What are hss vs sss vs hsh and Which is Best on a Guitar?

les paul pickups

The short answer:

In the context of guitars, “HSS” typically refers to a pickup configuration commonly found on electric guitars.

It stands for “Humbucker-Single Coil-Single Coil,” indicating the combination of pickups installed in the guitar’s body.

Here’s what each component represents:

1. Humbucker: Humbucker pickups are known for their fat and warm tone. They consist of two coils wired in series, which helps reduce noise and interference, resulting in a quieter signal compared to single-coil pickups. Humbuckers are often favored for their versatility and suitability for various musical styles, including rock, metal, and blues.

2. Single Coil: Single-coil pickups are characterized by their bright and clear tone, with a crisp attack and detailed midrange response. They consist of a single coil of wire wrapped around magnets, which can produce a sharper and more defined sound compared to humbuckers. Single-coil pickups are commonly associated with genres such as country, surf, and funk.

The “HSS” pickup configuration combines the best of both worlds, offering the versatility of a humbucker pickup in the bridge position for powerful rhythm and lead tones, along with the clarity and articulation of single-coil pickups in the neck and middle positions for sparkling cleans and nuanced playing.

This configuration allows guitarists to cover a wide range of tones and musical styles with just one instrument.

The beginning of a Personal Journey

My buddy Steve texted me a week or so and asked to join him at the bar after work for a beer or two.

He’s been playing acoustic guitar for years, and just starting to get interested in playing electric guitar. He asked me about the abbreviations “HSS,” “SSS,” and “HSH” that he kept seeing in guitar forums and discussions. He was confused by the terminology and felt a bit overwhelmed by all the technical jargon.

As we drank our beers I explained the differences between these pickup configurations. We went through each one, discussing how they affected the guitar’s tone and versatility. As I explained the concept of humbuckers and single-coil pickups, his eyes lit up with curiosity and excitement.

I told him how an “HSS” configuration typically featured a humbucker pickup in the bridge position for powerful lead tones, complemented by two single-coil pickups in the neck and middle positions for more traditional and versatile sounds.

On the other hand, an “SSS” setup consisted of three single-coil pickups, offering a classic and vintage-inspired tone favored by many blues and rock players. Think about most startocaster or telecaster guitars you’ve seen – especially in the 50s and 60s. Those slim, silver tubes under the guitarist’s strumming hand are single coil pickups.

Finally, the “HSH” configuration combined the best of both worlds, with a humbucker in the bridge and neck positions, flanked by a single-coil pickup in the middle, providing a wide range of tonal options suitable for various playing styles.

As we delved deeper into the world of electric guitar pickups, I could see Steve’s enthusiasm grow, and we decided to head back to my place so he could hear first hand the contrasts from some of the guitars in my collection.

By the end of the night, he was excited to explore these options further and experiment with different pickup setups and buy his own guitar and I had a new topic for an article on this site: a win-win!

Basics of Guitar Pickups – What are pickups anyway?

Pickups are typically made of magnets and wire coils and are installed underneath the strings of the guitar, usually directly beneath the strings or embedded within the guitar’s body. When the strings vibrate, they disturb the magnetic field created by the magnets within the pickup, inducing a small electrical current in the wire coils. This current is then amplified and converted into sound by the amplifier, allowing the guitar to be heard.

Each type of pickup has its own sonic characteristics and is suited to different playing styles and musical genres. The choice of pickup can significantly impact the overall tone and feel of an electric guitar, so it’s important to consider your preferences and playing style when selecting pickups for your instrument.

Single Coil or Humbucker, Which is best?

Determining whether single-coil or humbucker pickups are “best” ultimately depends on your personal preferences, playing style, and the specific sound you’re aiming to achieve. Both types of pickups have their own unique characteristics and strengths, and each excels in different musical contexts.

single coil pickups
single coil pickups

Best Pickups for Clean Tone

When it comes to achieving cleaner tones on an electric guitar, single-coil pickups are often the preferred choice. Here’s why:

Single-coil pickups are known for their bright and clear tone, with a crisp attack and detailed midrange response. They produce a pristine and articulate sound that’s well-suited for clean, undistorted playing styles, making them ideal for genres like jazz, country, pop, and clean blues.

Single-coil pickups excel at capturing the nuances of your playing, delivering a transparent and dynamic tone that allows every note to shine through with clarity and definition. They offer excellent string separation and articulation, making them perfect for intricate chord voicings, arpeggios, and melodic lines.

Additionally, single-coil pickups typically have a lower output compared to humbuckers, which can contribute to a cleaner and more transparent tone, especially when paired with a clean amplifier setting.

While humbucker pickups are often associated with warmer and thicker tones suitable for overdriven and distorted playing styles, they may not offer the same level of clarity and definition as single-coil pickups when it comes to clean tones.

Ultimately, the best pickup for achieving a cleaner tone depends on your personal preferences, playing style, and the specific sound you’re aiming to achieve. However, if you prioritize clarity, articulation, and transparency in your clean tone, single-coil pickups are likely the best choice for you.

Humbucker pickups

Best for Heavy Metal

Humbucker pickups are generally better suited for higher output and darker tones compared to single-coil pickups. Here’s why:

1. Higher Output: Humbucker pickups typically have a higher output compared to single-coil pickups. This higher output results in a stronger signal being sent to the amplifier, which can drive it harder and produce more gain. As a result, humbuckers are often preferred by players looking for thick and powerful tones, especially in genres like rock, metal, and hard rock, where high gain and distortion are common.

2. Darker Tone: Humbucker pickups are known for producing a darker and thicker tone compared to single-coil pickups. This is due in part to the design of humbucker pickups, which use two coils of wire wound in opposite directions to cancel out electromagnetic interference and reduce noise. This cancellation process results in a smoother frequency response with less emphasis on the higher frequencies, giving humbuckers their characteristic warmth and darkness.

Additionally, humbucker pickups typically have a wider magnetic field compared to single-coil pickups, which can capture more of the string’s vibration and produce a fuller and richer tone. This contributes to the darker and more powerful sound associated with humbuckers.

Overall, if you’re seeking higher output and a darker tone with plenty of warmth and thickness, humbucker pickups are the better choice. They excel at delivering heavy and saturated tones with plenty of sustain, making them popular among players in genres that prioritize these characteristics.

How They Position of the Pickup Effects Your Guitar’s Tone

The position of the pickup on an electric guitar has a significant effect on the sound and tone of the instrument. Generally, electric guitars have multiple pickup positions, typically located near the neck, middle, and bridge of the guitar. Here’s how the pickup position affects the tone:

1. Neck Pickup: The neck position pickup is closest to the neck of the guitar (hence the name). It captures the vibration of the strings near their midpoint of the neck, resulting in a warm, round, and mellow tone. Neck pickups produce a rich bass response, smooth midrange, and soft treble, making them ideal for rhythm playing, jazz, blues, and clean guitar tones. They are often favored for producing warm and expressive lead tones with plenty of sustain.

2. Middle Pickup: The middle pickup is located between the neck and bridge pickups, capturing a balance of string vibration from both ends of the strings. Middle position pickups produce a balanced and versatile tone, with a combination of warmth from the neck pickup and brightness from the bridge pickup. They are often used for clean and rhythm playing, as well as for achieving a balanced tone in combination with other pickups.

3. Bridge Pickup: The bridge pickup is positioned closest to the bridge of the guitar. It captures the vibration of the strings near their endpoint, resulting in a bright, cutting, and articulate tone. Bridge pickups produce a pronounced treble response, tight bass, and snappy attack, making them ideal for lead playing, rock, metal, and distorted guitar tones. They offer clarity and definition, making individual notes and chords stand out in a mix.

By selecting different pickup positions or using combinations of pickups, guitarists can achieve a wide range of tones and textures to suit their playing style and musical preferences. Experimenting with pickup positions allows players to explore the full sonic potential of their electric guitar and discover new sounds and tones.

60-Cycle Hum – More Than Just an Awesome Band Name!

Cycle hum, also known as 60-cycle hum or mains hum, is a type of electrical interference that can occur in audio systems, including electric guitars and amplifiers. It is characterized by a low-frequency humming or buzzing sound that is typically heard when the guitar is plugged into an amplifier but not being played.

Cycle hum is caused by electromagnetic interference generated by the alternating current (AC) power supply. In regions where the power grid operates at a frequency of 60 Hz (such as in North America), the interference produced by the AC power supply can manifest as a 60-cycle hum, hence the name.

There are several factors that can contribute to cycle hum, including:

1. Poor Grounding: Improper grounding of electrical components, such as the guitar, amplifier, or power outlets, can lead to cycle hum. Ground loops, where multiple ground paths create a loop that picks up electromagnetic interference, are a common cause of cycle hum.

2. Proximity to Electrical Devices: Placing the guitar or amplifier near electrical devices or sources of electromagnetic interference, such as fluorescent lights, computer monitors, or electronic appliances, can exacerbate cycle hum.

3. Shielding Issues: Inadequate shielding of electronic components within the guitar or amplifier can make them more susceptible to electromagnetic interference, leading to cycle hum.

4. Faulty Components: Malfunctioning or damaged electronic components, such as pickups, cables, or amplifier circuits, can contribute to cycle hum.

Cycle hum can be a nuisance for guitarists, as it can detract from the clarity and quality of their sound. To mitigate cycle hum, guitarists can take several steps, including:

  • Ensuring proper grounding of all electrical components, including the guitar, amplifier, and power outlets.
  • Using high-quality shielded cables and connectors to minimize interference.
  • Keeping the guitar and amplifier away from sources of electromagnetic interference.
  • Checking for and repairing any faulty components within the guitar or amplifier.
  • Using noise suppression pedals or devices to filter out unwanted interference.

Well known Examples of HSS Guitars

hss pickup configuration

Several iconic electric guitars featuring HSS (Humbucker-Single Coil-Single Coil) pickup configurations have left their mark on rock history. Here are some famous examples:

1. Fender Stratocaster HSS: The Fender Stratocaster is one of the most iconic guitars in rock history, and the HSS configuration adds versatility to its classic design. Many renowned guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore, and John Mayer, have used HSS Strats pickups to achieve a wide range of tones, from classic blues and rock to modern pop and fusion.

2. Gibson Les Paul Standard HSS: While Les Paul guitars traditionally feature dual humbucker pickups, some models incorporate an HSS configuration, typically with a humbucker in the bridge position and single-coil pickups in the neck and middle positions. This setup offers the power and sustain of a humbucker along with the clarity and sparkle of single-coil pickups. Players like Slash and Billy Gibbons have been known to use Les Pauls with HSS configurations in their performances.

3. PRS Custom 24 HSS: The PRS Custom 24 is a versatile and highly regarded guitar model, and the HSS configuration adds another layer of tonal possibilities. With its combination of humbucker and single-coil pickups, the PRS Custom 24 HSS can cover a wide range of musical styles, from smooth jazz to heavy rock. Players like Carlos Santana and Mark Tremonti have used PRS guitars with HSS pickups to great effect.

4. Ibanez RG550 HSS: The Ibanez RG550 is a classic shred guitar known for its fast playability and aggressive tone. Some models feature an HSS pickup configuration, offering players a versatile sonic palette that’s well-suited for metal, hard rock, and progressive music. Guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani have used Ibanez RG guitars with HSS pickups throughout their careers.

These are just a few examples of famous HSS guitars in rock history, but there are many more out there. The HSS pickup configuration has become popular among guitarists seeking versatility and flexibility in their tone, allowing them to cover a wide range of musical styles with one instrument.

Famous Examples of SSS Guitars


Single-coil pickup configurations, such as SSS (Single Coil-Single Coil-Single Coil), have been integral to the sounds of classic rock and blues music, contributing to iconic tones and legendary performances. Here are some famous examples of guitars with SSS configurations in rock and blues history:

1. Fender Stratocaster: The Fender Stratocaster is arguably the most iconic SSS guitar in history. It has been wielded by countless legendary guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and David Gilmour. The Stratocaster’s SSS pickups deliver a distinctive tone characterized by its bright, clear, and twangy sound, making it a staple in rock, blues, and beyond.

2. Fender Telecaster: Another classic Fender guitar, the Telecaster, often comes in an SSS configuration. Known for its simplicity and versatility, the Telecaster has been favored by blues players like Muddy Waters and Albert Collins, as well as rock legends like Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. Its SSS setup provides a crisp and biting tone that’s perfect for both rhythm and lead playing.

3. Gibson ES-335: While primarily known for its semi-hollowbody design, the Gibson ES-335 is occasionally fitted with three single-coil pickups, resulting in an SSS configuration. This setup offers a unique blend of warmth and clarity, making it suitable for blues players like B.B. King and Freddie King, as well as rock guitarists like Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton.

4. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Number One” Stratocaster: Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time, famously played a heavily modified Fender Stratocaster with an SSS pickup configuration. Known as “Number One,” Vaughan’s Stratocaster was equipped with custom-wound single-coil pickups that contributed to his signature tone—a fiery blend of Texas blues and rock.

5. John Mayer’s “Black One” Stratocaster: John Mayer, renowned for his virtuosic playing and soulful songwriting, often performs with a Fender Stratocaster featuring an SSS pickup configuration. His main instrument, known as “Black One,” delivers a versatile and expressive tone that’s well-suited for both blues and rock music.

These are just a few examples of famous guitars with SSS configurations that have left an indelible mark on rock and blues history. The distinctive sound of single-coil pickups has played a crucial role in shaping the sonic landscape of these genres, inspiring generations of guitarists and music enthusiasts alike.

Well-known Guitars with HSH pickup configurations:

hsh pickup configuration

1. Ibanez RG550: The Ibanez RG550 is a legendary electric guitar known for its sleek design, fast playability, and versatile sound. Equipped with an HSH pickup configuration, the RG550 offers a wide range of tones suitable for various musical styles, from aggressive rock and metal to smooth jazz and fusion. It has been favored by countless guitarists since its introduction in the late 1980s.

2. PRS Custom 24: The PRS Custom 24 is a highly regarded guitar model renowned for its craftsmanship, tone, and playability. Available with an HSH pickup configuration, the Custom 24 offers a combination of power, clarity, and versatility. It’s a favorite among professional musicians and has been used in a wide range of musical genres, from rock and blues to pop and jazz.

3. Suhr Modern: The Suhr Modern is a high-end electric guitar known for its premium build quality, impeccable craftsmanship, and exceptional tone. Available with various pickup configurations, including HSH, the Suhr Modern offers players a wide range of tonal options, from thick and powerful humbucker tones to bright and articulate single-coil sounds. It’s a favorite among discerning guitarists who demand top-tier performance.

4. Jackson Soloist: The Jackson Soloist is a classic electric guitar model favored by shredders and metal guitarists for its fast playability and aggressive tone. Available with an HSH pickup configuration, the Soloist delivers a combination of high-output humbucker tones and articulate single-coil sounds, making it well-suited for heavy rock and metal music.

5. Music Man Axis Super Sport: The Music Man Axis Super Sport is a versatile electric guitar known for its premium build quality, smooth playability, and exceptional tone. Equipped with an HSH pickup configuration, the Axis Super Sport offers players a wide range of tonal options, from warm and thick humbucker tones to clear and articulate single-coil sounds. It’s a favorite among professional musicians in various musical genres.

These are just a few examples of well-known guitars with HSH pickup configurations. Each of these models offers players a versatile sonic palette, allowing them to explore a wide range of tones and musical styles with ease. Whether you’re a rock guitarist, metal shredder, blues player, or jazz enthusiast, an HSH guitar can provide the flexibility and performance you need to express yourself creatively.

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