Pickups & tone

Ouick Guide – Passive Pickups

NOTE: I am not saying these are the best pickups, I am saying that these are a few that ended a lot of long searches for me. Also note that this list will be updated from time to time.

Please read our intro to the pickup quick guides if you want some of the basics before jumping in.

HUMBUCKERS

Bareknuckle Cold Sweat Set – I haven’t tried many BKP sets as they have never been in my price range brand new and they hold a lot of value on the used market as well. These are very high quality pickups and if they are in your price range, I have heard truly great things about the Aftermath, Black Hawk, Miracle Man, Ragnarok and Warpig but my only hands on experience is with the Cold Sweat set.

I was extremely impressed by the tones I was able to get from this set. The output isn’t crazy high but it’s high enough to enable high gain tones without an issue. I really prefer a middle-output bridge with a lower output neck and this set is about as perfect as it gets in that regard.

For a slightly lower cost way to experience all the BKP quality, try their stripped-down Bootcamp line. I have not tried it though the reliable side of reviews seems to indicate that they are worth the money. I hope to be able to add more BKP content to this in time.

Dimarzio Dactivator bridge – Designed as a passive alternate to the active sound, the dactivator is one of my absolute favorite pickups for hi-gain and lower tunings. Ultra tight, quiet, great sustain and punch make it great for anything heavy. I prefer these pickups in lower tunings but it’s never seemed to matter what guitar they were in, they always improve tone. While I no longer use anything but 6-string guitars, I have owned both 7 and 8-string guitars with D’activators and they absolutely rule the extended range passive pickup category for me.

This set has a seriously terrific value brand new but they can also be found fairly often used for really good prices. The D’activators are awesome for anything mid-gain and up but they are most at home at higher gains. The neck pickup isn’t bad at all for cleans which wasn’t something I was expecting but I didn’t really like it for lead work.

Dimarzio Evolution

Dimarzio Evolution – This is a rare pickup set where I enjoy both pickups a great deal. The Evolution has been kicking ass and cashing checks for Steve Vai a long time and since coming out in the early to mid 90s, it has been used by some very well known players. It’s voiced in such a way that really enhances almost any high gain tone. I feel this is a pickup that isn’t discussed nearly as much as it should be in high gain and extended range guitar circles. The bridge is sonic bliss and the neck pickup while unshockingly good at ripping sweet shred can also clean up nicely. I like the Evolution neck with the Dactivator bridge but the set is just so perfect for so many things.

Dimarzio Chopper (or Chopper T) This one is a single coil sized humbucker and it’s kind of the Richie Kotzen signature pickup. It’s a humbucker that’s been condensed size wise to fit in a space designed for a single coil. This is handy so you don’t have to get a new pickguard or chisel/route any wood out to fit a humbucker. Many of these exist but the Chopper by Dimarzio is my favorite of the sub-category. It can do a ton but crystal clean to mid gain crunch is where IU enjoy it most. Higher gain stuff is possible but when there’s more gain, I like it better for lead than rhythm. I currently have it wired in a unique split-coil way you can see HERE, which allows for HUM / Single / P90-ish options.

It doesn’t really get that over-tight feel for real high gain stuff though that isn’t what it’s designed for. I love the pickup for rock and leads/solos. It pairs nicely with a number of Tele and non-Tele neck pickups.

Dimarzio PAF Pro – I love a good low to middle output PAF pickup in the bridge or neck. They generally have no restrictions as far as what they can do and this version is no different. I have used the PAF pro for everything from blues and punk to death metal with a smile. For heavier stuff, I would recommend adding a boost in front of the amp. The clarity is terrific and the response is always there. There are hot-rodded, higher output versions of the PAF out there but I really do prefer it in the middle output range.

Most of my experience with the pup has had it in the neck position. I have had it in my #1 guitar for about 10 years or so now and it never fails for even a second. The cleans are crisp, the lead sounds have amazing attack and sustain. I have recently installed a PAF Pro in the bridge position of a lower tuned guitar to see how it fares. Stay tuned!

Gibson Classic ’57

Gibson Classic ’57 – There’s simply no neck or bridge pickup in existence that I would recommend more for stoner / doom genres. Don’t get me wrong, the classic 57 is incredibly versatile and I use it for different applications but when fuzz is involved, this pickup just has this body and depth that’s second to none for creating thick, gross, filthy doom tones. Low tunings are no issue but I wouldn’t recommend it for anything that requires that modern ultra-tightness.

I have used the one I own in the neck and bridge positions with great results but I have yet to try a pair so I will look to do so in the coming months. Rhythm or lead, it doesn’t matter, this pickup makes it happen.

Railhammer Anvil bridge – I bought this pickup used randomly and it lived in one of my B tuning guitars for a good while. The clarity and punch are incredible for any heavier genre at mid to high gain but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for anything lighter. The Anvil has some really nice tone characteristics that when enhanced, only get better. It’s always easy to work with in a mix, I never have to do anything too crazy to get the Anvil to be heard.

Seymour Duncan ’59 – In the neck position, this pickup is one of the best you will find for solos and leads. The bridge version of the ’59 has a lot less versatility but it’s pure magic for clean and low to mid gain sounds. The ’59 has been the neck pickup of choice for many legends and bedroom guitarists for decades for it’s supremely smooth sustain, wonderful response and world of warmth. It’s often paired with the Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge but I have a set of ’59s together.

Seymour Duncan Invader bridge – It looks beastly and it does heavy genres well but it can also do mid and low gain stuff with ease. I like it for any tuning but I do feel it does it’s best work in the E and D tunings. Tom Delonge crunch to Karl Sanders crush and everything in between is no problem and it plays well with pretty well any amp. It boosts phenomenally well and generally provides a very pleasing signal to work with which comes in huge for amp sim usage. It has a neck version but I have never liked it too much however the bridge pickup will always have a home in my guitars because it’s versatility never fails me.

Seymour Duncan JB

Seymour Duncan JB bridge – This one has one of the most popular pickups in metal and rock for decades. I see the JB as THE pickup for thrash metal in E or D tunings. It just cannot be beaten in that area for my needs and it’s been used by pretty much every thrash heavyweight at one point or another. In really low tunings, I find it can lose some of it’s tightness and effectiveness but that’s also not always a bad thing. The JB has great clarity at any amount of gain for lead or rhythm work. It’s often paired with the Seymour Duncan Jazz or ’59 in the neck. Watch your pickup height on this one, the closer the pickup gets to the strings, the more it’s mid-voicing comes out.

Seymour Duncan Pegasus bridgePEGASUS! PEGASUS! (if you know what that’s from, email us for a solid high five). Are modern mid focused tones your goal? This is your stop and possibly the end of your search! It kinda sounds like a ceramic but it’s a uniquely mid-voiced Alnico. It’s not crazy high output so the voicing has loads of clarity. I am in love with this pickup for adding cut to low tunings and extended range guitars due to it’s ultra-tight low end but in E, it can be almost too cutting at times. I’d pretty much only recommend it for mid to high gain and if you use a boost pedal or a mid-voiced amp, you’ll want to adjust. It often comes in a set with the Sentient neck pickup.

Seymour Duncan Sentient neck – A very nice pickup for lead work. I can’t say enough great things about this pickup in the neck position. Smooth, clear, warm and loads of quality tones make the Sentient a good addition to any guitar. Even though it’s often paired with the Pegasus and Nazgul, the Sentient can be paired with almost anything and used for most neck position applications. I love this pickup for leads and solos because the pick response and attack are just so damn playing at all times. The tuning didn’t matter much either way, it’s good for all.

Suhr Doug Aldrich set – Suhr has a number of nice sets in their pickup line but the Doug Alrich set is by far my favorite. From classic rock to hi-gain, drop tuned death metal, it’s all in there. I think these get overlooked like they are some sort of hair metal pickup but they are far from being limited to cock rock. Remember, don’t always judge a product by who’s name is on it, take the 5150 for example.. does it only do EVH tones? These pickups have tons of clarity and articulation even at high gain. They crush for rhythm and lead but lead work is where they go from awesome to “holy shit”. Pickup height is key here once as always, it takes some experimentation to find “the zone”.

SINGLE COILS:

Fender FAT 50

Fender FAT 50 set – Not all that pricey and pretty widely available used, this Fender custom shop set is a hot-rodded take on a 50s style strat pickup. When I bought a set used initially I just wasn’t sold on newer Fender pickups but these changed my mind. These pickups can pull off a number of classic strat tones with pickup selection and pickup height. For blues, these solved my problems and ended my search. Crank up the gain and they still respond really nicely to vintage Marshall style drive. The “50s strat sound” has been chased by many and these pickups will help the chase.

Fender ’51 Nocaster set – This custom shop reissue of the classic Nocaster pickup set is pretty affordable considering the quality you are getting, especially used. I love my Telecasters, I love my twang and the ’51 Nocaster set delivers really nice traditional Telecaster tones on all levels. I went through a chase where I tried a lot of tele bridge pickups and this set ended that search for a good while. If you are looking for new tele pups, look for this set used and you’ll end up happy.

Lace Sensor Ultimate Triple – I had this set in a strat for some time and there wasn’t a whole lot that it couldn’t do in the strat realm. The bridge pickup to me is the big selling feature because typically, single coil bridge pickups + gain don’t really get me going. The bridge pickup in this set has loads of body and does higher gains just fine. The middle pickup can add a nice quack. I typically wire my middle pickups to an on/off mini switch and have the neck and bridge pickups on a regular three way switch. I’ve also added a volume for the middle pickup to use as a blend. If you are handy with wiring, giving it a shot. This set loves any challenge or wiring set up.

Nordstrand NVT A3

Nordstrand NVT A3 Vintage Tele set – Nordstrand might be more known for their bass pickups and believe me, they are something to behold but, they also have a very nice line of guitar pickups. In that line, you’ll find some of the best Telecaster pickups on the market today. The NVT A3 set is just wow at every turn.

When I first tried this set, my jaw was hanging immediately and I must have tried the set through 25 amp sims the first day out. Crystal clean and clear, perfect twang and everything that a tele lover could want in a tele set. With the volume knob and various amps, you can do a world of things with these. The neck pickup has become my pound for pound heavyweight champion when it comes to Tele neck pups. I can’t explain in words how happy the neck pickup makes me. It’s hotter and almost sounds like a strat neck pickup sometimes. It’s warm, crisp, full and it works for pretty well anything.

Rio Grande Muy Grande – Yep, another Tele pickup but this one is a bit different. It’s like taking the traditional Tele tone that we all know well and jam it full of steroids. Rio Grande have done a great job preserving the real Tele bridge qualities because so often when companies try to do the “Tele bridge on steroids” sound, the twang and snap are diminished. The Muy Grande sounds real good for lower tunings, I’ve used it for as low as C with no change in the response. It compresses nicely for that real good Brad Paisley Gulp’n’Twang but where it really surprised me was in the mid to high gain applications. It’s oddly articulate for a single coil at higher gains and overall it’s one of my favorite tele pickups all-time.

Seymour Duncan Twang Banger bridge – If you are a Tele guy like myself, you have likely wondered what a strat would sound like with Tele pickups. Sure, you could fill the route and reroute a strat as a tele but that’s quite the commitment. I tried the Twang Banger for a Fender bullet I have and it turns it into twang city. It can give any strat at least the illusion of a Nashville style Telecaster with the added middle pickup. You can get some seriously awesome chicken pickin’ twang with balls to spare, blend in the middle for serious quack-tastic tones and it also responds well to mid to even higher gains. I am a big fan of this pickup.

Seymour Quarter Pound Tele neck – I put the bridge pickup in the Quarter pound Tele set to plenty of use but I never really liked it. The neck pickup however is right up my alley. It’s hotter than most tele neck pickups which is great because I like a tele neck pup with a bit more body and blues available. It’s designed to pair with a slightly hotter bridge pickup and I have it paired with a Peter Florance TE59. It’s a beautiful combination that I have in my favorite Telecaster. This thing brings a really meaty neck tone to any telecaster and if you play with the pickup height, you can find just the right blend. It’s not my favorite Tele neck but it sounds good and it can usually be found cheap both new and used.

P90:

GFS Mean 90 – Guitar Fetish for me has been seriously hit and miss for quality but one thing I found there and a serious diamond in the rough is their GFS Mean 90 humbucker sized P90. I took a stab at it one night and I actually forgot I had ordered it until it showed up. I had very low expectations for a brand new $35 pickup but within two strums on a Marshall amp sim, I was sold. I have used it in both the bridge and neck positions with success in a number of genres. It can handle higher gains, fuzz, dirt and it also cleans up just fine as well. This is perfect for the player that wants to try P90 tones for a low price while just needing a standard humbucker route.

Kent Armstrong Stealth P90

Kent Armstrong Stealth P90 – I have no love for noisy pickups so to enjoy the P90 tone, I really need one of the many great noiseless P90 pickups out there. One of the best I tried was the Kent Armstrong Stealth Noiseless P90. Nice cut, great traditional P90 feel with a little of it’s own flavor happening as is normally the case with Kent Armstrong. It handles all tunings as well as any P90 really does. I have always felt that drop tunings tended to come across with a lot of body and depth but it gets a little loose in the low end. Either way, this is a solid option for those looking for a high quality P90. It can be gritty, clean or fuzzed right up.

Railhammer Humcutter line – My biggest complaint about many P90 pickups is that they can be noisy. The Railhammer Humcutter line provides a truly honest variety of P90 tones without the noise. I have only tried the Cleancut bridge and Nuevo 90 neck but I have read nothing but remarkable things about the whole line. There’s more than enough to satisfy the P90 tone purists however, the quieter cleaner signal can take some of the rawness out of the tone, if that’s what you are after. It can do clean to even high gain for stoner / doom purposes. I hope to put more time into demoing this line in the future.

Seymour Duncan P90 Stack set I had this set in a Gibson SG and it was purely perfect for my needs. This is another noiseless P90 option, which is what drew me to the set initially. The annoying buzz is a big part of why I had typically avoided P90s. When I would try and use it for stoner / doom tones, the second I would kick on my fuzz, the buzz would become a bulldozer of crap. The Fender Noiseless series is not for me at all but some noiseless options like the stacked set here are great. They sounded fat, clear and all the P90 character is right there for really any P90 purpose.

This list will be updated often so please do bookmark and check back for more options in the future. If we forgot a pickup you believe we should consider, please do let us know, let’s discuss!