The invention and development of pickups significantly impacted the evolution of modern music. To put it simply, pickups are a crucial part of every electric guitar, as they pick up the vibration of the strings and “translate” it into an electrical signal. Therefore, these are the main components where the sound is shaped on a guitar.
With this said, it’s obvious that pickups are one of the first things you think of when buying a guitar. And it always comes down to the style of music that you’re playing. In this brief guide, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best pickups for metal music. After all, the genre requires special care for guitar tone and the pickups are the first in line when it comes to the tone-shaping process.
- 1 Top 7 Best Pickups for Metal Reviews
- 2 Metal Pickups Buying Guide
- 3 Conclusion
Top 7 Best Pickups for Metal Reviews
At some point, almost all electric guitar players, musicians, and all other lovers of this fine instrument thought that there was nothing new that can be done in this world. However, Fishman is one of the companies that managed to prove them all wrong as they’ve created some of the most groundbreaking pickups. For this list, we’d like to include their wonderful Fluence Modern set of humbuckers.
These are active pickups and they come in 6-string, 7-string, and 8-string variants. But they’re more than just your average humbucker set. Their special design manages to bring high output and high-gain tone, all while keeping things pretty clean and without any unwanted noises. This is due to the fact that they’re not wire-wound but feature a different type of design that keeps things quiet.
The set comes with a bridge and a neck pickup. The bridge humbucker is a ceramic one, while the neck features the standard Alnico formation. This particular combo has proven to bring great results for modern metal music, combining the sharp attack of ceramic pickups with the thickness of Alnico tones.
It’s also important to add that each pickup comes with two “voices” that you can wire and forget, or set to be toggled using an additional switch. This brings a lot of new tone-shaping features compared to conventional pickups.
- Amazing tone for metal music
- Additional wiring possibilities for voicing modes
- Innovative design for quiet operation
- They’re a bit expensive
- They can be difficult to set up
Up next, we have yet another set of active pickups. This time around, we’re going over to EMG, one of the most famous pickup manufacturers that’s especially popular among metal players. Now, we all know about the greatness of the almighty Zakk Wylde. However, one of the main secrets of his greatness is the choice of pickups. All those famous squeals are thanks to his high-output set of humbuckers, the signature EMG 81 and 85 combo.
For quite some time now, this pickup set has become a standard among modern metal players. The tone is super aggressive, bringing in a lot of mids and high-ends which can help you cut through the mix easily. The simplest way to describe it – with your distortion engaged, these pickup punch you right in your face, bringing all the quality metal-oriented sonic properties into the equation. They’re especially useful if you combine them with an overdrive pedal and a tube amp, bringing some pretty “organic” distorted tones that come from driving the tubes over the edge. You’ll just need to be careful with these as they can get pretty wild. It’s recommended to have a noise suppressor with this set.
The pickup set also comes with additional components. The setup is made simpler with quick-connect cables, screws, springs, and even four split-shaft 25k pots, two for volume and two for tone controls. You pretty much get a complete set that’s ready to go into your guitar.
- Perfect for high-gain yet controlled tones
- Pronounces high-ends as well
- The setup is made easier with additional quick-connect cables
- Their high output signal might bring up some unwanted noise in certain settings
Another guitar giant in the world of metal music, Metallica’s frontman James Hetfield also has his signature set of EMG humbuckers. He’s been into EMG pickups for quite a while now, ever since the late 1980s.
But although he really loved the fatness and power of the EMG 81 active pickup model, these lacked the punch, clarity, and “snappiness” of passive pickups. Known for using the 81/60 combination of humbuckers (bridge and neck respectively), EMG developed Hetfield’s signature pickups using these two as the basis. After hard work and even 20 different experimental sets, they finally managed to create this new set.
These are active pickups, well-known for their strong output. But just like James demanded, these two pickups come with some classic passive pickup sonic properties, which makes them rather unique. Whether you’re into classic 1970s hard rock or modern metal, these pickups will get you covered. Playing around with tone knobs can also help you create some smother and vintage-oriented tones.
And just like with the Zakk Wylde set that we described above, these pickups also come with quick-connect wires, as well as two volume and two tone potentiometers. With that said, these too can also have some noise issues in high-gain settings, so you’ll have to be careful when setting up your desired tone.
- Amazing tone, combining vintage and modern sonic properties
- Very versatile, they can be used for other genres as well
- Quick-connect cables that come with them make the setup much easier
- The set might give some unwanted noise in high-gain settings
When there’s a talk about any kind of pickups, it’s really hard not to mention DiMarzio. This legendary company is also respected among metal players. One of the finest examples for this genre is their DP100 Super Distortion humbucker. This pickup is intended for the bridge position and it brings some pretty thick and heavy tones. But at the same time, it’s also useful for neck and middle positions, although it’s recommended to use such a setting with low-gain amps. It’s also worth adding that this is one of the company’s oldest humbuckers, staying in production since the early days of metal music.
But compared to other metal-oriented pickups, we have more of a bass-oriented tone. Meanwhile, the mids are just slightly less pronounced, and the high-ends are noticeably less present. Such a tone makes them perfect for old school stuff, especially if you’re into the classic 1970s and 1980s stuff. The harmonic content is probably not as rich compared to some high-output pickups, but it’s really easy to control the output of any power chord riffs with DiMarzio’s Super Distortion. This also makes them very useful for guitarists who play other genres.
The DP100 humbucker pickup also comes with a 4-conductor wire. This makes it simple to set up coil-splitting or coil-tapping features.
- Great tone, especially for old school metal and hard rock stuff
- It’s really easy to control the output
- Versatile, can be used for many other genres as well
- Relatively cheap considering its qualities
- Might not be the best choice for more modern stuff
Although mostly known among non-metal musicians, Seymour Duncan also has some pretty awesome pickups for heavy tones. One of the examples is their SH8 Invader humbucker. There are two versions of it though, the SH-8b for the bridge position and the SH-8n for the neck position.
But although this is a passive pickup, it features a fairly strong output which is super-seful for aggressive tones, especially when paired with tube amplifiers. The construction features three ceramic magnets, which helps you get that razor-sharp edge. Additionally, these are overwound, which brings way more power to their output. And with the pickup’s 12 oxide cap screws (6 for each coil), you get a full heavy package. What’s more, each of the individual poles can be adjusted and you can balance the output of every individual string.
Such a construction also brings a pretty wide magnetic field. One of the common issues with passive pickups is having a magnetic field that doesn’t cover all areas around the strings, which can present a big issue for those who like to bend the strings and add wide vibratos to their music. But with Seymour Duncan’s Invader pickups, you’ll have all the necessary areas covered. The neck version, the SH-8n model, brings a slightly lower output level to even things out.
- Really good tone for aggressive heavy music
- Ceramic magnets bring a really strong attack and sharp high-ends
- Large-cap screws bring a very wide magnetic field, which is useful for bending and wide vibratos
- Each screw can be adjusted to deliver perfect signal strength
- Focused mostly on heavier music, Invader pickups are not as versatile
We have yet another Seymour Duncan pickup on this list, the SH13 Dimebucker model. Now, as you might already assume due to its name, this is a signature pickup of Pantera’s late Dimebag Darrell. This one is a passive humbucker that comes with two rails instead of the classic individual magnet pole design. There are some advantages of such a formation, mostly due to the fact that the magnetic field is evened out and covers more areas. You can bend any string to the point of breaking and this pickup will still capture all the nuances.
Some of the basic features remind us of the SH-8 invader pickups. We have ceramic magnets, which pronounce the high-ends and add more aggressiveness. However, when combined with stainless steel blades, the resulting tone of the SH-13 Dimebucker is even more aggressive compared to what SH-8 Invader is capable of.
This pickup is intended for the bridge position and you won’t really get good results if you put it in the neck position. However, pairing it up with a smoother-sounding neck humbucker, something like the classic Seymour Duncan SH-1, then you’re in for a real sonic treat. Overall, this is one of the most powerful passive pickups out there and it has become one of the most popular choices among metal guitarists.
- Great metal tone
- Pronounced high-ends and mids
- Powerful output signal
- Strong magnetic field covers all strings well
- Some may not like the “rail” design since you can’t adjust the output of individual strings
Lastly, we’d like to take a look at another DiMarzio pickup, their Dominion humbucker. This one has been on the company’s menu for quite some time now and it’s become really popular among hard rock and metal players. One of the most famous users is Mark Morton of Lamb of God.
The pickup is mostly mid-oriented, giving a great basis to create “tight” metal tones for almost any subgenre. While there’s also an influx of bottom-ends, the treble is somewhat lower making the tones less “sharp” compared to some others that we mentioned here.
There’s also the neck version of the Dominion pickup. Its output is more “evened out” across the audible spectrum, providing you with a more neutral tone.
- Pronounced mids
- Can be used for other genres as well
- Individual poles are adjustable, making it easy to balance the output of all strings
- Nothing for this price level
Metal Pickups Buying Guide
Active or Passive?
One of the most important questions is whether you should go with active or passive pickups. For those who don’t know, most of the pickups are passive, meaning that they have no special source of power. Meanwhile, active pickups are powered using a standard 9-volt battery.
Sonic differences are noticeable, where active pickups feature much stronger output, and quite often a boost to the bottom-ends. They’re usually more consistent, although they can often get too loud and even add more noise in high-gain settings.
On the other hand, passive pickups have a weaker output signal and their tone is “mellower,” meaning that they lack some of the high-ends and quite often mids compared to active ones. They’re usually easier to control and are often more popular among lovers of old school tones.
The choice comes down to personal preferences. Active pickups are usually way more popular among modern metal players, especially stuff made by Fluence. The razor-sharp tone and strong punch find a lot of use, especially for downtuned high-gain stuff. Meanwhile, passive pickups are more “traditional,” even if we’re talking about high-output ones. They might work better with some tube amps and high-gain distortion pedals due to lower noise levels.
Single-Coils or Humbuckers?
All guitar players can be divided into two categories – team single-coil and team humbucker. Whatever genre that you’re into, you must value one of these two types of pickups more. However, if we’re talking about metal music, humbuckers have a huge advantage over single-coils. Humbuckers lack that “jangle” and “twang” and bring a more mid-oriented tone. Additionally, they don’t have any noticeable issues with hums, unless we’re talking about some very specific cases.
However, although we’ve mentioned only humbuckers on this list, single-coil pickups should not be neglected as a potential option for metal music. After all, Tony Iommi used a Gibson SG with P90 pickups on Black Sabbath’s first five albums.
If you want to use single-coils, you can add a compressor pedal and roll off the tone knob a bit to “thicken” the tone. In case you want to use humbuckers with a traditionally single-coil guitar, like a Fender Stratocaster, then you can get one of the single-coil sized humbuckers, or the so-called “Hot Rails.”
Finally, one of the most important aspects comes down to the frequency response. All pickups are voiced in such a way (or come with different voicing options like Fishman’s Fluence Modern) to pronounce more of certain frequency ranges. Those with ceramic magnets are “sharper” and bring an accent to higher-ends. Standard Alnico pickups are usually oriented more towards the mids and bottom-ends. There are also some examples of more “neutral”-sounding pickups, as is the case with the DiMarzio Dominion neck humbucker model.
If you’re aiming for metal tone, we’d usually recommend pickups that are either mid-oriented or that pronounce both mids and high-ends.
Say what you will, but metal music is a genre where most of the innovation in the world of guitar is done. And knowing that metal guitarists push the limits, it’s obvious that there’s special care put into how metal-oriented pickups are made.
Any of these pickups that we mentioned above will get you covered for pretty much any metal subgenre. However, you should first know what kind of a tone you’re aiming for and then go from there. But at the end of the day, experimentation is always welcome and there are no limits to what you can use in a specific genre.