Single coil guitar pickups have a distinctive character and gorgeous sound, but they have also have a significant disadvantage – background noise.
Single coils sound great clean, but they start to hum and buzz with noise when you use them with distortion or overdrive, even when you’re not playing (which is the reason the doubled-coiled “Humbucker” type pickup came along later – to “buck” i.e. stop that hum).
This rawness and wildness is part of the single coil’s appeal for me, but the noise issues can really get ridiculous, especially in a live setting.
After years of playing heavy rock on a single coil Strat 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 actually want by using the pickup selector in the “in-between” settings. I don’t think of the selector as having 5 positions, but only 2. I’lll explain.
Despite appearances, there are only two real pickup positions or pickup ‘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 a halfway house between these two poles.
Any singlecoil pickup by itself starts to 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 and easy, but a good little thing to know about if you play singlecoils. Try it out, and I hope it helps you!