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 of mine and millions of other guitarists around the world.
Table of Contents
- What Makes A Guitar Pickup “Metal”?
- EMG 81 Active Pickup
- EMG JH James Hetfield Signature Active Pickups
- EMG SA Single-Coil Active Pickups
- 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
- Fishman Fluence Modern Active Pickups
- Summary & Conclusion
What Makes A Guitar Pickup “Metal”?
Compared to other pickups, ones that are designed for metal guitarists typically have a much higher output. 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-coil ones. However, for those with single-coil pickups in their current guitar, stacked or single-coil-sized humbuckers are what you want to go with to reduce the hum and get a beefier tone.
Of course, you can still get a great metal tone with ordinary single-coil pickups, but humbuckers are probably the more optimal choice for the majority of people, 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 and can sound very warm. 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 vs. passive pickups. While there is a variation in tone, both are great options, and the most significant 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. In addition, 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 this will be one of your first guitar upgrades for many of you. However, within each bridge model, I will select a neck one that complements it well if 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 with much 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 are proven to work well and are a classic.
Although there are 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 due to the compression of dynamics that occurs from the boosted output. However, 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 of 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.
- Utilizes powerful ceramic magnets and close aperture coils
- The tone was designed with detailed intensity, incredible amounts of high end cut, and fluid sustain
- In the bridge position of your guitar, it will make your leads slice right through even the densest mix
- When used in both neck and bridge positions the sound can only be described as blistering
- Other recommended pairings include the classic 81/85 setup and the versatile 81/60 combo
Speaking of famous guitarists who use EMG, out of all the signature pickups that they provide, I’d probably rate the “Het Set” the highest.
In my opinion, these James Hetfield signature pickups touch on some things people have criticized about the EMG 81 and the other pickups that are paired up with it, like the 85 or the 60.
While these pickups are clearly amongst the best metal pickups of all time, a lot of people don’t like the more compressed tone that active pickups give, and James and EMG created something to help rectify some of those concerns.
The EMG JH pickups are still active, but they have more passive qualities to the sound, namely that they’re more dynamic and articulate, but you still have that powerful and punchy tightness and crystal-clear clarity that those older EMGs are known for.
I do have to say that these do look a lot cooler than the pickups that use the regular EMG pickup cover. You can get these pickups with different caps on them, but I don’t think there’s anything more metal-looking than brushed chrome, so that one is my personal favorite.
At the end of the day, while they’re similar pickups, they’re ultimately different, and the video below can give you a better idea of how they compare to one another.
Although humbuckers are generally preferred for metal, actual single-coil pickups can be great for the genre too!
The EMG SA pickup is a single coil pickup (not a stacked or single-coil-sized humbucker) that’s also active. It’s a fantastic choice for those who prefer that authentic single-coil tone but desire something that gives them a higher output, which is one of the main benefits of using active guitar pickups.
Therefore, I think the EMG SA is a great candidate for Strat lovers who want to preserve their instrument’s tonal identity with some extra perks. In addition to providing higher output, the EMG SA pickups are much quieter than your ordinary single-coil pickups.
However, the EMG SA isn’t only for Stratocasters! It’s also one that can be perfect for HSH and HSS guitars.
Say you have one of these guitars. Well, you could simply put an EMG 81 in the bridge, and the SA would complement that humbucker just right.
Remember that although these are true single-coil pickups, they are also EMG active pickups, so they are still tight, articulate, and punchy, which are qualities you want to look for in a good metal pickup.
- An active single coil pickup loaded with an Alnico V bar magnet
- Has an unmistakable Strat sound: bright, airy, with a rich bottom end
- Eliminates noise with internal shielding and a low impedance preamp, without sacrificing a true single coil tone
- The Alnico V bar magnet allows for the output to remain balanced for a beautifully articulate tone
- The creamy mid-range warmth creates sublime blues tones that are clear, strong and expressive
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 profile similar to the EMG 81, except it is a passive one with 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 it 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, which 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. Some 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.
- Powerful and Versatile – Time-tested hot-rodded bridge humbucker for any style – from blues to thrash; delivers full lows, crisp highs, and singing upper-midrange that adds crunch to heavy chords.
- Dynamic Sustain – Hot output pushes your amp for added sustain and harmonics. Provides a perfect complement for single notes, solos, and heavy chords alike.
- Easy Tone Customization – Use 500k volume pot for high-end cut or 250k pot for softer tones and smoother styles. The JB Model pairs well with Jazz or ’59 neck pickups, or you can even use a JB pickup in the neck position for an extra-fat solo tone.
- Legendary Humbucker – The JB Model is the ultimate hot-rodded humbucker, with a reputation backed for nearly five decades, making this pickup a true modern classic.
- Made in the USA – Hand built in our factory in Santa Barbara, CA, this humbucker pickup uses an alnico 5 bar magnet, nickel silver bottom plate, 4-conductor lead wire for multiple wiring options, and is vacuum wax potted for squeal-free performance.
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 active ones 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 can use a moderate output level that can be toggled if you need to dial it back a bit.
I thought this was a pretty cool feature, and it 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.
- Active Humbucking Pickup f Electric Guitar – Bridge
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. In addition to the EMG 81, the next one I’d like to share is the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury.
Also, perhaps you have an HSS or an HSH configuration on your guitar, and you want to replace the neck and middle ones too. No matter which slots you’re looking to upgrade, the Seymour Duncan YJM Fury is my pick for the best passive 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 excellent pickups 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, not just black, cream, or zebra, which adds a little 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 need 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 5.5, the Mids are 6.5, and the 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, 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 it’s a solid pickup for the deepest tones. However, 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 about 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 with 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-coil pickups 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 Duncan YJM and the EMG SA, 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 many 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.
Although they’ve been around since the 1980s, Fishman is a guitar pickup brand that has grown significantly in popularity in the last ten years or so, and I believe that has a lot to do with the success of their Fluence pickups.
Metal has evolved a lot over the years, and naturally, the equipment used to produce it has too, and that includes guitar pickups. Fishman Fluence pickups are innovative in that they are active pickups but give you the option to retain the qualities in passive pickups that people love with the flip of a switch.
As a result, you can have a high-output, yet still dynamic and expressive pickup, which makes it perfect for metal. The multi-voicing capabilities also allow you to toggle between passive and active, which is excellent for different sections of your music.
As you’ve probably guessed, the Fishman Fluence Modern pickups are suitable for modern metal styles, like some of the new types of progressive metal, including djent. Because of this, it also makes a fantastic pickup for 7-string guitarists.
This is a nice change of pace since a lot of pickups today, including the ones in this guide, tend to be catered to more traditional styles of metal. However, if you like what Fishman can over but are not necessarily partial to modern metal, the Fishman Fluence Classics may be right up your alley.
Whether you go with the Fishman Fluence Modern or Classic, they are tight, powerful, and versatile pickups that can make an excellent upgrade for your guitar. I highly recommend getting the humbucker set since they’re designed to complement each other.
- Multi-voice: Set and forget, or wire-up to toggle between two musically complimentary voices
- Drop right in: Replaces standard humbucking pickups
- Rechargeable on your guitar: optional lithium-ion battery pack (sold separately) offers weeks, not hours, of playing time (Standard 9V battery can also be used)
- Modern Humbucker Alnico
Summary & Conclusion
There are many pickups out there that are awesome for metal guitarists, but I understand that it can be tedious to check every single one of them, so in this guide, I offered some selections that I consider the best for this genre.
Here are some of my all-time favorites!
Any of these pickups I’ve talked about are fantastic for metal, but keep in mind that there are differences between them, like active vs. passive or alnico vs. ceramic. Some are more trebly or bassy than others too. In addition to the lone bridge ones, I’ve provided some suitable pickups for the neck position that complement each of these.
Hopefully, I will help you make an informed decision based on your personal needs with this guide. The best electric guitar pickup for metal depends on your preferences, and always remember that you don’t need to settle on one kind for the rest of your life, just like guitar picks. 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, these are all top-rated brands and models that you can’t go wrong with.
If you liked this article and you happen to have a 7-string guitar that could use some pickup upgrades, be sure to check out my guide to the best 7-string guitar pickups for metal. It’s very similar to this in one in that it gives you options for both the bridge and neck pickups.