Before we get into my favorites in various categories, I wanted to lay out a few things. Finding the right pickups for your needs and budget can be difficult so you can look to us for the same honesty and experience with pickups that you do for software.
Pickups are incredibly important but choosing pickups can be kind of a pain due to the world of options. We won’t be providing a full library of pickup reviews but we do have a lot of experience to share so I’ll share some of my favorite pickups with a small pinch of info on each one. The links mostly go to stuff to read but there are many YouTube videos for every link if you search them up. Everyone has the YouTubers and bloggers that work for them so if you prefer to watch than read, it’s an easy search.
Guitar pickups whether active or passive can be split into three main types; Humbuckers, single coils and P90s. These types of pickups look and sound very different, some are also a necessity for certain styles / genres. To check out the differences between each style of pickup, check out this blog post from Anderton’s Music. You will also want to research what the various numbers you’ll see in the specs of most pickups you look up really mean.
You will often see the choice between different types of ceramic and alnico magnets inside the pickups. This has a large impact on the tone and “The Wired Guitarist” has a solid explanation on the differences between the two most used types of magnets in guitar / bass pickups. As far as what I prefer, for metal I prefer ceramic and anything else, I prefer alnico most of the time.
If you are new to pickups, you are also probably thinking “what’s the difference between passive and active pickups?” Short version: different technology and they require a 9V battery. Long and comprehensive version from one of the industry leaders, Seymour Duncan Pickups HERE. You can find our quick guide to actives below. “What are all these numbers? Do I want high or low output?” Yep, the numbers can be a little bit of a struggle. To explain them best, I will use two very hand links. I know it can seem boring but when you know the technology, how it works and what everything means, it becomes easier to find the right pickup for every use.
I have tried hundreds of different pickups over the years and I compiled a list of some of my personal favorites separated by types of pickups. There are separate quick guides for bass and active pickups that you can find in the quick guide section as well as a feature on low-cost and used pickup solutions for tighter budgets. All of these pickups are available used on Reverb.com.
Pickups are a huge factor in your tone and many guitars under $500 are equipped with poorly made stock pickups that are constructed with lower quality but “passable” materials in some cases. Some import built lines have quality but generally for the best tone and best signal for recording, having better quality pickups can help out immensely.
“Well I have a custom guitar with pickups made by the builder so they’re better than any replacement”.
In some cases, maybe but it depends on who the builder is. I know a guy that bought a $5000 custom with in-house handwound pickups. The guitar looked great and played great but the pickups turned out to be microphonic and poorly made.
If your custom builder is offering their own in-house pickups, do your research on those pickups, look for the good and the bad. Brands like Schecter, Ormsby, Kiesel, Gibson, Fender, Dean and many others do feature high quality in-house-made pickups but in some cases “In-house” brands can be inconsistent depending on a list of variables. Join the custom builder user groups, search for pickup content and ask about the pickups. Google the instrument reviews and look for pickup mentions.
“I paid $1000 for my guitar, the pickups have to be awesome”.
It actually really fluctuates. You might see a guitar priced at $500 brand new with a set of EMGs in it so you might think any guitar at $1000 or so would have to have top quality pickups but you’d be mistaken. Several companies offer nice pickups stock in their modestly priced instruments. Ibanez often feature Dimarzio, Jackson will do more Seymour Duncan, LTD has a lot of products with EMGs but you have to make sure you make sure you don’t mistake “designed by” as “made by” because it’s often very different.
These days, it’s becoming more and more common to see top brands having import versions made with their designs for the purpose of being stock pickups in the $300-1000 range guitars. These pickups are hit and miss but there are some real gems like the EMG-HZ series, Lundgren designed, some of the Duncan Designed and a few others. These aren’t great pickups but on a tight budget, they can be worked with. Even the best designs can fail with poor quality control and consistency of the materials being used in their import factory.
Pickup height is also something I really want to discuss because it’s imperative that you play with different heights. Start quite low and raise it up every couple of minutes to hear the differences as the pickup gets closer to the strings. The pickup will get more aggressive and brighter at times but at others, if they are too close to the strings, they are going to over-distort and get muddy. Finding the right height is key when trying out new pickups.
Don’t get caught up in signature pickups and the artists attached to them. Just because a pickup set has the name of a player you don’t like on it, doesn’t mean the pickup sucks. On the other side of the coin, just because a popular player has lent their name to a product and the hype surrounding it, doesn’t mean it’s a great product as we all know. I usually give a pickup a year after release to read the real opinions. It also gives the used market a chance to shape up a little.
There are very many expensive ways to get great tone but I also think there’s a good crowd of people out there that think good sounding pickups are all expensive. There are a few ways to get great sounding pickups on modest to tiny budgets but you have know where to look and how to shop. We will be helping with that as well! Check our articles on low-cost new pickups or buying used pickups.
To get the best out of your gear whether hardware or software, you need a clean signal because a bad signal doesn’t give your amps, pedals, cabs etc what they need to do what they do. Not only that but the bad signal can be a pain during mixing because as the weak / bad signal comes into your interface, heads through your system and goes through your gear. As it goes through, the bad parts of the signal can be accented and the weak points of the signal don’t have a lot of depth.
Poor pickup selection can also be a cause for bad tone. Using a single coil bridge pickup with a high gain amp for death metal won’t get you where you need to go. If you are really trying to get a specific tone or trying to get the tone of a famous guitarist / album, it may require a specific pickup. There are pickups meant to do a lot of things well and then there are more specific pickups that can do 2-3 things but can be required to get certain sounds.
If you are struggling, please email us and we will help you with your selection. Simply use the contact form and we will get back to you soon, please try to be as specific and detailed as possible to save time.