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Coil Splitting Explained

Eric Lapp • Posted on 01/29/2021 • 3 min read

"Coil Splitting" is a term that is commonly heard but often misunderstood. Where many electric guitars today offer this feature, the concept and science of coil splitting is fairly simple. As a great way to expand the tonal capabilities of a humbucker-equipped electric guitar, here's a quick look into one of the coolest electric guitar functions offered today.

What is a Pickup?

A pickup is a component of an electric guitar that produces an electrical current in response to vibrations of metal strings. There are many types of pickups with different sounds, but they all come down to different physical configurations of wrapping insulated copper wire around a magnet a couple thousand times. Different configurations produce different tones, resulting in the distinct characteristics that makes a single-coil sound like a single-coil and a humbucker sound like a humbucker. When it comes to pickup systems, you can probably already recognize the differences between single-coil and humbucking pickups right off the bat. Humbucking pickups usually produce rounder, thicker, and heavier sounds where single-coils usually sound tighter, snappier, and more concentrated (think of a Les Paul versus a Stratocaster!). These differences in tone come down to the physical wiring of the pickups.

A single coil pickup uses one coil of wire in its design. A humbucker uses two separate wound coils wired in series, one into another.

How Does Coil Splitting Work?

Coil splitting opens the tonal spectrum to add more voices to one guitar, and in this case, produce single-coil tones from a humbucker. You may commonly see coil splitting advertised as a feature in guitars with an "HSS" or "HSH" pickup configuration (frequently a single-coil set with at least one humbucker). The combination of single-coil and humbucking pickups in one guitar already offers a wide range of tones, and coil splitting only enhances its tonal capabilities. With some quick science and examples, here's a more in-depth look into coil splitting to see (and hear) for yourself.

The beefy bite of a humbucker is a result of the pickup’s two coils being wired in series, meaning the output of one coil enters the other. The flow of this series produces the higher-output sound that humbuckers are known for, but what happens when that series is disconnected? This is where coil splitting comes in. Coil splitting disconnects the first series of the humbucker from the second, effectively reducing the output of the humbucker to result in single-coil wiring and a single-coil sound. From there, the versatility of coil splitting comes into play as players can swap between the two wirings to use either tone, humbucker or single coil, for a guitar that is tonally versatile and functionally flexible.

Coil Splitting vs. Coil Tapping

One common misconception about coil splitting is about its relation to coil tapping. Where the two terms may be commonly used interchangeably, their functions are completely different. Coil tapping refers to a process where the output power of a single-coil pickup is adjusted to work at a full power or a fixed lesser power, accessed with a dedicated switch. Through this function, the output power of a pickup can be fixed or “cut off” to work at a lower output level without adjusting the guitar’s volume knob, making for quicker and more precise swaps between output levels. Coil tapping can make for a unique re-voice of a pickup, though not in the same way as coil splitting.

Coil Splitting: The Best of Both Worlds

Coil splitting gives players power to be more interactive with their guitar to make for more uniquely crafted tones with plenty of flexibility and character. If it comes to a point that you can’t decide between the crisp clarity of a single-coil or the beefy bite of a humbucker, coil splitting pickups have you covered. Coil splitting expands the tonal palette of a humbucker pickup, and with plenty of places to go and directions to branch out, the possibilities are limitless.

Next time the humbucker comes calling, give coil splitting a spin and see what it can do for you.