With all of the different guitar pickup brands and models out there, it’s not incredibly challenging to find pickups for metal that will get the job done. The challenge lies with sorting between all of the various ones and deciding on one (or a set) that suits your needs perfectly. In this article, I will show you some of the best metal pickups that are a favorite to myself and millions of others.
Table of Contents
- What Makes A Guitar Pickup “Metal”?
- EMG 81 Active Pickup
- Seymour Duncan JB SH4 Passive Pickup
- Seymour Duncan Blackout AHB-1 Active Pickup
- Seymour Duncan YJM Fury STK-S10 Single-Coil Passive Pickup
- DiMarzio Super Distortion DP100 Passive Pickup
- DiMarzio X2N DP102 Passive Pickup
- Dimarzio Injector DP423 Single-Coil Passive Pickup
- Summary & Conclusion
- Related Posts:
What Makes A Guitar Pickup “Metal”?
Compared to other pickups, ones that are designed for metal guitarists typically have a much higher output. In order for one to be “hotter,” it must have more coil windings.
Additionally, the top-rated metal pickups tend to be produced as humbuckers rather than single-coils. You can still get a good metal tone with single-coil ones, but humbuckers are probably the more optimal choice, and that’s what I’ll mainly be covering in this guide.
Regarding magnets, some swear that ceramic ones are more powerful than alnico ones. On the flip side, alnico magnets have great dynamics. This is one area where it comes down to personal preference, but you’ll find amazing designs that use either of them.
Another thing that you’ll come across when trying to find the perfect guitar pickup for heavy metal is deciding between active and passive ones. While there is a variation in tone, both are great options, and the main distinction between them is that an active pickup requires a 9V battery to power up a preamp.
If you have no prior knowledge of guitar pickups and you want to learn more about the basics of them, I recommend reading my guide that will give you a more generalized explanation about how to choose pickups and the differences between them. It might make this article easier to follow along with.
Nonetheless, this one is dedicated to metal pickups specifically, and it will compare the best ones in this particular category. Lastly, this guide will suggest bridge pickups primarily because, for many of you, this will be one of your first guitar upgrades. However, within each bridge model, I will select a neck one that complements it well, in case you’re interested in changing both of them.
The EMG 81 is often considered the best guitar pickup for metal by a lot of folks. Even though this is subjective, it is an objective fact that it is one of the most popular ones you can get your hands on.
EMG 81s can be described as having a crushing tone that has a lot of sustain. It is also more on the treble-y side, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a beefy sound with it, as it is still pretty balanced.
The 85 is usually the neck pickup of choice to pair up with the 81. If you’re planning to swap more than one pickup, the 81 in the bridge and the 85 in the neck arrangement is proven to work well, and it is a classic.
Although there’s a lot of good things to say about EMGs, some people might dislike having the 9V battery that comes with active pickup territory, and others might think of them as “sterile” sounding and sound less-organic. I wouldn’t worry about the battery aspect of actives since you don’t need to change them that frequently and can probably get a couple thousand hours out of them.
With that said, The EMG 81 has been the go-to design for some big-name guitarists in metal like Zakk Wylde and Kirk Hammet, and they’re sometimes chosen as the stock pickup for higher-end guitars. It’s a beast of a guitar pickup, and it will be effortless to get a solid metal tone out of it.
Since I just talked about what is the undisputed king of active pickups, it’s only right to follow it up with one of the top passive ones.
For me, the Seymour Duncan JB is my favorite bridge pickup for metal. I’ve tried out many Seymour Duncan models in my guitars, and this one takes the cake. From an EQ perspective, this one has a similar profile as the EMG 81, except it is a passive one and has an alnico-5 magnet.
“Expressive,” dynamic,” and “musical” are words that I’d describe the JB, but it still has plenty of aggression which makes not only one of the best metal pickups but also a versatile one as well. This JB bridge pairs up really well with a Jazz in the neck position, and this is what I use in my main guitar.
Seymour Duncan has a lot of fantastic pickups to choose from, but you’ll definitely make a wise decision going with a JB. A couple of guitarists who have notably used this model are Scott Ian of Anthrax and Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, making it one of the best guitar pickups for thrash metal.
For some honorable mentions though, the Dimebucker is a lot more aggressive than the JB and was one of the first guitar pickups I’ve ever purchased, and I still hold it high in regard. The Duncan Invader is also a reliable alternative if you’d prefer a passive pickup with ceramic magnets and a more bassy and mid-heavy tone.
You may ask, “why should I choose Seymour Duncan active pickups if EMG dominates those?” While it’s true that EMG is the king of that market, Seymour Duncan is still one of the best manufacturers of pickups, and they do a great job with actives too.
The Seymour Duncan Blackouts, or AHB-1B, have a very similar tone profile as the 81s. The treble is high, but it has sufficient bass and mids. The original Blackouts do use ceramic magnets, but there are variations of it that use Alnico-5, in case you’re seeking that organic quality that Seymour Duncan is world famous for.
There are a couple of additional aspects about the Blackouts that I really liked as well. From what I’ve noticed, this pickup is pretty quiet and doesn’t have much hum. This is surprising since it is an extremely high-output design. The output is so high that you also have the option to use a moderate output level which can be toggled if you needed to dial it back a bit.
I thought this was a pretty cool feature and is definitely welcoming.
If you want something slightly different in your active pickups for metal, the Seymour Duncan should be right up your alley. As for neck pickups, having a second Blackout designed for that position will be ideal.
As mentioned before, there are some variants of the Blackout that you have the luxury of checking out. The Jeff Loomis signature one uses Alnico-5, as does the Blackouts Metal (AHB-2B). The AHB-2B has a lot more bass and mids than the original, so if this is something you’re into, it’s a viable alternative.
I know that I said that humbuckers are the most optimal pickups for metal, and most would agree with me, but I did not want to neglect Stratocasters and other guitars that only use single coils.
Perhaps you have an HSS or an HSH configuration on your guitar, and you want to replace the neck and/or middle ones too. Regardless of the situation, the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury is my pick for the best single coil pickup for metal.
The bridge version of this pickup (you can find them designed for neck, middle, and bridge, and they can come as a set) has a higher output than the other two positions, but compared to the other metal pickups in this list, they are not as hot.
Although these are weaker than humbuckers, it has been demonstrated time and time again that Stratocasters using single-coils exclusively can still have a lot of grit. Yngwie Malmsteen is one of the most highly-influential guitarists, and this is the configuration that he has used for years.
Prior to receiving the YJM Fury signature pickups, Yngwie used the DiMarzio HS-3 in his Stratocasters, and this can also be a slightly cheaper option for you. The HS-3 and YJM Fury are both excellent pickups that are made with alnico magnets and produce minimal hum.
While the HS-3 is a lot older, I think I just prefer the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury because it was created for the man himself, so if you have a Stratocaster with stock pickups, using these will put you one step closer to emulating Yngwie’s neoclassical metal tone.
The DiMarzio Super Distortion is a legendary guitar pickup, without a doubt, and there’s a lot that differentiates it from the earlier ones in this article.
For starters, this is a pickup that doesn’t exactly emphasize treble; rather, the bass and mids are at the forefront, Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean the highs are non-existent – in fact, your leads should sound very round with one of these, and they still cut through the mix just fine.
The Super Distortion is also a passive pickup that utilizes ceramic magnets instead of alnico, which is something we haven’t seen yet in this list. In my opinion, though, I think because this one sounds so dynamic and full of life, it can easily be mistaken for having alnico ones.
The Super Distortion pairs up really well with the Dimarzio PAF Pro. The PAF Pro is one the smoothest-sounding neck pickups I’ve had the pleasure of playing, and if you’re going to swap out neck and bridge in favor of DiMarzios, you’ll love this configuration.
Along with the Seymour Duncan JB, the DiMarzio Super Distortion is also one of the O.G. metal pickups, and it has seen considerable playtime on many records in the last few decades. It is one of the best guitar pickups for 80s metal, and Paul Gilbert, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Phil Collen are a few players who have made great use of this model.
Don’t be fooled though, while it’s notable for producing that classic metal sound, you’ll still be able to achieve a modern one with a Super Distortion. It’s also pretty cool that they can come in many colors, and not just black, cream, or zebra, which adds a little bit more customization to everything.
If the Super Distortion didn’t quite make the cut, the DiMarzio X2N might be what you are looking for.
The X2N is the hottest and one of the most aggressive pickups that DiMarzio makes, so if you needed something even more suitable for modern metal like death metal and djent, this is the better choice over the Super Distortion.
It’s also one of the most balanced ones regarding EQ. According to the DiMarzio website, the Bass is rated at a 5.5, Mids are 6.5, and Treble is 6.5. So overall, it’s pretty even, but it has less bass and a little more treble than the Super Distortion.
As for neck pickups, you can pair the X2N with a variety of options, but I think that a D-Activator is a fine choice because it has a high output to match the X2N. However, you can still pull back on the output a little and go for a medium one and opt for a PAF Pro, a PAF Joe, or an Air Norton instead.
DiMarzio also makes the X2N for 7-string guitars (along with some other models like the Crunch Lab and D-Activator), so you know that it’s a solid pickup for the deepest tones. If you have an 8-string, you may want to go with D-Activators or Ionizers in both positions.
Michael Romeo of Symphony X and Fast Eddie Clark of Motorhead are a couple of artists who have used the X2N in their guitars to contribute to their heavy sound.
If you’re curious to just how gnarly the DiMarzio X2N sounds, check out this demo!
While the YJM Fury is an amazing single-coil pickup, it’s not the only one out there that can help you achieve a great metal tone.
Recently, I’ve come across the Dimarzio Injector pickups which are actually Paul Gilbert’s signature line. These pickups have been out for several years now, but my mind is blown that they flew under my radar and I didn’t learn about them sooner – I am very impressed by these.
Paul is a very diverse player, but I believe these pickups were designed for his Racer-X material in mind. The tone is bright and snappy, but it’s balanced at the same time, at least for the bridge version.
The neck design for the Injector is very smooth and responsive. In fact, when comparing the EQ for the two, the neck pickup is actually more biased towards the treble, whereas the bridge is mostly even, but slightly geared towards the mids. If you get both, your metal tone will be very clear, and it seems that these pickups were made to reduce muddiness as much as possible.
Doing some more research, I found out that Paul uses the Dimarzio Area 67 pickup in the middle position. So, if your guitar has all single-coils and you want to swap everything out, there is a set that you can buy and save some money, as opposed to buying each one individually.
Overall, like the YJM, if you use a Strat or a configuration that uses single coils, such as HSS, these pickups can be a huge upgrade if you’re looking to replace your stock pickups and beef up your sound.
Another nice feature of a lot of Dimarzio single-coil pickups is that they are hum-canceling. Essentially, by going with one like the Injector, you’re getting the best of both worlds – you’ll have a clear, yet powerful, single-coil tone with the capabilities of a humbucker.
Summary & Conclusion
There a ton of various pickups out there that are awesome for metal guitarists, but I understand that it can be tedious to check every single one of them.
In this guide, I offered some selections that I consider the best for this genre. To compile them in one spot, here are the best guitar pickups for metal that I’ve covered:
- EMG 81
- Seymour Duncan SH4 JB
- Seymour Duncan AHB-1 Blackout
- Seymour Duncan STK-ST10 YJM Fury
- DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion
- DiMarzio DP102 X2N
- DiMarzio DP423 Injector
Any of these are bridge pickups are fantastic, but keep in mind, there are differences between them like active vs. passive or alnico vs. ceramic. Some are more trebly or bassy than others too. Additionally, I’ve provided some suitable pickups for the neck position that complement each of these.
Hopefully, I could help you make an informed decision based on your own personal needs. The best electric guitar pickup for metal depends on your preferences, and always remember that you don’t need to settle on one kind of the rest of your life. I’ve tried many good pickups that have gotten the job done, but I’ve always had my favorites.
Perhaps my experiences and this list of guitar pickups will remove a lot of the conjecture and save some time in selecting one or multiple models. Regardless of my opinions though, these are all still top-rated brands and models that you can’t go wrong with.