Singlecoil guitar pickups have a distinctive tone and sound, but they have also have a significant disadvantage – noise.
They sound great on a clean tone, but they start to hum and buzz with loud background noise when you use them with distortion or overdrive – even when you’re not playing anything.
Unfortunately this problem is ‘in-built’ with singlecoil pickups, and this the reason the doubled-coiled Humbucker type pickup came along a bit later – to ‘buck’ i.e. stop that hum.
There is a rawness and wildness to the singlecoil sound that is part of its appeal, but the background noise issues can really get ridiculous if you’re playing something with a lot of gain.
After years of playing a singlecoil Fender Stratocaster I’ve discovered a quick ‘fix’ for the noise issue that alleviates most of the problem, which takes 1 second and costs nothing.
In a sentence, I engage the middle pickup together with the one I want by using the pickup selector in the ‘in-between’ settings. When it comes to distortion, I don’t think of the strat pickup selector as having 5 positions, but only 2. I’lll explain.
Pickup positions are a lot simpler than they look. Although there are 5 potential positions on a strat, there are only two main ‘zones’: neck and bridge.
Pickups are like little microphones under the strings. Moving the position of your electronic “microphone” accents different parts of the string’s sound.
The neck pickup makes the tone fatter, rounder, thicker and bassier. As a general rule of thumb it’s good for lead and playing on the thinner strings above the 12th fret.
The bridge pickup makes the tone thinner, more cutting, brighter and treblier. Again, we’re simplifying things a bit, but it’s good for playing clear and articulate low riffs and biting leads below the 12th fret.
The middle pickup is simply a halfway house between these two poles.
The strat has three pickups – neck, middle and bridge – but any of these pickups by themselves will get really noisy when turn up the gain.
The solution is that you don’t select the neck or bridge pickup by itself to get that neck or bridge tone (using positions 1 or 5). Instead, use the neck or bridge pickup together with the middle one, using positions 2 or 4.
This gives you the desired neck or bridge tone, but it engages the middle pickup at the same time, combining the coils to have a temporary mini-humbucker effect. This stops the baseline noise from the singlecoils even with loud amps and quite a lot of gain (say, for a Metallica song).
And that’s it – really simple, quick and easy, but a great little thing to know about if you play singlecoils. Try it out, and I hope it helps you!