasonic players.  Although George Harrison is famous for playing his Filtertron-equipped Country Gentleman on the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan, his "first good guitar" (his description) was a Gretsch Duo Jet with Dynasonics, and he continued to play it throughout his career.  It is most famously seen on the cover of his "Cloud 9" album.

P-90s - These pickups continue to be popular, but historically the most famous early proponent was Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore with his goldtop Gibson ES-295.

Both! - Eddy Cochran was likely inspired by both camps because he modified his Gretsch 6120 to include one of each!  He replaced the Dynasonic in the neck position with a P-90, while keeping the original bridge pickup.

Telecasters - I go more into individual players below, but much of early rockabilly was played on classic Telecasters.  Even the more recent stuff went that route.  For example, Brian May from Queen played parts of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" with a Telecaster.


The two primary originators of jazz guitar (at least as we recognize it today) were -at least at times- electric players, and both played single coil pickups that gave them a characteristic sound.
Charlie Christian - He played on a Gibson ES 150 (several different ones, actually; note the different inlays in pictures: sometimes proper inlays, sometimes just dots) fitted with a blade-type pickup that today is so associated with him that it's routinely refered to as the Charlie Christian pickup.

Django Reinhardt - Athough he rose to fame playing acoustic guitars, he flirted with electrics, especially later in his career.  He was photographed playing Gibsons on several occasions, but I have also seen him with a Gretsch Synchromatic and other hollowbodies of the day, sometimes with floating pickups added.  Additionally, he sometimes played Selmers with a Stimer pickup installed.  The latter is a particular favorite among devotes of his playing, and reissues of the pickup sell for high prices today.

Strat players
Eric Clapton - He used to play his "Fool" SG during the Cream era along with a 'burst Les Paul.  But what did he switch to?  Stratocasters.  Today the name Clapton is synonymous with Stratocasters!  In fact, "Blackie" and some other Strats appeared prominently with or without him on many album covers, including his greatest hits.

David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) - He's another guitarist famous for a signature black Strat he's played through almost his entire career.  However, he also plays other instruments (including a lengthy affair with a red Strat during the late '80s and the '90s).  Although he occasionally plays a Gretsch Duo Jet with Filtertrons, I think he has always plays guitars with single coils: His vintage Telecaster (usually brought out for performances of "Run Like Hell"), a couple of Goldtop Les Pauls (the original of which was used for the solo to "Another Brick Part II"), and even his Steinbergers.  For example, in the latter case he played a rare GL with three single coils.

The Edge (U2) - I can't think of any guitarist less associated with any particular make/model of guitar than Edge.  However, he did make use of his Stratocaster of a number of tracks, especially during the "Joshua Tree" era and occasionally since then, as well as Telecasters from time to time (e.g., "Walk On").

Eric Clapton (solo, Cream, everyone else) - Even though he played 'burst Les Pauls and his famous "Fool" SG through the latter '60s, Clapton ended up on Strats.  His signature model continues to be a top seller.

Eric Johnson - That tone on "Cliffs of Dover"?  That's a '57 Stratocaster.

George Harrison (The Beatles) - In addition to his Duo Jet, Harrison also famously played his Stratocaster with a psychedelic paint job.

Jeff Beck - He has played a number of guitars over the years including Telecasters and was supposedly the first to take the covers off the humbuckers in his Les Paul (which would give it a brighter, more Strat-like sound), but his main instrument for the past couple decades seems to be a Fender Stratocaster.

Jimi Hendrix - The world's greatest guitarist (depending on who you talk to) favored Strats as well, even while the Les Paul was having a comeback.

Stevie Ray Vaughn - His "Number One" guitar and plenty others were all Strats.

Yngwie Malmsteen - The classical/metal guitarist plays on Strats, none of which have been upgraded with humbuckers.  That's right: Metal on single coils!

Classic Rock
Pete Townshend (The Who) - Perhaps second only to the Edge for rotating through guitars in his career, but for the past decade or more he's been playing a Clapton signature Stratocaster with Lace Sensor pickups. 

Brian May (Queen) - His homemade "Red Special" (built with his dad) has three single-coil pickups, although they can be added together in series if desired.

Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) - He was a master of studio wizardry.  As a result, many of his records were made with pickups with single coils.  Even some of his Les Pauls were modified to include coil taps.  He also played very un-Les Paul guitars like the Danelectro U2 and various Telecasters (He even did the famous "Stairway to Heaven" solo on one, believe it or not!).

John Lennon (Beatles) - Here's another Beatle who went with single coils: He played a Rickenbacker 325 6/12.


Did you know The Munsters theme song on the tv show was played on a Tele?  As I said above, rockabilly was just the start.  There's country, of course.  And then there were guys like Jimmy Page (mentioned above) who was something of a closeted Tele player.  But then there are players who are forever associated with the instrument.
Bruce Springstein - He is forever associated with his butterscotch blonde Fender Telecaster.  He, too, removed the cover from his pickup, presumably to make it sound even more like a Tele than it already did!

Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones) - While I occasionally see him play 335-type semi-hollowbodies or a Strat, his weapon of choice seems to be the Fender Telecaster.  Granted, most of these seem to have a humbucker in the neck position, but it sounds like 90% of what he plays is through the bridge pickup.

Punk and beyond...
Johnny Ramone (The Ramones) - The hard-driving sound came out of a Mosrite!

Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day) - He often plays his signature Les Paul Junior Double Cut that only has a P-90 in the bridge position.

Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) - The sound of the '90s came out of a Fender Mustang.

Bottom line
For all the talk about high-output humbuckers, you'd think you couldn't make music on anything else.  The above list only scratches the surface, but so many of our classic sounds were from guys with single-coil equipped guitars.  Everyone from rock 'n' roll pioneers to virtuoso players to heavy thrashers still go with single-coils even with all the other options out there.

Copyright Alexplorer.