Get Smart: Taps, Splits, and Tuned Coil Taps Demystified

June 27, 2014
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One of the simplest ways to change guitar tone is pickup rewiring. The operation is passive, analog, doesn’t need batteries, and the results are musically useful. However, there is some misunderstanding about basic pickup tweaks, because there are no “music tech language police,” and people often use the same terms to describe different phenomena. So let’s set the record straight, and also describe some easy mods.

Coil Tap

This relates to single-coil pickups, which, unlike the beefy humbucker sound, have a reputation for a clean, sparkly tone. Over the years, some single-coil manufacturers have increased the number of coil windings for a fatter sound with more output, but then you lose the conventional single- coil sound. A coil tap is a third, additional “hot” pickup lead that “taps” the coil at a lesser number of windings (Fig. 1).

Typically, a pot’s push/ pull switch selects between either the normal or coil tap hot wire. Using the tap lead dials back the output, thins out the timbre a bit, and produces the traditional singlecoil sound. Single coil pickups with taps aren’t common, but Seymour Duncan’s Custom Staggered SSL-5 is a popular tapped pickup replacement for Fender Strats, and Gibson has made tapped P-90 pickups for some Les Pauls.

Coil Split

Fig. 2—Conventional humbucker wiring.
Fig. 3—Grounding the junction of the two coils converts a humbucker into a single-coil pickup. Inserting a capacitor in the connection to ground creates a Tuned Coil Tap.
This is available on many guitars from multiple manufacturers, as it allows humbuckers to obtain a single-coil sound for the best of both worlds. A humbucker consists of two coils, wired to enable hum cancellation (Fig. 2). Grounding the junction of the two coils (Fig. 3) via a switch takes one coil out of the signal path, leaving only one coil—voilà, singlecoil sound (although this negates any hum canceling). Many aftermarket humbuckers have four leads so each coil is accessible individually, which allows for even more tonal options (changing phase, connecting coils in series or parallel, etc.).

Tuned Coil Tap

This pickup wiring is featured in some Gibson guitars and basses. It resembles a coil split, because there’s a connection to the junction of a humbucker’s two coils. But it also resembles a tap, because it doesn’t take the coil out of the signal path. Instead, it sends signal to ground through a capacitor, which filters only certain frequencies. This provides a gentle midrange scoop—like a single-coil, there’s more apparent high end, but much of the humbucker’s low end remains (as do some of the hum-canceling properties). Changing the capacitor value alters the tuned coil tap effect.

Double Your Pleasure

A tap, split, or tuned coil tap makes a sonic difference with individual pickups, but adds even more versatility for guitars with two pickups, because there are now eight possible combinations—neck, bridge, neck and bridge, neck split (or tap, or tuned coil tap), bridge split, neck split and bridge, bridge split and neck, bridge split and neck split. To obtain more sounds from one guitar, pickup rewiring is one of the easiest—and least expensive—options.

Craig Anderton has played on or produced more than 20 major label releases, mastered hundreds of tracks, and written dozens of books. Check out some of his latest music at youtube.com/thecraiganderton.

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