Guitar Pickups Expert Guide

We all have a vague understanding of what guitar pickups are. They’re what electrifies the sound of the strings, right?

Right. But there are many different types. How do you know which one is right for you?

Well, here we’re going to take a look at how pickups work, what the different kinds of pickups are and which styles different pickups are suited to. Then, we’ll look in detail at some of the best pickups out there. Here’s a quick glance if you can’t wait that long.

At a Glance: Best Guitar Pickup By Category

PREVIEWPRODUCTFEATURES 
Best Single-Coil Pickup

DiMarzio DP419 Area '67 Hum Canceling Strat Pickup Black

Best Single-Coil Pickup
DiMarzio DP419 Area 67 Guitar Pickup
  • Noiseless single-coil
  • Suits bridge, middle and neck
  • Fits Stratocaster
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Best Humbucker Pickup

Gibson '57 Classic Plus Humbucker Pickup, Nickel

Best Humbucker Pickup
Gibson’s ’57 Classic Plus
  • Fully wax potted
  • Bridge pickup
  • High output
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Best P90 Pickup

Seymour Duncan Antiquity Humbucker Pickup Bridge Position

Best P90 Pickup
Seymour Duncan Antiquity
  • Two alcino magnets
  • Classic tone
  • Black or cream
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Best Stratocaster Pickup

Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red 3-Pack S-S-S Pickup Set Black

Best Stratocaster Pickup
Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red
  • Low noise interference
  • Low energy magnets
  • Fits Stratocaster
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Best Telecaster Pickup

Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickups

Best Telecaster Pickup
Fender  Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickup Set
  • Vintage sound without the hum
  • Enamel-coated magnets
  • Even string response
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Best Pickups for Metal

EMG JH James Hetfield Signature Guitar Pickup Set, Black Chrome

Best Pickups for Metal
James Hetfield Humbucker Set from EMG
  • Active pickups
  • Solderless installation
  • Humbuckers
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Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup

L.R. Baggs ANTHEM Acoustic Guitar Pickup

Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup
LR Baggs Anthem Tru-Mic
  • Volume, blend and phase controls
  • Mini microphone plus piezo
  • Noise-cancelling technology
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

How Pickups Work

Pickups work by capturing sound vibrations and turning them into signals. The main components of pickups are magnets and wire, both of which play key roles in converting the sound.

When the metal strings on your guitar vibrate, the magnets are disturbed, which converts the nearby wire into an electric field. This is what makes your electric guitar an electric guitar.

Coils (Single vs Humbucker)

There are different kinds of pickups you can get on a guitar: single-coil and humbuckers.

Single-coil pickups were the original pickups. They work like small antennas, to pick up all of the sounds from your guitar and convert it into an electric sound signal. These pickups pickup up everything, including, at times, some unwanted hum.

It was frustration with this feedback that led to the invention of humbucker pickups, first seen on guitars in the ’50s. Instead of using just one magnet, humbucker pickups use two which are wired slightly out of phase with each other. This cancels out the hum and leads to a warmer sound than a single-coil.

Although it sounds logical to use a humbucker, many guitarists still prefer the sound of single-coil pickups. They offer a brighter, more ‘twangy’ sound, whereas humbuckers can sound chunky and deep.

Circuitry (Active vs Passive)

Most pickups have passive circuitry. This means that they use simple transducers which work by many coils of wire wrapping around a magnet.

The location of the magnet causes the strings to magnetise, too, so that when they vibrate, an electrical current passes through the metal wire.

Passive pickups don’t require batteries, and they’re what you find on Les Pauls, Stratocasters and Telecasters.

Active pickups are much less common on electric guitars, but they have some benefits.

These pickups use fewer coils to passive pickups, meaning that they are less susceptible to feedback and they have a far higher output.

This makes them well suited to shred-guitar or other genres that are heavy and include articulate phrases that need clarity in their delivery.

The drawbacks of active pickups are that they require batteries, and lack of dynamic range compared to passive pickups.

Output (High vs Moderate)

Active pickups or passive pickups with high output are well-suited to those who create heavy music.

These allow you to achieve more gain before producing feedback and their lack of noisiness enables a clarity that can really give your playing a sterilised feel.

Moderate outputs are more dynamically flexible and will be suited to those who like to shift from soft, clean sections to screaming lead parts. Moderate outputs are also what was common in classic rock music, so if you’re trying to recreate those sounds, it’s important to have the appropriate pickups.

Magnets (Alnico vs Ceramic)

The magnets used in pickups are often ‘alnico’ magnets, meaning that they’re made of aluminium, nickel and cobalt. These pickups were common in the 50s and 60s and offer a classic sound, that can be quite soft and warm.

Ceramic pickups gained popularity in the 1970s, and they often have a high output. This gives them clarity and can also enable a stronger sound. Ceramic pickups are cheaper than alnico pickups, and they offer a tight, loud sound.

Potting

Not all pickups are potted, but it’s worth ensuring that you buy ones that are.

Potting is when pickups are sealed in wax, to get rid of any air gaps in the coil or on the cover. These air gaps can create microphonic feedback, which presents itself as a loud, screeching sound when you’re playing at high volumes.

The wax used is a mixture of beeswax and paraffin, which is heated to a high temperature so that it is runny enough to fill all of the gaps where air might get.

If your pickups don’t come readily potted, you can get them done by a professional, or even do them yourself with the right amount of care and guidance.

Wiring (Parallel vs Series)

Pickups are usually wired in what’s called parallel wiring. This is when each of the pickups are wired up to the inputs and outputs together, in parallel. This wiring enables the pickups to reach the guitar’s output via the fastest route possible, resulting in a clean, twangy and transparent tone.

Sometimes, pickups are wired in a ‘series’. This is when they’re connected together, before reaching the output. It enables a very high output, which means that you can let out a much higher signal before running into any feedback problems. The downside to series wiring is that you often lose a lot of the higher end frequencies.

Pickup Locations

Your guitar will have space for either two or three pickups. Each of these has a different purpose, suited to its position.

Pickups which are close to the bridge will encounter a low amount of string vibration before being activated. This creates a bright sound, which is naturally quite quiet due to its positioning. The pickups that are designed to be fitted close to the bridge usually have a high output, to make up for the quiet location of the guitar, whereas pickups designed to go near the neck have a lower output. This is because the strings vibrate more near the neck, thus giving out a louder natural sound. The sound near the neck will also be deeper than the sound near the bridge of the guitar, making it well suited to chunky rhythm playing.

Buying Guide – Things to Consider When Buying Pickups

Consider Your Sound

Before you dive in and buy some recommended pickups, consider what sound you’re going for. Do you like heavy, precise guitars with a consistent dynamic, or are you more interested in getting a vintage twang, that you can control the volume of with your picking attack?

If your heart’s set on heaviness, a set of active high output pickups will do the trick, however, if you’re looking for pickups that are responsive and old school, passive single-coils are the only way to go.

Know Your Gear

What kind of wood is your guitar made from? Mahogany and rosewood have a dark tone, so finding pickups to complement that will be a priority. Maple, ash and alder have a brighter tone, so they might be best suited to pickups that hold on to the high-end frequencies.

Your volume knob affects your tone, too. 250K pots are warm, whereas 500K pots are bright. It’s important to get a pickup that matches up.

Will it Fit?

Check that it’s physically possible to fit your pickup of choice into your guitar.

A lot of pickups are designed for specific types of guitar, such as Strats, Teles or Les Pauls. Others are more versatile, offering compatibility with multiple models.

If you have your mind set on fitting some humbuckers into your single-coil guitar but don’t know how you’re going to make it fit, there are now plenty of humbuckers that are shaped like single-coils to ease your pain. And there are single-coils available which are shaped like humbuckers.

Product Round-up and Mini Reviews – Best Guitar Pickups

So far we’ve talked a lot about guitar pickups, now it’s time to look at some actual products. To make it easier for you, we’ve chosen the best guitar pickups for each type of guitar (or style of music).
 

DiMarzio DP419 Area 67 (BEST SINGLE COIL PICK UP)

DiMarzio DP419 Area '67 Hum Canceling Strat Pickup Black

The DiMarzio DP419 is a noiseless single-coil pickup. It has a high output, making it great for heavy players who want a lot of gain, whilst it’s still passive and allowing for dynamic control at the hands of the player.

It’s designed to fit Stratocaster guitars and in particular the middle and neck positions. It can also work effectively in the bridge position, due to its high output.

The DP419 single-coil pickups use alnico magnets to produce a thick tone which is also crisp and bright.

The hum-cancelling qualities of this pickup mean that you have the benefits of humbuckers, with the compatibility and brightness of a single-coil.

The DiMarzio DP419 pickup is very reasonably priced and comes in black so it will suit many Strat or Strat-style guitars. It will suit Stratocaster players who use their instrument to play a variety of genres and want the single-coil sound with protection from feedback.

It will be less suited to guitarists who would like a lower output, for an increased dynamic range.

PROS

  • Noiseless single-coil pickup.
  • Compatible with all three positions.
  • Designed to fit in the popular Stratocaster.

CONS

  • Unsuitable for guitars other than Strats.
  • High output results in a reduced dynamic range.
If you want to see more single coils, check out our full list of best single coils
 
Gibson’s ’57 Classic Plus (Best Humbucker Pickup)

Gibson '57 Classic Plus Humbucker Pickup, Nickel

The Gibson ’57 Classic Plus is a passive humbucker that offers vintage tones with a few extra benefits.

It has a lot of coils, making it super silent and clear, and there’s also a high output which offers a silky smooth sound and great for precise, chunky lead playing.

The high output on the Gibson ’57 Classic Plus means that it deals exceptionally well with overdriven or distorted guitar sounds. The pickup is also fully wax potted to avoid unwanted microphonic sounds.

This pickup is quite expensive, but it can work to make a less expensive guitar sound much better.

The Gibson ’57 Classic Plus is suited to a bridge pickup due to its high output and driving, chunky qualities. It will suit a Les Paul player who plays heavy music and requires something that will give their notes clarity and punch.

It will be less suited to gentler players, who like to control their dynamics with their picking hand. Humbuckers like this Gibson ’57 is especially popular with jazz guitarists – if you’re interested check out our full list of the best jazz guitar pickups.

PROS

  • Fully wax potted to reduce the risk of unwanted feedback.
  • Perfect bridge pickup companion to the Gibson ’57 Classic.
  • High output that is silky smooth.

CONS

  • Suited to the bridge pickup only.
  • Only really fits Gibson guitars.
  • High output might not suit those who want more dynamic range.
 

Seymour Duncan Antiquity (Best P90 PickUp)

Seymour Duncan Antiquity Humbucker Pickup Bridge Position

The Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90s are passive single coil pickups that are available in bridge and neck variations.

The pickups use two calibrated alnico magnets with a custom coil wind to achieve a warm, vintage sound which is tonally similar to guitars in the 40s and 50s. The Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90s also have a vintage, worn look about them, and they’re available in either black or cream.

These pickups cost roughly the same as the Gibson ’57 classic plus pickups, and they’re also well-suited to Gibson guitars. They will suit the Gibson guitarist who is looking to recreate a vintage sound and requires some control over their dynamics with their picking hand.

The pickups are less suited to guitars like Strats, which would require some modification before fitting them in.

PROS

  • Uses two alnico magnets to produce a warm but sparkly midrange sound.
  • Replicates the original pickups of the 40s and 50s, giving you a classic tone.
  • Available in black or cream, to suit your guitar.

CONS

  • If you are looking for the twang of a single-coil pickup, this won’t give you that.
  • Some guitars will need to be modified to fit p90s in.
  • Might be a bit too ‘retro’ looking for some people’s tastes.

Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red (Best Stratocaster Pickup)

Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red 3-Pack S-S-S Pickup Set Black

The Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red pickup set is perfect for a Stratocaster.

These pickups are colour-coded red, silver and blue, with the red one being suited to the bridge position, the silver to the middle and the blue to the neck position.

The red pickup has a higher output than the others, giving it a full, powerful sound. The silver pickup has a pronounced midrange as well as quite a high output and the blue one has a lower output, giving it a warm tone that’s ideal for the neck position.

They’re passive pickups, so you won’t need batteries, and they also use lower energy magnets than you usually find on pickups. This will lead to an increased sustain, so will be perfect for those who want to sound anything like Dave Gilmour.

The blue-silver-red pickup is a reasonably priced set, that will be perfect for Stratocaster players who require a variety of different sounds to play a versatile selection of genres.

It will be less suited to players who are interested in achieving the heaviest possible sound, and the set will be unsuitable to players on guitars other than Strats. 

PROS

  • They read a larger proportion of the string than other pickups, whilst picking up less outside noise interference.
  • Lower energy magnets than normal pickups, leading to an increase in sustain.
  • Designed to fit a Stratocaster.

CONS

  • Inappropriate for guitars that aren’t Strats.
  • The increase in sustain might not suit all genres.
If you want to see more P90s, check out our full list of best P90 pedals.
 

Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickup (Best Telecaster Pickup)

Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickups

The Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele pickup set is a collection of noiseless passive pickups that work to get the best out of a Telecaster.

These single-coil pickups use alnico magnets which are enamel-coated to produce a vintage sound, but they combine this with Fender’s ‘Noiseless’ technology to reduce the hum associated with vintage sounds.

The pickups also include flush-mount pole pieces to ensure an even string response, and they come with installation hardware to make fitting them as easy as possible.

Fender’s Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickup are reasonably priced, similar to the blue-silver-red pickup set and they will be well suited to Telecaster players who love the vintage twang but also want a warm attack, an absence of hum and a non-aggressive midrange.

It will be less suited to heavy players who are looking for something with a high output and beefy tone.

PROS

  • Alcino magnets combined with Fender’s ‘Noiseless’ technology produces a vintage sound, without the hum.
  • Enamel-coated magnet encourages a warm, vintage tone.
  • Includes flush-mount pole pieces for an even string response

CONS

  • Won’t suit guitars that aren’t Tele’s.
  • Some people might prefer less advanced technology if they’re seeking a truly authentic vintage sound.

James Hetfield Humbucker (Best Pickups For Metal)

EMG JH James Hetfield Signature Guitar Pickup Set, Black Chrome

The James Hetfield humbucker set from EMG is made for metal.

Reasonably priced in a similar region to the Telecaster and Strat pickup sets mentioned here, the James Hetfield Humbuckers are potted, versatile and easy to install. They can be fitted easily to a guitar that already has humbuckers, without even using a soldering iron.

These pickups are active, giving them a higher output and a heaviness but they still have the clarity and punch of passive pickups.

As they’re humbuckers, there is no humming feedback present with the James Hetfield pickup set and they use steel pieces rather than bar magnets, which produces a tight attack and enables a clean low end.

The James Hetfield Humbucker set will be perfect for heavy metal guitarists who like to play loud.

It will be less suited to guitarists looking for something to be gentle with, or to those who dislike the idea of relying on batteries.

PROS

  • Active pickups give a higher output than passive pickups, making them perfect for metal.
  • Solderless installation.
  • Humbuckers give out no unwanted feedback.

CONS

  • There’s a lack of dynamic range compared to single-coils.
  • They require a battery.

LR Baggs Anthem Tru-Mic (Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup)

L.R. Baggs ANTHEM Acoustic Guitar Pickup

The L R Baggs Anthem Tru-Mic is different to the other pickups here as it’s designed for use with an acoustic guitar.

This pickup blends a piezo with a mini microphone, which enables you to fine-tune your EQ as the piezo brings out the higher frequencies and the microphone gives you a bassy warmth.

The microphone includes noise-cancelling technology, to reduce any unwanted feedback and it can be fitted beneath the soundhole to keep your guitar’s original aesthetic.

The L R Baggs Anthem Tru-Mic doesn’t come cheap, but it will be perfect for the professional, gigging musician who requires a high-quality amplification of their acoustic instrument.

It will be less suited to acoustic guitarists who are on a budget and might benefit more from buying an electro-acoustic guitar for a similar price.

PROS

  • Volume and blend controls, as well as a battery indicator and a phase switch give you excellent control over your output.
  • Works as a microphone and a piezo in a small plastic house, giving you tonal transparency and the ability to fine-tune your EQ.
  • Uses noise-cancelling technology to eliminate feedback.

CONS

  • Might prove a bit tricky to install.
  • The bright tone it encourages might not suit all players.

Summary

As you can see, which pickups you go and buy will largely be determined by what kind of player you are, and what guitar you play.

If you use a Strat, your main choices are the DiMarzio DP419 and the Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red pickup set. The Dimarzio DP419 is a noiseless single-coil pickup, which is well-suited to the bridge, neck or middle position and offers the feedback-reduced benefits of a humbucker with all of the twang and brightness of a single-coil. Lace Sensor’s Blue-silver-red set has three different single-coils with slightly different output levels. They use low-energy magnets which lead to an increase in sustain. Both the Dimarzio DP419 and the Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red set are passive pickups.

If you play a Telecaster, the Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele is similar to the Strat’s DiMarzio DP419s in that it offers no-hum benefits with all of the brightness of a single-coil. This reasonably priced pickup set can turn your Tele from a noisy instrument to a clear, cutting and crisp Tele sound.

Gibson players have the choice of the Gibson ’57 Classic Plus or the Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90s. The Gibson ’57 Classic Plus pickups are humbuckers with a high output to offer a silky smooth, clear sound. The Antiquity P90s offer a more vintage tone and look, and have a lower output than the Classic Plus pickups, giving you more control over dynamics.

Metal players need look no further than the James Hetfield humbucker set. These pickups are active, so can play loudly and heavily whilst maintaining quality, and they’re also super-easy to install to metal guitars such as Jackson, Ibanez or Gibson guitars.

We only included one acoustic guitar pickup here: the high-quality L R Baggs Anthem Tru-Mic. This combines a piezo pickup with a miniature microphone to achieve a rich, transparent and professional level amplification of an acoustic guitar.

Whatever style of music you play and on whichever guitar, we hope that this has helped you to find the right pickups for your genre and your gear.