Here we review the best guitar pickups for metal. My top 11 pickups for metal include humbucker and single-coils as well. All of these items pair great with metal amps and metal distortion pedals.
If you’re looking to build yourself a great guitar gear to jam along with Ghost and Alter Bridge tunes, you’d want to pick an honestly-priced guitar that plays and behaves amazingly. Then, plug one of these top 11 best pickups for metal into your modding canvas.
I’m writing this for musicians with some prior experience and knowledge about guitar pickups. However, if you need some prior info about how these units work and what to look for on guitar pickups, you can go to our prior top single-coil pickups guide or our DiMarzio pickups guide.
Either way, there’s a FAQ section down below with a quick review of everything you need to know about pickups. Before you buy, make sure you know!
I’m also guiding you towards some budget guitars in order to help you create your budget metal guitar.
Overall, you’d be able to turn your budget guitar into a metal beast for a minimal investment.
You can buy a budget guitar, a quality set of guitar pickups, a quality metal amp, plus your metal pedal for less than a triple-zero price. And you can do it slowly.
Before we go on, I’d like to hear from you: what’s your metal guitar gear?
Buyer’s advice on the Best Pickups for Metal
I’m going for the pickups you could use for heavy metal, thrash, progressive, alt, hardcore, sludge, and any of the confusingly wide displays of metal genres and subgenres.
That’s why we need some versatility. Even if you think of dead goats and bloody rituals when you read the word “metal,” the truth is this is just a broad term to cover many individual styles. The genre’s main characteristic, though, is energetic, colossal, aggressive, and leading guitar riffs and sounds. And that’s exactly what we’re going for.
All metal bands share an immense guitar, which is why picking the right pickups for metal (or the right guitar, for that matter), is so important.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the eccentric Steven Wilson with its progressive experiments; a nu-metal reborn coming through Rage Against the Machine’s woofers; a timeless Slipknot guttural burn; or a retro Motorhead booze-fueled track. What we need is a refined tone that’s as ready to play Blackened as it is to play a perfectly clear and warm Opeth solo.
You can practically forget about single-coil pickups as most metal thrives on robust humbuckers to produce the powerful sounds the audiences are seeking. However, there are some artists that have made incredible use of advanced single coils, such as the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan with the Lace Sensor Blue/Red/Silver set.
Let me thin out your selection with our top 11 best pickups for metal. These represent the most popular choices for guitar players of the genre. I also listed the top value choices, which represent the best you can get for a moderate budget; as well as some affordable alternatives.
Some of our picks are active, whilst others are passive. Some are all-time classics, whereas others carry the name of a legendary player. But, most of all, they all deliver awesome metal sounds.
If you’re in doubt, please go check the FAQ section below. Now that we’re here, I should advise you to check our prior guide on how to play metal.
Foreword: we’re going to see plenty of ceramic-made humbuckers in this list. That’s because ceramic delivers the hottest and most powerful output of all pickup magnet materials.
If you need to understand about passive pickups materials and characteristics, you can check this DiMarzio pickups guide, or this single-coil pickups guide.
Best Pickups for Metal Top Pick: James Hetfield EMG Signature Active Humbucker Set
Best Overall Metal Pickup
The best Metal Pickups for electric guitar are the EMG Signature James Hetfield Humbucker Set, otherwise known as the EMG JH pickups.
What can you get from a couple of guitar pickups used by Pappa Het himself? They offer the kind of perfect tones only Metallica’s frontman can achieve.
Think about that: it’s the tone of one of the best metal rhythm guitar players of all time. It’s also the tone of legendary solos like the one on Nothing Else Matters.
The EMG JH delivers a rich response, amazing clarity, a powerful drive, and plenty of tightness. These pickups for metal can really sing with a warm, and punchy tone plus a huge sustain. They are also quite versatile, something we’ve learned from Metallica’s trash to country-rock selection of songs. And they can also cut through the densest and beefiest mixes.
Hetfield has used the same EMG pickups for most of his career: an EMG 81 at the bridge, and an EMG 60 at the neck. Both of which are high-output humbuckers with passive pickups.
About 10 years ago, Tallica’s frontman asked EMG to create a signature set of pickups that combines the clarity and warmth of a humbucker with passive pickups plus the output and punch of active electronics.
The result delivers what Hetfield intended. Better yet, they ship with a stealthy design that has nothing to do with their super-hot output. And what we’ve got is a ceramic neck humbucker delivering a huge attack plus an Alnico V humbucker at the bridge for enhanced versatility and a clean bass sound. I have to add the neck sounds quite smooth and has a hint of Les Paul sound.
On top of that, this active humbucker set looks beautiful.
Choosing your top-value dual active humbucker guitar
This one is easy. As these pickups for metal are so expensive, I would like to point you towards a budget choice.
Ibanez, then, is the obvious pick for active guitar with two humbuckers:
Now, Schecter also creates amazing active guitars, both budget and premium choices. For example, the Hellraiser C-1 already packs the 81/85 pickups, and it’s naturally quite expensive. There’re no active Schecters selling for affordable price tags.
Now, a budget alternative you can improve with the JH pickup set is the Squier Contemporary Active Strat HH:
Best Pickups for Metal Classic Pick: Gibson ‘57s Humbucker Pickup
Best Old-School Metal Pickup
Gibson’s old humbuckers were nicknamed “PAF,” which means they were original Gibson creations. The ‘57s are a modern version of their late ‘50s pickups, which is when the humbuckers first debuted.
The Classic ‘57s deliver a distinctive old school sound, and they ship on some very special Gibson Les Paul Custom or Epiphone Les Paul Custom models. If you find one of such guitars, consider yourself very lucky.
This model uses an Alnico II magnet that delivers a compressed sound and a softer tone. They are also wax-potted to prevent feedback.
I wouldn’t say you can go out and play some metalcore with these babes. However, the ‘57s are more of a Led Zeppelin kind of sound: hard rock, heavy metal, and plenty of overdrive pedals and tubular amplifiers.
Here’s a budget guitar of the Squier Classic Vibe series sporting a Gibson ‘57:
The Gibson ‘57s humbuckers deliver a fat and beefy sound with a pretty hot output. In particular, the sound is extremely loud if you place this pickup on the bridge. That said, the Classic ‘57s are more powerful and less compressed than the original version.
Using these babies is getting the classic-era heavy metal sound.
However, the ‘57 is on the pricier side. Lucky for you, you can combine this puppy with the following model for great results.
I have to add the ‘57 can goes either on the bridge or on the neck.
Choosing your top-value dual humbucker guitar with passive pickups
This is easy as well. We’re talking of adding 2 top metal humbuckers with passive pickups into a guitar, something like the Gibson ‘57, the DiMarzio Super Distortion, or any Seymour Duncan model.
The best budget metal guitar you could buy for a dual humbucker configuration is an Epiphone Les Paul. These are normally built of mahogany, sport a fast neck, quality electronics, and comfortable bodies.
Probably the best budget Les Paul is the Epiphone Les Paul-100. It has a mahogany carved-top body with rosewood on the back and the sides, a Tune-O-Matic bridge, Okoume neck, rosewood fingerboard, 2 individual volume knobs, 2 individual tone knobs, and a 3-way switch.
The only thing separating this against a pricy Les Paul is its bolt-on neck and its Epiphone-made humbuckers. We’re solving the latter.
Now, climbing the budget ladder, we can go for an ESP LTD model. In particular, the LTD EC 256FM is a very popular affordable Les Paul with a mahogany body and neck, roasted jatoba fretboard, flamed maple top, and 22 XJ frets.
Its construction is superb for the price, its playability is equal to any top-level Les Paul, so changing the humbuckers will give you an arena-ready guitar.
Recently, we made a review on the Schecter Omen 6, which we consider to be the best budget metal guitar there is. Be sure to check it out as well. Additionally, the Ibanez GRX20 is a close contender. Both guitars are Superstrat models.
Best Pickups for Metal Top Value: DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker
Top Value Metal Pickup
After reviewing some premium humbucker pickups for metal, I’m sharing the top value metal pickup.
This is an affordable taper that delivers a unique performance. Why? Because the DP100 sends tubular amps above their thresholds. Hence, they represent a sound revolution, much like DiMarzio claims.
Here’s a video showcasing the sound of an Epiphone Les Paul upgraded with the Super Distortion pickups:
This model ships in various colors: purple, blue, black, white, cream, and camouflage. So they may look standard, but they can surely shine on any guitar.
They are made with a thick ceramic magnet for a balanced warm sound with plenty of output. The bass is also thick, the mids are boosted, and the treble is bright. That’s why they are great for metal lead playing, just not something too dark or too fast-paced.
By the way, the DiMarzio Super Distortion was installed on Kurt Cobain’s custom Fender Jaguar guitar.
Choosing your top value modern guitar:
Here’s where it gets interesting. I want to find a top value modern rock guitar we can improve with a couple of modern DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers.
Following Kobain’s legacy, I’m choosing a Squier Jaguar from the Classic Vibe series, which I believe is the best Squier lineup as it sells the classic Fender designs to the hard-working musician.
Here are additional DiMarzio pickups for you. DiMarzio always packs tons of value on their models, as well as unique features to stand above its peers.
Popular Pick: EMG 81X & EMG 85X Active Humbuckers
Most Popular Metal Pickup
There’s no way we could add the EMG 81-X and dismiss the EMG 85-X or vice-versa. So we decided to cheat by adding both into a single item because, to be honest, either pick is equally amazing, equally priced, and similarly sounding.
Just remember that EMGs are the absolute leaders of guitar humbuckers, and both these models are a testament to their reputation.
Both pickups are made with ceramic magnets and closure for aperture coils (more on that below).
Also, both feature an aggressive metal tone with plenty of sustain. They are a great choice for those experienced guitar players with some creative prowess in soloing and fast metal riffs.
A highlight of these models is its circuitry. You can select between a 4-conductor wiring series or a 4-conductor parallel series wiring.
A series wiring is where the signal travels along a single path for extra warmth and power; parallel wiring divides the signal in two and recombines it at the end for extra clarity and treble.
EMG 85-X Active bridge pickup
The EMG 85 is a modern classic and a popular choice for metal players, whereas the EMG 85-X improves upon everything that was already great.
This model is quite unique in the field of metal pickups as it offers a warm tone. Still, the low-end is hefty, the mid-range is articulated, and the treble is round and balanced.
The result is a full sound that stays in check as the volume increases. Furthermore, it’s well-articulated and behaved. Lastly, it has no excess noise.
Its “X” name is there because this model is much more articulated and defined than the regular 85.
The EMG 85-X sits at home in the neck position. His brother, the EMG 81-X, belongs at the bridge…
EMG 81-X Active Bridge/Neck Pickup
The EMG 81-X Active is one of the best humbuckers in the market, and it’s an improvement over the already great EMG 81 passive model. I should note, though, the EMG 81 is one the most popular active humbuckers you can buy right now.
But unlike it’s muddier predecessor, the 81-X mixes warmth with low-end power. The result is an excellent performance for metal.
EMG’s X series is an updated and improved version of their regular models. In particular, they are both active instead of passive.
EMG ZW Set
If you’re still on the fence about the 81 / 85 set of active bobbins, then I should tell you both these humbuckers come as part Zack Wylde’s signature line of pickups.
The EMG ZW models are different because they offer more volume, more control, and outstanding aesthetics.
EMG S/S/H Active Set
Here’s a bundle you can plug into a modified Stratocaster (also known as Superstrats), which are particular guitars that commonly pack 3 pickup cavities.
The EMG S/S/H packs two single-coils for the neck and middle position plus the bridge humbucker.
This is an active pickup set providing early Strat sound with an enhanced midrange, higher output, increased sustain, and great harmonics.
The humbucker can either be the 85, which provides a smooth and punchy tone with its Alnico V magnet. The 85 goes at the bridge:
And it comes with the EMG Alnico V magnet as well. The 81 goes at the neck, middle, or bridge positions. It adds a smooth and articulated tone at the neck or the middle, or an aggressive tone at the bridge.
Both sets come with volume and tone controls plus the 5-way switch and the whole wiring to complete your installation.
If you’re interested in his kind of versatile setup, you can take a look at our guide on the best rock guitars.
The EMG 81/5 models come in various alternatives: gold-top, red, white, chrome, Signature Lars Frederiksen (passive), Signature James Hetfield, Signature Zack Wylde, S/S/H, MetalWorks, 7-strings… They have different materials and colors, so the output levels and the voices are also somehow different.
Choosing your active SuperStrat
Before we go on, I’d like to advise you on the Superstrat you’re choosing. It must have an active pickup system, which is a bit hard to find.
The first thing you could do is get a pre-wired pickguard. The best in the market is the “EMG KH20 Pro Series” pre-loaded active pickguard. Check with your local luthier if you’re interested in this kind of item:
Similarly, you can get the “EMG SL20 Steve Lukather” pre-load pickguard. Lukather is Toto’s frontman.
The downside is that there are not many (if any) guitars that are both active and pack 3 pickups. You would need to modify a passive guitar in order to install active pickups or an active pickguard. Here’s some info on that.
Here’s a tutorial video:
Otherwise, you can check this guide into the best Strat pickups you can buy right now.
Choosing your passive SuperStrat
Now I’m helping you find a guitar that fits both a passive humbucker and a passive single-coil (which I ‘m listing further down below).
Naturally, I’m going for Squier, one of the best budget guitar makers, and I’m going for the Squier Classic Vibe ‘70s Stratocaster, which packs an H/S/S configuration.
There’re no guitars packing one single-coil and one humbucker, so, if you want to mix the two kinds of pickups, you’d have to go for a Strat guitar packing three pickup cavities.
The Strat (and Superstrat) body is the most popular three-pickup guitar design. Likewise, it’s the most popular guitar fitting both a single-coil and a humbucker.
I already made my top picks based on popularity and professional use. However, you would be right to choose any of the following models, all of which are made by Seymour Duncan:
Seymour Duncan SH-10 Full Shred
Most Versatile Metal Pickup
These are the pickups of choice of Opeth’s frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt, considered to be a musical genius.
This simple humbucker neck pickup is about powerful rhythm guitars and warm shredding solos. What it does best is offering the kind of clear and warm sounds progressive rock and metal bands need for their medleys.
The sound it offers is smooth and clean when you set the volume knob below the 6th position and without heavy distortions. But, once you pair this with the right guitar pedals, you’re going to summon Ktulu.
The SH-10 is a ceramic-made high-output passive humbucker. It’s known as the brightest metal pickup around, so it works quite nicely when you combine this with other bluesier or jazzier humbuckers or single-coils.
Because of that, the Full Shred is quite versatile, despite its name. Why? Because it sounds just as good when you combine it to play jazz as it sounds when it shreds during the thickest instrumental sections.
What I like the best about the SH-10 is its balance. I mean this is a great pickup for both solos and rhythm guitar, and it’s also a great pickup for single notes and metal riffs because of its definition.
It has a great rhythm sound, though, but it loses some clarity on the lows.
Overall, you can’t go wrong with the SD model, no matter what you play.
Seymour Duncan SH-13 Dimebucker Humbucker
Best Signature Metal Pickup
Seymour Duncan is the ever-present brand on any top pickups list for good reasons. In particular, I chose the SH13 Dimebuckers because they were used by Pantera’s Dimebag Darrel on his signature Dean guitar.
The late Dimebag Darrel is one of the greatest metal guitar players of all time, so there was no way of leaving this model out of this best metal pickup selection.
So, the SH13 Dimebuckers have an extreme Dimebag tone: trashy, dark, beefy, and raw. It also has plenty of emphasis on the high-end for the ripping solos:
The SH-13 model is very popular for rock and metal players, as well as a great choice for any guitarist seeking a cemetery-hot tone.
They are carefully handmade in California like all Seymour Duncan tapers. That’s why the quality of these monsters is so special.
This humbucker features a hefty ceramic magnet, two stainless-steel blades, and a vinyl cover with Darrel’s signature.
Another highlight of its design is its small metal mass placed at the core, which is a particular element that delivers a high resonance and high resonant harmonics and peaks.
Such a feature means biting trash metal, perfect for the leading guitar player. Think not only of Pantera, but also guitar players like Randy Rhoads, Ritchie Blackmore, and Zakk Wylde.
The bass response is not very powerful, though, but it’s just enough to deliver a punchy bass for rhythm chords and metal riffs.
Overall, the SH13 sounds like classic metal with squealing guitar solos. They also lean towards the 2000’s nu-metal sounds.
Seymour Duncan AHB-3 Mick Thomson Blackout Signature Active Humbucker Set
Best Modern Metal Pickup
The Seymour Duncan AHB-3 are insane pickups. If that’s a surprising description for you, then maybe you need to know Mick Thomson is Slipknot’s guitar player. And these are his pickups.
Thomson worked with the Californian brand to create these incredible signature humbuckers. With all of his years of experience and knowledge, Thomson was able to create the best humbuckers for modern metal.
You don’t have to be a Slipknot fan to like the crushing tone, warmth, and clarity of this active humbucker set.
The AHB-3 is made of ceramic magnets and features an active electronic circuit. They are made to deliver high power and minimal excess noise.
It’s an awesome set for hard rock, alternative rock, progressive rock, and modern heavy metal. However, I must add the AHB-3 is better known for how it works when you low-tune the guitar: it creates an ominous, almost menacing sound as you palm mute. It also keeps the low-end tight, clean, and controlled.
All of this comes together with its bright treble. It delivers a melodic lead for chords and riffs, and it’s able to create the pristine high-paced solos you might be catering to. It’s just a perfect balance between darkness and melody to play metal genres.
Seymour Duncan SH-8 Humbucker
Best Hardcore Metal Pickup
Here’s another Seymour Duncan model, the SH8, another honestly-priced choice offering sheer metal power. No wonder why this is such a popular and hot item on Amazon.
The SH-8 is also known as The Invader, and it can pump out a serious metal power. The output is huge, the volume is excessive, and it does all of this while delivering zero hum, zero feedback, and zero noise.
More so, the notes have plenty of clarity, although the clean tones are a bit dull.
However, it makes up its shortcoming with its distorted tone: thick, fat, and big. Perfect for the heaviest modern metal music.
Everything about the SH-8 is unique and advanced. We’re talking about top-notch modern design for the modern metal musician.
Handmade in California like all Seymour Duncan models, this unique ‘bucker is built with three large ceramic magnets with overwound coils (more on that later). It also has twelve large metal oxide pole pieces around the coil. No wonder why this model has such a quirky look.
Its biggest feature is the gigantic output delivered by its magnetic field, which is why this pickup is perfect at the hands of hardcore guitar players (and similar).
High-paced metal music (hardcore, thrash, power metal,…) can make great use of this proper metal humbucker.
Similarly, the rhythm sounds it delivers are thick and have tons of bass with just a hint of brightness.
I have to add this is designed as a bridge humbucker. However, you can install this at the neck without any issues, albeit it would lose some of its raw power at that position.
You could place the SH-8 at the bridge plus either the SH13 or the AHB-3 at the neck for the best results.
The pickup’s tone is different at the bridge, the neck, or middle positions. In particular, a humbucker on the neck features a smooth sound with the longest sustain. The bridge features the warmest sound with the shortest sustain. The middle is an in-between tone.
We’ve already seen a big bunch of metal humbuckers. Up next, we’re going to see the best single-coils for metal, as well as the best single-coil sized metal pickups.
Seymour Duncan SHR-1b Hot Rails Pickup Set
Best rail humbucker pickup for metal
What we’ve got here is a “rail humbucker,” which is a smaller humbucker you can place in a single-coil cavity (more on that below).
This baby offers plenty of output plus a wide array of mids harmonics you would normally not hear. Overall, the sound it’s aggressive and crunchy, but it’s also clean. That makes the Hot Rails a good choice for rock and metal.
Here’s a Fender Strat sporting the Hot Rails pickup:
The Hot Rails are able to play full, powerful, and well-articulated chords, which is why they could also be great for rhythm guitars, even for Telecaster guitars.
These pickups are made for the bridge position. It can transform your Strat, your Superstrat, or your Telecaster into a completely different instrument.
They are built with ceramic magnets and come wax-potted to prevent feedback and squeals.
The set includes two rail pickups for either a Tele, a Strat, or any other Strat-inspired guitar. You could also buy this for separate. Here’s an individual Seymour Duncan Hot Rails.
DiMarzio DP422W Paul Gilbert Injector Single-Coil Pickup
Most Versatile Metal Pickup
This is a great single-coil pickup for any kind of genre you’d like to play. The kind of tone it offers is great for metal, but it also adopts a wide range of styles, genres, and guitar pedals.
The Injector is a perfect choice for players using plenty of guitar pedals. Reverb, chorus, fuzz, distortion, flanger. Anything works with the Injector.
A great thing about this model is how it eliminates background buzz, which is the main drawback with most single-coils. The Injector overcomes this limitation with advanced circuitry to allow the purest sound to come through.
This is also a very affordable metal pickup. And its overall sound is crisp and natural. Also, it eliminates the inevitable hum that comes with high-output single-coil pickups like this.
A simple but effective single-coil selling for a friendly price. And it can fit in any single-coil position.
By the way, these are Paul Gilbert’s signature pickups. Paul Gilbert was Mr. Big and Racer X’s frontman.
Lace Sensor Red Single-Coil Pickup
Best single-coil Pickup for Metal
As I mentioned before, the Lace Sensor Red was the pickup of choice for The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. I’m talking about a classic ‘90s and early ‘00s bands that created a mix of alternative rock, grunge, and metal.
The Lace Sensor Red single-coil is a high-output bobbin made for the bridge position. It delivers a power that rivals any humbucker. It’s also fat, punchy, aggressive, and dirty.
It’s also filled with top-notch technology. First off, it packs a metallic Radiant Field Barrier system that surrounds the coil and the magnets to reduce the hum and electromagnetic interferences.
Secondly, it has the patented Micro Combs to replace the traditional bobbins, which deliver a wider tonal range plus an improved string balance. The result is a noiseless single-coil with top-notch performance and enhanced tonal possibilities.
Overall, the Red pickup is great in high-gain and distortion situations. It’s a perfect companion for rock, hard rock, nu-metal, grunge, metal, and heavy metal.
Now, the Lace Sensor Red is part of the Ultimate Set (Lace Sensor 4468). This is a highly regarded selection of three single-coils that represent maximum performance and versatility.
Here’s a video showcasing the full set:
The other two are the Silver and Blue versions, both featuring the same innovations as the red model. Alas, this is a true noiseless single-coil set, which is why it can handle distortion pedals with ease.
Silver is the middle pickup. It imitates Fender’s ‘70s single-coil tone with a vintage output and powerful mid-range sounds. And Blue, the neck pickup, is a classic-era rock taper that sounds like Gibson’s PAF ‘50s humbucking pickups, which are compressed, and thick.
Overall, then, the Lace Sensor Ultimate set is a combination of fat humbucking punch and classic rock tones. It’s a selection that deserves way more recognition, and its a trio of single-coils that manage to keep background noise and hum at bay.
Additionally, you can go for the Dually-T Humbucker pickup, which is the combination of two Sensor Red single-coils.
There are plenty of modern single-coils with noise-canceling features. You can’t run a distortion pedal into a noisy single-coil.
How to pick a good Metal Pickup?
The vast majority of metal musicians use modern humbuckers for their sound, which is why our chart features so many humbuckers.
These tapers offer the kind of power metal players are looking for. From their noise-canceling abilities to the amount of headroom they cover, a good humbucker allows you to play at high gain and high distortion without destroying your tone.
Another thing to look for is a sound that won’t get too muddy, especially when tuning the guitar lower and piling up a distortion pedal or a distortion channel.
Rhythm guitar players must also look for plenty of clarity at the low and mid-frequency levels. It’s easy for a rhythm player to get lost in a noisy sound. A clear rhythm guitar needs just as much mids and lows to work out.
On the other hand, the soloist player must also look for a shiny and clear treble to stand out during the instrumental sections.
You must also remember that metal can also be melodic and harmonious, so your raw power must make some room for warmth, tonal quality, and clarity. For example, you’d require a melodious sound to play some pentatonic scales, solos, and warm chords.
Additionally, remember that treble is what allows you to cut through the mix. However, you’d need to tame the highs with some fat loss.
As you see, it’s not just about picking up a hot pickup. Playing metal requires so much more care for the sound frequency than other genres because high levels of distortion, gain, and detunes can easily destroy anyone’s guitar tone.
Which metal pickup should you buy?
After reading our guide, I hope you choose the perfect fit for both your prowess and needs.
If you’re planning to replace your tapers or upgrade your stock humbuckers, make sure to read various reviews and user comments. Similarly, watch the videos of the ones you like to get a grip on how they could sound on your guitar. That’s the only way to see if they are suitable for your playstyle.
Keep in mind metal genres generally have dense drums and bass mixes plus spirited vocals. That means you need a powerful guitar that cuts through the mix with a loud distortion and energetic lines. Caring for the sound of your guitar solos is equally important.
If you’re choosing your budget metal guitar as well, I’d urge you to go for a Les Paul, either a beginner’s version or a mid-level option.
Les Paul and Les Paul-inspired models (like those by the ESP brand) are usually better handling dual humbucker configurations. Taking this route is taking the tried-and-tested metal guitar solution. Schecter’s Omen series is also a great choice for a budget dual-humbucking guitars.
If you have a Stratocaster or a Superstrat guitar with single-coils, you can also turn it into a metal guitar with the single-coils and single-coil-sized humbuckers I listed. I don’t recommend doing the same with a Telecaster as the resulting voice sounds like a weird experiment.
Now, a configuration including active single-coils and humbuckers definitely needs heavy modifications on the body, which is something your local luthier can do if you’re unsure. Active Superstrats, like those made by the Schecter band, are already expensive and pack top-notch EMG pickups (like the 81/85 set).
That said, you can play around your guitar’s pickup configuration and have a combination between humbuckers and single-coils. For example, there are Stratocaster guitars that accommodate three pickups on its body, like this affordable Mexican Fender Player Stratocaster HSS guitar (review), which I already listed in our best rock guitars guide.
Imagine putting a Lace Sensor Silver at the neck, a DiMarzio Injector at the middle position, plus the Seymour Duncan AHB-3 at the bridge!
If you need some further help on searching a metal guitar, you can check this prior guide. Here’s also a great guide on the best guitars for each genre.
Good look on your search, fellow metalhead. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave them below!
What’s a pickup?
The pickups are the most important element of your guitar as it translates what you play into sound it feeds to the guitar amp. Unsurprisingly, it’s the piece that influences the sound the most. I’d say about 80% of your guitar’s sound is about the pickups.
A pickup is simply a wire wrapped around a magnet, which is known as a coil. The coil is surrounded by pieces of metal commonly made of Alnico (a mixture of nickel, bronze, zinc, and other metal alloys) or ceramic. And, finally, the whole thing is encased within the metal.
The magnet catches the string’s vibrations, turns that into an electrical signal with the coil, and sends it forward to the amp.
Keep in mind, though, the tonewoods of a hollow or semi-hollow guitar play a much larger role on the sound than what I said above!
In essence, pickups are made of either Alnico (a special metal alloy) or ceramic. Stainless steel pickups are not something to consider.
Alnico goes from Alnico 2, which is vintage and soft, all the way to Alnico 8, which features the hottest, and most aggressive output.
In particular, Alnico 5 is the most versatile option, whilst ceramic is the most powerful material as it delivers the highest output and the dirtiest grit.
What’s a single-coil pickup?
Single-coil pickups were invented by Fender and became popular when they first released the Telecaster, which is the first mass-produced solid-state guitar.
As the name suggests, single-coil works with a single magnet. It creates a softer, gentler sound than humbuckers, commonly better suited for classic rock, jazz, and blues.
Typical or vintage single-coils have low and moderate outputs and come with a little “hizz” or “buzz” sound as they don’t cancel noises out. However, the lines have been blurred recently, and now we’re finding more and more noiseless high-output single-coils that would rival any humbucker in raw power.
You can identify a single-coil because of its thin oval shape. For example, Telecaster guitars have a single single-coil near the bridge.
The tone is about a thin low-end, a crunchy mid, and plenty of treble. They feature a lot of clarity but not a lot of headroom.
Fender guitars usually pack single-coil pickups. Other brands making Stratocaster-shaped guitar with humbuckers call their designs “Superstrats” or “Modified Strats”
What’s a humbucker (dual-coil) pickup?
Gibson invented the humbucker by the mid-’50s, almost a decade after Fender released the single-coils.
Because these have two magnets, humbuckers create higher output. Additionally, because the magnets are facing each other, they create a reverse polarity that cancels out noises, hums, and other interferences.
Humbuckers are mostly made to play rock & metal genres. Going further and further into the heavy metal ecosystem does require a humbucker to handle distortions, de-tunes, and high outputs.
You can identify a humbucker because of its rectangular shape that takes about twice as space as a single-coil. There’re also some companies that build humbuckers simply by pairing two single-coils together.
The tone is about a fat low-end, a punchy mid, and plenty of headroom. They also carry natural grit or dirt, and the sound coming out of humbuckers is normally aggressive.
Gibson guitars always pack humbuckers pickups.
Passive Pickups vs. active pickups
Another thing you have to understand is the difference between active and basic pickups because you can’t install an active pickup in a guitar with passive pickups or vice-versa.
Active pickups are modern alternatives. They require a 9V battery but feature extra output and extra tonal shaping options.
Normally, an active pickup system has a 2-band or a 3-band EQ (bass, mid, highs). Such a setup allows you to create the exact sounds you want: tame the treble, fatten the lows, brittle the mids, or whatever your musical taste is looking for. At the same time, though, a 3-band EQ is harder to use.
You can identify an active pickup system because the guitar packs an additional 9V battery to power up this advanced configuration.
I must add that active pickups have an unrivaled output: they are very hot and very detailed, which is why many metal guitar players prefer an active pickup.
Passive pickups have a lower output, then. However, passive pickups have a better dynamic range, which is more suited to creative lead players in needs of the subtle nuances of their guitar playing.
Additionally, passive pickups are commonly warmer and feature a more natural tone than their active brothers. However, passive pickups are also susceptible to feedback when the volume increases rapidly.
Active pickups are mostly dual-coils and ship in the typical humbucker casing.
Why should you buy a guitar pickup?
The thing about buying a guitar pickup is that you can change the stock units that came by default. That means you can vastly upgrade the quality of a budget guitar by changing the tapers.
You could also change the tonal properties of your instruments. For example, with the right pick, you could turn a “bluesy” guitar into a metal monster. Otherwise, you could improve the sound the guitar intends to give by installing an upgraded version of what it already has.
Similarly, you should consider changing the pickups when the guitar’s sound starts to give you some trouble. Damaged pickups are a great opportunity to improve what was already there.
Commonly, the stock pickups on your typical budget guitar would go for around 2 years. The situation is very similar regarding the guitar’s electronics. That means you’d need to check these two elements whenever you find troubles with noises, interferences, hums, crashes, glitches, or no sound.
Lastly, by changing the pickups you could also solve the sound issues your particular guitar has. For example, there’re plenty of noisy single-coils out there, so you could change it for a noise-canceling coil for a better experience.
Single-coils have advanced so many manufacturers have found a way to cancel out the hum, noises, and interferences that usually came in these units.
What kind of pickups can I put on my guitar?
In essence, each pickup ships with a particular shape and for a particular location. Pickups can be located at the bridge, the middle, or the neck, and each pickup item states its intended position.
That said, a neck single-coil should be changed by another neck single-coil. Or a bridge humbucker should be replaced by another bridge humbucker. That way, things are easier for you. Most humbuckers and single-coils can be installed on either position, though, but it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Moreover, you can only swap passive pickups for other passive pickups, or active pickups for other active pickups. Changing from one to the other requires extra modifications on your guitar.
There are options to change a single-coil for a humbucker and vice-versa, though. These alternatives are known as “stacked coils,” but there are more options.
You can install a single-coil pickup on a humbucker cavity if the guitar’s pickguard can hold it in place.
Stacked coils are variations of the two original models that allow you to change a dual-coil for a single-coil or vice-versa:
- (Single-coil size) Stacked coil / coil-tapped humbuckers / reverse-wound single-coils. As the name suggests, it’s about two coils stacked one on top of the other. This configuration uses a fraction of each coil to imitate the lower output of a single-coil; the other coil eliminates noises, hums, and interferences.
- (Single-coil size) Rail humbuckers. These have two sideway coils, but they are smaller. That means they have a lower output and ship within a single-coil chassis. Rail humbuckers are particularly hot and quirky looking.
- (Humbucker size) Coil-split humbuckers. They work much like stacked coils but are built for humbucker cavities: one of the coils creates the sound whilst the other cancels the hum.
Most coil-split models come with a push/pull option on one of the knobs. As you push, it works as a normal humbucker, but if you pull, it works as a coil-split bobbin.
The pickup configuration is the combination of pickups each guitar packs. A humbucker is named “H,” whereas a single-coil is named as “S.”
The pickup configuration reads like so:
S (neck pickup) / S (middle or bridge pickup);
H (neck pickup) / H (middle or bridge pickup);
H (neck pickup) / S(middle pickup) / S(Bridge pickup)
What are Superstrat guitars?
Superstrats are modified Stratocasters. The Stratocaster is the most popular guitar, but the standard model only packs 2 single coils.
Modified Superstrats normally add a humbucker. They are also one of the only guitar designs that pack 3 pickups like so:
H/S/S/ or S/S/H.
Ibanez, Schecter, Dean, and, Squier, Charvel, and Fender are some of the brands producing Superstrats.
What’s an aperture coil?
Most pickups cover the pole pieces, but aperture pickups don’t. It makes no difference other than aesthetics: covered poles look modern, whereas aperture coils look vintage.
What’s an overwound pickup?
An overwound is a single-coil pickup with a smaller coil. Because the coil is smaller, the wire is wound around it more times. It creates a thicker and heavier tone.
How to change a guitar pickup?
Honestly, I’ve never changed a pickup myself as it requires certain knowledge about electronics circuits I simply do not possess.
My recommendation is that you take your guitar to a local luthier once you’ve got your new pickups with you.
Changing the pickups yourself would require you to remove the strings and take the pickups out with a screw. Then, you would have to connect the new pickups to the cables underneath by using a soldering tool.
Here’s a video tutorial:
I have to add all pickups are sold with the electronic components and instructions you need to install it on your guitar.
Lastly, if you want to install an active pickup on a system with passive pickups you would need to change the whole electronic setup. It’s not something I would recommend.