If you’re a guitar player, you’re undoubtedly aware of how important—and often, difficult—it is to get the right tone from your guitar. And you’re probably also aware of how important pickups are to your tone. The two basic types of pickup are single-coils and humbuckers, each of which produces a distinct sound. Traditionally, in order to achieve both sounds, you need a guitar—or multiple guitars—equipped with both types of pickups.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the world, as plenty of guitars have both humbuckers and single-coil pickups. But a pickup’s position—that is, whether it’s closer to the bridge or closer to the neck—has almost as big of an effect on tone as the type of pickup. And because two pickups can’t occupy the same physical space in a guitar’s body, your tonal options will almost necessarily be limited. In other words, while you can have a humbucker in the bridge position and a single-coil in the neck position, or vice versa, you can’t have both a humbucker and a single-coil in the same position.
Enter coil-splitting and coil-tapping. These similar yet distinct pickup modifications allow guitarists to have even more control and versatility of tone by making a humbucker act essentially like a single-coil pickup. These techniques give the musician access to a greater range of the pickup’s output, letting them have the best of both worlds.
In this post, we will explore exactly what coil-tapping and coil-splitting are, the differences between the two, and which technique you may want to use in various situations.
Single-coil vs. humbucker pickups
Before we jump into the finer points of coil-tapping and coil-splitting, let’s take a quick look at the differences between single-coil pickups and humbuckers, as these are the basis for understanding the difference between coil-tapping and coil-splitting. A guitar’s pickup is the part that converts the physical vibrations of the strings into the sound or output that we hear coming through the speakers. The type of pickup used makes all the difference in the type of sound that is produced.
A single-coil pickup is built around a single coil of wire, utilizing a simple design with thin wire wrapped around a single magnet. This tends to produce a brighter, thinner and more twangy sound than a humbucker pickup, which is made from two magnets of opposite polarity placed next to each other, each of which is then wrapped with the copper wire. Humbuckers produce a deeper tone that carries more power and volume, ideal for heavier types of music.
As mentioned above, traditionally, choosing between single-coils and humbuckers is an either/or situation: you can’t have both a humbucker and single-coil in the same position, and that’s a limiting factor in the range of tone a given guitar can produce. But with coil-tapping and coil-splitting, a guitarist can essentially have it both ways.
What is coil-splitting?
Coil-splitting, which is more common than coil-tapping, is when one of a humbucker pickup’s two coils is shut off completely, essentially giving it the effect of a single-coil pickup. This is achieved by bypassing one of the coils, leaving it unused while the other coil functions as a single-coil pickup. This makes the guitar sound brighter and a bit twangier, reducing the richness and depth of the humbucker. Normally employed with a simple switch (usually located on a volume or tone knob), coil-splitting allows the guitarist to effortlessly move between the deeper, richer tones of the humbucker pickup and the brighter tone of a single-coil simply by activating a switch.
The advantage of coil-tapping is quite simple: it means that you no longer have to choose one way or the other when it comes to which type of pickup you’ll put in which position of your guitar. In this sense, coil-splitting really does allow a guitarist to have it both ways. The one major disadvantage is that wiring a guitar with coil-splitting is marginally more complicated than a traditional humbucker or single-coil pickup. Of course, once split, the humbucker will take on all of the characteristics of a single-coil, including the noise and hum that a humbucker is designed to mitigate.
What is coil-tapping?
Coil-tapping can be used either on a single-coil or humbucker pickup. In this technique, there are two wires coming off of the coil: one at the full length of the coil and one partway through. By use of a switch, the player can effectively change the length of the copper wire that’s wrapped around the magnetic. This creates the option for two different power levels from the same pickup. When the guitarist chooses the tapped output (i.e. the option with the shortened coil) the lower power level will result in a more vintage and subdued tone, while going with the full output will result in a more powerful and modern sound.
This method is great for when a guitarist wants the ability to tame high-powered, modern single-coil pickups. Like coil-splitting, coil-tapping requires a slightly more complicated wiring scheme than traditional setups, but there are no major tonal disadvantages. On the contrary, both techniques serve mainly to widen the variety of tones that a given guitar can produce, with very little downside.
Should I use one, both or neither?
Whether coil-splitting or coil-tapping is right for you will depend entirely on what tone you’re looking for and how much versatility you require. Keep in mind that while you can give a humbucker pickup the effect of a single-coil using the coil-splitting method, you can’t really turn a single-coil into a humbucker. So, for maximum tonal potential, using humbuckers with coil-splitting may be the way to go. Alternatively, fans of single-coil pickups who want to be able to pull both a modern and vintage sound from the same pickups may want to consider coil-tapping. But as mentioned above, utilizing either technique will require more complicated wiring.
For guitarists that want to maximize the tonal variety at their disposal, this sacrifice can be well worth it. For those who know what they like and are more comfortable sticking with one type of pickup or the other, coil-splitting and coil-tapping can be needless complications. It all depends on what you want from your guitar.