ProGuitarShop

EZ Mods:  Coil-Splitting

April 12, 2012

Guest Contributor:  Rusty Wiseman

Coil Splitting HumbuckersHello 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. 

 

Humbucking 101

 

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. 

 

Cool…now what?

 

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.Coil tap

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.Push Pull

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.intersection wired to a pot

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!

Comments

  1. Jon Patton says:

    “This is due to both pickups being active together in series.” I’m sure I won’t be the first smarty pants know-it-all to point out that the multiple pickup combinations in a stock Stratocaster are in parallel, not series, and they cancel because the middle pickup is reversed phase. The tonal and volume difference between two coils in series (a humbucker) and two coils in parallel (a strat or tele in the in-between positions) is significant.

    posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm
  2. John Fiaschetti says:

    Nice quick article!  One of my favorite mods is the opposite, coil adding on a Start.  You add the middle coil in series to the bridge or neck pup to make it essentially a humbucker.  This is really nice for solos especially if you have a very bright bridge pup.

    posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:30 pm
  3. George Minton says:

    “This is a potentiometer with a DP/DT (double-pull/double-throw)”

    DP/DT actually stands for double POLE double throw.

    posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm
  4. David Klaber says:

    I have a question.  Is there any reason that the 2 and 4 positions of a strat sound nothing like a regular humbucker?  They are quacky and humbuckers are powerful.  Is it just the difference in the distance between the pole pieces?

    posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm
  5. Nuno Carmona says:

    Positions 2 and 4 of a strat don’t put both pickups in series but in paralell. But the hum cancelation comes from what is explained in the article which is also done in the case of humbuckers.

    posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:55 pm
  6. Cole says:

    How cares about a strat when you’re talking coilsplittng? You can’t split a single coil so why even mention them. This is for Humbuckers like a Les paul.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 12:23 am
  7. Funk E says:

    David, the reasons the # 2 & 4 position position sound quacky on a strat are: the pickups are wired in parallel, not series as the author wrongly states. This give approximately half the output of each pickup so when combined they’re about the same volume as a single pickup alone. The other reason is the 2 pickups are very close to each other and interact mechanically ( out of phase ) A humbucker has it’s 2 coils wired in series producing FULL output from both coils, making it louder and fuller than 2 coils in parallel. Splitting the inner coils of both humbuckers together gives you a sound very close to the strats’ bridge and middle combined. Splitting the outer coils together produces more of a tele middle sound. Using an on-on-on dp/dt switch, a humbucker can also be wired for 3 different sounds: in series ( loud and powerful ), in parallel ( single coil like tone but still humbucking, different than split ) and split ( using only 1 coil from the pickup ) Various switches are available to do this, wiring diagrams are all over the internet.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 12:24 am
  8. Frank R says:

    Thank God someone else has also caught some of the errors in this article! Another correction:
    the reason the “in-between” position on some (not all!) Strats is quiet is not because the pickups are ‘out-of-phase’, as many people believe, but have opposite magnetic fields (top North or top South). True out-of-phase, on either a Strat or a split humbucker, is a REALLY thin and nasally sound!! Some people may be able to use it on a HBer as an option, but it really sounds like crap on a strat!!  Thanks ProGuitar Shop for bringing some cool articles, but maybe a little editing/fact finding is in order!

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 12:41 am
  9. Joshua Levin-Epstein says:

    Responding to David Klaber’s question: There are several reasons why positions 2 & 4 of a contemporary Strat don’t sound like a typical humbucker.1)The Start pick-ups are in parallel while a typical humbucker’s coils are in series. All things being equal, coils in series have a bit more power and a bit less highs. 2) The two coils of a typical humbucker are right next to each other so they sense a wider section of string. This gives a thicker tone than two coils farther apart. So if you modified your strat with a series parallel switch, the series sound would be louder with less highs, but not as “thick” as a typical humbucker. 3) The design of a typical humbucker (Magnet across the bottom, short flat coils) is different than a typical Strat pick-up (taller, narrower coils) so there is a different characteristic sound.

    Essentially, A humbucker doesn’t sound like a Strat style doesn’t sound like a Tele style doesn’t sound like a P-90 doesn’t sound like a mini humbucker doesn’t sound like a….

    and once you add a lot of distortion or effects, all bets are off.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 1:18 am
  10. Robert Krawford says:

    The link above didn’t work for me, but I found the pics and a pretty good article at “Smit’s Handwound Guitar Pickups” whose link is: http://smitspickups.com/

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 2:00 am
  11. Rusty Wiseman says:

    Ok everyone.  BIG apology time!!!  The errors have been corrected.  Good thing I have our trusty readers to look out for me!  The Strat was a bad example to begin with and has been removed but you all are correct, the middle pickup in a Strat is in parallel with the other two, NOT series.  Also, George, DP/DT has been updated to “double-pole/double-throw”.  My mistakes and I admit it.  I hope everyone can forgive them.  I have to spend 4 hours in the stockade this afternoon as well as clean the bathroom here at PGS for a week for punishment so believe me, it won’t happen again!

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 2:38 am
  12. Rene says:

    I learned as much in the article than in the comments. Thanks to all !

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 2:45 am
  13. Chris says:

    I would love to hear your opinion of old-growth wood. Is it worth the extra cost? What should someone expect from old-growth? What shouldn’t they expect? Is it the new-hype? Thanks

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 2:52 am
  14. Nathan says:

    So this does require drilling into the body of the guitar?

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 3:32 am
  15. Abbacus says:

    Great info!  Easy, inexpensive way to get more versatility out of a HB guitar.  My only LP has Burstbucker PU’s and they are perhaps the best PU’s Gibson has made for a long time, (recreating the mis-matched windings between coils on late 50’s PU’s—think Peter Greens’ LP tone…also notice how low he has the bass side of his neck PU in old photos and videos) but they are only 2 wire. Wish they would have made them with 4 wires.  Coil taping “taps” into the coil at different winding points, thus giving you as many output optionsand/or voicings per pickup as there are “taps” on the coil. Klein Pickups has some really nice Tele PU’s with three tap points on each coil!  Get tapable neck and bridge PU’s! Talk about a versi-Tele! Rock on!

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 4:07 am
  16. Abbacus says:

    Rusty Wiseman: Your punishment for these critical-detail errors shall be to play for 3 hours through a Peavy Rage practice amp at full volume in a small, hard-walled room while comping nothing but jazz chords yet artfully recreating old Homer and Jethro country roadhouse humor tunes.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 4:16 am
  17. Mac says:

    To answer Chris’ off-topic comment regarding old-growth wood. I work in an old-school piano shop and from my experiences there, the advantage of using old-growth lumber comes into play when “straightness of grain” is important such as with thin spruce wood whether for a piano or harp soundboard or the top of a fine acoustic guitar, mandolin or violin. As we deal in a wide variety of piano qualities carrying everything from more entry-level mass produced Pearl River pianos from China to hand-crafted Steinway & Sons pianos made in Queens, NY, part of what gives a Steinway its superior tone comes from using only old, slow growth spruce, 300 year old trees minimum… the oldest trees are the tallest & don’t have to twist they’re way around the other trees to get at the sunlight as the shorter trees must do and slow growth refers to where the wood is harvested from, the 3 most popular locations for harvesting spruce is the Sitka area of Canada/Alaska, the Barvarian Alps & Siberia. All areas where it’s might cold so the trees don’t grow much year so growth rings are spaced close together. All that’s saying is the best spruce tone wood is that with the straightest grain with the most narrow, even spacing between growth rings. Hope that maybe helps.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 7:41 am
  18. Mark B. says:

    I’m just glad they called it a humbucker instead of naming it after the creators.  Imagine saying “my new guitar has a Butts-Lover in the neck position”.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 7:42 am
  19. Powerchord says:

    Oh, what the hell- I may as throw in my two cents for people who really want to understand what’s going on with Strat positions #2 & #4.  First, not all strats have the middle pu reverse wired or reverse polarity of the magnets.  Much like micing an acoustic guitar with more than one microphone at different distances, when combined in mono, the signals from two pickups picking up at two points along the vibrating (oscillating) string length simultaneously add together with some frequencies in phase and therefore boosted in volume and some are added together out of “acoustic’’ phase and therefore cancel.  The resulting “eq” is what makes the strat sound “quacky”.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 7:55 am
  20. murrayatuptown says:

    Good in sum…the article and discussions that followed…i thought I was done messing with a homebrew-hacked HHS Frankenstrat’s wiring after about 4 changes and extra switches…I hate how much work it is to get inside…might as well wait for when a string change is needed instead of forced by the need to tinker again.

    This article has me thinking I gotta hack again…

    Frankenstrat is safe…for now.

    Abominotar will be my next victim -bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 8:25 am
  21. J Garcia says:

    I love the humility from the PGS crew. Takes a big man to say “I was wrong”. My respect.

    And I bet the customers from Guitar Central, our whatever they’re called, could not have spotted those ;)

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 10:50 am
  22. Kevin Bowman says:

    I’d love to see a follow article discussion on the differences between coil-splitting versus putting the humbucker in parallel/series combination.  Apparently this latter case, in parallel, will also give a Les Paul a single coil tone but a bit fatter and closer to the volume of the series. 

    thinking of adding this to my Gibson Johnny A.

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 10:51 am
  23. Frank R says:

    Kevin, not to mention it’s SO much quieter than splitting the coils!!

    posted on April 14, 2012 at 4:14 pm
  24. Marc Vee says:

    PGS is a great company in the sense that they demo some cool equipment. I have most of my guitars modified and Joe Gem has wired one fender strat for me that I enjoy. Two Humbuckers and one Fat 50’s strat reverse wound in the middle in other words HSH.
    The Bridge is a Custom 5 by Seymour Duncan and I can split it for a skinny but musical tone.
    The neck Humbucker is a Duncan Jazz and I split that for great neck strat tone. I also get no hum in positions 2 and 4 when coils are split due to RW/RP middle pup. Joe also installed a switch to combine Bridge and Neck either split or full Humbucker or either split with the other full. I assigned one Tone pot 500K to Bridge w/ Orange drop cap. and one to Neck with same cap so I can pre set neck for dark tone and bridge for bright independently. This setup allows me to cover a world of tones without switching instruments. I get 60 cycle hum in solo single coil positions, but it sounds great since I use those mostly without distortion.  Thanks for article and fessin’ up to errors. We all make them.

    posted on April 15, 2012 at 4:09 am
  25. Buzz says:

    >The wiring graphics I used are from www.smithpickups.com.

    Correct web site is:
      http://smitspickups.com/

    posted on April 20, 2012 at 4:45 am
  26. Iva says:

    I developed ojida after seeing all this chit-chat

    posted on April 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm
  27. Kevin Smith @ Smit's Pickups says:

    Rusty, one more correction. Could you please correct the link to http://smitspickups.com.
    Thanks, and I appreciate the acknowledgement here. Kevin

    posted on April 27, 2012 at 12:55 am
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