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Best Guitar Pickups to Improve Tone and Clarity 

 August 19, 2021

By  Zen Chung

You have probably been told before that the pickup is the heart of every guitar.  True to this, pickups make the biggest difference to the sound of your guitar than any other component. Although they are quite small, guitar pickups capture and amplify the vibration of your guitar's strings to produce a signature sound that differentiates you from other guitarists.

It's safe to say that if you are reading this article, the chances are that you are on the lookout for a guitar pickup. Whether you intend to upgrade your electric guitar pickup, modify your beloved acoustic guitar into an electrical one, or renew stock pickups on your acoustic-electric guitar, having the best guitar pickups will improve your tone and sound. Since there are plenty of options on the market, we have researched and compiled a list of the best electric guitar pickups to satisfy your needs and ensure that you make an informed purchase.

What is a Guitar Pickup?

A guitar pickup is a device that transforms vibrations and sounds produced by guitar strings into electrical signals that can be amplified. Amplifying boosts the sounds into audible volumes as you're playing the guitar.

The best guitar pickups use coils and consist of six magnetic bars inserted in a black bobbin and an enameled wire sort of material wound around the magnets. This helps to pick up the sound from the six guitar strings better. In addition, you will find that some pickups are made of metal rather than magnets. In this case, there will be a long and narrow magnet placed beneath the bobbin.

Different types of pickups will utilize different methods to amplify the strings. However, before we get into that, let us look at the best electric guitar pickups to meet your needs.

1. Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz Humbucker Set


Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz Set Electric Guitar Electronics
  • The ultimate Hot Rodded humbucker set
  • Matched set of JB and Jazz Neck models
  • Combination versatile enough for classic rock to extreme metal
  • 4-conductor cable and wax potted
  • Alnico V magnets

The Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz humbucker set combine two of the best humbucker guitar pickups to make the Hot Rodded Set. This SH-4 JB focuses on producing a hot and heavy output on the bridge humbucker. On the other hand, the SH-2n  jazz humbucker gives a smooth, more nuanced sound with a glassy tone in the neck position. In turn, both pickups work together to balance out the attacking co-pilot.

The Hot Rodded humbucker set by Seymour Duncan is potted in vacuum wax. This helps to prevent any feedback, especially during a performance. In addition, although the JB and Jazz pickup combination seems odd, the resultant sound is versatile and perfect for blues.

Pros

  • Compatible with most standard humbucker-equipped guitars
  • Has crisp lows
  • Easy to install

Cons

  • Wires have a small gauge
  • The pickups are sensitive to the neck and bridge heights


2. Fender Tex-Mex Strat Pickups



The Fender Tex-Mex Strat pickups are ideal if you are want to upgrade your Strat to give it power and a tone boost. These pickups offer a sonic sound with increased output, shining highs and warm tones that grab your attention like a true Stratocaster.

If you are a fan of Jimmie Vaughan's sound, then you will want to get your hands on this three pickup set that allows you to replace your stock Strat electric guitar pickups conveniently. In addition, the set highlights a reverse-wound middle pickup to provide an aspect of noise cancellation. Finally, the Alnico 5 magnets give dynamics and focus to the sound, while the Polysol-enameled magnet wire offers the familiarity of warm vintage tones.

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Withstands overdrive since it is overwound
  • Versatile and more suitable for stock pickups replacements

Cons

  • The sound features modern materials making it less vintage


3. Fishman Neo D Single Coil Pickup


Fishman Neo D Single Coil Magnetic Soundhole Pickup
  • The Neo-D’s low-profile, high-impedance design needs no battery.
  • Easy installation with no alteration!

If you are familiar with the award-winning Rare earth pickup from Neo D, the Fishman Neo D Pickup should not sound strange since the two are cousins. The Fishman Neo D pickup utilizes a neodymium magnetic structure to improve string balance and shine acoustic clarity. In addition, this single coil pickup has a low profile and a high resistance to an electric circuit. Therefore, it requires no battery to function.

Installing this magnetic soundhole from Neo D is quite easy. It would be best to fit the soundholes as small as 3 7/8" (98.4 mm) diameter. In addition, you can also mount the pre-wired output jack on the endpin. If you are concerned about alterations on your guitar, this passive pickup from Neo D will save you just that as it does not need any alterations to install.

Pros

  • You don't have to drill holes through your guitar to install it
  • Little to no hum feedback
  • Affordable

Cons

  • The cable extends outside the soundhole to the front, which can be irritating
  • Produces some noise since it is a single-coil pickup
  • Only ships to select countries outside the U.S


4. EMG James Hetfield Signature Guitar Pickup Set


EMG JH James Hetfield Signature Guitar Pickup Set, Black Chrome
  • James Hetfield Signature Pickup Set
  • "Stealth" looking set
  • Active tone with the clarity and punch of a passive pickup
  • Familiar tight attack with less inductance for a cleaner low end
  • Solderless install system

If you search for the best electric guitar pickups for metal, you can rest assured that the EMG JH pickup set will make a perfect choice. This stealth-looking set consists of EMG-60 neck pickup and EMG-81 bridge pickup. The pickups ensure capturing the punch and clarity of a passive pickup while still being the iconic EMG active pickups.

The EMG guitar pickup by James Hetfield features singular ceramic poles and bobbins that have a tall and large core than the EMG-60. In addition, the same core is used alongside steel poles on the bridge. This is to produce a high attack on the neck and a clearer low on the bridge.

Pros

  • Gives a passive punch with an active sound or tone
  • Excellent for metal genres
  • Install system is solderless
  • Cancels noise and hum feedback
  • Produces a tight attack while keeping the bass frequencies clear

Cons

  • Requires enough guitar space to fit a 9V battery


5. YMC Humbucker Pickup


YMC Humbucker-Pickup-Chrome Humbucker Pickup Chrome for Les Paul...
  • Compatible with Gibson LP Epiphone Les Paul guitars,Ideal for general or Les...
  • Each pickup includes height adjusting screws and springs
  • Colour: chrome cover with Black Frame
  • Triple wax dipped and vacuum sealed to eliminate any unwanted feedback and...
  • Package Includes: 1 Set of YMC Humbucker Guitar Pickup with screws .

The YMC Humbucker pickup is specifically designed to be compatible with Gibson LP Epiphone Les Paul guitars. Therefore, if you are looking for the best humbucker guitar pickups to replace your Les Paul Style guitar stocks, this will make an excellent choice.

Each YMC humbucker guitar pickup has height adjusting screws and springs. The screws and strings are very helpful during installment to tightly hold the pickup on the guitar. In addition, these humbucking pickups have a beautiful chrome cover with a black frame that fits perfectly on the guitar's body.

To eliminate unwanted hum or feedback, these pickups are tripled wax and sealed in a vacuum. In addition, the YMC humbucker pickup set has a 9K neck pickup and a 16K bridge pickup. This helps to duplicate a warm, classic sound at a higher output.

Pros

  • Excellent quality pickups
  • Affordable
  • The pickups are marked to avoid confusion
  • Has wider spacing for the bridge pickup

Cons

  • Only compatible with Les Paul Guitars
  • Some buyers complained about the neck pickup


How Does An Electric Guitar Pickup Work?

The best electric guitar pickups use magnets (ferrite or alnico) and coils to convert sound to electricity through electromagnetic induction. This results from the electric current flowing through the coil when a magnetic body moves over the magnet. The steel strings in the electric guitar work as magnetic bodies.

Since most guitars have six strings, pickups are made with six pole pieces that create a magnetic field when wound with the copper coil/wire. In addition, the vibration frequency of the guitar strings affects the strength of the electric current. These two aspects work together with the help of the pickup to transform sound into electricity hence the amplification.

What Are the Different Types of Electric Guitars Pickups?

1. Single Coil

Single coil pickups are the original type of electric guitar pickups used till the late fifties. These pickups use a single magnet. In addition, they produce a bright, high note sound that cuts through easily.

A single-coil pickup is extremely sensitive to the guitarist's technique. For this reason, most single-coil pickups are created to capture these subtleties. Guitars that have this type of pickup include:

  • Fender Telecasters
  • Fender Stratocasters
  • Fender Mustang and Jaguar
  • Some types of Yamaha, Airline and Eastwood guitars

It is not easy to use one signature tone to identify a single coiled pickup. This is because they are used widely and sound great in many genres, such as surf and country. However, the downside of using a single coil is that it does not handle high distortion levels like those in metal and hard rock. In addition, you may experience a background hum when using this pickup.

2. Humbucker Pickups

Humbucker pickups are made from two single-coil pickups that are bound in reverse or opposite polarity. The single coils are subjected to a 60-cycle hum, which cancels out the background electrical noise transferred to the amp through the guitar strings.

This noise is also known as hum, hence the name humbuckers. If you are looking for a pickup to use for jazz, a humbucker is a great choice since it has a warmer tone and a more powerful bass frequency compared to a single-coil pickup. In addition, as a result of their high volume, humbuckers are best applicable when playing in genres with a high distortion level, like blues and heavy metal. However, this type of pickup is not compatible with country and surf genres.

Iconic guitars that employ the humbucking technique include:

  • Gibson ES-135, ES-150, and ES-335
  • Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • Gibson SG
  • Some models by Dean, B.C. Rich, Ibanez, Jackson,  Hamer and Paul Reed Smith

3. P90

The P90 pickups fall in between the single-coil and humbucker. In terms of output, they have high output pickups than single-coils but lower than humbuckers. In addition, their tone is much deeper than that of a single-coil, making these pickups more suited for blues and classic rock. However, P90 pickups can be versatile in producing a thicker and grittier sound.

Do You Need Guitar Pickups for Acoustic Guitars?

When used in a small room, acoustic guitars do not need pickups. However, most modern acoustic guitars models have been built for use in large spaces, like concert stages. Therefore, they will need the best guitar pickups to magnify the sound. In addition, it is important to note that, unlike the electric ones, acoustic guitars do not work based on electromagnetic induction.

The best guitar pickups types for an acoustic include:

1. Piezo

This is a type of microphone that lies under the saddle of the acoustic guitar. It converts the vibration of bass strings into a signal with the use of compressed crystal. Piezo pickups produce little to no hum and have a bright sound that makes them perfect for high in treble music.

2. Transducer

This pickup is attached to the soundboard of the guitar and works similarly to the piezo pickup. The difference between the two is that the transducer pickup pre-amplifies the sound. However, you can also expect to get some feedback or hum when using this type of pickup.

3. Magnetic

This type of pickup is similar to the electric magnetic pickup. This pickup allows you to control the areas with more or less magnetic field dominance, increasing the treble, middle and bass levels. However, this dulls the character of acoustic guitars.

How to Choose the Best Guitar Pickups

a). Active vs. Passive Pickups

All pickups fall either under an active or passive guitar pickup. Passive pickups were first to be invented and are used on most guitars. They require no electricity to function since they have coils of wire around the magnets. Strat pickups and Tele pickups are both passive. In addition, if you are using a passive pickup, you will be required to plug it into an amplifier for the sound to be loud.

Active pickups have a battery preamplifier of 9 volts to produce a more powerful output. This is because they rely on an active circuit to boost the general output. Therefore, an external power source is important for an active guitar pickup.

An active pickup gives a higher output than the passive counterpart. In addition, it will also have no noise. However, most guitar players prefer to use a passive pickup to prevent the risk of the sound being too distracted when using active pickups.

b). Tone

Your guitar's pickups have a very significant effect on the sound produced. Therefore, as a guitarist, you should first determine if your guitar's tone is what you need. When you're setting out to purchase a pickup, it is important to be familiar with the tone you are looking for. This will help narrow down your choices by doing away with the guesswork.

c). Pickup or Pickup Set

Pickup sets complement each other and are more suitable if you plan to replace all your current pickups. On the other hand, a single pickup can be matched with other pickups not included in the set. Again, there's no right or wrong. In addition, a single pickup is more on the affordable end than a set.

d). Versatility

Some pickups are designed to produce one tone perfectly, while others can produce various tones. Therefore, it is recommended to analyze what kind of guitar player you are and the genre(s) you intend to focus on. If you are going for one tone only, a specialized pickup is best. However, a multifunctional pickup would be excellent if you want to channel your creativity through numerous tones.

e). Budget

Considering your budget is important before making any investment. For example, while pickups are generally less expensive than expected, the buying price is still costly and may take some time to save up.

Zen Chung


I'm Zen Chung, a piano and violin teacher based out of Plano, Texas. I started this blog because my students (and their parents) kept asking about the best musical instruments to buy online. Look no further I'm here to save the day! 

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