Can You Play Metal With Single Coils? How To Do It Right?

For metal music, humbuckers and active humbuckers are the standard choices. They are weapons of choice for many metal players. If you asked them to play their music with single coils, they’d probably laugh at you. But there is no reason why it can be done.

So, can you play metal with single coils? Yes, of course, you can. Single-coils are still pickups like humbuckers are. Just a little bit different. But with a good setup, eq, and working with your tone control, you can play metal music on them through a good hi-gain amp.

Ok, sure, they are not meant for hi-gain music. But there are examples in the music industry where guitar players used single- coils for the metal style of music. But there are some things you should pay attention to while doing that. This article will cover everything you need to know when playing metal with a guitar equipped with single-coil pickups.

Why Are Traditional Single-Coils Not Good For Playing Metal?

There are several reasons why humbuckers are better for metal, and single-coils are not that common choices. They are very twangy and bright. There is nothing wrong with that. But metal sounds are much darker and bassy. So humbucker is the preferred style of pickup for that. It’s much easier to get the wanted sounds with them because of their darker nature. 

Then, single-coils have a weaker bass response than humbuckers. The electric guitars need higher bass settings when playing metal music. That is because metal music as a genre requires a thick wall of sound, which can be created with higher bass output pickups like humbuckers. 

In contrast, single-coil pickups highlight the higher frequencies, which is not the best system for metal. This makes them sound thinner and more ice picky with higher gain settings, and they have a brighter overall sound compared to humbuckers, which is great for many music styles, but not for metal.

The most problematic side of the single-coils for metal music is that single-coil pickups create a humming noise when the gain is cranked up. This is called the 60’s cycle hum and can be a real pain in the high gain settings. This was a problem when they first came to the market in the 1950s. It was later “fixed” with humbucker-style pickups. 

Humbuckers are basically two single-coil pickups wired together, canceling this hum. There are players that take advantage of this humming effect when using single coils with hi-gain amps. But for most of us, this is very annoying and unwanted. 

Many of today’s modern metal players are playing humbuckers, and not the passive, but the active ones. Single coil pickups are almost all the time passive-style pickups. They do not feature the high power of active pickups provided by the battery. The active pickups are great for high-gain tones as they have extra power without losing the clarity of the tone.

Because with metal music, you need high output pickups that stay clear and articulate even with the highest gain settings. With passive pickups, this is very hard to get, and since there aren’t many single coils in existence that are active, it’s hard to get a full and thick tone, maintaining overall clarity.

How Do Single-Coils Pickups Work?

Single-coil pickups are created with a coil around a magnetic pole. As there are three single-coil pickups on a regular electric guitar, typically, there are six poles on an electric guitar. However, not all electric guitars have three single coils, and some single-coil pickups may have different systems with a higher amount of poles.

Single-coil pickups sound bright and snappy, which are great for clean and low-gain tones. But they are highly prone to feedback with higher-gain tones as they pick up extra electromagnetic interference. That is why they are not recommended for metal or hard rock tones. And also, that is why humbuckers were created in the first place. With two coils that are out of phase with each other, the interference is prevented, and the clarity of the tones is preserved.

What Are Single-Coils Best For?

These pickups are best for playing clean or slightly overdriven sound. They are the weapon of choice in country music. The best is the bridge pickup on the Telecaster-style guitar. They are also great for playing blues. That overdriven sound that Stevie Ray Vaughn used on his famous Strats playing texas blues music. 

When you hear the Beatles and the Rolling stones, in most cases, you hear that bright sound of single-coil pickups. Hendrix used them, and his intro in the song Little Wing is one of the best sounds ever recorded.

So there are many things that the single-coils are great at, it’s just so much for metal music, but it’s not impossible. There are ways to do it. 

How to Use Single-Coils for Metal?

Let’s say you know all the reasons why humbucker pickups are better for playing metal. But you’re stuck with a guitar that has single coils on it. There are a few things you can do to get as close as possible. 

Increase Bass And Mids 

The first thing you can do is to increase the bass and mids on your amp settings. As mentioned before, single coils tend to feature a weak mid-range and bass response. So, you can try to turn the bass setting up on the amp to have a boost in the lower ranges of your tone. This way, you can slightly compensate for your single-coils weak bass response. But you have to be careful; if you turn the settings too high, your tone will get boomy and muddy.

If you find the sweet spot, your tone will sound darker and fuller. However, some amps do not come with a bass knob to adjust the lower range response. In this case, you can turn the bass settings up on your pedals or effect processors. If you do not have those either, you can try to adjust your tone by playing with the tone knob on your amp, trying to find the perfect balance.

Decrease Treble 

So if you have found the bass region you need, now is the time to decrease the higher frequencies. This way, you can reduce the sharpness and crispness of the single-coil tone. As single coils have the emphasis on the treble, their sound is too sharp and harsh for metal tones.

Again, you have to find the sweet spot in order not to lose all the clarity and separation of your tone. So, you have to be careful when adjusting the treble. If your amp does not have the treble or high-frequency knob, you can turn down the tone knob, trying to find the balance. This way, you’ll achieve the same effect as you would if you knocked the treble back a bit.

Use Middle Or Neck Pickup

Using the middle or neck pickup instead of the bridge pickup might be a good idea to achieve metal tones with a single-coil. Normally the bridge humbucker is the standard for high-gain tones. The pickups in the bridge position generally sound brighter and sharper, and the emphasis is on the higher frequencies instead of, the lower frequencies you need.

The bridge position is great for humbuckers as they already sound full and dark. They get the advantage of the bridge position with added sharpness. However, for single-coils, you should use the neck or middle positions to get the extra warmth and mellowness provided by the emphasis on the lower frequencies. The answer to the question of which one to use, the neck or the middle, heavily depends on the type of guitar, pickups, and the tone you want to achieve. So, you can try both to see which one works the best for you.

Turn Down The Gain

This might sound weird, but turning down the gain on your amp might be a good idea to get a more metal-sounding tone. I know you can not believe it but let me explain. When the gain is cranked up on your amp, two important changes happen that can get single-coils away from the metal tone regions.

First, the background humming noise that is mentioned before will be increased and will disturb the ears. Second, the clarity of your tone will fade away. Also, the note separation will not be that clear. Altough you need high-gain tones to achieve metal tones, you do not want those two problems in your sound.

So do not crank up the gain to the full degree. Try to use it moderately and turn it up slightly as much as you need to achieve kind of a high-gain tone that minimizes those two problems. If you’re not satisfied with the sound and you think you have too little gain on hand, try to turn up your mids and bass control more to thicken out your tone.

Use Noise Gate Pedal

If you still have issues with excessive noise, try to use a noise gate pedal. Noise gate pedals are a must-have, even with the humbuckers. They are commonly used by most guitarists who play high-gain tones on the stage. Noise-gate pedals remove any unwanted humming or buzzing noise from your amp. So, they are ideal for this case, where you need to use single-coils for high-gain tones.

With a noise gate pedal, you can increase the gain slightly more to get a thicker metal tone. And they will remove the unwanted hums of the single-coils interference problems.

Use Overdrive Or Distortion pedal. 

And one last thing you can do if you are not pleased with the tone you are getting from your amp is to use an overdrive or distortion pedal. Using a high-quality overdrive or distortion pedal can give you more control over your tone, a better quality source of gain, and higher precision to achieve the metal sound you want. 

With pedals, you will suffer less from the lack of depth and thickness as well as clarity when cranking up the gain compared to cranking it up on the amp.

For example, you can use the Xotic BB Preamp pedal as an overdrive to gain up the already gainy sound from your amp. Or, if you use clean settings on your amp, you can use Boss MT-2 Metal Zone, which will go into hi-gain territory all by itself. 

So you see, all it’s not lost if you don’t have a guitar with humbuckers and you’re eager to play metal. 

Why Are Humbuckers Better Than Single Coils For Metal?

Humbuckers are known for their great high-gain performances, which is the reason behind their invention. They deliver darker, fuller, and noise-free high-gain tones that you can not get from single-coil layouts. So, they are the go-to pickups for metal players.

Well, the trick behind it is the two-coil design of humbucker pickups. The coils are placed facing opposite directions in order to prevent the humming interference noise. This way, they provide better performance when you use humbuckers with higher-gain settings in contrast to the single-coil pickups.

When compared to humbuckers, single-coil pickups sound thinner and weaker, which is far from ideal for metal. As they highlight the higher frequencies, they are not meant for metal tones that require the emphasis to be on the bass regions.

What Are Stacked Single-Coil Pickups?

Stacked single-coil pickups are commonly mistaken for single-coil-sized humbuckers as they allow the guitarists to have a better sound when playing higher-gain tones. Stacked pickups actually are two single-coil-sized pickups placed on top of each other. Their sonic performance can be compared to regular single-coil pickups that are featured on guitars like Stratocasters and Telecasters.

The stacked design with double coils helps reduce the humming interference noises that the standard single-coil pickups suffer from. They are mainly preferred by particular guitarists who like to have a slightly brighter metal tone. 

Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickup is considered one of the best-stacked single-coil pickups and is used by many metal players. It is the signature model of the master virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen who has a unique sound.

Regarding the single-coil-sized humbucker and stacked single-coil pickup comparison, I will not get into much detail not to confuse you. Basically, single-coil-sized humbuckers are actually humbuckers that are designed to fit into the cavity on a guitar made for single-coil pickups. The rest of the circuit and the construction is the same as a regular humbucker. 

However, stacked single-coil pickups replicate the humbucker sound with a single-coil design. They eliminate the hum for higher-gain settings, but they do not deliver the thicker tone that you get from humbuckers.

Best Single Coil Pickups for Metal

DiMarzio Injector Single Coil Pickup DP422

DiMarzio is one of the best brands when it comes to electric guitar pickups. Their single-coil model line is quite diverse and features some experimental models for different guitarists in search of exotic sound profiles. 

Injector pickups feature Alnico 2 magnets, four conductors, and a high output that can reach 185 mV, which is very impressive for a single-coil pickup. They sound much hotter and fuller compared to other single-coil pickups and are great choices if you want to have a metal tone.

Another great point of the Injector pickup set is that they do not have the coil buzz noise, as DiMarzio removed the problem in the design so that you can get a hotter and noise-free tone with a single-coil pickup. There are neck and bridge models of this pickup, which you can buy as a set or separately.

Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Pickups

Seymour Duncan SSL-4 Quarter Pound Flat Pole Strat Pickup
  • High-output Single-coil Pickup with Oversized Alnico 5 Magnets

When talking about pickups, probably the first brand to come to mind is Seymour Duncan. The Quarter Pound model is one of the highest-output single-coil pickups around that delivers a great bit of twang. When you attack the single notes hard, the sound you get is spanky and twangy, while when you attack them softly, the sound gets warm and polite.

So, the dynamic response range of the Quarter Pound pickups is impressive. Power chords also have a great percussive attack and can deliver clean sounds when played softy, even with the overdriven tones.

The sustain of these pickups is also great as the pickups have high resistance. In lower volume settings, hte pickups provide great clean tones, and when strummed softly, the chords get a sweet shimmer with sustain.

However, these are standard single-coil pickups with a standard 60-cycle hum. So if you want to reach some high gain tones, you will have to use a noise suppressor.

EMG SA Pickups

EMG SA Active Single Coil Guitar Pickup Set, Black
  • Combines the attributes of the early Strat sounds with added midrange...
  • This gives the pickup "bell-like" harmonics and increased sustain
  • This active single coil set, loaded with Alnico V bar magnets, sounds...
  • Eliminates noise with internal shielding and a low impedance preamp,...

EMG is known for its outstanding metal humbucker pickups. Their active humbuckers are famous and are used by many metal guitarists like Zakk Wylde. However, the brand also offers some active single-coil pickups for those who want to achieve high gain tones.

EMG SA pickups feature Alnico V bar magnets that are famous for their rich tones with great and full lower ranges. Combined with internal shielding and a low impedance amp, these pickups become truly noise-free even when the gain is cranked up fully. Additionally, the pickups do not sacrifice any single-coil tone benefits when achieving that.

The tones you can reach with the SA pickups are great, as the creamy mid-range warmth provides a great tonal range with impressive clarity, strength, and expressiveness. The pickups get quite aggressive with high gain amps. The active single-coil pickups are great for metal tones, and they deliver beautifully articulated tones.


So, in the end, we know the best pickups for metal are the humbuckers—preferably active ones. But as you can see, playing with single-coils is not impossible. Yes, there are some adjustments you need to make. No, it will not sound like a set of active EMG humbuckers. But, if you’re just starting as a guitar player, and the only thing you have is some cheap Strat copy, I see no reason you can’t play metal music on it if you desire. Yes, it will squeal and hum, but it’ll help you grow as a guitar player even better. 

So don’t be afraid to experiment with the equipment you have. Try to adapt it to your preferences. And the sky will be the limit. You can only gain experience from it; the best way to learn in the guitar world is to try everything yourself. 

If you found this article useful, you may want to save this pin below to your Guitar board.

Last update on 2024-05-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


I have been playing guitar since 2004. As long as I can remember I always had a huge passion for rock music and I extremely enjoy playing it. Helping people on their rock journey is what drives me to keep on playing. Read More About Me

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