Updated by Bobby
Recently updated on October 5th, 2020
Checked product links for availability and made minor changes to article copy and formatting. All product links as of this date are current.
Best Guitar Pickups: Top Pick
Fishman Fluence Modern Humbuckers
Fishman is reinventing guitar pickup design with the Fluence series. The stacked coil technology gives you the benefits of both passive and active pickups in one of the best-sounding sets we've ever heard.
In an electric guitar there’s no single part that has more say in the quality and type of tone you produce, than pickups.
Aside from strings, pickups are also one of the most replaceable parts of your guitar.
While the process usually requires some basic soldering, pickups can be swapped out for upgrading your sound, or simply pivoting to a different type of tone without a ton of technical effort.
You might want something heavier, more bluesy, or better for clean tones.
Maybe you’re just replacing really cheap stock pickups.
Whatever the case, guitar pickups are a major consideration when it comes to your electric guitar, especially when you start to develop your own playing style.
In this article, I’m going to talk about exactly how you can choose the best guitar pickups for your situation and what factors you’ll need to consider.
Best Guitar Pickups: Top 7 Picks
Fishman Fluence Modern Humbuckers
Seymour Duncan Invader Pickups
Seymour Duncan Hot Rails (Strat or Tele pickups)
Seymour Duncan Antiquity (Strat or Tele pickups)
EMG 57 and 66 Active Pickups
DiMarzio Twang King Telecaster Pickup Set
Fishman Fluence Classic Humbuckers
1. Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker Pickup Pair
The technology Fishman uses in their pickups is fairly new, as they've abandoned the traditional copper wire winding in favor of stacked coils. This has resulted in an extremely clear-sounding pickup that produces some of the best tones we've ever heard. Fishman is truly in a class by themselves with this technology and easily our favorite recommendation.
Read the full review: Fishman Fluence Modern Humbuckers
IDEAL FOR: Metal and modern styles
2. Seymour Duncan Invaders Guitars Pickup Set
Seymour Duncan's Invader pickups are an aggressively-voiced, high-output humbucker that produces a really smooth distorted tone. This is one of our favorite pickups for Les Paul electrics and modern playing styles, especially for those who run a lot of heavy distortion through their signal. Here's a clip of Bobby playing them on his PRS:
IDEAL FOR: Budgets, metal, and modern rock
3. Seymour Duncan Hot Rails Stratocaster Guitar Pickups
Seymour Duncan's Hot Rails come in either a Telecaster or Stratocaster form, both of which do a great job making those guitars more versatile. They're a high output ceramic magnet that can also be dialed back to a more bluesy, true single coil tone. We like them for both and Fender and Squier single coil upgrades, especially for those who want their Stratocaster or Telecaster to be a little heavier and crunchier.
IDEAL FOR: Upgrading a Fender or Squier Stratocaster
4. Seymour Duncan Antiquity Pickup Series
For fans of vintage tones and more subtle, bluesy clean sounds, Seymour Duncan's Antiquity pickup series has become a go-to in recent years. They've even got the worn vintage look down to a science, which works particularly well with their Stratocaster and Telecaster single coil sets. Most run an Alnico 2 magnet with a lower DCR (output).
IDEAL FOR: Upgrading a Fender or Squier Stratocaster
5. EMG 57 and 66 Active Humbuckers
One of EMG's most popular active pickup sets is the 57 and 66 humbucker pair which combines an Alnico and Ceramic magnet for a smooth tone that also sounds really good in a lead guitar context. They're popular with heavy rock and metal players like Zakk Wydle and the guys from Metallica, all of whom have their own EMG signature humbuckers. They make a great Les Paul pickup upgrade, and also ship with EMG's solderless installation system.
IDEAL FOR: Modern tones and/or upgrading an Epiphone Les Paul or SG
6. DiMarzio Twang King Telecaster Guitar Pickup Set
As the name would indicate, DiMarzio's twang king Telecaster pickup is a high-output, twangy pair that really brings out the character and right-hand technique of Telecaster electrics. Blues and country playing styles are the best fits for this type of single coil, which we'd recommend for upgrading any stock Squier or even some of the Fender branded pickup models.
IDEAL FOR: Telecaster twang, country, blues, and all cheap Tele upgrades
7. Fishman Fluence Classic Humbucker Pickups
Like the Modern versions of the Fluence, the Fishman Fluence Classic set uses the same stacked coil technology, though are voiced with a slightly softer output. Again, the clean tones with these pickups are so good that you'd be hard pressed to find a style where it doesn't fit. The Fluence series is always going to be a significant upgrade over just about any guitar with an HH pickup configuration.
IDEAL FOR: Epiphone Les Paul and SG mods, classic rock, and '80s metal
Telecaster pickups are a unique design, partly because the Telecaster has such a unique and well-known tone profile. These are nine of our favorite pickups for dual single coil Telecaster electrics.
A collection of references for finding pickup installation resources and wiring diagrams for all types of pickups and configurations.
How do pickups work?
In simple terms:
Guitar pickups are a collection of magnets wrapped thousands of times in a very thin copper wiring. This is sometimes called a “coil” which insulates the magnet and then “broadcasts” a magnetic field around the strings of the guitar.
The poles (more on these later) focus a magnetic field on each string.
This magnetic field creates a current in the pickup when the strings vibrate.
Immediately this current travels through your guitar cable and into your amplifier’s preamp before it’s finally amplified through a power amp and projected into open air through a speaker.
A quick review:
- Magnet poles and copper wire
- Magnetic field around strings
- Electric current
- Cable, preamp, power amp, and speaker
Since the current originates with your pickup, pickup design has a lot to say about what the final product will sound like.
In this article we will look at those designs, how they impact tone, and which ones might be more (or less) ideal for your situation.
Single Coil VS Humbucker
Almost every pickup can be put in one of these two categories:
- Single Coil
Humbuckers were designed in the ‘50s by wiring together two single coil pickups with opposite polarities, which was primarily used as a method to cancel out the noise that is often associated with single coil pickups.
For several decades Gibson made the most visible use of this design while Fender focused primarily on guitars that used the single coil versions.
Today, humbuckers are widely accepted as the “heavier” of the two designs, often used for metal and hard rock. They’re frequently found in Ibanez, PRS, ESP LTD, Gibson, and Epiphone electric guitars.
Some characteristics of humbuckers include:
- Longer sustain
- Thicker, heavier sound
- Less noise
- Higher gain
- More ideal for distortion
Despite the benefits of humbuckers, single coils are sought after for different reasons, primarily based on their unique tone profile and advancements in technology that have greatly reduced their excess noise as well.
Characteristics of single coil pickups include:
- Brighter, crisp tone
- More ideal for clean tones or low gain
- More emphasis on picking definition
- Better for vintage styles
Keep in mind, these are conventions and not rules. You can get noise-free single coil pickups that are good for metal and even cleanly-voiced, vintage humbuckers.
These are just the general differences between the two types, which should be noted for your own stylistic leanings.
- For those into rock and heavier styles, or rhythm guitar players, I’d advise going with a humbucker design.
- If you’re more of a lead player or into styles with less gain, the single coil variety might serve you better.
Active VS Passive Circuits
Remember the current we mentioned earlier?
This current or “voltage” can actually be generated in two different ways:
- With the magnet by itself (passive)
- With the magnet and a preamp (active)
For buying purposes, most pickups are passive.
I would also note that most passive pickups don’t point out that they’re passive. It’s just assumed. However, all active pickups are clearly labeled and marketed as such. Some concerns you’ll need to keep in mind about active pickups are the following:
- They require a 9V battery to run (usually lasts more than a year)
- Requires additional space in the cavity of your guitar (extra wiring and the battery connector)
Which one is better?
Comparing active and passive pickups from a tone quality perspective is difficult.
Some advantages of active pickups include the following:
- Higher output
- Clearer tone
- Sharpened attack
- Increased sustain
But as I mentioned earlier, there’s some added inconvenience with the battery and extra wiring. Active pickups also tend to be more expensive while a lot of players won’t totally understand the difference in tone. For some passive to active pickup comparisons, the tone difference is subtle.
Generally speaking, I would say EMG and Fishman are doing the best work with active pickups. If you’re a bass player or you’re into the heavier metal and rock styles, those brands might be worth exploring.
Types of Output
In a guitar pickup, output is directly related to the amount of copper wiring surrounding the magnetic poles. More wire means more output.
You’ll often see these pickups described as “hotter.”
As you’re browsing pickups in a shopping context, you’ll generally see three types of output listed:
Vintage is the weakest of the three output types and generally found in single coil pickups that are meant to mimic the sounds of older pickup designs. For example, many of the Fender Stratocaster pickup sets are meant to mimic a vintage-style output.
Types of Magnets Used
We have two broad categories of magnets to consider that encompass most of the guitar pickups on the market:
Alnico magnets are the most widely-used in guitar pickups, with several different types producing different levels of output. Ceramic magnets have a heavier output than most Alnico versions and are commonly used in pickups designed for heavy rock or metal.
Here are some more specifics on the different types of Alnico pickups and what they sound like:
- Alnico 2: Second weakest, less string pull, and ideal for vintage tone
- Alnico 3: Weakest, lowest amount of string pull, and ideal for vintage or ‘50s tones
- Alnico 4: Second strongest, balanced EQ, and tight highs and lows
- Alnico 5: Highest output, balanced EQ, and brighter response
Magnet Pole Layout
There are a lot of different ways you’ll see magnet poles laid out in a pickup.
Here are just a couple of the more popular:
- Single Poles: Single magnetic pole at each string position can be flat, staggered, covered, or beveled
- Rails or Blades: Single metal bar positioned vertically to cover all six strings can show up in flat, dual, or recessed versions
While layout doesn’t play a huge role in your pickup’s tone profile, it does have some measure of say in the overall output and the aesthetics of your guitar.
If you’re talking about humbuckers, there are two types of wiring to keep in mind:
For most humbuckers, parallel wiring is the default, leaving series wiring to be more of a nuanced modification.
Here’s the difference between the two:
- Parallel: Signal is split in the beginning providing a brighter response with a slightly less hot output
- Series: Signal travels a linear path through each individual coil which creates a warmer sound and thicker output
Personally, I like the sound of a series wiring, but you should also keep in mind that this only applies when both pickups are engaged (usually the middle position of a pickup selector).
Location of Pickups
When you’re talking about modding a guitar, you’ll need to consider the existing pickups and where they’re located on a guitar’s body.
For a simple reference, here’s how most pickup locations break down:
Regardless of the distinction between humbuckers and single coils, most guitars have at least two of these locations available.
To understand how it works out in actual guitar pickups, you need to understand pickup configurations.
We’ll cover that next.
Understanding Pickup Configurations
Pickup configurations relate to the different ways that electric guitar bodies are designed to hold pickups. These are dependent on the three positions we mentioned above - bridge, middle, neck - and are abbreviated based on the use of either a humbucker or single coil.
For example, a Fender Stratocaster with a humbucker at the bridge position and two single coils at the middle and neck positions would be abbreviated as: HSS
This is what it means when you see a “Fender HSS Stratocaster.”
If there are only two letters listed, it’s assumed that the middle pickup is omitted.
Here’s a list of common pickup configurations:
- HH: Humbucker at the bridge and neck positions (Gibson Les Paul)
- HSH: Humbuckers at the bridge and neck position with a single coil in the middle (Ibanez Iron Label or S series)
- SSS: Single coils at all three positions (Fender Stratocaster)
- SS: Single coils at the bridge and neck positions (Telecaster)
Choosing the right pickup for your electric guitar means you’ll need to carefully consider your existing pickup configuration and buy accordingly. In the next few paragraphs we'll cover some more information as it relates to buying pickups and getting a good fit for your guitar.
Which humbuckers are best?
Of everything we've mentioned here, and all the pickups we've tested, the best humbuckers (not to be confused with single coils) would have to be the Fishman Fluence Modern humbucker set. While we could certainly change this given the advancement of technology, the Fishman design is currently our top pick.
HSS or SSS: Which one is better?
You'll notice a lot of guitars, particularly Fender Stratocasters, will be listed with either an HSS or SSS pickup configuration.
For those not sure, here's what those refer to:
- HSS: Humbucker + Single Coil + Single Coil
- SSS: Single Coil + Single Coil + Single Coil
This can only work in guitars with three pickup positions at the bridge, middle, and neck. But is it better to have a humbucker at the bridge or a single coil pickup? It depends largely on the style of music you play, allowing you to make a case for either one.
The Case for HSS
Having a humbucker at the bridge of your guitar will make your tone heavier and thicker, perhaps better for more modern playing styles like rock or heavy funk. It'll likely reduce the brightness of your tone, and provide a boost to the lower end frequencies while increasing output.
The Case for SSS
The more common arrangement of pickups, especially in Stratocaster style guitars, is the three-part single coil setup. This puts a single coil at all three positions, including the bridge.
How do I choose pickups for my guitar?
All of the factors we’ve considered should help you choose the best pickups for your own style, playing preferences, and existing pickup configuration.
To summarize that a bit, let’s look at some broad conventions that might help you narrow down your options.
Based on the type of guitar you have: (H = humbucker and S = singe coil)
- Stratocaster: HSS or SSS
- Telecaster: HH, SS, or HSS
- Les Paul/SG/PRS: HH
- Ibanez/ESP LTD/Other: HH, HSS, SS
Based on your playing style and musical preferences:
- Vintage/Classic Rock/Softer genres: Single coil pickups, lower output, Alnico magnets (especially Alnico 2 and 3)
- Rock/Metal/Heavier genres: Humbuckers, high output, active electronics, Ceramic and Alnico 5 magnets
- Blues/Heavy Funk/Pop/Moderate genres: Single coil or humbuckers, moderate output, Alnico and ceramic magnets
Based on your budget (estimates of typical cost):
- Humbucker sets (one for bridge and one for neck): Between $175 and $250
- Single humbuckers: Between $60 and $125
- Telecaster single coil sets: Between $100 and $200
- Stratocaster single coil sets: Between $125 and $225
Tips for Making Pickups Sound Better
Whether you've added a new set of pickups to your guitar or you're just trying to improve the tone of your existing configuration, this section covers how to get the most out of the pickups in your electric guitar.
Pickups are designed to magnetize the vibrations of your guitar strings or "pick them up" and transfer them as an electrical signal. If the strings above your pickups are old and worn out, the quality and clarity of those vibrations are going to suffer as well. One of the simplest ways to make sure you're getting the most out of your pickups is to treat them to a new set of strings every so often.
Read more: How Often to Change Guitar Strings
Wiring and installing your pickups can be tricky, though there are quite a few wiring diagrams and resources you can use for making sure you get it done right. Installing correctly will guarantee the pickups are going to produce the best sound possible.
For old pickups, particularly humbuckers, you can lose sound quality because of dirt and dust. This can easily be solved by cleaning the pickups at regular intervals, depending on how often you play.
Are rusty pickups bad?
What about pickups that have accumulated rust? This can happen from moisture, water damage, or even sweat droplets from your hands. This isn't necessarily "bad" but it can damage the pickup and cause rust over time. You can refer to the same article I linked to above on pickup cleaning for help dealing with pole rust as well.
What about really cheap pickups?
All of the above suggestions could also apply to making really cheap pickups sound better. Though getting a good tone out of cheaper pickups, that usually come stock on a lot of mid to low-cost guitars, is a lot more difficult. Since pickups are one of the primary sources of tone, there isn't much you can do to improve their sound. If your pickups just don't sound good, and you've checked off all of the above recommendations, a pickup upgrade might be in order.
Do pickups really make a difference?
As I mentioned in the above paragraph, an electric guitar's pickups are one of the original sources of your tone, which means it's hard to cover up a bad set that naturally doesn't sound good.
Thus, it stands to reason that pickups absolutely make a difference in your guitar's sound, perhaps more than any other part of your rig.
This is why a cheap electric guitar can improve just as a result of upgraded pickups.
Squiers, mid-range Epiphones, and PRS SE electrics are all great pickup mod candidates.
How long do guitar pickups last?
Pickups don't tend to lose their tone quality by age alone. They can be impacted by dirt, sweat, and rust which is why it's good to clean them once in awhile. But generally speaking they don't have a default lifespan, particularly the passive pickups that don't run off a battery. As long as they don't break or have a loose wire, they should last decades.
Something to Add? Questions?
Have an electric guitar pickup in mind that you think should be included?
Maybe a lesser-known or boutique brand that we haven’t heard about?
Leave it in the comments and we'll consider adding it to our best guitar pickups list.
We’re always interested in hearing about unique and interesting pickups and parts. You can also use the comments section below for recommendations or questions about the pickups we've already listed.