My favourite guitar is a Pignose travel guitar which I bought when I lived in Japan. Although the body is diminutive, the neck is full-sized and it plays very well—better than many normal electrics I’ve tried. Unfortunately, its single-coil pickup also picked up a loud electrical hum in my current flat. Hum by itself is annoying; overdriven, it becomes obnoxious.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: the clever 1950s technology of the ‘hum-bucking’ pickup. A basic pickup is a coil wrapped round a magnet; as the ferromagnetic guitar string moves in the magnet’s field, a current is induced in the coil. The humbucker uses two coils, wound in opposite directions, with opposite magnetic polarities. The hum picked up by one coil is cancelled out by the other, but the string vibration is reinforced. Voilà, no hum. For extra credit, the coils can be dipped in hot wax to prevent microphony caused by vibrating windings.
Despite being very simple devices, pickups can be surprisingly expensive, selling for £30, £40, £100 or more. There’s a thriving industry of boutique manufacturers catering to those wanting a modern sound or a vintage reproduction. There are a lot of factors affecting the sound output: the gauge of wire used; the number of turns; how tall or fat the coil is; the shape of the magnet and pole pieces used to shape the field; the strength of the magnets.
Personally, I just wanted to get rid of the hum, so I took a chance on a brand new pickup being sold by a musical instrument retailer on eBay. The seller advertised it as a ‘high output black rail single pick-up (humbucker in single size)’. That was just what I needed: a humbucker that would be a drop-in replacement for the existing pickup. At £12, it was cheap enough that I could afford to find out whether the vendor’s promise (‘as good as the name brands at a fraction of the costs’) was true.
I’m happy to report that it lived up to its claims. The new pickup sounds great, and is completely hum-free. The increased output of the hotter pickup has also given my little travel guitar something of a Mr Hyde testosterone boost when played through distortion.
(Incidentally, I never had any problems with hum when I lived in Japan. My apartment in Osaka had a steel frame and skin which made a very effective Faraday cage. It was rather a lot like a shipping container, actually.)