Best Pickups for Metal: Superb List of 2018 and Beyond

The most important part of a guitar’s sound – aside from the player him or herself, of course – is the pickups. Terribly-designed and constructed pickups can make the most awesome-looking guitar sound awful, and well-designed and constructed pickups can make a guitar built from a 2x4 sound good. It’s all about the magnets and the coils.

Why there are plenty of really good (and bad) pickups on the market, not all of them are suitable for playing metal music. So what are the best pickups for metal?

Preview
SD SH4 JB
Seymour Duncan SH4 JB Model Humbucker Pickup - (Zebra)
SD AHB-2b
Seymour Duncan AHB-2b Blackout Metal Bridge Humbucker Black
DiMarzio DP100
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker Pickup - Black
EMG 81-X
EMG 81-X Active Humbucker Pickup, Black
EMG H4A
EMG H4A Passive Alnico Humbucker Pickup, Black
Gibson 500T
Gibson 500t Super Ceramic Humbucker, Double Black Coils
Price
$77.98
$109.00
$79.99
$109.00
$69.00
$141.52
Avg. Rating
Reviews
56 Reviews
8 Reviews
17 Reviews
9 Reviews
6 Reviews
11 Reviews
Pickup Types
Passive Humbucker
Active Humbucker
Passive Humbucker
Active Humbucker
Passive Humbucker
Passive Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Alnico V
Alnico V
Ceramic
Ceramic
Alnico V
Ceramic
Strings Support
6 strings
6/7 strings
6/7/8 strings
6/7/8 strings
6 strings
6 strings
Position
Neck & Bridge
Bridge
Neck & Bridge
Neck & Bridge
Neck
Bridge
SD SH4 JB
Preview
Seymour Duncan SH4 JB Model Humbucker Pickup - (Zebra)
Price
$77.98
Avg. Rating
Reviews
56 Reviews
Pickup Types
Passive Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Alnico V
Strings Support
6 strings
Position
Neck & Bridge
SD AHB-2b
Preview
Seymour Duncan AHB-2b Blackout Metal Bridge Humbucker Black
Price
$109.00
Avg. Rating
Reviews
8 Reviews
Pickup Types
Active Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Alnico V
Strings Support
6/7 strings
Position
Bridge
DiMarzio DP100
Preview
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker Pickup - Black
Price
$79.99
Avg. Rating
Reviews
17 Reviews
Pickup Types
Passive Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Ceramic
Strings Support
6/7/8 strings
Position
Neck & Bridge
EMG 81-X
Preview
EMG 81-X Active Humbucker Pickup, Black
Price
$109.00
Avg. Rating
Reviews
9 Reviews
Pickup Types
Active Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Ceramic
Strings Support
6/7/8 strings
Position
Neck & Bridge
EMG H4A
Preview
EMG H4A Passive Alnico Humbucker Pickup, Black
Price
$69.00
Avg. Rating
Reviews
6 Reviews
Pickup Types
Passive Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Alnico V
Strings Support
6 strings
Position
Neck
Gibson 500T
Preview
Gibson 500t Super Ceramic Humbucker, Double Black Coils
Price
$141.52
Avg. Rating
Reviews
11 Reviews
Pickup Types
Passive Humbucker
Coil Split
Magnet Types
Ceramic
Strings Support
6 strings
Position
Bridge

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 23:17 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

It’s best to start out by looking at what makes a particular pickup good for metal music.

WHAT MAKES A PICKUP GREAT FOR METAL?

What criteria should you use to judge whether a pickup is good for metal?

1. RESPONSE SPECIFICATION

Obviously, you’ll want a pickup that has exceptional low and mid-range response.

Since most metal music is written in lower tunings (E♭, drop-D, D-standard or even extremely lower like some sub-genres of death metal), a pronounced bass response is desirable; however, mid-range is equally important because a noticeable gap in response quality in the 250Hz – 2000Hz range would be instantly noticeable and dissonant.

Because dual-coil (humbuckers) have better response at those frequencies, they will almost always be preferable for metal.

There are, of course exceptions, often based on the personal signature of the guitarist, and/or the subgenre of metal.

Neo-classical metal, for example, performed by artists like Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony MacAlpine and Vinnie Moore requires much more high-end than more mainstream subgenres.

Prog-metal, as exemplified by bands like Queensrÿche, also often features songs that rely on a lot of top-end frequencies.

2. CONSTRUCTION DETAILS

When it comes to guitar pickups, it’s all about the magnets and the coils. Generally speaking, high-output, or “hot”, pickups are favored by metal guitarists because they tend to produce higher volumes and saturate and distort more quickly, giving the sound its “crunch”.

For that reason, you’ll usually see Alnico V and ceramic magnets used in these pickups. The coils are wrapped with fine copper wire which carries the signal to the controls; and, again, generally speaking, more number of windings equals higher output for that classic metal sound.

Metal guitarists, or any guitarist for that matter, should not forget to take the durability and overall quality of materials into account. Gigging musicians in particular need to have a pickup that is durable and won’t die on their mid song.

It’s easy to forget that pickups incorporate very thin and delicate copper wire in their windings and that soldered connections can be weakened by vibrations and heat.

For that reason it’s always good to choose pickups from known manufacturers who have a good reputation for producing quality products. It’s also good to read reviews and opinions from other guitarists who have used the pickups, and take their comments into account.

3. NEW TECHNOLOGIES

No article in metal pickups would be completed without some mentions of the significant recent technological advances in pickup design over the past few decades.

  • Of course, active pickups have been around since the 1970s, but they didn’t really gain popularity until the 80s.
  • Now with new innovations in electronics and integrated circuits, the active pickups are better than ever.
  • Active EQ and ever expanding tonal possibilities mean that the metal guitarist has level flexibility at his or her fingertips that players back in the day could only dream of.

For the purposes of this review roundup, we’ll look at things like magnets and materials, wiring options, overall sound and pros and cons for each pickup reviewed. A sound sample will also be provided, if available.

THE SUPERB LIST

1. Seymour Duncan SH4 JB

Sale
Seymour Duncan SH4 JB Model Humbucker Pickup - (Zebra)
56 Reviews
Seymour Duncan SH4 JB Model Humbucker Pickup - (Zebra)
  • Completely balanced coil configuration that produces great harmonics and a high output^Just the right blend of sustain and distortion^From sweet warm tones to raw rock 'n' roll^Combine this with the Jazz Neck and you've got Seymour's personal favorite combination^Recommended for Bridge position

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 23:17 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

The SH4 JB pickup is a full-sized humbucker that offers a wider frequency response than the other pickups featured in this review. The consensus among most players is praise for having a “thick” sound without being muddy. That makes it well suited to almost any sub-genre of metal. It provides excellent low-end crunch, but can also reproduce clear, consistent high-end, a real plus for those screaming metal solos.

It features an Alnico V magnet, which classifies this as a “hot” pickup, and is wax potted against interference. It has 4-conductor wiring for coil splitting and series/parallel wiring options. This pickup can be used in either the neck or bridge position giving it exceptional flexibility.

PROS

  • Fits any standard humbucking size rout.
  • Wax potted.
  • Coil splitting, series/parallel capability.
  • Can be used in either neck or bridge position.

CONS

  • Guitar must be equipped with a special switching or push/pull pot to take advantage of coil-splitting capability.

USED BY:

  • Jason Hook - Five Finger Death Punch
  • Dave Mustaine - Megadeth
  • Jerry Cantrell - Alice in Chains
  • Zacky Vengeance - Avenged Sevenfold

2. Seymour Duncan AHB-2b

Seymour Duncan AHB-2b Blackout Metal Bridge Humbucker Black
8 Reviews
Seymour Duncan AHB-2b Blackout Metal Bridge Humbucker Black
  • Active Humbucking Pickup
  • Voice for Extreme heaviness
  • Two different output levels
  • Fits any humbucker-routed electric guitar
  • Can also be wired to a mini-switch or push/pull

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 23:17 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

The marketing from Seymour Duncan states that this active pickup is, “Only for those serious metal players who will accept nothing less than our highest output active bridge pickup.” Metal players seem to agree. As with all active pickups, the AHB-2b is a “hot” pickup, meaning high-output. The most common comment among players is that they have seen a definite increase in the amount of sustain the have over whatever pickups were originally installed in their guitar, including other active pickups like EMGs.

The AHB-2b offers an added feature that gives you access to a second moderate output level. This mode can be preset by removing a special shunt in the wiring, or you can wire the output into a push/pull or mini-toggle switch so you can switch between the two. This option would be a big advantage to guitarist who play many different styles of music in addition to metal, or switches between metal sub-genres like neo-classical and thrash metal.

It features an Alnico V magnet, and has 4-conductor wiring for coil splitting and series/parallel wiring options. The pickup comes with all the necessary electronic components and hardware, and is plug-n-play ready for guitars already equipped with active pickups. This particular pickup is meant to be used in the bridge position, however, it is often paired with the AHB-1N designed for the neck position.

PROS

  • Fits any standard humbucking size rout.
  • Hight output, loud.
  • Coil splitting, series/parellel capability.
  • Customizable, configurable output modes.

CONS

  • Can sound "oversaturated" if too many effects are in the signal chain.
  • Can be difficult to dial-in the necessary tone, requires fine tuning the equalization.
  • Is recommended to be used only in the bridge position.

USED BY:

  • Chaq Mol - Dark Funeral

3. DiMarzio DP100

DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker Pickup - Black
17 Reviews
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker Pickup - Black
  • DP100 Super Distortion Bridge Pickup
  • Black with Chrome Pole Pieces
  • High Output Humbucker, Ceramic Magnet
  • Four Conductor Wire
  • Standard String Spacing: 1.915"

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 22:43 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

This is the latest installment of the venerable DiMarzio Super Distortion pickup that has been around since the 1980s. In addition to its noted metal crunch, this newest model also produces surprisingly clean tones at lower volumes, a characteristic that was sometimes lacking in their older models.

This pickup features a ceramic magnet, and unlike earlier models, has 4-conductor wiring for coil splitting and series/parallel wiring options. It is usually used in the bridge position, however, it can be used in the neck position as well with equally good results.

PROS

  • Fits any standard humbucking size rout.
  • Coil splitting, series/parellel capability.
  • Can be used in either bridge or neck position.
  • Very even frequency response.

CONS

  • Guitar must be equipped with a special switching or push/pull pot to take advantage of split coil capability.

USED BY:

  • Al Di Meola
  • Paul Gilbert
  • Ethan Brosh

4. EMG 81-X

Sale
EMG 81-X Active Humbucker Pickup, Black
9 Reviews
EMG 81-X Active Humbucker Pickup, Black
  • Color : Black
  • Internal preamp for noise reduction
  • Low impedance output prevents loss of high frequency response
  • Solderless installation
  • Package includes volume/tone pots, output jack and cables

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 23:17 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

The 81X are an improvement over the original 81 and provides the best range of response, tone and attack of all of EMG’s active pickups, making it the best suited to metal. Some active pickups are accused of sounding sterile, but by slightly lowering the output, EMG has managed to increase the warmth without losing the low-end punch required for metal. It also produces exceptional high end performance – some say a bit too bright – but by adding some distortion, this potential problem seems to go away.

This pickup features a ceramic magnet, and unlike earlier models, has 4-conductor wiring for series/parallel wiring options. It is usually used in the bridge position, however, it can be used in the neck position as well with equally good results.

PROS

  • Fits any standard humbucking size rout.
  • Comes with all electronic components.
  • Great high-end frequency response.
  • Plug-n-play installation.
  • Can be used in either neck or bridge position.

CONS

  • High frequency tones may be a bit too bright at high volumes.

USED BY:

  • Archaon - 1349
  • Piotr 'Peter' Wiwczarek - Vader
  • Chris Dawson - Seasons After
  • Jonny Santos - Silent Civilian
  • Matt Bachand - Shadows Fall

5. EMG H4A 

EMG H4A Passive Alnico Humbucker Pickup, Black
6 Reviews
EMG H4A Passive Alnico Humbucker Pickup, Black
  • Inductance (Henries): 8
  • DC Resistance (KOhm): 13.65
  • Resonant Frequency Hz (1): 1600

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 23:28 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

The H4A humbucker is a high output passive pickup with that has been very well received by metal musicians. In addition to its broad frequency response, it is especially suited for metal due to its high-end which is fatter and warmer than most passive pickups rather than a screechy high pitched squeal. The gain is not as high as it is with active pickups, which results in a crystal clear tone on the clean channel, but also reacts well to the overdrive and distortion of the dirty channel. An excellent choice for Alt-metal.

This pickup features an Alnico V magnet, and includes the installation electronics and hardware. It is optimized for use in the neck position, and EMG recommends pairing it with the H4 for the bridge position to achieve optimum results.

PROS

  • Fits any standard humbucking size rout.
  • Comes with all electronic components.
  • Great full spectrum response and increased sustain.
  • Plug and play installation.

CONS

  • Optimized for neck position only.

USED BY:

  • Charly Sahona - Venturia
  • Justin Sane - Anti-Flag

6. Gibson 500t

Gibson 500t Super Ceramic Humbucker, Double Black Coils
11 Reviews
Gibson 500t Super Ceramic Humbucker, Double Black Coils
  • Made in USA
  • Double Black
  • Original Gibson Specifications

Last update: 2018-09-18 at 22:43 UTC / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API / Details

When most people think Gibson humbuckers, they think about the warm, creamy tone of the original PAF humbucker, but this certainly isn’t THAT Gibson pickup. Guitarists have given rave reviews to the 500t as a metal machine.

The 500t is has a very hot high-output tone while retaining good articulation which other high-output humbuckers tend to lose. It has a great bottom end and solid midrange, but doesn’t lack in the top end where it delivers classic Gibson lead tones.

Players also report increased sustain, something of a surprise given the magnetic force of its ceramic magnets. This pickup features three ceramic magnets and has 4-conductor wiring for coil splitting and series/parallel wiring options.

PROS

  • Fits any standard humbucking size rout.
  • Very high-output.
  • Nice thick, vintage sound with even frequency response.
  • Exceptional lead tone.

CONS

  • Guitar must be equipped with a special switching or push/pull pot to take advantage of coil-splitting capability.

AND THE WINNER

A musician’s tone is specific to him or her alone. The perfect pickup for one guitarist, may not suit another one at all. All of the pickups featured here are top-of-line in terms of construction and tone, and I would not hesitate to recommend any of them. I have decided to pick one that, based on the features, I would consider to stand out as the best of those featured.

This was a difficult choice, but the Seymour Duncan AHB-2b Blackout edged out its competitors. Despite its drawbacks, the flexibility and screaming metal tone were too great to ignore. If you want a little more high-end for soaring leads, you can get it. If you like the chunkier mids and lows, you can dial those in too. Once you get your sound dialed in, there’s not anything not to like about the AHB-2b.

I hope you found this article informative and makes the job of finding your next pickup easier. 

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