Top 5 Guitar Pedals for Single-Coil Pickups

Single-coil pickups have a very distinctive sound, and they work well for specific genres and playing styles. However, are there certain pedals out there that can be used to bring the absolute best out of them?

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Elliot Stent

The world of guitar pedals is extremely diverse but, quite often, confusing. While having many types of effects available is a good thing in terms of variety, it can be difficult to identify which pedals will work best with certain guitars and their pickups.

In some cases, the types of pickups in your guitar can be the difference between a stompbox sounding good or bad, and vice versa. Of course, most types of pedals respond well to humbuckers, single-coils and P90s, but there are some that work particularly well with just one type. In this article, we're going to highlight a number of effects that behave their best with single-coil pickups.

Compressor Pedals

Compressor pedals limit the dynamic range of your guitar's signal, by reducing the volume of loud notes and increasing the peaks of quiet notes. Ultimately, they help to make your playing sound more consistent and balanced.

Funk guitarists rely on compressors as they typically play fast chord progressions with a choppy, staccato feel. Compression is therefore essential in this context as it brings every note that they play up to an audible level, which ensures that their parts are heard clearly in a busy band mix.

Why Do Single-Coil Pickups Sound Better With Compressor Pedals?

With funk players still in mind, they often use guitars equipped with single-coil pickups, such as Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. As single-coils offer bright, jangly and articulate sounds, they're truly in their element for this style of music. They're also popular with guitarists that play country and indie rock for the same reason. However, because of their one-magnetic-coil design, most single-coil pickups sound weak compared to humbuckers, which utilise two. Compressors are therefore perfect for squeezing more volume and sustain out of quiet single-coils.

Humbuckers, on the other hand, do not work well with compressors. Made from two magnetic coils, humbuckers offer greater output and are thus more compressed-sounding in nature. Because of this, the effect of a compressor is far less noticeable with humbucker-equipped guitars. If anything, compressor pedals hinder the dynamic range of humbuckers and restrict they're rich, open sound.

It's also worth mentioning that compressor pedals work their best with clean tones, rather than with overdrive or distortion. There are no rules regarding this, but similarly to humbuckers, overdrive and distortion compresses a guitar's signal anyway. So, using a compressor pedal in conjunction with these effects will only yield more sustain and raise their noise floor, causing hiss and unwanted noise. That's certainly something that you wouldn't want!

Overdrive Pedals

Overdrive pedals add grit to your guitar’s signal, which they achieve by pushing your amplifier’s valves harder or simply by emulating the sound of an amp that’s on the edge of break-up.

Compared to distortion pedals, overdrive stompboxes sound far more subtle, and single-coil-equipped guitars generally work better with them because their outputs are lower than most humbuckers. While the overdrive pedal market is over-saturated with options, there are a couple of OD flavours that are known to interact particularly well with single-coils.

Which Overdrive Pedals Sound Good With Single-Coil Pickups?

Ibanez Tube Screamer

The Ibanez Tube Screamer is certainly a popular choice. Famous for its ability to push your signal’s upper mid-range frequencies, the Tube Screamer is also renowned for adding compression to really focus your sound. It is these aspects of the Tube Screamer’s design that makes it so appealing to players that use single-coil pickups, which often lack mid-range punch and require compression to truly flourish. Tube Screamer pedals cover both of these bases.

Strat-wielding Stevie Ray Vaughan used a Tube Screamer for its distinctive tonal qualities, and it was a key ingredient in forming his signature sound. Running it through the clean channel of his high-headroom Fender amp, Vaughan’s TS-808 Tube Screamer could push it into break-up at a lower volume than what would have been required for his Fender amp to distort naturally. SRV played loud, but he never wanted to deafen his audience!

Klon Centaur

The Klon Centaur is another overdrive that is synonymous with single-coil guitars. That might be an overstatement though, because frankly, the Klon sounds good on anything! This “Holy Grail” of overdrives is adored for its transparent tone; adding gain to your signal without vastly affecting your base tone or its EQ. This is different to a Tube Screamer, which like we mentioned, boosts mid-range and adds compression.

However, some players prefer the way that a Klon Centaur can be used in just an additive way. It retains the shape of your original tone; embellishing it rather than changing it. For players that love the way that their single-coil pickups sound and feel, a Klon Centaur will just add some subtle grit on top. The Klon is also considered to be more reactive to your playing style, letting you articulate more expressively with a gorgeous, open sound. It’s no wonder that John Mayer has one on his pedalboard!

Genuine Klon Centaurs from the ’90s can cost thousands of pounds, but today there are loads of Klon-style pedals made by brands like Wampler, RYRA and Electro Harmonix.

Delay Pedals

Delay pedals are classed as "time-based" effects, as they are able to capture the sound of your guitar and reproduce it as a repeat several milliseconds later. The use of delay is common in all of music production, but guitarists have particular adoration for the way that delay pedals interact with their instruments.

From simple standalone stompboxes to all-encompasssing multi-delay workstations, pinpointing which delay pedals will work well with single-coils can be tricky. Ultimately, the most important thing to consider, in this case, is the way that a delay sounds as opposed to what it can do.

Which Delay Pedals Sound Good With Single-Coil Pickups?

Digital Delay

As you already know, most single-coil pickups sound vibrant and chimey. Humbuckers, on the other hand, have a chunkier and more powerful character. Delays work well with both types of pickups, but single-coils generally lend themselves better to this effect, as they allow the delay’s repeats to be more audible and articulate-sounding.

If you really want to take advantage of this tonal perk, a digital delay would be an excellent choice. This is because digital delay pedals are known for producing pristine, crystal-clear repeats. Their powerful processors and DSP chips also give you more freedom for experimentation too, letting you set longer delay times and modulate their repeats for a more angelic and warbly vibe.

If you love the guitar sounds on U2’s album The Joshua Tree (1987), guitarist The Edge created those beautiful sonic soundscapes with digital delays, and predominantly, a Fender Strat.

Analogue Delay

Digital delays sound crisp and defined, but analogue delay pedals offer a different timbre altogether. Although they work in a similar way, analogue delays sound much warmer by generating repeats with a darker sound. This can be attributed to their circuitry, with most analogue delay pedals using “bucket-brigade” chips. A BBD chip sends your guitar’s signal through a series of capacitors; one step per clock cycle. With every step, the signal diminishes and each repeat will thus sound weaker than the previous one.

The subtler sound of analogue delay stompboxes make them popular with some guitarists. A lot of players employ them to thicken the sound of lead guitar parts, as they add space and ambience without getting in the way, so to speak. For players that use single-coils, the twang and attack of a note contrasts the texture and warmth of the repeats that follow, which can sound really cool.

Boost Pedals

Boost pedals are somewhat similar to overdrive pedals, but instead of adding distortion - they kick your signal up by a significant notch! They're great for helping you punch through in a mix when the time is right.

However, not all boost pedals are as one-dimensional as that. While some boosts offer a pure clean push, there are others that feature EQ controls and some that just add “something” to spice up your tones. For guitars with single-coil pickups, as you’ll find out in the next section; boost pedals can be a godsend.

Do Single-Coil Pickups Sound Better With Boost Pedals?

A boost pedal can be used to get the best out of an anaemic-sounding set of single-coil pickups, especially if you’re playing through an amp at a low volume. Like we explained in the compressor pedals section, single-coils can sound weak due to their sole-magnet design, but a boost pedal can be used to push out more output, add definition and increase sustain. For single-note riffs, nothing sounds better than a single-coil guitar through a boost pedal!

Boost pedals are also useful in a live context, and not just for raising your volume for a big solo. If you’re a gigging guitarist that switches between a Strat and a Les Paul in a set, you’ll probably hear a noticeable difference in volume. Again, this is to do with the weaker output of single-coils versus the more powerful output of humbuckers. To compensate for the loss in volume, you can therefore use a boost pedal to match their levels.

Noise Gate Pedals

Rather than enhancing your guitar’s sound or adding anything to it, noise gate pedals take something away instead – hiss. There are lots of reasons as to why noise can occur in your rig, but audible interference can usually be heard if you’re playing through an amp at a high volume or with a distorted sound.

Its name is indicative of its design; the gate opens and lets your guitar’s signal through if it is louder than its set threshold, and the gate closes when it falls below; silencing it.

Why Do Single-Coil Guitars Need A Noise Gate?

As we explained earlier in the article, single-coils are constructed from just one magnetic coil, whereas humbuckers are made from two. The latter have their coils placed in opposite directions as a means of “bucking” hum; hence their name. Single-coils, on the other hand, are much more susceptible to noise and interference because of their design. This is something that you would have already noticed if you own a Strat or Tele.

If your amp is set clean then you probably won’t hear any interference, unless you’re cranked up really loud. Playing a single-coil-equipped guitar through an overdrive or distortion pedal, though, will heavily exacerbate noise as you’re adding gain to the signal. If you’re someone that uses a single-coil guitar in conjunction with overdrive or distortion, then a noise gate is a must have pedal if you’re keen to eradicate the hum.

Want To Learn More?

For more information about the pedals featured in this article, check out our dedicated guides for each of them:

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