Most people don’t bat an eyelash when they see a guitar with a chrome covered, rectangular shaped pickup.
It’s just a normal humbucker. But what about when it isn’t?
While the standard humbucker may be more visually iconic, tonally, the wide range pickup has been an incredibly influential part of the history of rock and roll in it’s own right.
History of the Humbucker
The first commercially successful humbucker was designed by Seth Lover for Gibson in 1955 in the form of the P.A.F. (patent applied for). Up until this point, guitarists had always had to deal with the 60 cycle hum from standard single coils. This was eliminated in the humbucker design by winding two single coils in reverse polarity from each other. As a consequence of this construction, humbuckers are known for being thicker and having higher output, leading them to be adopted by jazz and rock, and even eventually becoming the go to pickup for metal. While these may be some of the bigger genres known for using these pickups, there isn’t a genre in the world where it’s not used in some capacity. The original model, the P.A.F., is still often times used today but since then, there have been multiple variations of the humbucker introduced, though that’s a blog for another day. It has become arguably the most popular pickup in the world over the years and will be for years to come.
History of the Wide Range
Surprisingly enough, the wide range was also designed by Seth Lover, but this time for Fender. It was originally intended to be a direct competitor to the Gibson ruled humbucker guitar market and to change Fender's image from being a “single coil guitar company”. While this pickup didn’t change the perception of Fender as they had hoped, it did open the door to create a myriad of innovative music over years, due to a unique sound that had never been used before. Mechanically, the Wide Range pickup is wound on 6 pole pieces that were originally made from an iron, nickel and copper combination contrary to the alnico rail of the standard humbucker. Due to it's rarity, this CuNiFe combination is only used in a handful of pickups still. Because of this, originals can cost upwards of $300 per pickup. Tonally these pickups have extended bottom end when compared to a single coil but with better high end and clarity than a standard humbucker. They’ve been used in bands like The Rolling Stones, Blur, Ryan Adams, and Arcade Fire.
While either one is plenty versatile and could fit almost any situation, they do both have strengths and weaknesses. The humbucker is generally known for being tighter and more focused in sound with a boost in the low mids. As we all know, the humbucker is a staple in the rock genre and in a medium to high gain situation, might be the better choice. The wide range on the other hand is a little bit more open and clear sounding. The added treble and high end clarity is great for lower gain crunch or cleaner tones.
Are they interchangeable?
Is it possible to put a wide range in a humbucker guitar or vice versa? In short no. The sizing is slightly different, but due to a strong aftermarket following in recent years,
there are plenty of companies that make wide range sized humbuckers, and humbucker sized wide range.
The wide range pickup and the humbucker are two of Seth Lover’s best and most well known designs. Each one is great in it’s own right and excels in different places. Everyone should own at least one guitar with each in their arsenal.