When going by the appearance of a pickup alone, one can get easily confused because there are pickups that have hum-canceling technology in them even though they look like a single-coil, and there are also humbuckers that look like humbuckers but are in fact tri-coil or even quad-coil.
To answer the question of what counts as a humbucking pickup up front, it’s any pickup specifically designed to reduce what’s known as “mains hum”, which some know as 60-cycle hum. To put it in the simplest definition possible, “humbucker” literally means “more than one coil”…
…and this is where things can get a little bit confusing. But after you’ll read this, you’ll understand what truly counts as a humbucker and what doesn’t.
This type of pickup (example) is most recognized in the Fender Precision Bass guitar model and is sometimes referred to as simply a “P-type”, “P-style” or just “P” (after “Precision” in Fender’s model name).
Is this a humbucking pickup? In fact, yes it is. Why? Two coils.
Split-Coil in “J” Shape (Split-Coil Humbucker)
A “J” pickup is traditionally a single-coil, and is named the “J” because it is in the shape of a pickup typically seen in a Fender Jazz Bass (with “J” for “Jazz”).
However, as you can see above, there are two coils there; this is a hum-canceling design (more info here). Calling this pickup a “split-coil humbucker” is accurate (and in fact, that is what Nordstrand describes this pickup as verbatim).
For those of you wondering what a split-coil humbucker would look like in a 5-string version:
You’ll notice one coil is longer than the other; that’s how it is designed for bass guitars with an odd number of strings.
Humbucker (“Music Man”)
The above image is what most people think of when they heard the word “humbucker”. A dual-coil pickup with all the pole pieces exposed. More info here.
This type of pickup is sometimes known as MM, which means “Music Man”, as in the bass guitar brand.
“Hey, that looks exactly the same as the dual-coil!”
You’re right, it does, and that’s because in appearance it is identical to a dual-coil, but on the inside it has 4 coils. For the specific example above, each row of magnets is actually 2 coils for 2 magnets each.
What does this mean to you? It means you get more switching options. Or to put it plainly, the pickup can be split yet still remain hum-canceling (front or rear coil, series or parallel wiring) since you have 4 coils instead of just two.
This one is the oddball of the bunch, and is listed last in this article because of its, shall we say, “unique” way of operating.
First of all, tri-coil does not mean humbucker + single-coil; it means one humbucking pickup with a “dummy coil” inside it.
The bass guitar you see above is the Music Man Sterling, and the bridge pickup is described verbatim as, “Music Man humbucking with ceramic magnets and hum canceling phantom coil”.
The third coil in the humbucker which Music Man calls the ‘phantom coil’ (that’s the dummy coil) is what makes the pickup a tri-coil; its sole purpose in life is to reduce hum and nothing more (meaning while it’s there, you can’t switch to it).
What makes the tri-coil annoying to work with isn’t the pickup itself, but rather the fact the preamp it connects to is proprietary. And when I say “proprietary”, I’m talking proprietary as in, “If you want to replace that preamp with an aftermarket product, it’s very unlikely you’ll find a replacement that will work with your tri-coil pickup.”
While true that pretty much all custom bass builds are proprietary to some degree, the preamp in the Music Man Sterling is so proprietary that you’re better off keeping the instrument all-original. Or to be more specific, if you wanted to swap the existing tri-coil pickup out for something else, it must be “compatible” with the Music Man preamp system.
In other words, if you want hum-canceling in a pickup that “gives you all the goodies”, so to speak, the quad-coil is the better option – and much easier to wire in (with your aftermarket preamp of choice, of course).
What’s your favorite humbucker pickup from the above?