I love my 50s inspired Stratocaster. I love the sound of the sparkling, lush, clean tones from single-coil pickups.
But I also Love my Epiphone Les Paul. I admire the warm, thick, and creamy lead tones from humbucker pickups (picture above).
But what if you don’t own the luxury of both a single-coil and humbucker guitar in your collection like me?
In this post, I will offer you 7 useful tips for making a single-coil sound like a humbucker. Sound good? Here’s how to do it…
- Adjust your amp and guitar’s EQ for a warm and thick tone
- Double up your distortion and overdrive pedals
- Use guitar effects (delay, chorus, octave, compression) to thicken the sound
- Increase your guitars natural sustain
- Use a pickup simulator pedal
- Use pickup modeling software
- Install a humbucker pickup
Single-coil pickups naturally sound thin, twangy, bright and articulate.
Whereas, Humbuckers sound thick, warm, round and darker. So it makes sense to try and achieve the thickest tone available from your single-coils. And here’s how to do it…
1 – EQ Your Amp and Guitar for a Thick Tone
First, to craft a thick sound without performing any technical modifications to your single-coil guitar. You will need to learn how to EQ your amp, guitar, and pedals precisely.
The reason is to decrease your single-coil guitars natural brightness and articulation. You do this by setting your amps EQ correctly to produce a dark and thick tone similar to a Gibson Les Paul.
You are essentially masking the brightness and articulation of the single-coil pickups and adding warmth and thickness to beef up your single-coil tone.
Keep in mind, with the right EQ settings, you can make the thinnest and twangiest guitar sound considerably thick and meaty.
You can even do a mixture of both and experiment to see what sounds best with your amp, guitar and effects. Keep in mind, you will have more versatility when EQ’ing with your amp as you have more parmeters to tweak and adjust.
How to EQ your Amplifier
Adjust and tweak your amplifiers EQ parameters removing treble and adding bass to darken the guitar tone adding warmth and roundness.
As a guide, here are some general amp settings and recommendations to follow.
Recommended Amplifier Settings
Treble (2-5)– Lowering the treble is the most essential control for excluding the top-end frequencies from the amplifier’s tone. Holding back on the treble keeps the guitar’s high-end frequencies from being amplified, creating a warmer and thicker sound with your single-coil guitar.
Bass (6-9) – Since a guitar with single coils is set up to sound naturally thin and brittle. Adding bass to the sound is paramount for crafting a beefier tone similar to humbucker pickups. Guitars with humbuckers usually have enhanced lows, so having lots of low-end is essential.
Middle – The mids are less significant and are to the player’s personal preferences. You have more room to experiment with the mids for seeing what sounds best on your current setup.
Rollback your guitar’s tone knob. This decreases and removes the top-end frequencies from the guitar signal. Doing so increases warmth and thickness, removing the familiar bright sound of single-coil pickups.
Tone Knob – (3-7) using the tone knob on the guitar roll off some high-end lowering the pickups top-end frequencies making the sound rounder and thicker. The trick is to tweak until you dial in a thick tone without it becoming excessively muddy.
Volume knob – depending on if you are desire clean, crunch, or a high gain tone? The volume control is available to adjust according to the amount of output you want from your guitar signal.
Always choose the middle or neck position. The neck and middle position offer a thicker and rounder sound from your guitar.
Secondly, the bridge pickup on a Stratocaster is wired to be unaffected by the tone knob, so the middle and neck pickup will be the best positions to select.
Adjust your amp EQ and guitar tone knob accordingly for a darker sound removing the twang and brightness.
2 – Double Your Overdrive and Distortion Pedals
When it comes to the dirt section of your pedalboard. To remove the sparkly and twangy distortion of a single-coil guitar and beef up your guitar tone.
My top tip is to engage two overdrive pedals simultaneously in your signal chain. Adding two pedals beefs up your guitar’s tone for a thicker Les Paul style distortion/overdrive sound. Here’s how you do it…
Overdrive Pedal A
Pedal A is your main distortion/overdrive and is your main dirt sound because you like the tone this pedal produces.
Overdrive Pedal B
Pedal B is next in line and performs as your second bass boost overdrive/distortion pedal. Pedal B must have the highs rolled off via the tone knob or adding lows with a bass knob if it has this feature.
When engaged with pedal A, it will add a noticeable boost in bass, offering more texture and thickness to the dirt section of your sound.
This will take a little bit of fiddling with EQ to get the right blend of both pedals. With one pedal as your main sound and the other performing as a bass boost.
It will add a ton of warmth and thickness to a single-coil guitar tone helping it sound like a creamy Les Paul. You will be surprised how well this works! Give it a try.
Do Not Oversaturate
You must ensure both pedals have the right blend of gain and do not oversaturate the overall tone when performing this trick.
Oversaturation will likely cause pesky feedback, especially with a single-coil guitar. If this is a problem, add a noise gate pedal to the signal chain for taming annoying buzz and hum.
3 – Use Effects to Thicken your Tone
To achieve a warm, dark, and beefy sound similar to a humbucker pickup. You must remove and mask the single-coil characteristics by adding texture and widening your signal.
Add and experiment with these effects to achieve a noticeable fatter guitar tone…
Adding a hint of chorus in your signal is a known tip for adding roundness and fullness.
Chorus is a modulation effect giving the illusion of hearing two guitar signals at one adding a stereo element to any guitar tone. This effect nicely adds texture, adding layers and thus a fuller sound.
A guitar tone loaded with chorus will not sound great combined with saturated distortion. But for milder tones such as crunch and cleans, they can add an extra layer of warmth and thickness via the stereo effect.
Setting a delay pedal with a short delay time is another audible trick to add texture and fill more sonic space.
Making your tone sound larger and broader. The method is to set a short delay time giving the illusion of two guitars playing simultaneously through two separate amplifiers.
This technique is a well-known guitar tone hack in the guitar industry used by professional guitar techs.
This method is like using reverb with your delay pedal. However, reverb can sometimes make your guitar tone sound like it’s further away. Whereas, a short delay can fill out notes and promote a more significant and fuller tone.
Octave pedals double your signal with the benefit of shifting up or down octaves for detuned vibes.
You can even replace your original guitar signal. Octave pedals can add some unusual sounds and flavor to any guitar tone and have endless amounts of ways to get creative and experiment with sounds.
A compressor pedal will do wonders for a single-coil guitar adding juicy sustain and meat to a once thin and brittle guitar tone. Compressors increase the low transience and decrease the high transience ‘compressing’ them both together.
This compression of transience adds volume, thickness, and sustain to any clean, crunch, and mildly overdriven guitar tone.
Guitars with single-coil pickups at the helm hugely benefit from compression. As humbucker pickups naturally compress a signal whereas, single coils pickups do not have this ability so some form of compression is essential.
4 – Improve your Guitar’s Natural Sustain
A well-known trait of the Gibson Les Paul is its ability to sustain and hold notes for days due to its design, materials, and construction.
You can give a Stratocaster the characteristics of a Gibson Les Paul if you increase its capability to sustain.
Here’s how to enhance natural sustain on your single-coil pickup guitar…
- Use Fender Bullets – Fender Bullet strings are designed to sit snug inside the tremolo holes to avoid rattling around upon string vibration. This allows for better string contact and additional sustain.
- Upgrade the Nut – nuts crafted from bone are denser than cheaper materials such as plastic. Bone nuts also promote better string contact assisting the string vibrations to travel further through the guitar.
- Apply heavy gauged Strings – heavy gauged strings 0.10 or 0.11 have more mass for more vibration, promoting more sustain than lighter strings.
- Lock-off the tremolo – if you do not use the whammy bar, you can lock off the tremolo. Even better, install a hefty fixed tremolo block to promote more sustain.
- Upgrade the saddle – ensure you have a saddle made from a hard and dense material. For example, guitar saddles made from steel allow for better string vibration and reflect energy back into the string for more juicy sustain.
- Tighten Tuners – Loose tuning pegs will dampen vibration and waste energy. Therefore, ensure that your guitars tuning pegs are tight and secure to promote string vibrations and do not waste transfer energy.
5 – Use a ‘Pickup Simulator’ Pedal
The Keyztone Exchanger pedal functions by directly modeling your guitar’s pickups and changing them to sound like a different pickup altogether.
No pickup modifications, no wiring, just a versatile selection of different pickups in a handy pedal.
Armed with this pedal, simply change the core tone of a single-coil Stratocaster, to sound like a humbucker guitar of a Gibson Les Paul for example (and vice versa!)
Single-Coil to Humbucker Tone with a Pedal
Selecting the humbucker preset adds warmth, thickness, to the sound and removes the bright and twangy sound of the single-coils. Proving you can make a single-coil guitar sound like humbucker guitar!
The Keyztone Exchanger pedal includes 5 humbucker presets and 4 single-coil presets to choose from. Converting your guitar to sound like any pickup type.
This pedal adds versatility to your pedalboard and the convenience of never swapping your pickups on your prized single-coil guitar.
An impressive selling point of this pedal is that it is entirely analog and does not use digital processing to modify your guitar’s pickup tone.
Although this will never sound as genuine as having a real humbucker at the helm of your guitar. It is a very versatile and convenient way of giving you a flavor of humbucker tones
6 – Use ‘Pickup Modeling Software’
Want a P90, humbucker, or Soapbar pickup tone from your single coil guitar?
If you record guitar on PC with an audio interface and recording software known as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), this can effortlessly be done.
Within your DAW, engage pickup simulating software for a customizable catalog of different pickup tones. Simply choose humbucker presets for a fatter and less spankier tone for classic warm humbucker sound while playing a single-coil guitar.
Here are the programs…
Blue Cat Audio Re-Guitar
- Price: $99
- 32/64 bit
- Standalone version: Yes
- Plugin: Yes
Re-Guitar is an innovative tool for guitar players for swapping, customizing, and offering the pickups that you do not have in your prized guitar collection. Even after you have recorded your guitar!
Re-Guitar‘s pickup selection ranges from P90s, classic and modern humbuckers, soap bar pickups, and more.
With every pickup on offer, there are additional EQ tweaks that can precisely edit the sound you want. The interface is simple and easy to navigate and can be accessed in a standalone version.
BIAS FX 2 ‘Guitar Match’
- Price: $179 (Pro version)
- 32/64 Bit
- Standalone version: Yes
- Plugin: Yes
Once sampled, it offers a selection of 18 high-end boutique guitars to select from. Ranging from a wide selection of vintage guitars.
For example, Guitar Match can give you a thick and creamy humbucker tone with a single coil guitar using the 57 Les Paul modeled preset.
Or convert your humbucker guitar to brighter and twangier Stratocaster tone applying the Custom 1960s vintage Stratocaster preset.
With most amplifier simulator plugins (Amplitube, Bias FX 2, Guitar Rig 5) emulating famous amplifiers and effects. ‘Guitar Match’ essentially models a range of premium guitars and tonal characteristics recreated in a virtual preset.
7 – Install Humbucker Pickups
The last tip is pretty self-explanatory, but if you want a humbucker tone from your single coils. Just bite the bullet and install humbucker pickups.
Why? Well, you can only modify your single-coil tone so much to be still unsatisfied with your guitar tone.
The Stratocaster is one of the most modifiable guitars of all time. The reason? The Stratocaster, for example, has humbucker and single coil slot cavities built into the body for merely dropping in either pickup of your choice.
And for this reason, you do not have to pay extra to a guitar tech to drill new cavities for the pickup. Which importantly keeps costs down. Just purchase your chosen humbucker pickups and pay for labor costs of re-wiring and configuring.
You could also do it yourself if you have solder and wiring experience. But if not, I recommend taking your guitar to an experienced guitar tech.
There is only so much you can do with the pickup you have at your guitars disposal.
Although I have given you some useful tips for crafting a humbucker tone with a guitar with single coils. If you want a humbucker sound that bad, then simply buy one and drop it into your guitar for the full experience.
I hope you found this post useful. It was my 7 best tips for getting a Gibson Les Paul style tone using a guitar with single-coil pickups.
It’s always good to get the most out of your guitars. I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did writing it for you!
If you enjoyed this post, read my next related post…
Can a stock Stratocaster play metal? This post will answer whether a single-coil Stratocaster is a suitable guitar for playing any sub-genre of metal?