If the tonewood is the heart and soul of your electric guitar, the pickups are its brains and voice. Without them you’re left with a plank and some wire. But wait, you say, my guitar already has pickups. Why should I need more? It’s simple: a change of pickups can completely alter your guitar’s tone and make an average instrument a great one.
Here, we're going look at all different kinds of pickup. We’ve got passive single coils and humbuckers, an overwound Soapbar-style P-90, active humbuckers, active single coils - and all the best pickups money can buy from trusted names, including Seymour Duncan, Fishman, DiMarzio and more.
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What are the best electric guitar pickups right now?
The Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB humbucker was built to rock, and the list of players who have played it is like a who’s who of ‘80s and ‘90s legends of rock and metal. It’s a hot-rodded ‘bucker with an alnico V magnet that’s wound to sock a tube amp right in the front end for that sought-after dynamic breakup.
When it comes to Strat pickups, it's got to be Fender's Custom Shop Texas Special Strat models. The Texas Specials are overwound for a generous helping of Lone Star sizzle but radiate a warm midrange and have a solid, pronounced low-end response, while staggered pole pieces make for a balanced output.
Best electric guitar pickups 2020: buying advice
Pickups: the basics
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 an 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.
Single coils, humbuckers and P-90s
A single-coil 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 sees 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.
A P-90 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.
Now, single-coil designs are great, but at high-volumes, with loads of gain, you run the risk of hiss, hum and feedback. This is where the humbucker comes in...
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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.
What pickups are right for me?
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.
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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 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.
Active or 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.
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.
The best electric guitar pickups you can buy today
The JB is Seymour Duncan’s best-selling pick up 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 one 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 Specials 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.
The Metallica riff-in-chief’s signature humbucker set is based on the EMG-81 in the bridge, 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.
A lot of guitarists love an active humbucker’s searing tone, sustain and harmonics, and super-clear note separation at all stages of gain, but not all like the idea of the onboard preamp. Or the battery, which can sometimes require some smart thinking in finding a place to put it - rerouting the guitar being the nuclear option. The solution is a set of these Black Hawks.
These have an annealed nickel-plated steel blade design for a balanced output with the bridge humbucker comprising a a three-magnet ceramic core, scatter-wound by hand with 42AWG Heavy Formvar. The neck pickup uses a slightly less treble-forward Alnico V magnet, and you can request this option for the bridge, too, if, y’know, you only want to blow the bloody doors off. Either way, these are super-dynamic, hot, balanced, suitable for all contemporary styles.
Favoured 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 “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.
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 are 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.
What do you get the workhorse electric that has everything? Well, if you are feeling you want to thicken up that bridge pickup and put some bottom end thunder into your game, this slimline Super Distortion is just the ticket.
The full-sized ‘bucker is famed for being arguably the first hotrodded humbucker on the market and has famously been used by the likes of Ace Frehley, and while the T-sized version will probably remain niche, its ability to hit the front end of a tube amp hard and help bring about that delicious breakup remains undiminished, and partners well with the loud and clear single-coil spank of a Tele neck pickup.
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 become Gretsch’s go-to pickups guru. The TV Classic’s Filter’Tron vibe delivers that 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 you gears you could go for Fender’s Noiseless collection or take the nuclear option with the EMG-SA.
These active single coils have an 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 are 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.