As guitar players, we’ve all come to the point where we want to switch out pickups. We might be hot rodding a guitar we love, modding some piece of junk we pulled out of a pawnshop, or just chasing that ever elusive perfect tone.
Unfortunately figuring out how to choose the best humbuckers is not an easy task for the inexperienced, and in all honesty it’s pretty overwhelming no matter how much you know about the subject. There are just so many options available that it’s hard to know if you’re really getting the best pickups for your budget and your rig. Thankfully, if you’ve ever found yourself unsure which pickups you should buy in order to improve the tone of your guitar you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you all the information that you need to make an informed purchase, as well as give you five great humbucker recommendations to aid you in your search.
- Bottom Line:For that classic Gibson PAF tone, look no further. The Burstbucker Pro has more bite and output than the vintage humbucker it’s modeled after, but can still reproduce a genuine vintage tone. This humbucker brings the tone that Les Pauls are famous for and will work well for blues tones to searing rock riffs.
- Bottom Line:If metal and other high gain genres are your thing, this is the pickup. You’ll need a 9V battery to power this active pickup, but if you can get past that, you’ll be rewarded with a tone that cuts through the mix, and can scream while remaining articulate. It’s also very easy to install in most cases.
- Bottom Line:Seymour Duncan Hot Rails are humbuckers uniquely formatted to fit the same slot as a single coil pickup, and as such make fantastic replacements if you’re looking for more output and bite than what your single coil provides. It definitely screams when you turn the gain up, and is recommended for hard rock or metal.
- Single-Coil vs. Humbucker Pickups
- When Should I Change Pickups?
- Understanding Output
- Tonal Response
- Top Five Humbuckers
Single-Coil vs. Humbucker Pickups
A humbucker (a.k.a. humbucking pickup) is one of the two most popular categories of electric guitar pickups, the other being the single-coil pickup. Without getting too much into the weeds, a humbucker is dual-coil pickup, meaning that the second row of coils has an opposite polarity of the first row, and thus greatly reduces the annoying hum and interference that plagues single-coils.
Because of the two coils, humbuckers are wider and thus cover more surface area below the guitar strings, so as a result you get more punch and volume; in other words a heavier, stronger tone. A man by the name of Seth Lover is credited for inventing the humbucking pickup in 1955 when he was working for Gibson. You’ll hear this early humbucker referred to as PAF, or “Patent Applied For.” The PAF was used in Gibson’s iconic Les Paul guitar, so over the years Gibson has become synonymous with humbuckers, much like a Fender Tele or Strat makes you think of single-coil pickups. These days, all sorts of manufacturers have taken the humbucker and ran with it (very successfully we might add), from Seymour Duncan to DiMarzio - you certainly don’t have to stick to the Gibson brand.
Because pickups are such a key part of an electric guitar’s character, and because humbuckers are known for having a higher output, they are perfect for when you need a thick, loud tone, for genres like hard rock or metal. But a humbucker is not all distortion and loud noises - the thickness of a hum bucking pickup can make for some fat, creamy clean tones as well.
Humbuckers are absolutely not better or worse than single-coil pickups, they are simply different beasts! When switching out the pickups in your guitar, a popular option you might want to experiment with is a combination of single-coil and humbucking pickups.
When Should I Change Pickups?
First, let’s state the obvious- pickups are an extremely important part of your tone. They are not, however, responsible for 100% of your tone. Pickups are just one part of the tonal equation, along with things like the wiring, the electric guitar strings that you use, pickup height, the quality of the guitar’s construction, and the wood that it’s made out of. All of these things add up together to create the tone of your instrument.
Good pickups will help make your guitar sound better 95% of the time, but just remember that if after swapping out pickups you’re still not satisfied with the results, make sure you look at all the factors that might be limiting the overall quality of your tone.
To get the most out of new pickups, it’s important to be able to identify the character of your current tone, and what you would like to achieve with different pickups. For example, say you’ve got a Les Paul that sounds pretty good but doesn’t quite have the bite you’re looking for in the bridge humbucker. You can get a pickup that’s a little bit hotter and emphasizes the treble frequencies to achieve that.
If you own a budget-priced guitar, a pickup upgrade can work wonders and make it sound much more expensive than what it is. In fact, to keep the price down, manufacturers often skimp on the pickups in beginner and budget-friendly instruments, so making a pickup upgrade on these guitars is often the first thing we would recommend. With a little searching on the web and on YouTube you’ll see it’s a pretty easy thing to do yourself, or you can get your new pickups installed by a tech at your local guitar shop for a reasonable fee.
Output refers to the strength of the signal that the pickup sends to your amplifier. Higher output pickups send more signal to an amp, which will cause easier breakup in a tube amp and higher levels of distortion when you use a distortion pedal. That’s why metal players prefer active pickups, which use a battery to put out more signal which in turn leads to a pickup that’s capable of handling much higher levels of distortion. A good example of this would be something like EMGs. Fun fact, EMGs were actually made for blues musicians. The idea behind them was that they’d assist in helping guitarists get a more natural tube amp distortion at lower volumes. Blues players didn’t like them because they weren’t very traditional sounding, and they ended up being adopted by metal guitar players because in addition to distorting an amp easier they actually stay really articulate at high levels of gain.
When it comes to output, the trade off is that the higher the output of the pickup the worse it’s going to sound if you play clean (with no distortion) or lightly overdriven. That’s why rock and metal players use high output pickups while jazz and blues players generally prefer pickups that are middle to low output.
The tonal response of pickups is decided by a few different factors with the most important being the type of magnet used. As a general rule, Alnico 2 magnets are better for players who want to play with low to moderate gain (distortion) and want a pickup that emphasizes mid-range frequencies. Ceramic pickups are better for players looking for a pickup that will stay articulate when used with lots of distortion and has plenty of available high-end frequencies. Alnico 5 pickups are the middle ground between these two extremes. Here is Seymour Duncan explaining that concept a little further.
The Five Best Humbucker Pickups
As always, we try to recommend a wide enough variety of products that everyone reading this will find something that’s realistic for their budget and needs. While we recognize that the more expensive product is generally better, we also know that it doesn’t matter how good a pickup is if you just can’t justify the expense. So keep in mind that the best option for you may not be the best option for your neighbor, and vice versa.
Check out the five recommendations below. If you feel like we left out a humbucker that deserves to be included on this list, let us know in the comments section below.
Gibson Burstbucker Pro
The Gibson Burstbucker series is arguably one of the most popular humbuckers currently being produced, which is no surprise when you consider the pickup’s history. The Burstbucker and Burstbucker Pro are reproductions of Gibson’s famed PAF humbucking pickups. PAF stands for “Patent Applied For.”
Though the PAF pickups weren’t technically the first humbucking pickup designed, they were the first to gain widespread traction on the market. Before PAFs were widely used, every electric guitar suffered from something called 60-cycle hum. 60-cycle hum is a type of electrical interference that sounds like static, and is common on single coil pickups. The famed engineer and then Gibson employee Seth Lover designed PAFs to counteract this phenomenon. Gibson actually started outfitting their lap steels with the pickups in 1956, though in the following year they started outfitting Les Pauls with the newly designed electronics. The Goltop and Custom lines were the first electric guitars to be outfitted with the new pickup, though later the ES series also received PAF pickups.
Aside from being financially unfeasible for most guitarists, vintage pickups sound significantly different than they did when they were first produced. Alcino magnets slowly demagnetize over time, which leads to the fundamental tone of the pickup changing over time. The bobbins inside the pickups also have a tendency to warp, further changing the fundamental tone.
Thankfully, since the early 80s Gibson has been producing reissues of their famed PAF pickups. While some of these have been better than others, the Burstbucker series has been incredibly well received because of its close tonal resemblance to the original models. The Burstbucker Pro is no exception.
Every version of the Burstbucker pickup is meant to adhere to one of the variations of the original PAF pickups. Because the process for earlier pickups wasn’t standardized there was a lot of variation in how the different pickups would sound. This variation could affect factors like overall output, and even the color of the sound.
The Burstbucker Pro is meant to handle moderately high levels of gain, and as such it is wax potted. Wax potting a pickup allows it to achieve higher levels of volume and gain without feeding back, which is a huge plus if you plan on playing large venues and/or harder types of rock.
As a nod to the classic pickups it’s based off of, the pickup features slightly unmatched bobbin windings. This offers a characteristic sweet and harmonic tone. The pickup is also designed with Alnico 5 magnets, which while these pickups offer a bit more bite and output than vintage examples they’re still capable of reproducing a genuine vintage tone. As an added bonus, the Gibson Burstbucker Pro pickup is available in both nickel and gold finish options, which is a plus if you’re looking to match the pickup to your existing hardware.
The tone is inevitably going to change based on the guitar you put the Burstbucker Pro in, and there’s just no sure-fire way to tell how it’s going to affect an instrument. However, there are a few basic characteristics that this pickup retains regardless of what instrument it’s put in. This pickup is vintage voiced, meaning that it’s a great fit to reproduce classic guitar tones. Everything from Jimmy Page to pre-Stratocaster Eric Clapton is well within your grasp. The pickup is also capable of slightly heavier genres of music, but don’t expect it to be a great fit for metal or similar genres.
The pickup is also very musical and rich sounding, featuring a wealth of harmonic overtones and nuance. This makes the clean tone of the pickup especially appealing, though it’s no slouch when distorted either. This is another factor that makes it a poor fit for genres that require heavy amounts of distortion, as that extra harmonic value increases unwanted overtones when used with extreme levels of gain. As far as quality is concerned, there’s nothing about this pickup that suggests it wouldn’t perform at a high level.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a pickup that can help you reproduce a vintage tone while still handling moderate levels of distortion, the Gibson Burstbucker Pro may end up being the perfect fit for your rig.
Seymour Duncan JB SH-4
Founded in Santa Barbara, California in 1976, Seymour Duncan is an American based company that has become a household name for guitarists the world over. The company arguably produces the most diverse range of pickups currently on the market and as of writing Seymour Duncan has partnered with companies such as Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Charvel, ESP, Ibanez, Jackson, Framus, and Washburn.
Duncan’s love affair with the electric guitar pickup was spurred by necessity. Duncan was actually a well respected performing musician in his own right, and at one of these early shows the lead pickup on his Telecaster experienced a catastrophic failure. In order to get his guitar back up and running, he actually rewound his own pickup using his record player.
After repairing his pickup he noticed that the sound of his guitar had actually changed for the better. Following this, he learned more and more about the electric guitar and the various factors that can contribute to its tone. He sought out advice and mentorship from both Les Paul and Seth Lover. He was also employed by Fender at one point at the Fender Soundhouse in London. While employed at the Soundhouse he started working on pickups and guitars for musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix.
However, eventually he returned to America. Upon his return he invested in his own company, eventually producing a full range of single coil and humbucking pickups. With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Seymour Duncan SH4 JB humbucking pickup is easily one of the most versatile and musical sounding pickups available.
The Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB has long been the archetype of moderate output humbuckers since its introduction nearly 30 years ago. While the SH-4 JB may be marketed as a high output pickup, when compared to active pickups it is fairly middle of the road as far as output is concerned.
The best part about this pickup as far as features are concerned is it’s 4-conducter lead configuration. This allows for a wide variety of possible wiring configurations, which allows musicians to have a lot more control over the end result of their tone. The pickups can be wired in series, parallel, or split coil (which allows guitarists to replicate the response of a single coil pickup).
As an added bonus, the Seyour Duncan SH-4 JB is vacuum wax potted. Wax potting a pickup helps to prevent it from feeding back when it’s used with higher levels of gain, which is why vintage pickups have a significantly higher chance of feeding back. Wax potting also helps prevent microphonic feedback, which unlike standard feedback doesn’t have many musical applications.
The main thing you should consider when you’re thinking of purchasing this pickup is that it’s a very versatile piece of equipment. It provides a useable tone in pretty much every genre that’s achievable with a moderate output humbucker, which is essentially everything from jazz to moderate grunge. However, it’s not a very specialized pickup. It’s not geared towards any specific genre, which means that while it’s versatile there is likely to be a pickup that’s better suited for your needs if you focus exclusively on a single genre. On the other hand, if you’re a more versatile musician you may find that this pickup is a great fit for your needs.
The overall tone of this pickup can be described as articulate yet powerful. It provides a pleasing low end response without sacrificing high or mid-range frequencies, and while it’s not meant to play heavier genres of music it does perform admirably under low to moderate levels of distortion. It’s recommended to pair this pickup with the Jazz or ’59 Seymour Duncan pickups, though your experience is going to vary depending on your rig and desired tone.
As far quality is concerned, this pickup is representative of the legacy that Seymour Duncan has painstakingly built in the last few decades. Hand built in their factory in Santa Barbara, California, these pickups perform as well as any other American made product.
Bottom Line: While these pickups may not be the perfect choice for musicians who specialize in genres of music that require high levels of distortion, they do perform well in a wide variety of other situations. In the right hands these pickups are capable of sounding wonderful, and they offer a great value to musicians who are on the hunt for a versatile pickup.
Established in 1976 by Rob Turner in Long Beach, Claifornia, EMG Inc. (who originally produced products under the moniker of Dirtywork Studios) has been the choice of heavy metal enthusiasts for decades. Originally, the pickups were actually incredibly popular in Europe. EMG active pickups were used as a standard feature from the factory by guitars and basses produced by Steinberger.
The company renamed itself EMG Inc. in 1983 following the first exhibition of their products at the 1983 Musikmesse tradeshow in Germany. A little known fact is that EMG actually stands for “Electro-Magnetic Generator.” As Steinberger guitars became more and more popular with American metal enthusiasts so did EMG pickups. The two companies owe their success to one another, as Steinberger guitars - being one of the few guitars equipped with pickups that could perform well in heavier genres - helped to establish both brands in countries around the world.
One of the company’s flagship products, the EMG 81 is one of the defining sounds for lead pickups in heavier genres. Generally used in the bridge position, the EMG 81 has been used by some of the most influential musicians in recent memory. Some of the most notable guitarists who’ve used guitars equipped with EMG 81s are Zack Wylde and Kirk Hammett.
The most notable feature of EMG 81 pickups is that because they use a rail magnet as opposed to polepieces. From Wikipedia:
Rail magnets tend to sound smoother through string bends because they have a constant "rail" that runs through the pickup, while typical guitar pickups have polepieces under each string that lose signal strength as the string bends away from the polepiece.
Another notable feature of this pickup is that it comes with EMG’s innovative Quick-Connect cable. The Quick-Connect cable allows you to both install and swap pickups very easily. Rather than soldering, the cable allows you to simply plug a lead from the pickup into a wiring harness.
The EMG 81 is also sold with all of the accessories you will need to properly and securely install the pickup. The pickup comes with a pre-wired split shaft volume and tone control set, an output jack, a battery clip set, and all of the necessary clips, screws and springs.
While the EMG 81 is obviously going to be geared towards genres that require higher levels of gain, it does also have a few unique tonal qualities of its own. Because the pickup is meant to be used with higher levels of distortion, it has a very dry and harmonically plain sound. While this may sound like a negative, it actually does ensure that the pickup remains musical when used with high levels of gain. Distortion introduces new frequencies into a signal, which is why pickups that do have a bit more tonal character don’t perform as well with high levels of distortion. They start to sound muddy or dissonant, which isn’t an issue you’re going to run into with these pickups provided that you EQ them properly.
Another unique feature of these pickups is that they manage to be both aggressive and creamy sounding depending on the situation. The 81 is famed for its chunky and aggressive response when palm muting, but it also manages to avoid sounding harsh when soloing in upper registers. This is a huge plus, because it makes the pickup more versatile. While a super aggressive and piercing lead tone is required for some tones and genres, a more mild and musical tone is applicable for more genres.
The EMG 81 also packs plenty of sustain, which is a pro or con depending on your situation and what type of music you play. While certain guitars or pickups are famed for their sustain, huge amounts of sustain aren’t necessarily ideal. Some songs or genres benefit from a quicker note decay, such as fast technical pieces. Large amounts of sustain have the potential to make a solo sound muddy or unclear, depending of course on your technique and phrasing.
As far as quality is concerned, there’s nothing lacking in this pickup whatsoever. There’s no need to worry about faulty components or issues with stability with this pickup so long as you don’t unnecessarily abuse it. It will hold up to the rigors of consistent practice and performance.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a high-output pickup and don’t mind giving active pickups a shot, the EMG 81 is a modern day classic. It’ll give you all the attack and sustain you need, and won’t muddy up when you use heavy overdrive. Just add a 9V battery and you’re ready to rock. The EMG 81 is frequently paired with a EMG 85 - in fact, that's the exact combo used in the EMG ZW Zakk Wylde 81/85 Humbucker Set, based on the pickup setup used on his signature bull’s-eye Les Paul guitar.
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Pickups
During the genesis of the electric guitar the instrument you purchased was the one you were stuck with. Thankfully for musicians everywhere, there have been a few notable companies that have spurred the innovation of the electric guitar. One of the most important companies in this regard is DiMarzio. This Staten Island born company was the first to mass produce aftermarket pickups. From 1971 to the current day the company has produced pickups for some of the most notable guitarists ever, and as proved by the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Pickup this isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
The DiMarzio DP100 is the pickup that kicked off a bona fide revolution, and as such it’s been the pickup of choice for guitarists for decades. The pickup was the first designed that was easily capable of pushing a tube amp into the thick and creamy overdrive that has defined the tone of countless platinum selling albums.
One of the most important thing about this pickups is that it comes in a four conductor wiring configuration, which allows players a lot of different options in how they choose to use the pickup. It allows players the option to coil split, which replicates the tone of a single coil pickup (think a Strat tone). Parallel wiring is similar to coil splitting, but it retains a more humbucker-like tone.
While the DiMarzio DP100 is a high-output pickup, players should be aware that it’s still not going to have the bite of an active pickup. There’s a reason that EMG or similar active pickups have become the standard for heavy metal acts; Active pickups may be a bit more “sterile” sounding they are capable of producing much more intense levels of gain as opposed to passive pickups like the DP100.
However, while this pickup may not be capable of producing as much raw distortion as an active pickup it retains a very musical quality at any level of distortion. It has thick and creamy mids, an aggressive and tight low end, and smooth and creamy highs. This makes the pickup surprisingly versatile, and while it’s marketed more towards guitarists who play heavier genres of music exclusively it is capable of sounding great in other setting as well. It produces a great bluesy crunch, and its smooth and dynamic response makes it a great fit for pre-Strat Eric Clapton tones (think his work with Cream).
Our favorite thing about this pickup is that it’s generally not shrill or thin sounding, which is a common characteristic of high output pickups. Unfortunately, this does slightly cut its utility for harder genres of music.
As far as quality is concerned, DiMarzio has a commitment to making a robust and durable product. Any pickup you purchase from the company is going to last and perform perfectly well for its intended purpose.
Bottom Line: While a high-output pickup may not be the best choice for every musician, the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Pickup provides an excellent value for the musician looking to cover genres that require a bit more gain.
Seymour Duncan Hot Rails
While single coil pickups have a lot of perks, and a lot of versatility depending on how you go about EQing your effects and amp, the one category where they’re objectively worse than their humbucking counterparts is in providing high levels of articulate and musical distortion. They’re also a bit noisier than humbucking pickups as the single coil design is vulnerable to a type of electrical interference known as 60-cycle hum.
Guitar players tend to group of pickups into three distinct categories. While most of us know the basic difference between humbuckers, single coil pickups, and P90s, there are actually a few more variations that all have a distinct tonal quality associated with them. One of the most notable types produced in recent years has been the single-coil sized humbucker. Though this is a humbucking pickup, because it’s sized more like a single coil pickup it has a much more focused and articulate tone than your standard humbucker.
A great example of this is the Seymour Duncan Hot Rail pickup, which combines a high gain pickup with a Stratocaster-type single coil pickup, producing a product that is both capable of producing aggressive levels of distortion and the shimmering musical qualities of a great single coil pickup.The Seymour Duncan Hot Rails is one of the highest output passive pickups produced by Seymour Duncan. It’s a high-output humbucking pickup that fits into a standard Stratocaster type pickguard.
Another notable feature of this pickup is that it’s a rail design. Rail pickups use one long magnet as opposed to several distinct pole pieces. The benefit of this design is that it keeps a consistent volume and dynamic range when you execute string bends, which is a huge plus for genres that rely heavily on the technique. The only downfall to the design is that it sacrifices a small amount of clarity as opposed to the pole piece design, though your experience is going to vary based on your rig and playing style.
This pickup also gives players the option to access split coil sounds, which while this isn’t a perfect approximation of a true single coil pickup it does increase the versatility of the pickup. As an added bonus, because this is a high output pickup it retains a lot of girth and tonal range that other humbucking pickups lose when you coil split them.
While the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup may look like a lot like your standard single coil pickup, there is going to be a notable change when you put this in a guitar that was previously equipped with a single coil. It still maintains a lot of clarity and dynamic range that is inherent to single coil pickups, but it has the output and characteristics of a single humbucker. This results in a pickup that will be significantly warmer than your usual single coil pickup, and it’s also going to have a much more defined mid-range. One challenge you might have is if you previously based your amp and pedal settings around a single coil guitar, you’re going to have to adjust your EQ setting to compensate for the difference in tone (a welcome challenge for those of us in pursuit of the perfect tone).
The best way to think of the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails is aggressive yet warm and dynamic. It’s most likely not going to sound shrill or thin, and is going to be capable of producing some truly impressive distortion. It’s an excellent choice for heavy metal and garage rock, and in the right situation it’s capable of producing a very convincing nu-metal tone. It doesn’t sound quite as good as a single coil or low output humbucker when played with low amounts of distortion, but that’s a compromise that’s inherent to a high output design.
As far as quality is concerned, these pickups are notably better than the previous incarnation of Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. These pickups had a tendency to catch the high E string, which while this could be avoided with proper technique it was an unfortunate side effect of the previous design. We’re happy to report the latest model does not have this or any other problems. Like most pickups, there’s no reason to believe that Seymour Duncan Hot Rails won’t be capable of withstanding the rigors of consistent performance or practice.
Bottom Line: These pickups are a great choice for the guitarist looking to turn a guitar currently outfitted with single coil pickups into a rock or metal workhorse. While they may sound a bit different than a standard humbucker, they do have a pleasing and unique tone.