One of the crucial components from which your tone is generated, the best electric guitar pickups ensure that your playing has the best platform to shine from. Alongside your amp, there are few parts of your guitar that are as important as the pickups. They define its signature sound so whether you’re a fan of single coils, humbuckers, or P-90s ensuring you have the best possible configuration is key to finding your sound.
Upgrading your guitar pickups is also a great way to elevate that beginner or intermediate-level instrument without dropping loads of cash on a brand-new instrument. With the cost of living these days, going for a fresh set of pickups is a great way to save yourself some money, whilst still getting that tone upgrade you want.
If you’re new to the world of guitar pickups, make sure to check out our buying advice section below for more info, including a link to a guide on how to install them. For those who already know their P-90s from their single-coils, keep scrolling to see our top choice…
Best electric guitar pickups: Our top picks
Run from it, hide from it, the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB humbucker is ubiquitous. The list of players who have used one is perpetual and it’s become the sound of modern rock. This hot-rodded humbucker is perfect for smashing into the front of a tube amp for some searing guitar tones.
For single-coil lovers, we’ve gone for another staple in the Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat pickup set. Great for sizzling blues licks they have a warm midrange that makes them super-adaptable and an excellent low-end response with staggered pole-pieces to ensure an even balance of sound.
Best electric guitar pickups: Product guide
The JB is Seymour Duncan’s best-selling pickup of all time and little wonder. With its gutsy midrange, bright highs, and hot but not super-hot output, it can cover a huge variety of styles.
The JB was designed to drive tube amps harder and by rolling back the tone and volume controls, and adjusting your picking style, it’ll get the best out of that dynamic tube-amp response.
Adam Jones, Kurt Cobain, Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman, Jerry Cantrell, and more have used them at some point, typically in the bridge position, with a Seymour Duncan Jazz in the neck a quite superb partner in tone.
The Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickups might just be the best pickups you could stick in your Strat. Installing a set of these in a more affordable Fender or Squier will take it to the next level in tone.
And what tone these have. Each pickup is voiced vintage-hot, with enamel-coated magnet wire for that old-school heat and extra windings for higher output. These could knock many a humbucker on its backside.
The staggered pole pieces keep the output consistent across all six strings while the reverse-wound middle pickup helps kill the hum in the second and fourth positions when you invariably crank it up for that juicy Texas blues mojo.
Favored by the likes of Deftones’ Stephen Carpenter, the Fluence Modern humbuckers are ideal for delivering heaps of gain, piano-clear cleans, and a whole wealth of tones in between.
There are two voices per pickup, both complementing their counterparts. The Alnico neck humbucker has the Modern Active High Output voice for a “full, round, and boosted” tone and a “crisp clean” voice that will give you glassy brightness but with a little low-end power to give it weight.
The ceramic neck humbucker has a super-aggressive and tight Modern Active High Output voice and a Modern Passive Attack voice with a little more dynamics.
One of the most popular guitar pickups ever made, the DiMarzio Super Distortion is a legend in the world of rock tone having been around since the 70s. The sound of countless guitar players, this pickup is a full-on, high-output beast of a pickup.
In terms of tone, it leans more towards the bass side of the spectrum, with full mids and a rolled-off high end. Thanks to the tone profile it's great for players who prefer less bright pickups and whilst it highlights the bass it's never muddy sounding, remaining articulate even when played through high gain.
If a PAF doesn't quite cut it for you in terms of output, then you'll probably love the sound of this pickup. They clean up great when you roll off the volume knob and are perfect for classic rock tones. Whilst the Super Distortion it's not as high output as some modern ceramic humbuckers, it can certainly hang with the best if you want an articulate high gain tone.
The Metallica riff-in-chief’s signature humbucker set is based on the EMG-81 in the bridge, and EMG-61 in the neck configuration that he has used since the late ‘80s. But there are a few key differences.
The JH-N neck humbucker has individual ceramic pole pieces and a larger ceramic magnet core for a fatter low-end and higher-output and sharper attack. The JH-B in the bridge shares the core design as the EMG-81 but has steel pole pieces for a cleaner low-end response.
The set comes in a variety of finishes including Gold, Brushed Chrome, Brushed Gold, and Brushed Black Chrome.
The P-90 soapbar-style pickup was all the rage at Gibson in the post-War period before 1956 when the Patent Applied For humbucker ushered in the next era in pickup design - but the love for the P-90 and its overwound soupy hot-wool midrange has never abated.
There is a multitude of P-90 style pickups on the market but these manage to combine that vintage-voiced scatterwound tonal sensitivity with none of the 60-cycle hum of the original P-90s.
Mojotone’s "56 Quiet Coil" P-90s use an alnico core with a lower Gauss level to sound like a P-90 that you might have salvaged from your granddaddy’s ’56 Gold Top.
Thomas Vincent Jones’ take on the original Ray Butts/Gretsch Filter’Tron should definitely be heading up any shortlist for best rock ’n’ roll pickups.
Jones got deep into the world of Filter’Trons and that Gretsch mojo when working on Brian Setzer guitars and that soon blossomed into him becoming Gretsch’s go-to pickups guru. The TV Classic’s Filter’Tron vibe delivers plenty of growl, but with all the bright twang you could need. Just add some spring reverb, drive your Tweed amp to the point of breakup, and go, go, go.
These of course would be a great upgrade for any semi-hollow electric - especially a Gretsch Electromatic - but wouldn’t it be something to mod your Telecaster Deluxe and have an upscale Cabronita to fool around on?
Modeled after the bridge humbucker in Billy Gibbons’ 1959 Les Paul, the Pearly Gates puts a bit of extra treble on the vintage P.A.F. tone. It has an Alnico II bar magnet and is just that bit brighter, a little hotter, and will help you tease a few more harmonics from it.
The Pearly Gates is wax potted to cut down on any unwanted squeals and is wound on Seymour Duncan’s original Leesona winding machine from Gibson’s old plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For old-school Texas blues-rock tones, it’s tough to beat.
We all love single coils for their snappy, spanking tones. All that brightness, they’re pretty great, really cutting through - but when there’s a lot of volume and gain they tend to hiss and hum. If that really grinds your gears you could go for Fender’s Noiseless collection or take the nuclear option with the EMG-SA.
These active single coils have a 9V onboard preamp that gets rid of that unwanted noise and delivers pristine tones with a good balance between a well-defined bass, pronounced midrange, and sharp treble.
If you’ve got a Strat and want a noiseless performance, these are the pickups for you.
Say you’ve got an entry-level Strat or even one of the many S-style knock-offs and you can’t afford a new guitar but desperately want an upgrade. Enter, the Tex Mex single coils.
There’s a touch of the Texas Specials.
Both are overwound and shoot for a hot vintage Strat tone. The middle pickup is reverse-wound so that in the second and fourth positions, where all that great Fender spank resides, the pickups take on some nice hum-canceling properties.
The Tex-Mex pickup set is incredible value at this price and just love overdrive. When you want your Strat to go full rock and unleash the fury, these will help it oblige.
Best electric guitar pickups: Buying advice
How do electric guitar pickups work?
The design principles behind the electric guitar pickup are relatively simple. A pickup has a magnetic core, typically a bar magnet or series of magnetic pole pieces, which is wrapped in strands of insulated copper wire.
This coil produces a magnetic field that picks up vibrations on your strings and delivers the electrical signal to your amplifier. A pickup’s tone depends on a number of factors including magnet type, the number of windings around the core, and the number of coils in the pickup.
What are single-coil pickups good for?
A single-coil pickup design is just that: it has one magnetic coil of wire. The most common single coil you will find has wire wrapped around six magnetic pole pieces, one for each string.
You might often hear of staggered pole pieces, which see the pole pieces at different heights to balance each string’s output so they are all the same volume. These single coils will have a sharp, brighter sound with plenty of treble.
What are P90 pickups good for?
A P-90 pickup is a single-coil design too, but it has a bar magnet core instead of pole pieces and more windings - which gives it a fatter, hotter sound. You might read about overwound Stratocaster single coils; these have simply had more windings, which may give them a higher output and a bit more girth in the midrange.
What are humbuckers good for?
The humbucker features a dual-coil design that not only thickens up the tone, adding more sustain and a higher output but these two coils are wired in series and out of phase to cut out the hum and electromagnetic interference. Hence the name. Does that mean they’re better? Well, that depends entirely on what you're using them for.
How do I know what guitar pickups to use?
You can’t beat the clarity and bell-like chime, not to mention the treble-forward snap of a single coil when your blues, country, indie, or whatever sound calls for it - and when distorted, that high-end really cuts through the mix.
But there is no questioning the humbucker’s popularity, which grew quickly following the release of Seth Lover’s Patent Applied For humbucker and Ray Butts’ Filter’Tron in the 1950s. With their higher output, humbuckers hit the front end of tube amps that bit harder and made them break up into distortion quicker. The humbucker’s impact on the rock scenes of the 1960s and ‘70s changed popular music forever.
Today, there are all kinds of variants. Seth Lover’s P.A.F. would be considered a sedate vintage option in your guitar, while metal guitar players look to ever more powerful pickups to chase more gain, harmonics, and sustain.
Magnet materials range from the softer-voiced Alnico II and slightly hotter Alnico V, with ceramic magnets often reserved for higher-output pickups such as the DiMarzio Super Distortion.
Ultimately, you’ve got to look at your playing style and ask yourself what you want from your tone. Here, we have pickups for players of all persuasions, from the vintage rocker through to the country ’n’ blues picker, the rockabilly hepcat, the metalhead, and all in between.
What's the difference between active and passive pickups?
Traditional pickup designs are passive. That means the amplified signal output is generated solely from the magnetic coils. Active pickups feature an onboard preamp, usually powered by a 9V battery that is secreted in the rear of the guitar. The active pickup’s preamp kills hum - even in single coils - and popularized by EMG, active humbuckers have become the go-to option for metal guitarists such as James Hetfield and Kerry King who need high gain and sustain to get the job done.
- Read more on active vs passive pickups
How we choose electric guitar pickups
You can trust Guitar World
At Guitar World, we are a team of passionate guitarists who have delved deep into the world of electric guitar pickups. With our unwavering love for tone and sonic exploration, we have rigorously tested and scrutinized numerous pickups to identify the very best options available.
To compile our list of top electric guitar pickups, we combine our extensive experience, meticulous research, and spirited discussions with our editorial team. We consider a range of factors including tonal characteristics, versatility, craftsmanship, and value for money, ensuring that we showcase the finest pickups available for electric guitars today.
As avid musicians ourselves, we understand that the right pickups can transform an ordinary guitar into a tonal powerhouse. Whether you seek searing high-gain tones, sparkling cleans, vintage warmth, or modern aggressiveness, our goal is to provide reliable and knowledgeable recommendations to help you discover the perfect electric guitar pickups that will elevate your playing to new heights.
Find out more about how we make our recommendations and how we test each of the products in our buyer's guides.