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7 Best Active Pickups For Metal (&#; Killer High Gain Tones)

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  • In the market for a pair of active pickups for metal and high gain?
  • We&#;ve narrowed down 7 of the best of the best.
  • Also, consider checking out our post on Active vs Passive Pickups if you need a refresher.

Active pickups are preferred by metal guitarists everywhere. Their circuitry incorporates an active preamp to boost the signal, typically powered by a 9 V battery. The extra boost and higher output are great for the heavily distorted sounds needed for metal. Active pickups also use fewer coils of wire, therefore reducing noise to a minimum, another important consideration for metal guitar.

What Are The Best Active Pickups For Metal?

I recommend the Fishman Fluence Modern Active Humbuckers as the best all-around active pickup for metal. Punchy bass, pristine highs and loads of bite &#; you can&#;t fault it. For those on a budget, the EMG 81 Active Ceramic Bridges are a great option. For those that want the cream of the crop with no budget constraints, look to the EMG JH HET.

In this article, we&#;ll go over the candidates for the 7 best active pickups for metal.

  1. Fishman Fluence Modern Active Humbucker (Our Pick)
  2. EMG 81 Active Ceramic Bridge Humbucker (Budget Option)
  3. EMG JH HET (Premium Option)
  4. EMG 85 (Most Versatile)
  5. Fishman Fluence Classic Humbucker
  6. Seymour Duncan Mick Thomson Blackouts
  7. EMG 66 MetalWorks Active Alnico V Humbucker

1. Fishman Fluence Modern Active Humbucker (Our Pick)

Fishman has emerged as one of the best options for active electric guitar pickups today. The Fishman Fluence Modern Active Humbucker is a fantastic set of pickups that are further proof of this company&#;s high quality of products and expertise. This is our pick for best active guitar pickups for metal.


  • Active electronics for modern, noiseless tone
  • Multi-voice Fluence Core provides two selectable voices
  • Power supply delivers + hours of use and recharges in a few hours
  • Direct replacement design requires no permanent guitar modification
  • Alnico V magnets


The Fishman Fluence Modern Active Humbucker set of pickups offers high output tone without the pitfall of buzz and inductance issues that come with many active pickups. This set of pickups allows you to operate your volume with smoothness, and get the most useful sounds out of your guitar, even at low settings. 

Each pickup in this humbucker set provides a choice of two unique, selectable voices. The Modern Alnico pickup gives you a modern active humbucker and a unique wide-range humbucking tone at the flip of a switch. On the other hand, the Modern Ceramic pickup features a modern active pickup tone with punchy bass, pristine highs, and a touch of bite.

It also features a high-output humbucker tone made for distortion. The voices can be accessed by any number of standard switches or push/pull controls and can be added as a completely reversible modification to most guitars.

Fishman designed its Fluence Series of pickups as a novel way to approach pickup building. To deliver their wide range of tones, noise-free performance, and low-impedance signal, these pickups require a power source and specially designed pots.

Inside the package, you&#;ll find the pickups, wiring, push-pull and standard 25k potentiometers that are ideal for the active circuitry, and more.

2. EMG 81 Active Ceramic Bridge Humbucker (Budget Option)

When it comes to active guitar pickups, few companies have the respect and reputation of EMG. They offer a vast array of active pickup models, and the EMG 81 Active Ceramic Bridge Humbucker is a great choice for those short on cash. If you want to have true passive pickup tone but cannot splurge, try the EMG 81 on the bridge position.


  • High-output active ceramic humbucker
  • Versatile 
  • With beefy ceramic magnets and close aperture coils 
  • EMG’s solderless installation makes swapping your guitar pickups a breeze
  • Short shaft for Fender-style guitars


The EMG 81 Active Ceramic Bridge Humbucker is a great choice for guitarists that want the magic of an active pickup but that are also short on cash. 

This pickup features ceramic magnet material and is capable of producing great detail, fantastic high end cut and solid sustain. These are the exact traits that great passive pickups exhibit, all of this for a fraction of the cost. 

The EMG 81 is a passive pickup for the bridge and features a shaft design for Fender style guitars. A great choice for those on a budget.

2. DiMarzio DP Super Distortion (Best Value)

Larry DiMarzio started a revolution with the Super Distortion pickups. It became the best choice for heavy metal and one of the first replacement pickups ever. The original version came out in the early seventies and featured three conductors. It still is a fantastic choice for humbucker pickup for those on a budget.


  • Best budget option
  • Ceramic magnet
  • The original high output pickup
  • Thick bass, boosted mids
  • Variety of color options


This DiMarzio set has been used by the likes of Ace Frehley, Al Di Meola, and Paul Gilbert. It was released to the public in a time where there were only your typical stock pickups, whether single-coil or humbuckers. It was the first pickup specifically designed to drive a tube amp into total overdrive. A high-output pickup that became the paradigm.

This pickup has a great blend of power and tone with balance. The mids are thick and boosted, the lows are big and the high end feels fat. The Super Distortion delivers solid results, both as a neck and bridge pickup.

It features a 4 conductor wiring that allows access to split and series-parallel modes. This is one of the best guitar pickups available for players on a budget that still need high gain to achieve their desired tone. It comes in a wide range of colors to choose from: black, white, purple, blue, cream, and camouflage.

3. EMG JH HET (Best Premium)

In Metallica frontman and guitarist James Hetfield asked EMG to crate a low-key pickup set that captures the clarity and punch of a passive pickup but still retains a classic tone. And the EMG JH HET was born. This is one of the best pickups for metal and our premium options for players that want the best.


  • James Hetfield signature pickups
  • Huge attack, tone, and sustain
  • Cleaner bass sound
  • Variety of steel cap options
  • Enhanced legendary guitar tone


The James Hetfield signature set features the JH-N for the neck position and the JH-B for the bridge position. The JH-N has individual ceramic poles and bobbins that offer a larger core. This achieves more attack, higher output, and a fuller low end for the neck position, ideal for that chunky and powerful palm-muted chords associated with metal.

On the other hand, the JH-B uses the same type of core but with steel pole pieces. This results in a familiar tight attack but with less inductance for a clear low end. This humbucker set is one of the best metal pickups in the market. It offers punch and clarity, providing you with legendary guitar sounds.

The JH Signature Set comes in six stainless steel cap options to choose from. These are gold, chrome, brushed gold, brushed chrome, and brushed back chrome. These in turn offer a great variety to players and instrument builders. A premium pickup set that features the sound that defined a generation.

4. EMG 85 (Most Versatile)

A fantastic option for active pickups, these EMGs are a sophisticated alternative to the legendary EMG 81. This company is the clear leader in the field of active humbuckers, and quite popular with metal players. This pickup offers exceptional tone and versatility and is one of the best humbuckers available for metal.


  • Alnico V magnets
  • A sophisticated version of the EMG 81
  • Very versatile
  • Active humbucker
  • Huge output


The EMG 85 features close aperture coils loaded with Alnico V magnets to provide a muscular growl and smooth lead tones for guitar players. It is a high output pickup with a killer tone, and offers you a wide range from Thrash Metal all the way to blues, making it the most versatile pickup on this list.

This pickup is often used in the neck position, but it also offers great results in the bridge position. A very popular pairing is using the EMG 85 on the neck and the EMG 81 on the bridge. It also pairs well with other active pickups, especially with other models from EMG. This is one of the most beloved guitar pickups for metal and has been a staple of heavy metal guitar for years.

Despite being an active humbucker just like the EMG 81, this pickup offers a very warm tone with a hefty low end. This makes it a great choice for pickups and not only for metal guitarists. It is also great when it comes to excess noise and keeps clear and focused at increased volumes.

5. Fishman Fluence Classic Humbucker

Fluence pickups were designed to be free from hum, noise, and frustrating inductance issues that plague most wire-wound pickups. It seeks to reveal a pure musical tone. In order words, they deliver that classic humbucker sound but without the noise.


  • Hum and inductance issue free
  • 3 selectable voices per pickup
  • Pickups include single-coil voice
  • Classic tone for metal
  • Direct replacement design


The Fishman Fluence Classic Humbucker pickups are passive and feature Alnico V for the neck and bridge positions. This set provides three different voices per pickup. The Fluence Classic Humbucker Bridge&#;s first voice is reminiscent of a vintage pickup, providing luxurious warm tone with clear and tight articulation. The second voice is a hot-rodded humbucker, with a beefy and overwound tone. And the third is a single coil sound with a vintage vibe.

The neck pickup allows you to choose between a vintage PAF, a versatile humbucker, and a warm single coil. And best of all. with these pickups, you can use long guitar cables without any quality loss. This pickup will also let you operate your volume control with smoothness, even at low settings.

These pickups require a power source and specially designed pots to deliver their noise-free performance and low impedance signal. The power supply delivers over hours of use and recharges in a few hours. All of this is included on the page with every pickup. It comes with wiring, push-pull and standard 25 k potentiometers, and more. It is a great guitar pickup for metal, especially for those that want very quiet pickups.

6. Seymour Duncan Mick Thomson Blackouts

These pickups offer crushing sound to take your metal playing to new levels. Make your guitar wail whether you play death metal or trash metal. Designed by Seymour Duncan with guitarist Mick Thomson from Slipknot.


  • Extremely quiet
  • Tight low-end
  • Made in California
  • Great and improved sustain
  • Output from original Blackouts


These signature humbuckers pickups have the power of the original Blackouts but with Thomson&#;s unique sound in mind. They come with ceramic magnets and active electronics for massive power and reduced excess noise. They feature a very tight and clean low-end which sounds fantastic with heavily distorted palm muting, among other techniques.

These pickups will do a fantastic job for many metal players as they come in 6 and 7-string configurations. They sound fantastic with the guitar tuned on drop-D and normal tuning as well. Besides having a tight low end, they also feature a top end with more cut without being harsh or scratchy. The harmonics sound rich and they have more articulation than a typical active pickup.

These Blackouts feature an Alnico V magnet for the neck position and a Ceramic magnet for the bridge position. If you crank up the gain you&#;ll get more aggressive mids and greater sustain for your metal solo. They come with all the hardware needed for installation, including pots, hardware, output jack, and more.

7. EMG 66 MetalWorks Active Alnico V Humbucker

The EMG 66 MetalWorks Active Alnico V Humbucker pickup is for those that want all the benefits of an active pickup but with a PAF flair. If you are looking for a killer set of pickups to play metal, but also want a bit of a &#;classic&#; feel and response, then the EMG 66 MetalWorks Active Alnico V Humbucker is for you.


  • An active neck pickup built with Alnico V magnets
  • Big PAF-like tone
  • Warm, smooth mid-range and expansive lows
  • Defined sound with headroom and punch
  • Solderless installation system 


The EMG 66 MetalWorks Active Alnico V Humbucker pickup is sort of its own man in the world of active pickups. This pickup features Alnico V magnets and ceramic poles and can give you that classic PAF-like sound that generations of guitar players have sought out while keeping all the active pickup benefits.

The EMG 66 features great definition and presence of sound, with a punch and headroom that will make your guitar sing. Additionally, the EMG 66 features a warm, smooth mid-range, and expansive low range. 

In the looks department, EMG&#;s brushed steel cap provides the classic look of a humbucker while housing an active powerhouse. You&#;ll get the best of both worlds with the EM Alnico tone and feel on an active humbucking pickup.

Are Active Humbuckers Better For Metal?

Most metal guitarists opt to use humbucker pickups, due to the higher output and decreased noise compared to single-coils. Metal guitarists also tend to favor active humbuckers as they are less prone to hum and background noise. They are constructed to run hot while retaining clarity and detail at the same time.

Sours: https://producerhive.com/buyer-guides/best-active-pickups-for-metal/

Whatever kind of high-gain tone you&#;re looking for, we have a pickup that will help you to achieve it, whether it be our SH-8 Invader &#; which is considered to be one of the most aggressive passive pickups ever &#; or our SH-6 Distortion which will give you powerful output and yet retains the clarity of your playing. We also have many models available in 7- and 8-string versions. If you want the power of active pickups our line of Blackouts will give you a combination of more output without sacrificing any of your tone. You can get our standard Blackouts in an 7- and 8-string versions too, and they&#;re available in both Phase I and Phase II sizes. Check out the videos and sound clips below to hear each pickup and decide which one is best suited for you.

If you&#;re after a very specific look to match (or gloriously clash with) your guitar&#;s finish, our 6-string humbuckers are available in an assortment of colors. Our Synyster Gates Invader allows you to mix and match not just the color of the bobbin but the color of the pole pieces as well for a truly unique look.

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Sours: https://www.seymourduncan.com/blog/latest-updates/help-in-choosing-a-high-gain-pickup
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Best pickups for metal our guide to upgrading for high gain heaven

If you’re trying to realign gravity through the metallic force of your riffs or navigating long-distant galaxies on a pilgrimage of sustain, the best pickups for metal guitar-playing will only help you ring louder and prouder. 

While there’s no arguing vintage-style components can still add-up to some glorious heavy tones, pickups designed for metal come packing a more modern, high-output tone straight out of the box. Swapping pickups is non-permanent and one of the most affordable ways to upgrade your guitar: get it right and you can easily transform an average-sounding plank into a colossal beast.

Naturally, each has its own merits – some aimed at tight thrashy precision, others more bright and abrasive to help cut through, and then there are pickups which cater to more organic warmth; almost as musical on the clean channel as they are with high gain. So if you’ve been thinking about a pickup change to ride the lightning or reign in blood, here are our picks for the best metal pickups on the market today…

  • Best metal guitars: the 10 most hell-raising electric guitars for shredders
  • Best electric guitar pickups: single coils, humbuckers and Ps

What are the best pickups for metal right now?

Our list has been compiled based on hands-on experience, and while there are many options out there, there are some definite ‘must-try’ pickups. Launched in , the Fishman Fluence series has reimagined the electric guitar pickup in ways that truly thrill – offering multiple voicings and guaranteed consistency across their production. The Fishman Fluence Modern Set has become one of Fishman’s best-sellers and it’s very easy to see why. In our opinion, it’s an absolute game-changer.

There’s no pickup set as legendary among metalheads as the EMG 81/85 active pairing. Which may explain why the Fluence Moderns sound like they were designed with these in mind. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all…

The best pickups for metal: buying advice

Magnetic electric guitar pickups fall into two main camps: active or passive. Passive pickups are the traditional kind, fitted and usually soldered to the other components in your guitar. Active pickups, meanwhile, make use of their own preamp to give you a boosted and tone-sculpted output. 

These require powering from a 9-volt battery which is housed in your guitar (although external power supplies are also available). Active pickups are popular thanks to their consistent output and tone, reducing the variables from different guitar bodies. But some players also find that active models produce a more compressed sound – not necessarily a bad thing, and really a matter of taste. 

That said, the lines between active and passive have started to blur, with more passive pickups aiming to produce the heightened output, articulation and clarity of actives and certain active models aimed at players who prefer the sound of less exaggerated or scooped passive pickups. Truth be told, there’s never been this much choice in sculpting your tone – which can only be a good thing.

It’s definitely worth looking at your favorite guitarists and reading into why they swear by certain brands or which models were used on your favorite album. Anyone who has listened to bands like Slipknot, Metallica or Machine Head will already be familiar with what an active, ceramic pickup set sounds like, dialing into apocalyptic levels of punch and distortion. 

Many of the bigger pickup manufacturers offer samples and demos for comparison on their websites, which is a great way to gauge which one will work best for you.

The magnet material will also play a big part in the overall tone. Alnico pickups – made with an alloy of aluminium, nickel and cobalt – are known for smoother and more organic sounds. 

Ceramic magnets, however, are used for maximum output and aggression – perfectly suited to heavy metal tones, though can be less impressive on cleaner settings as a result of the harmonic saturation and compression. 

Of course, there have been some truly mesmerizing metal tones recorded with single-coil pickups – just ask Yngwie Malmsteen – but most of today’s metal players swear by humbuckers, so without further ado here’s a round-up of our favorites.

The best pickups for metal you can buy today

1. Fishman Fluence Modern Set

The most revolutionary pickup since the original design…

Price: $ (set)/£ | Type: Active multi-voice humbucking | Magnet: Alnico V (neck), Ceramic (bridge) VIII

Unbelievable metal tones

Super quiet cutting-edge technology

Active and passive voicings

Powered by optional lithium pack

Switching options could be too many for some

If you’re the kind of player who wants both active and passive sounds in one set, look no further. What makes the Fluence series so innovative is how they’re made – stacking multiple layers of printed coils and interconnecting them instead of relying on the traditional method of wound copper wire coils. 

As a result, each set is perfectly consistent across its dynamic and tonal range – with an alarmingly impressive accuracy and ultra fast attack response. The optional power pack is a welcome addition too – allowing the pickups to be powered via a USB-enabled back plate and saving the hassle of keeping a stock of  9-volt batteries to hand. 

There are of course signature sets designed for the guitarists in Killswitch Engage, Deftones, Animals As Leaders, Lamb Of God and more – but the Moderns are a great all-rounder for your 6-, 7- or 8-string metal needs.

Watch our Fishman Fluence Modern review video

2. Seymour Duncan JB SH-4

Invented back in , this gem has stood the test of time…

Price: $79/£85 | Type: Passive humbucking | Magnet: Alnico V | DC Resistance: k

One of the best-selling pickups of all-time

Options for coil splits

Not enough low-end for some players

It might not be marketed as an especially metal pickup, but the list of heavy players who have endorsed the JB over the years speaks volumes, from Tool axeman Adam Jones, Alice In Chains singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell and thrash pioneers Megadeth. 

What makes the JB such an enduring favorite is perhaps its versatility, with better clean and blues tones compared to higher output active pickups, and still a decent amount of bite.

Often paired with the ’59 or Jazz Neck, some might say the JB is more of a rock pickup than a metal one – with nowhere near as much low-end as some of the other options in this list. 

But it certainly has a way of cutting through like nothing else, which is why – almost five decades on since its invention – the JB remains a firm favorite.

3. EMG 81

Arguably the definitive sound of metal…

Price: $99/£79 | Type: Active humbucking | Magnet: Ceramic

The most popular bridge pickup for metal

Powerful ceramic magnet

Less-inspiring cleans

Famously used by metal legends like Zakk Wylde and Kerry King as their go-to bridge pickup, the EMG 81 has been the first link in the chain for some of the heaviest tones ever recorded. 

Usually paired with the Alnico V-equipped 85 in the neck position, the active ceramic tones are truly jaw-dropping – with the perfect EQ scoop for razor-sharp riffing and squealing harmonics.

Perhaps the only downside to the 81 is how it sounds through a clean channel, with many finding it too sterile and compressed – especially when compared to what passive pickups can offer. 

But, then again, if you’re only interested in going at full throttle and have a preference for dialling in as much gain you can muster, this EMG best-seller will handle anything you can throw at it.

4. Bare Knuckle Pickups Warpig

The UK’s leading bespoke manufacturer comes out swinging

Price: $ (single) $ (set)/£ | Type: Passive humbucking | Magnet: Ceramic (bridge) or Alnico V (set) | DC Resistance: k (neck) k (bridge)

Custom options

As hot as passives can get

Ceramic/Alnico magnet choice

Slightly more expensive

Delivering on its promise of “brutality with clarity”, the Warpig is one of Bare Knuckle’s highest output humbuckers – available in Alnico V neck and bridge forms, as well as the full-throttle ceramic bridge. 

While they behave a lot like active pickups, with no shortage of sustain and clarity, they’re still passive – and pack some impressive clean and blues tones.

Like all Bare Knuckle pickups, the Warpigs come with an array of optional extras – from burnt chrome and battleworn camo covers to different bobbin and pole screw colors. So if you’re looking for extreme power with more of a customized and boutique feel, this could very well be the one for you.

5. DiMarzio Super Distortion DP

The original aftermarket pickup still impresses all these years on…

Price: $79/£79 | Type: Passive humbucking | Magnet: Ceramic | DC Resistance: k

An old classic  


Not as powerful as others

Introduced in , the Super Distortion was one of the first aftermarket pickups in production and effectively put Larry DiMarzio on the map. Thanks to its ceramic magnets, it offers around twice the power of a typical PAF-style pickup, enough to drive the input stage of any guitar amp harder – making it hugely popular among hard rock, metal and shred players. The list of famous users over the years includes Adrian Smith, Phil Collen, Paul Gilbert and Zoltan Bathory.

“I was 12 years old in when Larry created the first replacement pickup to be released onto the guitar scene with his Super Distortion model,” remembered Steve Vai on Instagram. “It rocked everybody’s world. And I was 16 when I was able to buy my first DiMarzio replacement pick up. From then on, DiMarzio pickups are virtually all I’ve used.”

6. Fishman Fluence Classic Set

A less extreme version of the popular Modern set…

Price: $ for set of 2/£ | Type: Active multi-voice humbucking | Magnet: Alnico V

Three voicings 

Vintage tones with active articulation 

Steel Panther-approved

Voice switching may put some players off

While the Fishman Moderns could very well be the best pickup for metal right now, there’s a lot to be said for its Classic set – which, as you might expect, bring active clarity to more vintage-flavored tones. 

The Fluence Classics also come with three voicings – carrying a chimey neck sound, a hot-rodded bridge tone and single-coils for both humbuckers into its cutting-edge design.

“Fishman pickups are the best pickups on the market as far as I’m concerned,” Steel Panther’s Satchel tells us in the promo for his Charvel Pro-Mod DK (fitted with the Classic set). 

“They sound heavy metal. You could probably plug it in to your grandmother’s refrigerator and just turn the refrigerator up to 10, and it would sound like a modded Eddie Van Halen on Van Halen 1. How cool is that?!”

7. EMG 57/66 set

A more open take on active humbuckers from the metal specialists…

Price: $/£ | Type: Active humbucking | Magnet: Alnico V with steel/ceramic pole pieces

Incredibly versatile 

Single-coil and humbucker tones 

Judas Priest-approved

Require battery power

In , EMG released a new active set that was designed for players who wanted the hard attack and fast response of powered pickups, while still retaining the warmth and musicality of passives. 

For those who loved the punch of the 81/85 set but needed better cleans and more versatility – truth be told, a common complaint with the Zakk Wylde set – EMG had truly delivered the goods.

In a promotional video for EMG made on the year of their release, Judas Priest guitarist Richie Faulkner recalled how he hadn’t tried them before walking on stage and “knew within three seconds this was the open and unforgiving sound” he’d been looking for, praising their consistency and character to “speak in the right places”.

8. Seymour Duncan Mark Holcomb Alpha & Omega

Djoin The League of Djentlemen…

Price: $ (set)/£ | Type: Passive humbucking | Magnet: Ceramic | DC Resistance: k (neck) k (bridge)

High output passive 

Perfect for down-tuned riffs 

Ultra-clear chord definition

On the more expensive side

Periphery’s sound is one built on absolute precision and clarity, so it’s no wonder that guitarist Mark Holcomb’s ceramic-powered signature set deliver on those fronts. 

The Seymour Duncan Alpha & Omega are available for 6-, 7- and 8-string guitars – so whether you prefer regular guitars, baritones or instruments with more than six slots in the nut, this pair will have you covered and sit among the hottest passives on the market. 

While they are EQ’d to retain detail in lower tunings, they’re just as impressive in standard.

Sours: https://www.guitarworld.com/features/best-pickups-for-metal
High and Low Output Guitar Pickups - What's the Difference?
high output pickups

There are many decisions involved when choosing the right pickup. Vintage or Modern? Hum cancelling or not? What kind of EQ do I want? But one of the most misunderstood is choosing between a vintage output or high output pickup (or somewhere in between). Most people think that high output pickups are only for heavy music and that lower output pickups are for everything else. Once we understand what a higher output pickup does for the sound (and our playing), we might be better equipped to make a choice.

To understand this, we might look at the differences between how different guitarists get their sound. Some use a tight, modern, distorted amp with tons of preamp gain. Some use more vintage-y clean amps and get their sound from pedals. What kind of guitarist are you? And why not always use a high-output pickup? More output is good, right?

High Output Pickups

High Output Pickups

Well, as with picking out any gear, it depends on the style of music. Heavy music depends on a strong signal hitting the amp, getting distorted further by the preamp tubes (or the modeled preamp tubes), and then getting pushed into the power amp. High output pickups, like the Invader, are by design meant to provide consistent output- albeit a very high one. This is perfect for heavier music which uses speed, definition, tightness in the low end, and volume for the solos as its trademark.

We know that more winds that a pickup has, the higher the output. However, the more winds it has, the more mids and lows you gain, and the more highs you lose. To keep the frequencies balanced, you might have to go active.
high output pickups

Active pickups like Seymour Duncan Blackouts do this with an internal preamp designed to boost and EQ the signal. As a general rule, guitarists who love humbuckers (especially bridge humbuckers), have no use for a tone control (or even volume knob!) and downtune to D or lower have pickups especially made for them. These pickups will provide all the gain they need to make their amps sound the best, and to rock with the best metal tones available.  Pickups such as the Hot Rails allow Strat or other single-coil guitars to punish their amps without having to route out space for a full size humbucker. No longer do you have to have a pointy axe to play the heaviest metal.

The other side of the coin is the vintage or medium output pickups. Why would someone choose a lower pickup when you can have ‘more,&#; right? One word: dynamics. There are lots of players who mine the sonic desert with just the guitar’s volume or tone knob. Lower output pickups don’t affect the string’s vibrations the way high output pickups with their strong magnets do. So, in a sense, if the string can vibrate more freely, you can increase sustain. Lower output pickups can allow you to play complex chords with some overdrive and still hear the individual voices.

Also, since high-output pickups have only recently gained popularity, it is a fair bet that every classic rock recording was done with vintage or medium-output pickups. Players who use overdrive (instead of distortion), either through driving a low-wattage amp hard or from a pedal, generally love the tone and sustain from vintage or medium output pickups. Plus, when using passive pickups, you have more choices of EQ curves since you don’t run into the attenuation of treble that you get with high-output passives. More choices, in other words.

We might be able to boil this all down to this: for heavy styles, use higher output pickups. For anything lower gain than that, explore the vintage and medium output pickups. But you know what? Art is created when people break the rules. And rock is all about breaking the rules.

Sours: https://www.seymourduncan.com/blog/tips-and-tricks/high-vs-medium-output-pickups-is-more-better

Gain pickups high

For decades, the stock pickup on your guitar was the one you were stuck with.

None of them were really perfect. The Fender–style single coil snapped and sparkled but revealed a 60–cycle hum when run through enough gain. Its predecessor, the Gibson P–90, sounded beefier but suffered the same issue.

Of course, hum was never an issue with the classic PAF Humbucker that Seth Lover designed for Gibson in While that would prove just fine for guitarists all the way through the ‘60s, the rise of high–gain amps and artists’ desire for dirtier tones would lead to some serious questions about the PAF Humbucker’s true power.

When the music world came to and realized that guitarists didn’t have to live and die by stock pickups, an explosion of innovation ignited the market. After–market pickup companies started designing higher output pickups for the hard rock and metal guitarists who demanded them.

The high–output pickups of the ‘70s and ‘80s would become so popular that they’d start coming standard in manufactured guitars.

Tech–savvy pickup manufacturers like DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and EMG provided guitarists with a wide range of options that would ultimately help shape the tone of metal and hard rock music from the ‘70s onward. These are the lauded high–output pickups that stood the test of time.

DiMarzio Super Distortion

Today, DiMarzio's marketing strategy behind its Super Distortion pickup is simple: “The pickup that started it all.”

With a measurable output standing tall above pickups of the day, the DiMarzio Super Distortion was designed to coax more overdrive out of an amplifier.

DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbucker

Larry DiMarzio’s simple yet major innovation was using a ceramic magnet instead of the period’s more popular AlNiCo 5 and AlNiCo 2 magnets. DiMarzio also used a great number of winds on the coil, sculpting a sound designed to push low–gain amplifiers into earlier breakup.

The result is widely regarded as the industry's first mass–produced replacement pickup, becoming a smash hit among guitarists as early as , when longtime DiMarzio user Ace Frehley's guitar tone on “Rock & Roll All Nite” and Kiss' subsequent “Alive!” record captivated the world of rock.

Soon after, Iron Maiden's Dave Murray would carve out a home in his Fender Stratocaster for the pickup, signaling the onset of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal during the late s and early s.

The Super Distortion remains in production today, still acting as a gateway for many into the world of replacement pickups.

through Seymour Duncan JB, Distortion, and Invader.

Around the time Larry DiMarzio's Staten Island pickup company began to take off, a guitarist with a knack for re–winding pickups was making strides of his own.

The year was and the guitarist was Seymour Duncan, a young luthier who had cut his teeth at Fender's Soundhouse Research & Development division starting seven years prior.

was the same year that Seymour Duncan's first mass–produced humbucking pickup, the JB, was launched. Some say that “JB” refers to Jeff Beck, others say it stands for “Jazz/Blues.” Either way, the AlNiCo 5–based JB represented was designed to push guitar amps into singing overdrive while providing enough versatility to allow for volume knob and picking dynamics.

By the time Seymour Duncan introduced the SH–6 Distortion pickup in , it was becoming clear what guitarists were after. Like the DiMarzio Super Distortion, the SH–6 used a ceramic magnet to balance cutting–edge output levels with a distinctive upper–mid spike, providing guitarists with new levels of clarity and cut while respecting the demand for more aggressive, saturated tones.

Seymour Duncan SH-8b Invader Bridge Pickup

The Duncan Distortion would be followed up almost immediately with the Invader model in It was armed with oversized pole pieces, overwound coils, and not one, but three ceramic magnets. This made the Invader great for bass frequencies and lower–midrange thump, resulting in a never–before–heard fullness from an electric guitar.

All three models are still produced by Seymour Duncan today, and each boasts a discreet fan club of high–profile players.

Guitarists ranging from Megadeth's Dave Mustaine to Avenged Sevenfold's Zacky Vengance have been spotted with the Duncan JB. The Duncan Distortion's legacy was cemented early on thanks to Randy Rhoades, whose buzzsaw tone was nearly as influential as his formidable chops. The Invader, too, found its way onto signature guitar models such as Schecter's Synyster Gates Avenger.

The company also would go on to introduce 7–string and 8–string models of each pickup to accommodate the demands of guitarists with extended range instruments, keeping each design relevant to this day.

EMG 81 and 85

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south of Seymour Duncan's headquarters, electronics aficionado and musician Rob Turner was hard at work pioneering a pickup design completely unlike anything heard before: the active pickup.

EMG pickups was launched by Turner in as “Dirtywork Studios,” with the EMG SA single coil pickup and EMG 58 humbucker released shortly thereafter.

The EMG 58 in particular represented a step forward in pickup design, with Turner realizing his initial dream of marrying existing pickup technology with an onboard preamp powered by battery. On top of the tonal benefits, these active pickups were designed to completely eliminate hum, reduce risk of electrical shock, and compensate for long cables, which typically degrade input signals.

EMG pickups were found on Steinberger's headless guitars in the early s and were fiercely marketed toward Los Angeles session players like Steve Lukather, whose custom pickup set remains in production.

But it wouldn't be long before EMG struck gold in the metal community with its flagship models, the EMG 81 and 85, released in Those pickups were immediately popularized by metal giants such as Zakk Wylde and Metallica's Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield.

EMG's pickups quickly became popular among metal guitarists due to their combination of dynamics and clarity — a necessity as the s and s spawned more extreme styles of metal across the globe.

EMG 85 Humbucking Active Guitar Pickup

What immediately drew metal guitarists to active pickups? The answer, simply, was output. More output from the pickups means that more power hits the input stage of an amplifier.

EMG's active pickups quickly became known for their wide frequency response and low noise levels, designed with weaker magnets than conventional humbuckers that could be boosted significantly by that onboard preamp. Weaker magnets also made for reduced string pull, which, in turn, boosted sustain.

Those active pickups’ wide frequency range would lend itself well to onboard equalization that would appear on more and more metal guitars, with knobs dedicated to bass, midrange, and treble frequencies.

Another interesting innovation that appeared on these pickups were rail–style steel bars replacing pole pieces. This meant that no signal would be lost when strings were bent, since the bar was continuous, not limited in size like the pole–pieces that were previously standard in pickup design.

This rail design would catch on with the likes of Duncan and DiMarzio for their hum–cancelling single coil pickups and humbuckers alike.

A wide range of guitar manufacturers would go on to make the time–tested combo of an EMG 81 and 85 stock on a variety of models, including ESP, Schecter, Epiphone, Ibanez, and Jackson. With those pickups appearing on all sorts models, from entry–level to professional grade, EMG's ubiquity within the world of metal remains unparalleled.

Present Day: A Market Flooded with Options

Fast forward to , and thousands of options exist for guitarists looking to alter their sound by way of replacement pickups.

The industry's biggest icons — DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and EMG — continue to push boundaries on all sides of the spectrum. Duncan's first foray into active electronics — the Blackout series — has proven quite popular among metal guitarists, for instance.

Manufacturers have also capitalized on the the surging popularity of both 7– and 8–string guitars. EMG's / series is a standard for extended range instruments alongside Seymour Duncan's passive offerings, including not only the aforementioned Distortion and Invader, but also its Black Winter, Sentient, Pegasus, and Nazgûl lines.

Meanwhile, DiMarzio still makes a convincing case for itself as a leading pickup manufacturer, with several custom models tailored to meet the demands of guitarists, such as an Evolution for Steve Vai and a Crunch Lab for Dream Theater's John Petrucci.

This doesn't even scratch the surface of other pickup manufacturers, ranging from England's Bare Knuckle Pickups to Texas’s Rio Grande Pickups. These smaller manufacturers do their part as inheritors of a tradition started by Larry DiMarzio’s design for the Super Distortion: to blend great tone and high–output in a package that captures the imagination of guitarists across the world.

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Mojotone 44 Magnum High Output Humbucker

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