These days, a lot of guitars equipped with humbuckers offer a switch or push/pull knob that lets you get a single-coil style sound from your pickup, making your guitar more versatile. But does getting that single-coil sound also come with single-coil hum and noise? Maybe — it depends how it’s done.
There are three ways to get a single-coil tone out of a humbucking pickup. The most straightforward way is called “coil splitting.” With this method, one of the two coils of the humbucker is literally turned off by the switch. This leaves you with a single coil left over — and all of the hum and noise you’d expect from a single-coil pickup. Some guitars are even designed to use two true single-coil pickups configured side-by-side as a humbucker, which results in a true single-coil tone when the pickup is split, but the humbucking tone may be different than what we traditionally expect from a humbucker.
The other method is called “coil tapping.” In this case, both coils of the humbucker are active, but the signal doesn’t run through the full length of wire on the coils, but a switch point somewhere in the two coils is “tapped” for the signal. In this case, both coils are active up to the tap point, and the pickup retains its hum-cancelling characteristic.
A third method puts the two coils of the humbucker in parallel rather than how they normally are wired, in series. This results in a more single-coil-like tone, but remains fully humbucking since both coils are still active.
So is coil tapping better than coil splitting? And where does parallel coil wiring fit in? It all depends on the pickup. The problem with coil splitting with most pickups is that the remaining coil in the pickup doesn’t have the output and other characteristics of a true single coil, so the tone can be thinner and weaker. (Unless the pickup in question uses true single-coil pickups for both coils in the humbucker, as described above.) With a coil-tapped design, the builder can carefully select where the tap occurs and achieve a fatter single-coil tone without a drop in volume. And with some pickups, parallel wiring can get close to a single-coil tone, while also preventing a large volume drop, though the volume will be lower than the two coils in series.
How to choose? This question depends on your main sound. If you’re primarily a humbucker user who will occasionally switch to a single-coil-type sound for a certain clean part of other passage, any of these methods will likely get you close enough. If you’re looking for a super-versatile guitar that authentically covers both single-coil and humbucking tones, you’ll have to experiment with different pickups to see which ones — and in which wiring configurations — sound most authentic in both “modes” to your ears.