Often overlooked by novices, the humble pickup has the most influence on your sound. After all – it’s the piece of equipment that actually picks up the noise created by your strings!
It’s in your best interest to have quality pickups. It doesn’t matter how much you spent on your guitar, strings, amp, or pedals if your guitar’s “microphone” is bad.
Like an amp, the make and model of your pickups have a big impact on the resulting sound. Different pickups have different sensitivities and ranges.
With that in mind, we’ve curated some of the best pickups for guitarists looking to shred some classic metal riffs.
Table of Contents
EMG 81 and 85 Active Humbucker
The EMG 8X series of pickups are power players, even amongst other metal pickups. They’ve been used by genre-defining artists like Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield to enable some of the nastiest riffs in thrash metal.
This pickup is defined by the sustainable and intensive high notes while maintaining an impressive lower register. The simple, sleek aesthetic of the pickup is certain to fit with any guitar.
The EMG 81 is a neck pickup, and the EMG 85 is designed to be used adjacent to the bridge. Have a listen in the video below.
Bare Knuckle Nailbomb Active Humbucker
Bare Knuckle’s Nailbomb screams for attention, both visually and sonically. The militaristic, gritty exterior of the pickup mirrors its sound: commanding, harsh, aggressive. Assuming, that is, you’re using it with overdrive.
On a clean channel it is rather pleasant; often described as woody and warm. The manufacturers also allow for a bit of customization.
The default magnet is the industry standard Alnico V, however, you can opt for a ceramic magnet if you want a tighter bass and cleaner high end. Nailbomb also allows a purchaser to choose between open coil and covered custom finishes.
Gibson 500T Ceramic Humbucker
Gibson implies a quality that can’t be beat, and the 500T lives up to that promise.
In terms of range, this pickup is among the best. It can scream up to ear-shattering volumes and pitches or purr like a tiger getting belly rubs. The most incredible part is that it can do all this without noticeable feedback.
This pickup features open coils that are protected with 4-conductor shielded wiring, ensuring that it can stand up to most any treatment – a necessity for traveling and gigging guitarists.
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Humbucker
You haven’t heard overdrive until you’ve heard it come through the DiMarzio Super Distortion.
DiMarzio claims its pickup is responsible for “a sound revolution” in the 70s and 80s – and they’re not wrong. Names such as Paul Gilbert (of Racer X) and Ace Frehley (of KISS) were early adopters who pushed this humbucker to the limits.
It’s the perfect pickups for any lead guitar. The Super Distortion enables optimal shredding with gravely bass and shrieking treble, and a full-sounding mid to boot. For the style-minded amongst us, it comes in a variety of colors and patterns (one of which will surely match your guitar strap).
To unlock the full potential of this device, you simply must use it in tandem with a tube amp.
Seymour Duncan SH-13 Dimebucker
If the name Dimebag Darrell doesn’t ring a bell, you have no business researching metal pickups. As one of the greatest metal guitarists in history, it’s no surprise that a prestigious company like Seymour offered to partner to create the ultimate metal humbucker.
It is an ever-popular choice for not only fans of Dimebag, but also many rock and roll guitarists. The pickup is well-rounded in every respect: it has a huge range, minimal feedback, unmatched volume, and (of course) an endorsement from a legend.
Interestingly, one of the places it shines is for use by rhythm guitar. It has the sensitivity and durability to capture the minute details of your thrash, so that no strum goes unappreciated.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many players report that harmonics have never sounded any better than when played through this pickup.
Seymour Duncan SH8 Invader Humbucker
Invader is an apt name for the Seymour Duncan SH8. It conjures images of a burly barbarianbrute-forcing their way onto stage wielding an ax.
That’s more or less what this pickup does, only it utilizes the other kind of ax.
Burly is the only way to describe the Seymour Duncan SH8. Visually, it’s fat, big, bulky. It has huge metal pole pieces sticking out of the ceramic magnets. Sonically, it’s chunky, thick, warm.
It doesn’t have the best upper-register – that’s true. It is definitely in the running for the most crushing bass, though, and that’s pretty hot. The output from this humbucker is fire and the max volume outstrips almost every competitor.
Lace Drop ‘N Gain Humbucker
While Lace has traditionally been a brand known for great rock and roll and blues pickups, the Lace Drop ‘N Gain is something else entirely.
This is a pickup meant for a very specific type of metal – doom metal. It’s intended for distortion so thick you could stand on it. The Drop ‘N Gain features mismatched internal coils to get that signature sound while also allowing for a huge output that remains under control. Normally, mismatched coils would increase the amount of feedback you receive, but Lace has neatly sidestepped that.
Interestingly, it was engineered specifically for alternative tunings like drop D. Since these tunings are prominent in metal, especially thrash and doom, this humbucker is a must have for the practitioners among us.
Bill Lawrence L500XL
Before legend Dimebag Darrel had a pickup designed just for him, the Bill Lawrence L500XL was his go-to.
This pickup stands out because it has an insane treble. It’s clear and concise, yet jagged at the same time. The sensitivity of the pickup is also extreme; lightning fast riffs that dance up and down the fret board are no match for it.
The Bill Lawrence L500XL is clean, expressive, and hot. It’s got a unique voice, too. Pick up this pickup (sorry) if you want to sound more like Pantera.
Seymour Duncan AHB-3 Mick Thomson Blackouts
Seymour Duncan already had a Blackouts line of pickups before they partnered with Mick Thomson to make this humbucker. Much like the original, the Mick Thomson Blackouts are a ceramic humbucker with tight low ends designed to endure the (metal) apocalypse.
Like their namesake, Mick Thomson Blackouts excel at the classic chugging and palm-muting riffs that lend so much body to a song. The pickup generates a percussive quality with the powerful, booming bass.
Crank up the gain on this bad boy because it can take anything you throw at it and spit out a fiery audio.
DiMarzio X2N Humbucker
The X2N is DiMarzio’s highest-gain pickup. It can create some diabolical, terrifying sounds at an ear-splitting volume that has to be heard to be believed.
It doesn’t sacrifice any tonal quality to reach those heights, though. When installed near the bridge of your guitar, the bass can cause earthquakes and the treble is known for splitting heaven asunder.
The X2N is great because it amplifies the character of your guitar, rather than imposing its own. Warm guitars will stay warm, crisp ones will still feel sharp.
It supports a couple of modes for added variety – Humbucker, Single Coil, and Series Parallel.
Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 Pearly Gates Pickup
Despite being known as a classic jazz pickup, the Pearly Gates have a lot to offer the intrepid metalhead.
If you intend to play in the higher registers, you could do a lot worse. The treble on this pickup is icy. The bass is nothing to sneeze at either. It’s warm, round, and full.
One of the greatest strengths of this pickup is its sustain. It has the sensitivity to pick up intricacies and divine harmonics without any feedback. You can be sure it won’t miss an iota of your slick riffing.
The contrast between the two-tone halves of the pick up ain’t too hard on the eyes, either.
Bare Knuckle Warpig Humbucker
Bare Knuckle describes the origin of the Warpig as an attempt to distill rage into a pickup. It was destined to be the ultimate extreme metal pickup.
However, it turns out that it’s just too versatile to be restricted to metal players. It’s found a home among jazz and fusion musicians too.
The reason for that is the twin-screw coil that allows for heightened control over the upper register, even in the presence of massive gain. It goes without saying that the mid and bottom ranges are as smooth or rough as you could want.
Like all Bare Knuckle products, they come in both Alnico V and ceramic magnet options so you can tailor the sound to your taste.
Now that you’ve been inspired by these vivid descriptions of Armageddon-inducing pickups, try one out for yourself. It’s incredible to watch new life being breathed into your instrument with a simple pickup switch.
Single Coil vs Humbucker Pickups
Most pickups fall into one of two broad categories – single coil or dual coil (more commonly called humbuckers).
Single coil pickups have only one input, and thus a clearer, crisper tone. They’re often described as “cold” or having “bite”. They tend to pick up more background noise.
Most metal players prefer humbuckers. They’ve got a fuzzier, warmer tone that is quick to feel crunchy and grainy. The dual coil construction allows for higher highs and lower lows, more contrast, more saturation, and often increased volume.
Active vs Passive Pickups
Another distinction to make is whether the pickup is passive or active.
Solid-bodied electric guitars were pioneered with the technology of passive pickups. They function as simple transducer – a permanent magnet made of metal or ceramic wrapped with coils of thing wire. More wire coils usually translate to better performance in the tonal qualities guitarists care about.
Active pickups are fundamentally the same but reach peak performance by incorporating a powered preamp instead of more coils. The advantage here is that it cuts down on interference and background noise.