EZ Mods: Coil-Splitting
Guest Contributor: Rusty Wiseman
Hello all! Welcome back to The Corner. This week’s tone tip is on coil splitting your pickup. For those of you not familiar with this, basically it’s when a dual coil pickup is wired to a switch in such a way that it “splits” and only one coil remains active. This will bring new tonal combinations to a humbucker-equipped guitar allowing for biting, spanky single-coil tones. For the sake of simplicity, we are going to use a Les Paul as our example guitar and we’re only going to discuss traditional humbuckers, not stacked single-coils or noiseless P-90’s that use a second coil.
First of all, it’s necessary to understand the basics of a humbucking pickup. A single-coil pickup is an electromagnetic coil that “picks up” sound, thus the name. The problem with single coil pickups is they are susceptible to noise. Most guitar players are familiar with the infamous "single-coil" buzz of a Strat or Tele. This problem was solved by two people, Seth Lover of Gibson and Joseph Raymond Butts. I give credit to both because there is some debate about who came up with it first but Butts was the first to get the patent and Lover was next. Since the coil wires of a pickup make great antennae they are susceptible to electromagnetic interference, thus noisy. In order to eliminate this interference, a humbucker has two coils wound in opposite directions as well as having the magnets arranged in opposite directions. This acts similarly to modern day "balanced line" connections. When the two signals from the coils are summed together, the noise from one coil is out of phase with the noise from the other coil causing the noise to cancel itself out and presenting you with a nice, quiet tone. The two coils are wired in series producing a higher output than a single coil which results in a louder, more powerful tone that sounds warmer (the higher output results in more subdued high end).
So why would you want to split a coil? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s say you’re gigging with your trusty Les Paul and all the sudden you need to comp some Stevie or Hendrix or otherwise single-coil tones. Did you remember your Strat? Do you even own one? If you do and you did, great! Just unplug your Paul, plug in the Strat, tune up while the bass player tells a horrible joke and if you still have the attention of the audience, play away! Or, switch the mini-toggle on your Paul to split the coil on the neck humbucker and just play, no switching, no tuning, and most importantly, no bad jokes from the bassist.
Let’s get to the fun part. You can’t really split the coil on any old humbucker. The pickup needs to have a 3 or 4-conductor hook-up wire in order for it to work. The quick and dirty explanation of how this works goes a little like this… When the two coils are wired in series there is an “intersection” between them that connects them. On a 3-conductor pickup, the extra wire is connected to this intersection. A 4-conductor leaves the intersection open, allowing for a lot more wiring options. When the intersection between the two coils gets connected to the + (hot) connection of the pickup, the signal only flows through the top coil and shuts off the bottom coil. When the intersection gets connected to - (ground) signal only flows through the bottom coil, leaving the top one shut off. Ta-Da! Coil split.
In order to attain the coil split all you have to do is wire this intersection to a switch that, when activated, will connect it to either + or -. Believe it or not, there is also a pretty big difference in tone between the top and bottom coils of the humbucker so you might want to get a switch that will allow both combinations as well as the full humbucker.
The most common coil-split apparatus I’ve run into is the push/pull pot. This is a potentiometer with a DP/DT (double-pole/double-throw) switch attached to it and is used to replace either the Volume or Tone pot.
The other common way to do this is via a mini-toggle switch. It needs to be an on/off/on DP/DT switch. The reason I like the DP/DT for this is it gives you the capability of splitting to both coils as well as the humbucker for maximum versatility. On a Les Paul, this setup gives you three distinct tones from each pickup, not to mention when both pickups are run at the same time.
A third way I’ve seen, albeit rarely, is to wire the intersection to a pot. This allows you to fade a coil out slowly. While less common, I’ve found this to be really cool in some instances so it’s worth trying.
On a 3-conductor humbucker, the intersection is closed so all you have to do is wire the third wire to the switch or pot and you’re good to go. A 4-conductor has an open intersection between the coils, provided by the two extra wires. These two wires will need to be connected together when you’re wiring up the switch or pot. In other words, they both go to the same lug.
Before I conclude a quick note about terminology. I hear the terms “coil-splitting” and “coil-tapping” used interchangeably in our industry quite a bit. This is actually incorrect. What I’ve described is coil-splitting, where you split the coils and get the sound from only one. Coil-tapping refers to taking the signal from somewhere in the middle of the single-coil’s coil wire instead of the end of the coil like we’re doing above. This is done to reduce output of hotter pickups like Quarter Pounders in order to produce a more “vintage” single-coil tone.
Well there it is, coil-splitting in a nutshell. This is one of the most common mods I have seen and performed on electric guitars. It yields amazing results and can really breathe new life into a tired ax or just increase the versatility of your main guitar. I personally don’t like to lug several guitars to a gig, just the main and the backup and since I’m mostly a humbucker guy, I find that coil-splitting gives me the best of both worlds without sacrificing one or the other. I hope you all find this useful and I wish you many great new tones from your favorite guitar. As always, thanks for reading folks. We’ll see you next time, in The Corner.
The wiring graphics I used are from www.smithpickups.com. They are part of a wonderful article on coil-splitting that goes more in depth than this one so if you want more, check it out. Thank you Smith Pickups!