Metal is one of the most popular genres to play for guitarists, and let’s admit it we all have passed through the metal phase, where we all roam around in band tees, keychains and leather jackets, good old days. However, for serious guitarists who want to improve their tones for metal music things are pretty interesting since there is a wide variety of pickups to choose from.
Then again thanks to the wide variety of selection you get to choose from, it is really hard to choose the perfect one, and making a choice for a pickup for your guitar will largely depend on a large number of factors, such as your guitar, the sound wood, tones you want to achieve, and the genre you are playing. Today I am going to try to explain what makes a great metal guitar pickup, how to choose the best guitar pickups for metal, and some solid options that are fail-safe.
Coming to the main event I have handpicked some excellent pickup models that deliver perfect metal sounds and are the tool for the task. There are various models, from different manufacturers all over the price range, but all of them have one thing in common, they will deliver perfect metal tones that will satisfy your soul let’s take a look.
The Top Guitar Pickups For Metal
10. Seymour Duncan SH8
The Seymour Duncan SH8 is a modernized dual-coil humbucker pickup handmade like every product in the company’s lineup in California. This one is also dubbed as the Invader and it can pump out some serious metal power which is extremely popular with metal guitarists. This pickup has 12 oversized black oxide cap screws and three ceramic magnets that coils are located around it.
On top of that, it has 4 conductor cables included for more advanced setups. It is capable of providing some energy and some special bright sounds that are perfect for the hands of hardcore guitarists. The biggest feature of this pickup is its magnet field that delivers a tremendous output without any hum or feedback, even at extremely high gains and volumes just like a proper metal humbucker.
It is perfect for rhythm guitarists that want thick and powerful sounds, with tons of bass tones, and the slight characteristic brightness just takes this one to another level. It is mainly designed for the bridge, but you can also accommodate it at the neck as well without any problem, it is very easy to install and super functional.
9. DiMarzio DP102 X2N
Next up I have an excellent pickup from DiMarzio that is not for the faint-hearted as this guitar is for those that want aggression and might in their sound. The DiMarzio DP102 X2N is definitely the most aggressive and the hottest pickup in the company’s lineup and they are perfect for more modern genres such as djent, death metal, and nu-metal.
I have to mention that the DiMarzio DP102 X2N is also one of the most balanced EQ pickups in DiMarzio’s production lineup since the bass is rated at 5.5, mids at 6.5 and treble at 6.5, which means that it is a little brighter but overall pretty balanced.
This passive pickup is designed to go to the bridge position, and you can combine it with a wide variety of neck pickups to deliver the best layout for your needs, but I would recommend you to go with a high-output one to match its energy and a little more bass-oriented pickup to achieve a perfect balance.
On top of all this, it will look perfect on your guitar with a wide range of finishes available you can choose the one that fits your style the most.
8. Seymour Duncan Nazgul
Seymour Duncan has another entry in this list, and it is no surprise for those that know the brand’s reputation, and this time around we have the Seymour Duncan Nazgul, which is a mighty humbucker that is named after a Tolkien character that is totally badass, and it lives up to its name.
The company advertises this pickup as the pickup for the deepest metal tunings, and they couldn’t be more accurate about that description. This pickup is built with a large Ceramic magnet with a DC resistance of 13.6 which is extremely hot for a passive pickup. On top of that, it supports a large harmonic range with a super aggressive high-gain sound.
The Seymour Duncan Nazgul is perfect for high-gain sounds, so it is not the best option for clean sounds, and it has a huge bass range, and despite that, it is perfectly balanced with powerful mids that are pretty thick.
It is not the perfect fit for jazzy sounds and it lacks versatility but for heavy metal, this is one of the best options in the market.
7. DiMarzio DP423 Paul Gilbert
Next up we have an interesting metal pickup here, which is also a single-coil model the DiMarzio DP423 Paul Gilbert. This pickup wasn’t intentionally made for metal and is legendary guitarist Paul Gilberts signature line of pickups but it will help you achieve some perfect metal tones, you will definitely be impressed.
First of all, I can clearly say that the DiMarzio DP423 Paul Gilbert is a bright and snappy, with a pretty good balance, and it is designed for the bridge position in mind. There is also a variation of this that is designed for the neck position and that one is surprisingly responsive and smooth, delivering a more treble focused sound compared to the other model that is more focused on the mids.
I would recommend you to opt for both of them to achieve a great metal sound, with amazing clarity and no muddiness at any range, just exemplary.
6. Gibson ’57 Classic Humbucker
Moving on with our list I have a very classic humbucker here, the Gibson ’57 Classic Humbucker. This humbucking pickup delivers one of the most distinctive old school sounds, and it is designed, based on the late 50s humbucker pickups, and it comes as a stock pickup on some special Les Paul Custom models. This pickup utilizes an Alnico II magnet that compresses and delivers a pretty soft and spongy feeling sound in comparison to Alnico V models, and it is also worth mentioning that the pickups are wax-potted.
However, once I installed these into my Les Paul I felt an immense attack that was immediate and aggressive not unlike the classic Alnico II feel. Unlike the original and classic PAF humbucking pickups, these were a little harsher making it perfect for metal. It is definitely designed to emphasize the upper lows and it delivered extremely loud sounds in the bridge sounds, allowing you to distort the sound at your will. They had pretty hot output, I don’t know if this is a design mistake, but as a heavy metal fan, I am a fan of this pickup. They have amazing overdrive and are nowhere near to the spongy feel of the original PAFs, and sound more like a modern spinoff.
5. EMG 81-X Active
EMG has been one of the most popular and most notable pickup brands in the market, and for the right reasons since the manufacturer has delivered some excellent models year after year and the EMG 81-X Active is one of the best in the market. This pickup delivers one of the best metal sounds in the market, and it comes as a great improvement to the already awesome EMG 81 Active.
Unlike its predecessor, the EMG 81-X Active has some kind of warmth to it, with great low-end power to deliver you excellent performance for metal sounds. This pickup features 4-conductor wiring for series or parallels wiring options depending on your preference. It also has a ceramic magnet and a closure for aperture coils.
The EMG 81-X Active is designed for the bridge position, but during testing, I tried it at the neck position and it fared pretty well. In the package of the EMG 81-X Active, you will get the whole electronic components and parts to set up the pickup effortlessly, and it is worth mentioning that the whole process is very easy.
4. DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion
At number four I have the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion, which is one of the most legendary and versatile guitar pickups in the market, and without a doubt, this is the guitar pickup that has started the super heavy distortion trend in the 80s. To start off I can definitely say that the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion is not for those that want to achieve crisp and bright, trebly sounds. This pickup has emphasized bass and mids that are perfect for the metal genre.
It is a passive pickup as well, and it uses ceramic magnets instead of Alnico magnets which is a little surprising, but it delivers a pretty dynamic sound that is pretty full and very Alnico sounding. The DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion can pair up with the excellent DiMarzio PAF Pro as well and you can achieve a great balance in your configuration.
It is not the perfect pickup for more modern metal sub-genres such as djent and nu-metal but it can deliver a super hot output perfect for more vintage metal sounds. It is also worth mentioning that it has the punchiest mid-range ever and it is the absolute favorite of a large number of metal guitarists.
3. EMG ZW
Coming to the top three we have a great set of humbuckers, coming from Zack Wylde’s signature line pickups from EMG, the EMG 81 and EMG 85 humbucking pickups. These pickups are definitely designed to deliver a large sustain and aggressiveness perfect for metal sounds. On top of that, these are the perfect set for those that want to express their creative prowess in fast riffing and soloing.
I should state that both of these have extremely powerful universal metal tones delivering plenty of power to your fingers. The biggest selling point of the EMG ZW set is the EMG 81 pickups delivering great versatility, and it is worth mentioning that the EMG 81 was also one of the most popular passive pickups on the market.
However, this signature line pickup series has a longer shaft volume and more controls, and on top of that, they will look perfect on your guitar, like ten times better than a simple pickup.
2. Seymour Duncan SH13 Dimebucker
If you are a Pantera fan I have the perfect pickup for you here, the Seymour Duncan SH13 Dimebucker. This pickup was used by the Dimebag Darrel at the bridge of his modified ML Dean from Hell guitar. This pickup has the most extreme Dimebag tone you can find, and it has a very emphasized metal high-end that will have you soloing.
The Seymour Duncan SH13 Dimebucker utilizes a powerful magnet that comes with two stainless steel blades, however, the biggest selling point of this device is its small metal mass located in the core that allows it to have a high resistance combined with a high resonant peak. This delivers a very aggressive and a little more biting thrash metal sound that is perfect for lead playing and soloing.
The bass response is great as well, not pretty powerful, but just enough, as these pickups have a different purpose. They deliver tight and punchy bass with a good power-groove. One of the hottest pickups you can pick.
1. EMG JH
On top of our list, we have a legendary set of guitar pickups for metal, coming from James Hetfield’s signature line of EMG pickups, the EMG JH. These pickups will bring the perfect tones that only Hetfield can achieve, including rich response, tightness and amazing clarity, without forgetting the powerful drive.
Hetfield has always preferred to use a combination of an EMG 81 at the bridge and an EMG 60 at the neck, and about 10 years ago EMG has released these signature line pickups in honor of him, that first of all look beautiful! On top of that they perfectly capture the clarity and punch of a passive pickup, but while still keeping the active tones there, and this, kids, is what legends are made of.
While testing these pickups I noticed the amazingly powerful and punchy tones from the 81 pickup, but with hints of overtones, resulting in a rich texture that add another dimension to your guitar playing, The neck still sounds smoother than anything and it is perfect for the lead, delivering a hint of Les Paul to the mix, just perfect for metal tones.
What is Metal Sound and Tone?
Let’s start this article with some basics that will help us understand more about what we are talking about today. First, off metal music is one of the major subspecies of the hard-rock genre with a little less syncopation and bluesy sounds, but what it lacks on those makes up for in aggression and brute force. Metal and its sub-genres are generally characterized with dense drum-and-bass sound and spirited vocals, and on top of that in the stringed instruments it requires heavy and loud distortion and energetic rhythm, so keep this in mind. Moving on I should say that the electric guitar and powerful amplification have been the most important element in metal and its subgenres. The guitar should be able to pump out loud volumes and hefty distortion, to produce as much punch and grind that is characteristic of this genre. On top of that guitar solos have also been a very important element of metal music, you will spot one in almost any song, this is where the guitarist showcases his virtuosity and immense skill.
What Type of Pickup is Better for Metal?
There are two major types of pickups for guitars, single-coil pickups, and dual coil or humbucker pickups. Single-coil pickups have come first and have become very popular with pop, surf, and blues guitarists, thanks to their immense bite and attack, which makes them extremely characteristic, and combined with or driving small tube amps they have been a synonym for gritty tones. On the other hand, dual-coil or humbucker pickups have come later and they have higher output in general and tend to be more popular with jazzists, hard rock, and metal musicians. Their mid-range is generally broader and the distortion effects are larger and heavier, just what we were looking for.
While you can find new single-coil pickups that deliver solid output, newer humbucker deliver high-energy and sonically intense that is perfect for genres like metal and thrash metal. So we know the weapon of our choice and I can clearly state that almost all metal guitars require humbucking pickups which gives the immense power and noise-canceling abilities that are needed when the gain and loudness increase. It is also important for the pickup to not get muddy when distortion is heavy and things get low, the deep metal rhythm can get lost pretty easily in noise, so low-end power is necessary. However, there should also be space for melody which is required for pentatonic scaling, solos, and warmth.
Active or Passive Humbuckers?
Before moving to our top picks for metal pickups I should mention that you face one more choice before moving on, active or passive pickups. Let’s state the pros and cons of both to see which one is better for you because this will depend on your style mostly.
These pickups have low natural output and eliminate hum and background effectively before the preamp is activated. When the preamp is engaged though, these pickups have the highest output of the most pickups and they can get pretty hot without losing detail and clarity, which is why metal guitarists prefer these. The disadvantage of these pickups, however, is its low dynamic range and colder tone, in general at least.
On the other side of the fence, these pickups have a little lower output compared to active pickups at least, but the dynamic range is unrivaled, which is perfect for lead guitarists who want to showcase creativity. They also pump out warmer tones with hints of naturality to them compared to active pickups. The negatives of these are that they are affected by background noise more, and deliver more feedback when the volume is high.
Still, regardless of which one you choose, there will be different brands of pickups active and passive that are modified to deliver their own unique tonal qualities, and the best way to get to know better and find your sound is to experiment.
Replacing your Pickups
Upgrading or swapping guitar pickups sounds like a nightmare I know. However, it is not a thing to be dreaded. It is a budget-friendly way to upgrade the sounds of your guitar, in which way you get the most bang for your buck. You can check out tutorials to help you out in your journey and I think that you will get the hang of it in no time, and if your skills advance you can even fit humbuckers into single-coil cutouts with a little modding.
If you have read this article carefully you should have a perfect idea about your next pickup. Again, before buying a pickup, whether it is to replace your stock one or you just want to experiment, take a look at how they sound in your local guitar shop and whether or not it is the sound you are looking for. If that is not possible check YouTube videos and see if it suits your style, and while you are at it, you can check tutorial videos on installation and you will see that you can even replace them yourself. Good luck on your search, keep on keeping on my fellow metalhead!