Single Coils: An
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
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
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
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"
P-90s - These pickups continue to
be popular, but historically the most famous early proponent was Elvis'
Scotty Moore with his goldtop Gibson ES-295.
Both! - Eddy Cochran was
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
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.
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
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!
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
John Lennon (Beatles) - Here's
another Beatle who went with single coils: He played a Rickenbacker 325
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.
Johnny Ramone (The Ramones) - The hard-driving sound came out of a
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.
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.