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 2×4 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?
|SD SH4 JB
|Neck & Bridge
|Neck & Bridge
|Neck & Bridge
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.
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 – Best Pickups for Metal Reviews
1. Seymour Duncan Sh4 Jb
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.
- Jason Hook – Five Finger Death Punch
- Dave Mustaine – Megadeth
- Jerry Cantrell – Alice in Chains
- Zacky Vengeance – Avenged Sevenfold
2. Seymour Duncan Ahb-2b
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.
- Chaq Mol – Dark Funeral
3. DiMarzio DP100
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.
- Al Di Meola
- Paul Gilbert
- Ethan Brosh
4. EMG 81-X
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.
- Archaon – 1349
- Piotr ‘Peter’ Wiwczarek – Vader
- Chris Dawson – Seasons After
- Jonny Santos – Silent Civilian
- Matt Bachand – Shadows Fall
5. EMG H4A
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.
- Charly Sahona – Venturia
- Justin Sane – Anti-Flag
6. GIBSON 500T
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.
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.