Once you start to learn a little more about guitars you will learn the importance of the different components within. Most beginner guitarists couldn’t tell you what a pickup is, but as you start to play around with your sound and try and perfect that metal tone then you might find yourself looking for new pickups. This is because they play a huge part in the sound amplification, and metal guitarists usually like to play loud, meaning their pickups need to be able to handle the volume. In this guide, we’ve collected and reviewed some of the best options.
Table of Contents
- 1 In a hurry? Here are our top picks..
- 1.1 What Does a Pickup Do?
- 1.2 Single Coil and Humbucker Pickups
- 1.3 Active or Passive Pickups
- 1.4 Is it Difficult to Replace Pickups?
- 1.5 Pickup Brands
- 1.6 1. EMG 85 Active Neck Humbucker – Best Active Humbucker
- 1.7 2. Seymour Duncan AHB-3 Mick Thomson Blackout Signature Set – Best for Low Tunings
- 1.8 3. EMG JH James Hetfield Signature Humbucker Set – Best Low-End
- 1.9 4. DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion – Best for Distortion
- 2 Conclusion
In a hurry? Here are our top picks..
What Does a Pickup Do?
In order to properly understand which are the guitar pickups best for your needs, you need to work out what the pickups actually do and fully understand this.
Guitar pickups sense the vibrations of the guitar strings and then turns them into an electrical signal, which is sent via your guitar lead to the amplifier. Pickups are more or less just doing the same job as a microphone would do for any other instrument or for your voice.
The pickup uses a magnet and wrapped coils of wire. Sounds pretty simple, but you can actually alter the materials used and the number of coils within the pickup to get different sounds, so you can build that super distortion sound with more metal pickups.
Single Coil and Humbucker Pickups
This is one of the big decisions you will be faced with when you are looking to buy pickups. Do you want a humbucker style pickup or a single coil? Naturally, there are pros and cons to both of these types of pickups.
Single coils are often passive pickups. They’re made of insulated wire that is wrapped around magnets, the sound that gets sent is basically the electrical signal of the magnetic field being disturbed. Without going too much into science, you should remember that this type of pickup usually has a jangling tone. Listen to something like “This Charming Man” by The Smiths for a good example of what sort of sound these will create. They might be good for solos, but they aren’t always the most popular pickups for metal.
Humbucker pickups are made of two coils instead of one, with “up” and “down directions. This cancels out some of the hums of a single coil model, hence the name! These sound thicker and more smooth, great for chugging and bassy riffs. A humbucker pickup can be a good choice for metal. There’s no denying that for a big metal tone then the humbucker pickups will be among the very best out there.
Active or Passive Pickups
Another of the defining features of characteristics of a pickup include whether it is active or passive. This term is used in the same respect as speakers, which can be active (powered) or passive (not powered). Active pickups need a power source such as a battery.
It’s a matter of personal preference and whether you want a more modern sound or a classic, ’60s-’80s rock sound.
For clarity and an old-school sound then passive pickups give a great chunky sound that feels a little retro. There’s a little less detail that seems to get through the amplification process. Active pickups give a chunky sound with lots of low frequencies and more detail in the low-end.
Some people think that active pickups are automatically better, but this isn’t the case, and there are lots of things that go into the makeup of a pickup. The number of coils, quality, and type of ceramic magnet or other materials all play a part in the quality of a guitar pickup and can provide a different tone.
Is it Difficult to Replace Pickups?
In the scheme of things, it isn’t that hard to replace the pickups on a guitar. Follow this guide if you are planning to do it yourself. It has photos and discusses the tools you will need in order to replace the pickups. In terms of messing with the electronics involved in music tech then one of the first things a beginner could do is change the pickups in their guitar. It’s a good learning curve.
What we would definitely say is that if you aren’t confident, don’t take it on. Some great guitarists have nothing to do with the actual maintenance or makeup of their guitar and this is absolutely fine. Not all metal guitarists are amazing at guitar maintenance and you can always take your guitar to the store in order to get the pickups changed. It’s more essential to be able to do the very basics such as changing your strings if they break or just as routine maintenance.
Are there certain brands to look out for? There’s no denying that some brands are more popular than others in the metal genre and the pickups can give a tone that is closer to the sound of the bands you love to listen to.
EMG pickups are really popular among metal, with models such as the EMG 81 and EMG 85 proving to be some of the best guitar pickups for creating a metal tone. Seymour Duncan is another brand that isn’t always specific to metal but it does have some great humbucker options that metal fans can get a lot out of.
Pickup brands are a bit like every other aspect of the guitar, there are some cheap options that don’t do a great job, some reasonably priced options that do a decent job, and some absolute elite models. It’s down to each guitarist to choose what is best for their metal sound.
On to the best pickups for metal.
1. EMG 85 Active Neck Humbucker – Best Active Humbucker
The EMG brand doesn’t quite have the same reputation as some of the other brands on this list historically, but their modern options such as the EMG 81 and this, the 85, are very popular in the metal genre.
One of the main reasons that people fall in love with this is the Alnico V magnet, it enables you to absolutely crank the output, and the pickup can handle it without the tone degrading or starting to sound unnatural.
Some active humbuckers and other active pickups can really develop a bland and unexciting tone, and lose some of the crunch in the low end. Not the EMG 85! This manages to keep that warmth and doesn’t create excess noise.
Different people have different setups for their guitar pickups, but a lot of EMG lovers swear by using this at the neck and the EMG 81 at the bridge for the signature metal tone.
It’s a humbucker, and it can handle huge volumes thanks to the Alnico V magnet and the clever design of the pickup. The tone it creates is maybe a little more suited to use with a modern guitar sound, and if you are looking for a sludgy tone from the ’70s then you might look at Seymour Duncan options, for example.
2. Seymour Duncan AHB-3 Mick Thomson Blackout Signature Set – Best for Low Tunings
Slipknot fans might well be looking to take inspiration from their sound, and these signature pickups can make this particularly easy. You could even combine this with a Jim Root signature guitar for Slipknot overload.
Even if you aren’t a Slipknot fan, you can still enjoy the tone here. This is one of Seymour Duncan’s greatest pickup models and performs especially well with low tunings. Drop C, for instance, is a low-end tuning that this Mick Thomson model can handle with ease.
This is another active option and it provides a ceramic magnet. They provide a lot of power and give a heavy sound near the bridge. The tight sound can make this one of the best pickups for metal. As well as the low-end sounds, there’s a clear treble, too. If you are playing those clean and clear lead guitar melodies and solos then this could be a good choice.
This is a great basis of a metal sound for your guitar whether you are looking to play like Slipknot or not. A lot of people would ignore the Mick Thomson model if they aren’t Slipknot fans, but actually, the ceramic magnets and quality materials make this a great for a variety of sounds. Once again, they’ve got a bit more of a modern sound but this is largely due to the detail they provide, which is no bad thing.
3. EMG JH James Hetfield Signature Humbucker Set – Best Low-End
We’ve named this as the best pickup for low end, but we could just as easily call them the easiest pickup installation option. They have a solderless installation which means that not only are these are some of the best humbucker pickups, but they can also be really easily installed onto your guitar. If you’re not that confident in making the alterations yourself, this kind of pickup could be a lifesaver.
Obviously, a lot of people will be drawn to this model of pickup due to the fact that it is played by James Hetfield, musical royalty and co-founder of Metallica. He went to EMG with the goal of finding the meaty distortion tone of a passive pickup but also the detail that you would find in an active model.
The fact that this comes as a set is a big bonus. It can transform the sound of your guitar. The design, with brushed chrome “stealth” finish, makes these look absolutely great. Looks aren’t the main criteria for great pickups though. The sound is way more important, and these definitely hold up when it comes to creating a metal tone.
They have a warm sound that really does sound like passive pickups with that extra bit of detail and a clean high-end to give powerful solos.
Rhythm guitarists or those who love chugging away for a metal tone will get a lot out of the distortion sound and rich lows available with this pickup set. James Hetfield has played using EMG gear since the 80s, and worked with the brand to make a brilliant set of humbucker pickups.
4. DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion – Best for Distortion
The DiMarzio DP100 are amazing for creating a crunchy tone, with the “super distortion” feature making this a pickup to enjoy if you love to stack heavy amplification and loads of plugins on top of your sound. This is not a new design, as this pickup has been around for some time now.
This looks like a regular passive humbucker but it performs amazingly with a tube amp, and overdriven sounds are definitely one of the signatures of this DP100 pickup. If you love metal, the chances are that you will absolutely love this kind of sound. Twin it up with a tube amplifier or a heavy stack and the high output can help you to create a metal sound to make bandmates jealous.
As well as the thick distorted sound, this can be brilliant for bright treble too and allows for some excellent soloing. It’s a versatile metal pickup that can be used by rhythm or lead musicians with ease.
The invention of super distortion actually dates back to the 1970s, and the DiMarzio can be a brilliant option for people looking to metal pickups that can give them a tone that harks back a few decades and has a classic distortion sound. It’s been used by some guitarists such as Ace Frehley, Al Di Meola, and Paul Gilbert.
The DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion gives something a little different to the other three options on our list, the bass sound and the option to build a high-gain, high-distortion sound with your effects and amplifiers. For metal lovers who are looking for a model that is pretty affordable and gives the DiMarzio super distortion sound so many people love, this could be a top option, competing with some of the passive Seymour Duncan models on the market. You should use this with a tube amp to get the most out of it, but this isn’t a problem for most metal lovers!
Once you get to the level where you know what you are doing playing your instrument, it is time to start to tweak the sound, and there’s really not many better ways to do so than to swap out the pickups. Not much has such an incredible impact on the tone you are creating as the pickups, especially for electric guitars.
We’ve included both active and passive options so you can choose between a modern, detailed sound or that retro, 1970’s crunch that some people still associate with metal and beautiful electric guitar sounds. For active models, the EMG 85 Active Neck Humbucker wins the day, for passive, the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion gives the crunchy, older sound.