The configuration of your guitar’s pickups is one of those choices that most people seem to not consider as much, but is actually quite important.
Both the type of pickups in your guitar and their position can have a huge effect on your sound. And there are quite a few different configurations that pickups can come in.
In this article, I will go over three pickup configurations, discuss what they mean, how they differ, and which one suits your needs the best.
What Do HSS, SSS, and HSH Mean?
Before I get into the gritty details, there are a few basic things I want to go over first.
Whenever you buy a guitar, somewhere on its spec sheet, it will tell you the pickup configuration of the guitar. This is where it will tell you whether it has an HSS, SSS, HSH, etc. configuration.
But what does this actually mean? There are two important bits of information given here:
- The type of pickups used
- The placement of the pickups on the guitar
As you probably know, pickups come in two main varieties: humbuckers and single coils.
Single coil pickups are the slim ones that have one row of six magnets. Humbuckers are the wider pickups or pickups that look like two single coils stuck together.
Humbuckers are known for having more sustain and being more aggressive, while single coils are brighter. More importantly, humbuckers cancel out something called 60 cycle hum, while single coils don’t. 60 cycle hum is the thing that causes pickups to create noise.
This is what the H and S in the abbreviation stand for. H stands for humbucker and S stands for single coil.
As for their position on the guitar, that is determined by the order the H and S are written in. Reading from left to right, the positions are bridge, middle, and neck.
Meaning that in an HSS configuration, for example, the bridge pickup is a humbucker and the middle and neck positions both have single coils.
In HSH, the bridge will be a humbucker, the middle a single coil, and the neck will be a humbucker.
Why Use Different Pickups?
You might be wondering why you would want to use two different types of pickups on a guitar. Wouldn’t that just cause problems with the sound? They sound different, after all.
And that is exactly why you would want to use humbuckers and single coils together. As they sound different, they can be used together to combine both of their characteristics.
For example, humbuckers aren’t as bright as single coils. If you are playing on the bridge humbucker pickup, you can add a single coil to add some more brightness.
If you are playing with a single coil in the middle, but you want some more punch and sustain, you can add the neck humbucker.
This brings me to how these configurations work.
The pickup you are using is determined by the position of your pickup selector. These three configurations work quite differently from one another. They will of course also sound quite different.
To put it simply, the pickup selector toggles between using individual pickups or two pickups together. It moves through the bridge to the neck as you move the selector.
Each of these three configurations has five pickup positions. All three use the same positions.
- Bridge only – Only the bridge pickup is active
- Bridge and middle – Both the bridge and middle pickups are active
- Middle only – Only the middle pickup is active
- Middle and neck – Both the middle and neck pickups are active
- Neck only – Only the neck pickup is active
Even though their positions are the same, because they use different pickups, they are going to sound different.
The HSS configuration works great if you want both a heavy sound with the bridge pickup and a softer clean sound with the neck.
Having a humbucker in the bridge position is great if you are using a lot of gain and distortion. Humbuckers can handle high levels of gain much better than single coils since they cancel out 60 cycle hum.
Humbuckers are warmer than single coils, though, but being able to combine a humbucker and single coil is a great way to brighten up the sound a bit. On the other end, a single coil in the neck position is great for a rounded clean tone.
Coming to HSS vs SSS, the SSS configuration is quite similar to HSS. Positions 3 – 5 work the same. The big difference is having a single coil in the bridge position.
Single coils are much brighter and don’t handle distortion quite as well as humbuckers. A bridge single coil is ideal for country, jazz, blues, funk, and softer rock.
Combining the bridge and middle single coils creates a bit more rounded, warmer sound, but not as much as a humbucker and single coil.
The HSS vs HSH debate is not heard often, since HSH guitars aren't that common.
HSH is both the most diverse and complex configuration. Having a humbucker at the bridge and neck will mean that you are getting a great, aggressive distortion tone. While a humbucker at the neck will give you a very warm and thick clean tone.
A single coil in the middle can then be used to add brightness to both the bridge and neck. This will also help to round out the sound a bit.
Which Configuration is Best?
Truthfully, I don’t believe either one of the configurations can be considered “the best”. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages.
I personally prefer the HSS configuration. As someone who plays a lot of heavier music like metal and hard rock, a humbucker in the bridge position is practically a must.
I also prefer the clean tone of a single coil in the neck position to that of a humbucker. HSS is the perfect combination of humbucker and single coil for me.
That doesn’t mean that it is the best. Another guitarist might prefer the warmer tone of a humbucker in the neck position. They might then prefer HSH.
Someone else might not need a pickup that can handle as much distortion. They would then likely rather choose SSS.
The configuration you choose will entirely depend on your preferences and needs.
Changing a Guitar’s Pickup Configuration
Say you have a guitar with an HSH configuration and you want to switch to HSS, can you? The short answer is yes. The long answer is... it depends.
Going from HSH to HSS is easier than going from SSS to HSH or HSS. The reason for this is due to the size of the pickup cavities in your guitar.
Single coil cavities are, of course, much narrower than humbucker cavities. That means that you can’t exactly just pop a humbucker into a guitar that only had room for single coils, whereas, placing a single coil into a humbucker cavity is much easier as long as you make sure the pickup is secure.
That doesn’t mean you can’t replace the single coils on your guitar with humbuckers. You also don’t need to risk making the pickup cavities wider and possibly damaging your guitar.
There are quite a few single coil-sized humbuckers on the market, like the Seymour Duncan SHR-1b. They don’t sound quite the same as a full-sized humbucker, but they will get you fairly close without the need for guitar surgery.
Some guitars even have a coil-splitting mechanism that allows you to switch between humbuckers and a single coil-style tone. Like the PRS SE Mark Holcomb.
A Few Notable Guitars
There are many guitars that come with these three different pickup configurations.
On the HSS side, often also referred to as Super Strats, the Fender American Professional II is a fantastic guitar for any style of music.
The SSS configuration is probably most recognizable as the Stratocaster’s pickup configuration. This means that the most notable guitars with this pickup configuration will, of course, be Fenders like the Player Plus and Squiers like the beginner-friendly Bullet and the Classic Vibe ‘60s.
The HSH configuration isn’t quite as common as HSS or SSS. There are still many great guitars out there with this pickup configuration.
From Fender, you have guitars like the Player. The HSH configuration is a bit more common with companies like Ibanez. They offer a much larger range of guitars with this setup like the S670QM and the Nita Strauss Signature.
When it comes to HSS vs SSS, or HSS vs HSH pickups, there isn’t really a best configuration. It all depends on what you prefer and what you need.
All three of these pickup configurations have their own pros and cons. And with things like single coil-sized humbuckers and coil-splitting, you aren’t even limited to one configuration anymore.