So, you’ve been playing your trusty old electric guitar for a few years now, and though you love the way it feels to play, you wonder if you could get a better tone out of it if you installed some different pickups.
Or maybe it’s not even a subjectively ‘better’ tone that you’re going for, just something a little different.
Maybe a bit more modern, hotter, edgier. Maybe a little more vintage, smooth, and laid-back?
Maybe you didn’t even know that upgrading or changing your guitar pickups can achieve such a drastic change in tonality.
Well, whatever camp you’re in, I’m here to help.
This article is going to teach you the ins and outs of guitar pickups, from an overview of how they work to the different kinds that you can choose from.
Then, of course, we’ll take a look at the best guitar pickups in each category.
- 1 What are guitar pickups?
- 2 How do guitar pickups work?
- 3 What are the different kinds of guitar pickups?
- 4 Best Single Coil Guitar Pickups
- 5 Best Humbucker Guitar Pickups
- 6 Best P90 Guitar Pickups
- 7 Conclusion
What are guitar pickups?
Consider how an acoustic guitar works.
The strings vibrate, and this sound reverberates inside the hollowed-out body of the guitar itself.
Electric guitars, however, don’t have hollow bodies (mostly), and so they have nothing for the sound to resonate within.
If you’ve ever played an electric guitar that wasn’t plugged in, then you’ll know how twangy and quiet they are.
That’s why we have pickups inside electric guitars. These handy little guys are kind of like specialized microphones that are designed to ‘pick up’ the sound of your guitar strings.
In short, a guitar pickup is a specialized device that converts sound vibrations into electrical energy.
How do guitar pickups work?
The majority of guitar pickups use electromagnetic induction (magnets) to pick sound up from your guitar strings.
These magnets are usually made of alnico or ferrite.
This material creates a magnetic field around the pole pieces. Usually, there are 6 of these in a pickup, one for each string on the guitar.
As the strings vibrate, changes in the magnetic field create an electrical signal, which is sent to the output jack of your guitar via some internal wiring.
Though most guitar pickups work in the same way, there are a few different pickup designs out there.
Let’s take a look.
What are the different kinds of guitar pickups?
If you’ve ever shopped for guitars or guitar pickups, you’ll probably have seen two main kinds of pickups: single coil, and humbuckers.
Single coil pickups
Single coils are probably the oldest kind of pickup, dating back to when Leo Fender used them in his original electric guitar designs.
They have just one pole piece (per string), which means they tend to have a lower output than say, humbuckers, but they are also more sensitive to changes in dynamics in your playing.
Single coils are bright and chirpy and sound great on clean and slightly overdriven tones. Fender Stratocasters typically have single coils in them, and you’ll hear these on records from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer.
By contrast, humbuckers, have two pole pieces for each string, which essentially helps them to eliminate hum and noise.
At least, this was the original plan.
However, the humbucker design delivers a very different sound palette to single coils, and tends to be favored by hard rock and metal players.
The humbucker design is widely known for its use in Gibson Les Paul guitars and used by guitarists like Slash.
Modern humbucker pickups have been designed with something called a coil tap, which allows you to temporarily disconnect one set of the pole pieces. This basically gives you a single-coil and humbucker pickup in one.
There is a third design, however, that is a little less common but still highly revered.
P90s are technically a type of single-coil pickup, in that they have just a single row of poles, though they tend to be a lot larger in size, so some confuse them for humbuckers.
P90s are gritty and dirty and often sit somewhere in between the tone of single coils and humbuckers.
That’s because they deliver more low-end chunk than single coils, but still give you that raw, raspy sound that single coils offer.
Acoustic guitar pickups
Though guitar pickups are generally associated with electric guitars, some acoustics still use them.
There are known as acoustic-electric guitars, for obvious reasons.
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to ignore this specific set of guitar pickups. That’s because acoustic and electric guitar pickups aren’t interchangeable, and acoustic pickups are a very different kind of beast.
Active vs passive guitar pickups
Passive pickups are the classic style of pickup. In fact, most pickups are passive pickups.
This is especially true of single coils.
However, many modern rock and metal players need humbuckers with a bunch more edge to them. Enter the active pickup.
An active pickup uses a preamp circuit (that requires power, usually from a battery), to boost the output of the pickup.
That doesn’t mean that all active pickups are hotter than passive ones, however, as active pickups have fewer windings so their initial output is actually lower. Then, the preamp boosts that output.
Still, most active pickups are hotter than passive ones, which is why many guitarists choose them.
The biggest benefit of active pickups is that while the output is super hot, they are incredibly quiet. This does, though, mean that they aren’t as beautifully dynamic as say, a passive single-coil design.
Wondering what I’m talking about when I say ‘hot’?
Let’s take a look.
Not all pickups have the same output level.
However, pickups aren’t typically measured by a numerical value. Instead, most manufacturers list their pickup outputs as high, low, or medium. Hot is used as a synonym for high-output pickups.
Make sense? Cool, let’s take a look at some pickups.
Best Single Coil Guitar Pickups
Single coils are immensely popular, and most of us have owned a Strat or Strat-style guitar with single-coil pickups in it.
However, not all of us have gone as far as kitting out our starts with some sick new pickups.
Let’s take a look at 5 of the best aftermarket single-coil guitar pickup options.
Fender Fat ’50s Stratocaster Custom Shop Pickups
If your strat is feeling like it could use some extra balls, then a set of Fender Fat ’50s Stratocaster Custom Shop Pickups might do you well.
These single-coil pickups are designed around the hot-rodded strat tone, with Alnico V magnets with Formvar-coated wire delivering that fat, vintage goodness.
The upgraded wiring system on these pickups gives you a girthier bass response and a hotter output than traditional strat pickups, so these are best for blues and rock players who really want to push the input of their amp.
You can’t go wrong with these guys if you’re looking to get Mayer/SRV tones.
Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickups
Another set of Fender Custom Shop pickups, this time the Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickup set.
These pickups are overwound to deliver a vintage blues tone that you’ll have heard on a tonne of records, with sparkly highs and plenty of midrange chirp.
Something special about these pickups is that the middle pickup is wound in reverse. This means that when you use either position 2 or 4 on a 5-way pickup selector, the pickup selection acts to remove hum and feedback, so you can really push the gain up.
These are passive pickups using Alnico magnets, and they sound incredible for players craving that Austin blues tone.
Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot
Fralin is a boutique manufacturer of guitar pickups, and of the areas they’re best at is the vintage single-coil pickup.
So, it follows that I’d include the Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot as one of the best single-coil pickups out there.
This is a singular pickup (compared to the last two which have been full sets), available in bridge, middle, and neck positions. So you can grab all three and make a complete set, or mix and match with some other units!
The Vintage Hots are designed with a balanced and warm midrange, so they aren’t as bright and chirpy as some other units.
USA-made Alnico 5 magnets ensure a smooth and balanced output, and a reverse-wound middle pickup gives you a hum-reducing tone on positions 2 and 4.
These guys are designed to last for years, being backed by a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty.
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Strat
Sticking on the vintage end of the sound palette, we’ve got the DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Strat single-coil pickup.
DiMarzio is one of the best pickup manufacturers out there, and this single coil unit is no exception.
As you’d expect based on the name, the DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Strat is powerful and warm, not too bright or aggressive, with a fat tonality that breaks up beautifully.
These are best used in guitars that sound a little thin, or to thicken up your tone when playing with light gauge strings.
They are super quiet as well, with basically no hum, which is pretty impressive for single coils and will be a major upgrade from the stock pickups in your strat.
The DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Strat is available in just one configuration, though. That is, where some other manufacturers make subtle changes between their bridge, middle, and neck pickups, DiMarzio is offering just one pickup for all purposes.
Though it works in all positions, the DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Strat is primarily designed for the bridge position, which will give you a thicker sound with more low-end weight.
The EMG SAX pickups are something a little special.
EMG are best-known for their high-output, active humbuckers. Pretty much every metal guitar throughout the early 2000s had a set of EMGs plugged in.
So, what’s the EMG SAX all about?
The SAX is an active single-coil pickup designed for Strat players.
It’s bright and airy, with a chunky and harmonically rich bottom end, perfect for high-gain blues tones.
The EMG SAX employs an Alnico V bar magnet to ensure a balanced output during big string bends, making them perfect for bluesy lead players.
Not only do they sound fantastic, but they also look the part. They come in black, white, and cream, allowing you to choose the version that suits the visual palette of your guitar without sacrificing tone.
Best Humbucker Guitar Pickups
Single coils not giving you enough low-end grunt?
Perhaps you’ve already got a humbucker guitar and you need to replace them with better ones.
Well, here’s 7 awesome options for humbucker guitar pickup replacement. Let’s see which one is best for you.
Seymour Duncan JB SH-4 Guitar Pickup
The Seymour Duncan JB is for sure the most well-rounded and versatile humbucker in the SD range.
Heck, it might even be the most versatile pickup of all time.
The JB has been in production for nearly 40 years, and you’ll have heard it on countless rock records.
It’s a great choice for Les Paul-style guitars and HH superstrats alike, and excels at dirty and overdriven tones.
That’s not to say that the JB doesn’t do cleans well, because it does. That’s part of what makes it so versatile.
The sound palette of the Seymour Duncan JB SH-4 is sharply focused on the upper mid-range, with a chunky bottom end and crisp top that works in almost any genre, for soft rock right through to thrash metal.
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker Pickup
It should come as no surprise that the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker Pickup excels when put in front of a high-gain amp.
The Super Distortion is designed to handle highly-driven amps without feedbacking, and pushing them even further by maxing out the output from your guitar.
It’s definitely a low-end heavy pickup, meaning you might want to throw a little more top on your amp’s EQ section when using a DP100, depending on the kind of tone you’re looking for.
Being a 4-conductor pickup, the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker is also able to be coil-tapped.
That means you can access chunky humbucker tones and chimney, crisp single-coil strat type vibes in the same guitar.
EMG 81 Humbucking Active Guitar Pickup
Told you we’d be talking EMGs soon.
The EMG 81 is 100% the most popular and widely-used EMG active humbucker, and it’s all chug chug chug.
The output of the 81 is crazy high, and the sound of the pickup overall is quite compressed, aggressive, and upfront.
It’s for sure not the kind of pickup you’d use for a super clean, dynamic jazz piece.
But if want to down-tune your guitar and plug right into something like a 5150, then the EMG 81 is your guy.
The 81 is an active pickup, meaning you’ll need to have a cavity in your guitar for a battery to power it, which might hold you back if your guitar current uses passive pickups.
Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 Pearly Gates Pickup
The Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 Pearly Gates is kind of like the humbucker version of Fender’s Custom Shop Texas Special pickup set.
- Vintage designSuper hot outputRaw edgeGreat sustain
It’s mid-focused, vintage-sounding, with a tonne of output for a dripping Texas blues lead tone.
The Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 Pearly Gates is a P.A.F pickup designed to capture the vintage tones of the old 59 Les Pauls, but bring them into a blistering and forward modern tonal era.
Tonally, it’s all about that delicious and crunchy midrange. The lows are warm and spongy (so probably not great for low-tuners), and the highs are open and airy, but not particularly bright.
There are a variety of finishes available, including covered and uncovered versions, and you can even coil tap the SH-PG1 to access a vintage Strat-style sound.
Bare Knuckle Warpig Guitar Pickup
Bare Knuckle Pickups have really made a name for themselves in the last decade or so, taking over a significant chunk of market share from EMG.
A big part of this is their metal-focused Warpig humbucker.
The Bare Knuckle Warpig Guitar Pickup offers raw and guttural tones, with a super high output that will push even the tamest of amps.
The top-end is smooth and refined, but for sure the focus on these pups is the chunky low-end, and searing midrange.
They are available covered or uncovered, in 6, 7, and 8-string versions and configured for bridge or neck pickup positions.
Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker
Fishman offer pickups for the more refined and ardent player, having blown up in the market as high-end boutique guitars really took off.
The Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker is no exception, in fact, it’s probably the rule, being the Fishman pickup that I’ve seen most often used.
It’s available as both a ceramic and an alnico pickup.
The alnico offers two voices:
- Modern active – boosted, rounded, and full sounding
- Crisp, clean, fluid – crispy neck humbucker that is full and well-rounded
The ceramic also offers two styles:
- Modern active high output – tight low-end with a searing mid-range crunch
- Modern passive attack – high output, very dynamic response
In either pickup, you can simply switch between the two, which means when you install a Fishman Fluence humbucker, you’re actually installing two pickups in one!
DiMarzio Super Distortion T Humbucker
The DiMarzio Super Distortion T Humbucker is a special little guy.
It’s basically the Super Distortion pickup we discussed before, except for Telecaster guitars.
Teles have a very specific fitting for pickups, and though they commonly use single-coils, DiMarzio are turning that idea on its head by throwing in a single-coil-sized humbucker.
Mind = blown.
The DiMarzio Super Distortion T Humbucker is available in a variety of colored finishes (like purple and green), as well as your standard black and nickel styles, fitting perfectly into a Tele of any kind.
Just like the full-sized Super Distortion, the SD T humbucker is a 4-conductor unit, meaning you can coil tap on the fly and still access those classic single-coil telecaster tones.
Best P90 Guitar Pickups
Love that P90 tone?
We’ve got the best P90 guitar pickups for you right here.
Mojotone ’56 Quiet Coil P-90 Soapbar Pickup
I can’t get enough of P90s if I’m honest.
Though most players tend to gravitate toward humbuckers or single-coils P90s sit somewhere in the middle.
They are gritty, and edgy, but can play beautiful cleans in the neck and middle positions.
The Mojotone ’56 Quiet Coil P-90 Soapbar Pickup is a nice quiet version of the P90, not in terms of output, but in terms of self-noise.
That’s one of the issues that plague old P90s, and single-coils in general (considering the P90 is actually a single-coil). I mean, that’s why they designed the humbucker in the first place.
These babies use a scatter wound coil that offers a hand-wound tone with tons of clarity, and an alnico magnet that assists with that vintage feel.
The Mojotone ’56 Quiet Coil P-90 Soapbar Pickup is big and bold, with a ton of low ends balls and a really sweet top end.
Bare Knuckle Nantucket P90 Bridge Pickup Soapbar Cream
Lastly, we have the Bare Knuckle Nantucket P90.
I’ve got a pair of these guys in my custom Jazzmaster, and boy they are glorious.
Pulsating, gritty, chunky low end with a decent amount of sag for that vintage driven sound. Sweet, juicy, singing highs are a super special sound when playing with clean tones, particularly in the middle position where things get chimey as hell.
In the bridge position, the Bare Knuckle Nantucket P90 is a bit bright and jangly for my likings, but to be fair I’m playing through a Roland Jazz Chorus. FOr that reason, I gravitate more toward middle and neck positions.
When I’ve jammed through something like a Fender Bassman or Peavey Classic 30, with a bit more subdued highs and a chunky low end, then I’ve found the bridge position to be highly usable, especially for lead work.
Pickups can be a pretty personal choice.
Some of us want a quiet single coil, others need a really gritty P90.
Even within pickup categories, there is no one ‘best guitar pickup’. Ultaitmely, the best pickup is the best pickup for you, and for what you’re playing.
That said, this is no excuse to become complacent and not upgrade from the less-than-ideal stock pickups in your current guitar.
So, grab yourself the set that sounds most like you, and get playing!