As you can imagine, there are hundreds of electric guitar picks to choose from, of which many are specifically designed for metal guitarists. From classics to power metal to nu-metal to djent – metal vastly varies in its subgenres. Fortunately, the one thread common among each of these styles is the heavy riffing, assertive guitar tones, and aggressive sounds.
While guitars may get the lion’s share of attention, no metal player would dare to undermine the importance of electronics, especially a good pickup. And as far as metal-ready pickups go, the rock-solid humbuckers reign supreme on account of their robust resonance and hot-output.
Except for a few daredevils, you’ll notice that metal guitarists almost exclusively prefer humbuckers for their ax. The list is as long as it is impressive when it comes to “made-for-metal” pickup. In fact, there are 10+ artist-signature pickups that bring you a step closer to the sound of legendary guitar players like Dimebag Darrell, Dave Mustain, James Hetfield, Kerry King, Zakk Wylde, Mark Holcomb, and many others.
They’re all sold as a set of two humbuckers, one for the bridge and another for the neck position. If you idolize their iconic sounds, you need to look no further than their signature model. As a metal guitarist, you need to identify the sound you are gunning for, especially since metal is an umbrella term with diverse subgenres. This applies not only to the pickup tone but also to how it responds to your genre/style, playing technique, and its interaction with the rest of your rig.
We’ve meticulously handpicked the ten best pickups for metal for guitarists hankering for high gain and massive firepower. The features we’ve considered include tone, versatility, price, and performance. So, let’s take a look at the 10 best metal guitar pickups in 2020.
Table of Contents
#1 DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion
We’ll kick off our list with a metal classic – the DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion because this pickup has been around for almost 50 years and shows no signs of wear. Launched in 1972, this passive humbucker is among the earliest aftermarket pickups to hit the scene. Ever since, it plays a pivotal role in the popularity DiMarzio enjoys today, especially among metal guitarists.
The DP100 is ideally suited for melodious and smooth styles of playing. It’s a passive bucker that has reigned as a bestseller for many decades, enjoying popularity among rock and metal players. Moreover, it has been used by the likes of Paul Gilbert and Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden).
The tonal qualities of this pickup draw from a blend of its ceramic magnet and overwound coils. Unlike the DP100, most modern pickups have completely shifted to using alnico magnets. But back in the 70s, this was the combination for a mid-rich and fat distortion tone.
While this may not be ideal for ultra-gain seekers, it can provide sufficient power to drive your guitar amp in most hard rock and metal subgenres. However, it is more suited for vintage and classic metal tones as compared to the heavier metal genres.
Moreover, it is also available as DiMarzio Super Distortion S and Super Distortion T. These are stacked versions that will fit any single-coil guitar like the Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster. Props to DiMarzio for repackaging this design for Fenders or similar super strats and eliminating the need to re-route or recut any part of the guitar.
- Classic sound and familiar tones
- Very affordable price tag – Best Budget Option
- Highly versatile passive humbucker
- Lower output compared to others on the list
- Great value for money
#2 Seymour Duncan Blackout
The Blackouts need no introduction to the seasoned metal musician. These active humbuckers are designed for the fat and heavy tones that metal guitarists pine for while eliminating the common issues on noise and feedback. They are among the highest rated metal pickups and are popular for their ultra-high-output in the metal/rock community.
They were designed to raise hell and kick amps over the edge while doing so and they do this in style. This monstrous pickup is cradled in an elegant black epoxy casing with a uniquely tuned preamp that gives it a characteristic response.
The Blackouts sound deep and punchy, with overtones galore. They are dynamic and sensitive and will respond to nuances in your technique. The overall tone is thick and it lends well to high-saturation of distortion tones with just the right amount of crunch.
From the Mick Thomson Set to the Jeff Loomis 7-string Set to the AHB-1s: you will find a wide range within this style to suit your taste. The pickup ships with all the hardware needed for installation. You can access the official website for a quick tutorial on how to refit them in your active-pickup guitar.
The Seymour Duncan Blackouts are modern-sounding versatile pickups that offer headroom and output with a well-defined tone. Metal guitarists will enjoy their LiveWire-like tone as they dominate the mix with their face-melting riffs through these active humbuckers.
- Sleek and elegant design
- High-quality components
- Good for saturated distortion
- Tone: Modern and versatile
- Great value for money
#3 Seymour Duncan “Invader” SH-8
Seymour Duncan’s handmade-in-California SH-8 pickups are a popular choice among hardcore guitarists who like thick and deep tones. Built for power, this made-for-metal pickup consistently ranks among Amazon’s bestselling items in the category, and for good reason.
Be it thrash, power metal, deathcore, or 6, 7, and 8-string guitars – the humbucker delivers thundering tones and sheer power in the bridge position. This high-output of the SH-8 is derived from its top-notch design that includes 12 large metal oxide pole pieces, three large ceramic magnets, and heavily overwound coils.
Numerous metal guitarists have vouched for its massive output, zero hum/feedback, and ear-splitting volumes. For rhythms, it promises great sustain with a fat and mid-rich tone. For riffs and solos, it offers clarity that shines through the thick and gnarly distortion tones used in modern metal.
Overall, the SH-8 is a must-have for guitarists who want the aggressive looks, heavy-duty metal tones, and loads of subsonic punch. It delivers an exemplary performance in the bridge position and can be used as a set or paired with other options for the neck pickup.
- Unique and aggressive looks
- Ceramic magnet
- Tight low end and great clarity
- Ideal for heavier sub-genres
- Great value for money
#4 EMG JH – James Hetfield Signature Set
When you get the EMG JH, commonly called the “Het Set”, you know exactly what you are paying for. This set of humbuckers was crafted by EMG for the Metallica frontman and vocalist/guitarist keeping his tonal preferences in mind. This gives you a straightforward reference to understand what you can expect (sonically) if you buy them.
The JH set combines the goodness of open-sounding passive humbuckers with the punch, power, and high-output of active electronics. The silver-chrome brushed finish provides an elegant contrast to massive output and under the casing, you’ll find ceramic pole-pieces in the neck p’up and steel magnets in the bridge pickup.
Intended to be used as a set, the two humbuckers are uniquely designed to complement each other and create an overall tone that is warm, punchy, and versatile. The steel pole pieces of the bridge p’up deliver tight, clean tones with a rich low-end and the ceramic pole pieces of the neck humbucker bring clarity and power when you want to play chords. The EMG JH also boasts of mammoth sustain and exemplary ability to cut through any mix.
The “Het Set” won’t make you sound like Hetfield overnight because his tone is also influenced by the entirety of his rig and his playing technique. But, with the EMG JH, you can be assured that you’ll come one step closer to getting there.
- Metallica/James Hetfield Signature Sound
- Versatile: Works well as a set
- Punchy, rich low-end, and well-defined tone
- Ideal for Metallica fans
- Good value for money
#5 Seymour Duncan Full Shred SH-10
The Full Shred features as the only “medium output” pickup in our list riding on the merits of its focused tones, scooped mids, and exquisite balanced response. The biggest testament to the versatility of this pickup is that it’s endorsed by Mikael Akerfeldt, the frontman of Opeth.
Armed with an Alnico 5 (five bar) magnet and a nickel-silver bottom plate, it rings with a clear treble without compromising the tight low-end. Add this to your double-humbucker metal guitar and you’ll find some exemplary warm tones.
It is available in three models – neck (SH-10n), bridge (SH-10b), and a trembucker (TB). The can be used individually and they sound great as a set. However, this design works extremely well in the neck position if you just want a bright humbucker that can produce articulate notes and well-defined tones.
All variations of the pickup are vacuum wax potted to ensure that they are quiet and noise-free. On the whole, they not appease guitarists who play ultra-heavy metal subgenres, but they sound great for hard rock and metal, especially classic and power metal.
This neck pickup pairs well with the Full Shred bridge, but for those willing to explore, you can combine it with other high-output SD pups like the Invader or Duncan Distortion. Moreover, it sounds even better on a 7-string guitar in the middle position. It lends a lot of clarity to chords and arpeggios when the selector is in the neck position.
- Available as a set or in 3 individual options
- Designed for warmth and clarity
- Highly accurate and well-defined tones
- Works great on a 7string as well
- Medium-output with scooped mids
#6 EMG 81/85X Active Humbuckers
Championed by the likes of Metallica, Exodus, and Kerry King, the EMG 85 has been the electronic staple of various metal guitars used in iconic albums. They received an overhaul and were launched as an active version, the EMG 85X, which is a part of the X series preamps. The hot ‘n’ active humbuckers are designed to match the 18v mod for a pristine and natural tone.
The EMG 81 in the neck and 85X in the bridge would qualify as a dream pickup for many metal guitarists, especially those who enjoy scorching riffs and thick low-end tones. With this set, you can expect a smooth/bluesy quality to the neck pickup that has some bite (for crunchy rhythms) and organic-sounding rounded tones from the bridge pickup for riffs and solos.
The 85X in the bridge position simply sounds majestic. Although it shares most of the characteristics of the classic 85, it boasts of additional clarity as it churns out fat and thick low-end with a buttery sonic oomph. You could equate the tone to that of a high-quality open sounding passive humbucker.
As a combination, the 81/85 cover all the bases for metal guitarists looking for warmth and punch in the low end in an otherwise well-rounded tone. If you want a more aggressive tone, you can swamp the 85X with the classic 85 humbucker. In any case, they can be paired with the EMG X preamp, but they can be fitted in any guitar intended for high gain metal.
- Classic/Iconic Set
- Highly Versatile Tone
- Ideal for classic tones of power metal
- Easy to install
- Great Value for money
#7 EMG ZW – Zakk Wylde Signature Humbucker Set
From Ozzy to Black Label Society, Zakk Wylde’s feisty playing has earned many fans along the way. As a forever-EMG guitarist, you’ve probably noticed the combo of the EMG-81 and EMG-85 in his signature bullseye Les Paul.
The EMG-85 for the bridge has an alnico magnet while the EMG81/neck pup has a ceramic/steel magnet type. ZW also includes 2 volume pots, 2 tone pots, and an input ground jack for the p’ups. Unfortunately, they aren’t designed with an integrated battery box so you’ll have to unscrew the backplate to replace the 9V battery from time to time.
The pickups are armed with clips for a simple DIY installation that enables you to avoid paying extra for a tech guy to do it. You can log on to the EMG website to access a video that demonstrates how to install them. It is an easy to follow process that requires no guitar repair/maintenance experience and you’ll be done in an hour.
From there all it’s a matter of plug, play, and wake up the neighbors. These pickups, in true Zakk Wylde fashion, scream awesome. They have aggressive tones and abundant sustain. The midrange has richness and clarity for heavy riffs and the pickups respond well to amp distortion.
While you might be tempted to think they’re only for people who want to approximate Zakk Wylde’s guitar tones, surprisingly, we’ve found them to be highly versatile and suitable to many genres and styles. Overall, the dynamics on the ZW can really bring a listless guitar to life.
- A No-brainer for Zakk Wylde fans
- Hi-gain goodness of EMG81/85 combo
- Great for Metal but highly versatile
- No integrated battery box in the backplate
- Good value for money
#8 Fishman Fluence Modern Active Multi-Voice Humbuckers
Fishman’s cutting-edge Fluence Modern Set is a relatively recent but highly formidable product in the metal pickup market. What makes them so great? Firstly, they are the cream of the crowd if you need both active and passive sounds in one set. You’ll be hard pressed to find another option when it comes to metal-ready electronics.
The real brilliance and innovation of the Fluence Modern p’ups is in the interconnected design of printed coils stacked in multiple layers as opposed to the traditional design that is based on wound copper wire coils.
The upshot of this design is that it results in an even consistency and perfect balance across the dynamic and tonal range. Moreover, the Fishman Fluence Modern yields exemplary clarity and accuracy, which translates into a lightning-fast attack response.
This is the base design for artist signature models for guitarists in Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Animals As Leaders and many others. Either way, the Fishman Fluence Modern Set is an extraordinary option for any metal guitarist looking for a great all-round sound for a 6, 7, or 8-string guitar.
If you prefer a more mellow sound and vintage tones, you can opt for the equally impressive Fluence Classic Set.
- Includes Active AND Passive Voicing
- Power Options – USB backplate and lithium pack
- Numerous switching options
- Original design that is excellent for Metal
- Our pick for the best metal guitar pickups
#9 Seymour Duncan Hot Rails
The SD Hot Rails champion the cause of the single-coil pickups as a formidable option for metal guitarists. You’ll find these on every metal guitarist who owns a strat-style guitar and pines for higher output, mid-range punch, and well-defined tones.
The Hot Rails set includes one SHR-1b for the bridge and two SHR-1n for the neck and middle position. You can buy either type individually if you don’t want the whole set. If you aren’t intimidated by the price tag, this set can be the one-stop solution for lush chords, pristine harmonics, and gut-punching distortion.
The Hot rails are great for nu-metal, thrash, classic metal, and hard rock. They are undoubtedly among the top ‘high-output’ pickups with ceramic bar magnets by SD. Refit these into a strat and you’ve turned a funk-machine into a metal-monster.
The tone of the Hot Rails is full and powerful – a textbook high-output sound with razor-sharp clarity. You could categorize these as high-sensitivity pickups as they will respond to every little movement and subtle nuances of your playing technique. They give you incredible sustain and a rounded tone with a fullness that feels gratifying in the hands of any metal guitarists.
As for installation, there is no rocket science involved. You’ll be able to get the job done without any help in under an hour. If you are a greenhorn with electronics, some visual help from YouTube videos or instructions on the official website will still suffice.
Overall, the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails Strat Pickup set is ideal if you need some major gain and full frequency response. If you have a Strat and you need just a bit more drive for your guitar, buy this set of pickups, and you will certainly not be disappointed. They are the best investment if you have a Strat!
- Best single-coil option for metal
- Ideal for Strat-styled guitars
- Assertive tones with a mid-range punch
- Easy-to-follow DIY installation
- Expensive but high-performance
#10 Seymour Duncan SH13 – Dimebucker
If you loved Dimebag Darrel’s tones in Pantera or Damageplan, you’ll be pleased to know that the SH13 can approximate the sounds of his L-500XL p’ups. Hand-built in California, the “Dimebucker” is a sweltering beast, waiting to be unleashed through a powerful rig.
Dimebag’s playing rides a fat/tight low-end, screeching pinch harmonics and hyper-aggressive highs. This nasty humbucker is every bit in tune with that iconic brutality, but with exemplary clarity and a searing high-end. Incidentally, Mark Morton (Lamb of God) also uses the same pickup.
The SH-13 draws its grunt from two stainless steel blades fitted in a ceramic magnet and a metal mass at the center. The pickup has a high resonant peak for the ear-splitting treble and an abnormally aggressive output thanks to the D.C. resistance. And, when we say hot, we mean 16.25k output hot – a long way from the standard passive humbuckers.
Be warned, while the high output is excellent for distorted tones, the assertive bite of the high end and the presence in the high-mids may not suit everyone’s taste. Typically, these pickups will sound great for super aggressive metal subgenres or thrash metal. In most cases, a noise gate pedal can reign in the output and noise when the situation demands it.
The only gripe one may have with the SH-13 is the plastic casing/housing, which makes it feel a tad flimsier than the other options. However, if you enjoy Dimebag’s tone, the SH-13 is a no-brainer. It can go from clean tones to classic rock to unapologetic face-melting belligerence.
- Extremely high-output brutality
- Ceramic magnet w/ stainless steel blades
- Gnarly distorted tones
- Great for low tunings
- Good value for money
The best guitar pickups for metal are indicative of a massive signal output that translates into high gain tones. While passive humbuckers can do a great job at this, you can take it a step further with active pickups.
The sonic output of active humbuckers holds immense power and “edge”. However, passive pickups or even single coils like the P90s can be a great choice, especially when they are wound and voiced to accentuate the mids. As a matter of fact, Jim Root (Slipknot) has a signature Squire Telecaster that he enjoys playing.
The best way to go about it is to do your research and try as many pickups as you can to figure out which one suits your needs to a T. And when you discover it, it will stay with you for life. I hope this article has helped you find the right pickups for your guitar. As always, happy hunting!