Best Guitar Pickups For Metal [Reviews & Buying Guide]

Like the metal you find on the hull of a boat, metal music grafts itself onto a person quickly, and once it’s there it can’t be removed.

For those of you that practice the dark art of metal guitar playing, you’ll be dying to find the best guitar pickups for metal.  

Metal is a very diverse genre, but it can generally be defined as energetic and aggressive, with a low and growly guitar sound.

There are many subgenres of metal, including black metal, sludge, death metal, grindcore, and more. But they all have something in common - a guitar sound that will tear your face off!

Speaking of face-melting, here’s James Hetfield from Metallica showcasing some of his best solos:


When it comes to shredding, he’s one of the best.

Or maybe you fancy something a little more experimental when it comes to your palm-muted shredding? Well, check out the dudes from Mastodon playing one of their best tunes:


Just listen to that amazing guitar tone!

Another thing most metal guitarists have in common is a decent pickup. Whether it’s Slipknot or Black Sabbath, each one has a pickup that can produce earth-shattering shredding sounds.

But where can you find the best pickups for shredding? What features do you need from a pickup to ensure those colossal guitar sounds will rise over the pounding drums and bass?

Well, simmer down metalheads, because I’ve got the answers, with my list of some of the best guitar pickups for metal.

Further down you'll find a buyer’s guide, which will help you know what to look for in the perfect metal pickup, and answer some other common questions.  

Let's do this.  

BEST OVERALL

Okay, first up, we’ve got a pedal that is not strictly manufactured for a metal crowd, but does come highly recommended by a whole host of metal guitarists. Introducing the Seymour Duncan Distortion Bridge.

The guitarists from metal luminaries such as Tool, Alice In Chains, and Megadeth all highly rate the Seymour Duncan and the bite that it gives heavy players.

This is why I’ve selected these pickups as my best overall option - they give the metal player everything they need for that raw, classic metal crunch at a very reasonable price.

Why not listen to the sonic capabilities for yourself?

Listen to those grating riffs ripping through the air like a buzz saw! When it comes to achieving that edgier sound, there is no more reputable brand than Seymour Duncan.

This versatile pedal will give you better clean tones than other high-output active pickups without sacrificing any of the viciousness.

When it comes to playing heavier riffs, I want a pedal that can handle the extra chop of my Big Muff distortion pedal hooked up to a delay unit. Having crystal clarity when it comes to those minute-long sustained notes is very important.

Pros:

  • The harmonic content on this pickup is incredibly rich and varied.
  • Perfect for preserving those low frequencies that are key to metal.
  • With ceramic magnets, this one will ramp up the power.
  • This pickup is perfect for low tunings.
  • If you fancy ripping it up with a few solos, then I'd highly recommend this.

Cons:

  • This is essentially a rock pickup that is also used for metal, this might put off the more die-hard metal aficionados.

BEST LUXURY PICKUP

Next up we have a signature pickup from one of the godfathers of thrash metal, combining the richness and clarity of a humbucker with the bite and shred of an active pickup - introducing the EMG JH James Hetfield Electric Guitar Pickup Set.

Before I go into the technology behind this pickup, let’s see another clip of the man himself tearing it up: 

With a hefty price tag, these pickups are aimed at the die-hard metalhead, which is why I’ve included it as my best luxury option.

Look at the speed of that badass mother’s hand! That’s down picking at its finest!

Unfortunately, some versions of this pickup have been reported to have an annoying buzzing sound.

So how does this pickup accentuate your riffs? Well, with ceramic pole-pieces and bobbins in the neck, you can expect a full-frontal assault from your guitar sound.

Pros:

  • These Hetfield pickups truly excel when it comes to sustaining.
  • The Hetfields give the metal shredder the ability to slice through compact studio mixes.
  • Steel pole pieces in the bridge of the pickup really help to preserve that cleaner bass sound.
  • The quality - James Hetfield has ensured that only the best materials go into his pickups.
  • You too can have Hetfield’s deep crunchy sound.

Cons:

  • The price - obviously these are the most expensive pickups on the list, but with a high price comes a high level of quality.

BEST BUDGET PICKUP

When it comes to the ideal guitar pickups for metal guitar players, you can’t really go wrong with the Dimarzio DP100 Super Distortion Pickup.

This pickup was first manufactured in 1972 and has its claim to fame as being the very first high-output pickup in the entire world

Judging by the sheer volume of high Amazon ratings, this one has certainly cemented its reputation as one of the best metal pickups.

Why not hear the Dimarzio in action for yourself? Here is Phil Collen from Def Leppard ripping apart his axe through a Super Distortion pickup.

Sounds pretty awesome, right?

One downside: this pedal might not have the same crunch of some other metal pedals you can buy. However, this is a great entry-level pickup.

The best thing about this pickup is that you can get that classic metal sound for just a quarter of the price of your average metal pickup. That’s why I’ve recommended it as the best budget option.

Pros:

  • These pickups add a powerful yet articulate impact to your riffs.
  • It also has a thick midrange and a fat bass frequency
  • You can be sure that each of your riffs will have the meaty edge.
  • This pedal has increased the number of coils that are wound around the pickup’s interior to increase the output.
  • These pickups boost the midrange and exaggerate the bass.
  • The price - being my budget option, this one is incredibly good value for money.

Cons:

  • This might not have the dynamic crunch of the Hetfield pedal, although this makes it a good starting pickup for those just wading into the sludgy waters of metal playing.

Buyer’s Guide - How To Make Your Axe The Perfect Metal Weapon

When it comes to metal, you’ll want a pickup designed for those deep bass tones.

Finding the ideal pickup for your playing style isn’t always the easiest task. However, my in-depth buyer’s guide to the history and composition of the pickup will hopefully give you a better understanding of the buzzing heart of your electric guitar.

When it comes to picking out the perfect metal pickup, you’ll need to be able to tell the difference between active and passive pickups. 

Passive-Aggressive - The Difference Between Pickups

Active pickups have their own preamp and power supply to give you a boosted, powerful and tone-shaped sound.

With active pickups, you’ll generally have a more consistent tone and output, which will be crucial if you’re thinking of taking your axe out onto the stage. 

Active pickups also have a much more compressed sound, which makes it useful for reducing hiss and unwanted noise.

However, there are passive pickups that have been adapted to the increased power and note clarity of the active models. Likewise, active pickups have begun mimicking the sound of passive pickups.

For those that want to immerse themselves in the tech specs of active and passive pickups, here’s an article that goes into a little more detail.

Quite frankly, there has never been so much diversity on the pickup market! However, you might not have the patience to search all day and all night.

So, when it comes to metal, you’ll be wanting an active pickup. Active pickups are designed to deal with louder notes.

Slayer or Sikth? Find The Sound Of Your Favorite Metal Band

One of the main reasons most of us start playing guitar in the first place is to emulate our very own guitar heroes.

So when it comes to finding the metal guitar sound you want, simply turn to your CD collection. Most of the time you can source the specific rig they’ve used.

Here’s a handy list of some of the best metal guitar sounds in the world, as well as what rig each guitarist uses and a list of pedals, pickups and other accessories.

Be Magnetic - The Best Pickup Components And Materials

You can get different components for a metal pickup, the main one being ceramic magnets, as these will give you the best growly tones, allowing great energy transfer from your aggressive playing to your amp.

However, ceramic magnets give a much more compressed sound and are much less impressive on a clean setting.

Other materials for pickups include a composite of aluminum, nickel and cobalt, more commonly known as Alnico pickups, which will give you a more fluid and organic sound.

Luckily for the first-time metal buyer, most manufacturers give demos of their pedals. There are also hundreds of Youtube demos and comparisons from pickup enthusiasts. Take a look at this one from Andersons Music and co.

Most metal plays would pledge an allegiance to both Satan and Humbucker pickups when it comes to getting the perfect metal tones.

Here is an in-depth article about Humbucker and what makes them a go-to pickup for metalheads all over the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do The Pickups In My Guitar Actually Work?

The construction of your average pickup is very simple.

They contain cylindrical pole pieces, traditionally made from ceramic, with ferrous slugs and a bar magnet buried underneath them that are wound with copper wire.

Then a small electrical charge is run through the wiring as the magnetic field around the magnet is disturbed by the guitar’s strings being moved.

These pole pieces correspond to each string on the guitar, hence how the note is transferred into an electrical sound through the body of the guitar and into the amp.

If you wind the wire tighter around the pickup, you’ll get a much darker sound from your guitar.

Here is a much more in-depth guide to guitar pickups, along with some information about the history of pickup manufacture in general.

What Makes A Really Good Metal Pickup?

Most professional metal guitarists would highly recommend Humbucker pickups for those noise-canceling capabilities, which can cause trouble the more volume you add.

With a Humbucker you can be certain that you won’t be drowning in a sea of noise. This pickup will make sure those low-end notes can be clearly picked out.

Remember: metal isn’t all about the chugga-chugga, it can also be highly melodic, so you’ll be wanting some tonal quality and warmth. Where would Iron Maiden be without their soaring choruses as well as their riffs?

Here’s one of their more riff-tastic and melodic epic "Run To The Hills": 


What Are The Best Types Of Pickups For My Metal Guitar?

When selecting a pickup, it is always worth bearing in mind what style of metal you’ll be wanting to play and what elements of that style your pickup will enhance.

Here’s a handy guide to the history and subgenres of metal to help you find what you’re looking for in your axe.

But as I stated above, there are two main types of pickup: active and passive.

When you turn on the preamp in an active pickup, the sound and power they produce are unrivaled. If you want to shred in that classic metal style, you’ll be wanting an active pickup.

Active pickups will also reduce the amount of noise you experience in between the notes. When you turn up a guitar that has heavy distortion, you can be certain that there’ll be some unwanted hissing and grit in the background.

Passive pickups will give you less of a hot sound, coming as they do with far less power. Although they do have a beefy dynamic range, which will be useful for metal soloists.

Passive pickups have a warmer tone, however, they are much more affected by background noise than their active cousins.

If you are going to crank it up to 11, I'd recommend you use an active pickup to control that noise.

What Is The Difference Between Single And Dual Coils?

Most pickups come in two categories: single and dual coils - the latter being commonly known as Humbuckers.

With a single coil, you have one input, meaning that you get a clearer and crisper tone, giving you that added bite.

Here’s an article detailing the history of the single-coil pickup and what kind of sound you can expect it to give your four-stringed friend.

However, single coils tend to let in a lot more background noise than other models, which will be an issue for metal players who want to turn it up to ear-shattering levels of volume.

Dual coils have a much rounder, fuzzier tone than single coils, with a construction that gives you higher highs and lower lows, with more contrast, saturation and louder volume.

Do I need a cutaway guitar to play metal?


Most electric guitars are cutaway body shapes anyway, so this usually isn't an issue.

On the other hand, if you're using an acoustic guitar to play (or just practice) heavy metal, it will be easier if you have a cutaway shape. That's because it'll be easier for you to reach the higher frets.

Loosely related:  If you're playing guitar with long nails, it may help also help a little to have a cutaway, or use a ceramic guitar slide so your nails don't get in the way.  

Our Final Say - Picking Up The Best Pickup

There are more pickup variations than there are colors in the rainbow.

I hope my list of the best guitar pickups for metal has provided you with a decent starting point when it comes to picking up the best pickup for your metal rig.

You might want to think about whether you’re a live player or will be using your pickup mainly in the studio or to practice at home.

Remember that active pickups will help you control the sound of a louder distorted guitar, giving you a consistent tone. So you might want to opt for an active pickup if you’re going to be playing it live.

Also, remember that the closer your strings are to the pickup, the louder your sound will be. Don’t crank it up too close on a passive pickup, as you may well find yourself drowning in excessive amounts of background noise.

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Ben

Ben

Ben is a longtime guitar player and music enthusiast. He has performed extensively and recorded professionally. He founded Strummingly to help other people experience the joy of music.