You have been scouring the internet for the past few days or weeks, trying to figure out what the best electric guitar for you is. You have read a dozen guides telling you what to look for in a guitar. You have come upon a lot of information about how electric guitars are made and how they play, coming to the conclusion that one of the most important aspects of the guitar is a pickup.
Knowing you want the best guitar you can get, you decide to find out what the best guitar pickups are, hoping that you can get a guitar with one and start researching them. Which is how you ended up on this list. Or maybe you ended up on this list because you have decided to customize your guitar a little, or replace the old pickup because your guitar needs an update. Whatever it is, you’ve come to the right place. Let me guide you through the process.
What’s The Best Guitar Pickup
There is a special place in my heart for humbuckers – they have been used to produce some of my favorite music over the past decades. Their sustain is always there to scratch the itchy parts of my soul when I need them to, so when I say a Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz Set, all of it humbuckers, I get slightly excited. Though this humbucker was not created specifically for heavy sound and is more dedicated to working with artists looking for the jazz tones and blues tones. The sound on these humbuckers is thus very versatile, producing a clear and warm sound, but also having the ability to go as sustain heavy as you need them to. So don’t worry if you are looking to rock instead of playing smooth, because this pickup will have your back. The beautiful thing about the set is that it does not go bad after a few months of use, remaining just as versatile and great sounding as the day when you first install it on your guitar.
When you close your eyes and imagine what metal sounds, you seem to hear the screams and growls that could come straight from the nightmares of the most feared men and women. Whether they are the ones afraid or causing fear, we all know that metal tries to emulate the strength of the sounds they hear. This is why the blackest, the thrashiest and the heaviest metal players like themselves a good, steady, sturdy and heavy humbucker. The Seymour Duncan Blackouts set is one of those humbuckers that will help you achieve the level of screaming and growling that all metal players aspire to. This humbucker was crafted specifically with one thing in mind – to play metal. While it is versatile enough to be picked up by players in all genres, the metal people will find it extremely useful. The sound is heavy and dark, allowing for the best riffing and soloing a metal guitar player could ask for. The humbuckers themselves are sturdy and will remain in good fighting shape for a long time.
There has been a debate regarding what type of pickup is better for decades, literally. Humbucker vs Single coil, the eternal war. But then something else came around, something that was not expected to change, changed. Now we have another argument passive pickups vs. active pickups, which one is better and why. To me, the argument is pointless. All the purists and innovators can take a seat and calm down, letting the players choose the type of pickup they want.
After all, the clean sound of the active pickup is something to definitely aspire to, and all active pickups also need to compare themselves to the EMG 81 Humbucking active guitar pickup. The power on this piece of equipment is something of a dream. The clean sound you get out of this pickup will also be one of the most powerful and soul-crumbling you will ever hear. Definitely worth sacrificing a little bit of dynamic range for the raw power, especially since this pickup is available for a more affordable price than some of the others present on the list.
Not all humbuckers are created with rock and roll or metal in mind. Some are created for other genres and for all of them, these pickups need to be versatile. The EMG 85 Humbucking Active Guitar pickup is one of them, having surpassed the EMG 81, talked about above, in both the level output it produces, as well as the quality of sound produced at both ends of the tonal range. See, the EMG 85 has a different structure than the EMG 81, allowing it to produce fatter, beefier tones at the high and low registers, no matter how extreme.
This means that the EMG 85 is able to get out of the bog that most active pickups have – the limited dynamic range of this pickup has been slightly expanded. The fact that it can do what most actives can not, makes it the perfect versatile pickup at an affordable price that will allow you to sound good whether you decide to rock with it or go a smoother route for rhythm and blues. Combine it with the EMG 81 bridge, and you got yourself one of the best-sounding guitar pickups sets out there.
If you have ever sat in a fast-moving car, going down the highway at a high speed, not worrying about a thing and listening to some fun blues, you might have at one point heard the Fender Custom Shop Strat Texas Special Pickup set. It is not that the pickup set is extremely famous or popular, even though it is, it is that the pickup set sound amazing and a lot of musicians like-sounding amazing. These pickups have a strong output, giving your guitar the pleasure of mud and fuzz that the blues guitar so loves and you need so much in your life. While the price tag on these is not cheap, it is definitely reflected in the quality of the pickups. Long-lasting and strong sounding, they are bound to give you a good time no matter how long or how strong you play them.
The idea behind a vintage pickup is not that it should be old and used, but that it should sound like it is straight from the past. It should be like a fresh blast of music from AC/DC or the Rolling Stones coming from your amp, all thanks to a pickup that is built the same way an old one would be. So when I go out looking for vintage pickups I try to look less at used ones, though sometimes those are a great way to find an interesting sound, I look for a recreation or ones recently built to resemble the old pickups.
This results in amps with great output and sound just like Fender Vintage Noiseless Stratocaster white pickup set. This pickup provides you with the rare ability to hit the world with an actual vintage sound, without having to deal with the humming and the low output of the aged pickups. A great way to get your favorite classic rock songs sounding just right on your own instrument. Though I would be careful – this set is rather expensive, thanks to the quality of sound and the durability it has.
If vintage is what you want but expensive is what you wish would not exist in the world, I have a great idea. You see, there are some pickups that have been in production for decades, nonstop, because of their popularity with musicians everywhere around the world. These pickups that defined eras of music at a time, that can be heard when you put on the music from the 70s and the 80s, are still in production and for sale at a price that will make you feel all fuzzy inside.
The DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker pickup is the one I am talking about. It’s one of the best humbucker pickups ever. Used by numerous bands looking for the rough and hot and heavy sound that would later define them, this humbucker has everything a rock and roll needs. The output is loud and strong, the pickup itself is durable, and the sustain and distortion are something of a medicine to the soul that has the harsh itch for heavy sound.
The EMG pickups are many and diverse, all of them offering some interesting options to musicians looking for their unique sound. Designed for a variety of guitars the pickups range from humbuckers to the single-coil and are known for their strong output and durability. The EMG T-SET was designed as a pair of replacement pickups for the telecaster guitars, hoping to improve on the sound of the existing pickups. The single-coil pickups are precise and heavy on output, thanks to the active pickup style they have been developed in. The warm and vibrant sounds produced by the pickups are something to be hoped for and desired in any guitar, with the single-coil structure pulling off what the humbucker never could. The price is on the side of high, but the T-SET is worth it, because it is more of an investment than it is a purchase. The pickups add the little bit of flair you need to produce some of the best sounds you have ever heard.
Have you ever paid attention to two different humbuckers? Not just listened to, but actually sat down, closed your eyes and tried to identify what makes each one unique? If you have, you would know that each humbucker produced has a very unique sound and character to them. A quality to their output that is not present in the other humbucker, which is why there are more than one humbucker per manufacturer produced. The Gibson Gear IM57P-DB 57 Classic plus humbucker pickup is one of the many produced by Gibson, it is also one of the best produced by Gibson. Why? I don’t know, ask Gibson who they produced it and maybe they’ll tell you why it’s the best. I just know that the sound produced is incredibly versatile, fitting for any genre ranging from jazz up to metal. It is not cheap, and you should not expect it to be, since the quality is stellar. Definitely one of my favorite pickups on the list.
Shhhh… do you hear that? It is one of the many pieces of legendary metal produced by Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society. Played so many times that the songs have infused the atmosphere of the planet, making earth the one big crazy train we are all riding til the end of the line. What better way to ride it then to grab a guitar amped up with EMG Zakk Wylde humbucking pickup set and keep laying the solo of the song, and your own music, until the fire takes over? I will answer that question: if you are one of the metal heads of the world, there is no better way to do it. These EMG pickups are beautifully suited for any and every demand that is related to your desire to play some of the darkest, heaviest tunes. Sturdy, heavy, beautiful, and expensive. What else would you want out of your customization tools?
Pickups, and why picking one is important
The electric guitar exists without an acoustic cavity to resonate and amplify the sound that the strings produce, meaning that it needs to supplement the resonating chamber with something else. The amp is used precisely for this – to amplify the sound. The problem is, that you need to get an electric signal to the amp to produce a sound. That is where the pickup comes in. When you play a chord, the pickup picks up the sound through electromagnetic resonance produced by the steel strings, translating the vibrations into electric signals and sending them to an amp, resulting in the sound you get. Getting a good pickup for your guitar means that the quality of the signal is higher, meaning the sound produced by the amp will be more detailed, natural, and pleasant to the ear.
Humbucker vs Single Coil vs What else?
There are several types of pickups available on the market. Each option has a different style of construction and results in a slightly altered type of sound being produced by the instrument. There are two main types of pickups most often encountered on the market, each producing a distinctive effect on the guitar’s sound.
Single Coil – The single-coil pickup was the first one invented and remained the only type of pickup available for electric guitars until the 1950s. The single-coil pick-up sounds in a very warm, mellow way, producing a very pleasant, sometimes described as twangy, tones through the amp. This makes the single-coil perfect for all kinds of genres: jazz, country, blues and any others where relaxed, pleasant sounds are desired. This type of pickup is prone to electric noise, at least in the past. Now the noise problem has been reduced and is barely present. The single-coil is also part of the rock and roll world, but much less than its gruff young brother, the humbucker pickup.
Humbucker – the humbucker, or the dual-coil pickup, is the type of pickup that came later into the game and inadvertently caused the rise and rock and roll. The dual coil, as the name implies, doubles up the number of coils, altering the structure of the pickup and resulting in a different sound. The electric noise that came with the single-coil is reduced, but something else comes into play – sustain.
The tones picked up by the humbucker are much harder (if that makes sense) and more energetic, with sustain playing a big role in the type of sound produced. Since its introduction, the humbucker pickup has become the go-to for musicians in the rock and roll world, as well as in the realm of hard music: metal, thrash, punk. The energetic, “dirty” and dark sound in the lower registers and the scream, soul-wrenching high tone is perfect for the angst present in the heavy genres.
It doesn’t matter whether you are looking to customize your guitar or just pick one up with the best guitar pickups you can get your hands on. Educating yourself about what the best pickups on the market are, as well as what makes a good pickup and why you are choosing a specific one, is important. It allows you to develop an understanding both of the electric guitar as an instrument and of yourself as a musician. Choosing a specific pickup requires you to delve into your inner world and understand what type of music you are going to be playing.
Metal, rock and roll, country or anything else on the spectrum of genres each have its requirements of sound. Heavy sound, clear sound, warm, energetic, mellow, all of these come as a result of your pickup choice. The thing to remember is that there is no such thing as the one and only perfect pickup. There might be one that is really good for one thing, and another that is really good for the other, but the truth of the pickup world is that it is entirely up to you what you find perfect. The idea is that you are in a creative industry.
Creative use of different aspects of a guitar is not only encouraged but most of the time required if you are going to be entering any kind of hall of fame. So while somebody like me might tell you that if you are going to be playing metal you might want to consider a specific humbucker, you might find something else much more useful to you. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as what you are buying is not a subpar tool that will malfunction, hum or produce unneeded noise. Good luck!