Written by Bobby
Parent article: Best Guitar Pickups
We're going to highlight five humbucker sets that make great pickup upgrades for Les Paul electric guitars. Keep in mind, this can apply to a Les Pauls from Epiphone or Gibson.
Before we dive into specifics, there are some configuration notes we should consider before replacing pickups.
Namely, we should understand an "HH pickup configuration."
While there can be small discrepancies in size, most dual humbuckers will fit into the Les Paul pickup body cavities that are already carved out. The dual humbucker configuration means we'll use an HH pickup set with one humbucker at the bridge and a second humbucker at the neck position.
Thus, we'll focus entirely on HH sets as we browse for the best pickups for Les Paul electrics.
Best Pickups and Humbuckers for Les Paul Electric Guitars
Les Paul Pickups
Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker Pickups
Seymour Duncan Jeff Loomis Pickups
Seymour Duncan Dave Mustaine Thrash Factor Pickups
Seymour Duncan Alpha and Omega Pickups
EMG Zakk Wylde Signature Active Pickups
1. Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker Pickups
The Fishman humbucker design is completely unique, using a technology that relies on stacked coils without any kind of copper wiring. If you know the basics of how guitar pickups work, this is a remarkable deviation from the norm, but with fantastic results.
As a result of this innovation, the Fluence series is becoming one of the most sought after configurations, able to produce sounds that are cleaner and more refined than traditional wound pickups are capable of. Many guitarists describe is as the best of both active and passive pickup worlds, which makes it a great pickup fit for Les Paul mods.
IDEAL FOR: Lead and rhythm or clean and heavily distorted hybrid playing styles
2. Seymour Duncan Jeff Loomis Humbucker Pickup Set
Arch Enemy's guitar player Jeff Loomis created his signature humbucker set with Seymour Duncan to accommodate speed and energetic heavy metal playing styles. Yet, the pair also handles well in other styles and in a wide range of gain levels.
Particularly those looking for a clear, base clean tone with enhanced pick dynamics will find an ideal fit in the Loomis set.
They work really well with the heavier Les Paul body design.
Country styles can also be a good fit, given the set's sensitivity to picking and right hand dynamics. You'll get a lot of scrapping and snapping, almost like a Telecaster, even without higher gain settings.
IDEAL FOR: Metal, country, rhythm, soloing, and clean tones
3. Seymour Duncan Dave Mustaine Thrash Factor Pickups
Dave Mustaine's signature pickup set is aggressive and thrash-metal friendly, but it also has some warmth and smoothness to it. We like it paired with fuzz distortion sounds, or anything with a softer attack.
Unlike the Jeff Loomis set, right hand movement seems to be de-emphasized, especially when playing through an amp with a heavy distortion load.
Even with the low-end warmth, high notes do have a searing quality to them, giving it some appeal on the lead side as well as rhythm.
Here's a YouTube demo published by Arturo Mawcinitt.
IDEAL FOR: Smooth rhythm, chord progressions mix with intense lead fills
4. Seymour Duncan Alpha & Omega Pickups
Mark Holcomb is one of the guitar players for Periphery, and he helped design the Alpha and Omega pickup set to accommodate his percussive and rhythmically tight playing style. As a result, this set produces a lot of gain and thick distortion without sounding too chaotic or messy. It's a tight pickup that fills out palm mutes and clearly projects each note.
Additionally, the set sounds great on clean settings with slow picking patterns and arpeggios.
For Les Pauls, it does a good job of capturing the chime and high-end appeal the Gibson LP body style is known for.
IDEAL FOR: Rock, metal, percussive playing styles, speed, and all things modern rock
5. EMG Zakk Wylde Signature Active Pickups
Active EMG pickups almost always come with the EMG solderless installation kit, which includes potentiometers. Keep in mind they require a 9V battery to run, but most will do so for months or even over a year. You shouldn't have to change them often.
Zakk Wylde's signature set uses both ceramic and Alnico 5 magnets to get you a distinctly metal sound that's aggressive and pumps out plenty of sustain all over the fretboard.
While these pickups can handle a wide range of tone preferences, they're most at home in the realm of high gain and heavy metal.
IDEAL FOR: Modern rock and metal tones, smooth distortion, and high gain settings
What are Les Paul pickups?
When we say "Les Paul pickups" we're simply referring to pickups that will fit or are compatible with a Les Paul electric guitar, either Gibson or Epiphone. These are usually humbuckers, which are basically two single coil pickups wrapped together and covered so they appear as one rectangular shaped pickup. In other words, the "HH" configuration we mentioned earlier.
These pickups, when placed in a Les Paul, have magnets that pickup the vibration of the strings and transmits those vibrations as electricity, creating the sound you hear out of your amplifier.
In this context, we're looking specifically at pickups that sound good with Les Paul electrics.
Types of Les Paul Pickups
We've already established that pickups for a Les Paul are always going to come from the humbucker category. However, this doesn't mean that all humbuckers are the same "type" of pickup. Generally speaking, there are three different types of humbucker pickups.
1. Active Humbuckers
Active humbuckers require their own power source (usually a 9V battery) and generally produce a more modern, aggressive tone than their passive counterparts.
2. Passive Humbuckers
Passive humbuckers do not require their own power sources, and can run fine without a 9V battery off the guitar's interior electronics. While these pickups can accommodate any style of music, they're more popular in the realm of vintage, retro guitar tones.
3. Stacked Coil Humbuckers (Fishman Fluence design)
The stacked coil design is a new technology by Fishman that bridges the gap between active and passive pickup tone conventions. While these humbuckers are still a bit new to the market, they're innovative enough that they definitely warrant their own category.
Common Humbucker Features to Consider in a Les Paul Context
So now we know that to get pickups for your Les Paul, you'll need to buy humbuckers. We also know that you have three different types of humbuckers to choose from.
But, what else should you consider when buying pickups for this type of guitar? While they aren't necessarily specific to Les Paul electrics, here are some other features worth keeping in mind.
- Wiring: Usually come in two or four conductor wiring
- Magnet type: Ceramic or Alnico (ceramic is smoother while alnico is typically brighter)
- Cover type: Metal, open, or some other style (cover that goes over magnet poles on your pickup)
- Tone profile: Aggressive, bluesy, or subtle? These descriptors tell you how the pickup will sound in your guitar
- Output levels: How loud or intense is the pickup? High, moderate, or low output are all fairly common
Whether you're buying pickups for a Les Paul or some other guitar, all these features are worth considering.
How to Compare Pickups and Humbuckers for Les Paul Use
If you've found a few pickups that look good to you but you aren't sure how to compare them, here are few different ways you might be able to compare and decide between them.
Sound and Tone
Using the list above, which features are you prioritizing? Maybe you want a ceramic magnet? If you can identify some features that you prefer, use them to help narrow down your search.
A more obvious way to help compare and choose different pickups is by price. Most humbucker pairs, required for a Les Paul pickup upgrade, will cost between $150 and $250. Fishman pickups are higher, while Seymour Duncan sets tend to run on the lower end of that price range.
Accolades and/or Endorsements
We've already seen some signature humbuckers in this list, and there are plenty more out there. If you don't find what you're looking for here, perhaps looking at some artist list and endorsements could help you compare and narrow down pickups. Find artists that play Les Paul electrics and see which pickups they've used to mod and customize their sounds. Equipboard is a great place to look for gear specific to certain artists and guitar players.
Pros and Cons of Changing Pickups in a Les Paul
Upgrading or modding a set of pickups on your guitar isn't always a good move, and it's important to weigh the pros and cons before you pull the trigger.
Here's how we'd break down the benefits and drawbacks in the case of upgrading a Les Paul's pickups:
- Potentially better tone quality
- Upgrade is usually easy enough to do yourself
- Relatively cheap way to improve your guitar
- Can get you away from low-quality stock pickups
- Installation process can get tricky
- Some pickups that ship with Les Pauls are nicer than the replacements (see Epiphone VS Gibson)
- Compatibility with different parts can be difficult to predict (potentiometers, wiring, etc.)
Epiphone VS Gibson Les Pauls
One of the biggest considerations for upgrading a Les Paul's pickups is whether that Les Paul came from Epiphone or Gibson. Epiphone Les Pauls are cheaper and typically come with a low-quality stock pickup that can and should be swapped out.
Gibson Les Pauls, on the other hand, almost always ship with a Gibson branded pickup that is nicer than a lot of potential upgrades. For example, you probably wouldn't want to swap out the Gibson '57 or Burstbucker Pro.
Pickups typically in an Epiphone Les Paul
- Stock Epiphone humbuckers
- Low-end Gibson humbuckers
Pickups typically in a Gibson Les Paul
- Gibson Burstbucker Pro set
- Gibson '57 Classic
- Gibson 490 Original
Make sure you pay attention to where your Les Paul came from and what kind of pickups it already has installed. If you aren't sure, take the time to find out the exact pickups you're replacing so you can be certain the replacement isn't a downgrade or lateral move.
Getting the Most out of Your Les Paul Pickup Swap
If you've gotten to this point and you're ready to make the swap for your Les Paul, how do you get the most out of it? What are some best practices for upgrading pickups in general?
Here are a few things we'd recommend:
Take your time with the installation process
Most people can install pickups themselves, even if it requires a soldering iron. Though we would recommend consulting some help if you aren't comfortable with the process, perhaps from a friend or a local guitar shop. Otherwise, if you do it yourself, make sure you take your time with the process and get it right, following wiring diagrams as much as possible.
Consider replacing potentiometers as well
Potentiometers or "pots" are the volume and tone knobs and the mechanism that connects them to the wires in your Les Paul. If you're upgrading pickups, cheaper potentiometers are easy to swap out as well. Consider upgrading those too, though again, make sure to pay attention to the quality of the parts that come stock. Particularly in cheaper Epiphone Les Pauls, stock potentiometers are pretty low quality.
Listen to audio samples first
Before you buy, make sure you listen to some audio samples of the pickup(s) you're considering. Essentially every major pickup manufacturer has audio samples available on their website. You can also check YouTube for product demos (as we mentioned earlier).
Make sure you're not replacing nice pickups
As I've already alluded to, it's important to make sure that you're not swapping out a set of pickups that's already really nice for one that perhaps isn't quite as nice. If the existing set just sounds bad, or if you've bought a cheap Epiphone Les Paul, odds are you're just replacing a stock humbucker set. But if you're not sure, take the time to research the existing part and make sure you get something that's a significant quality improvement.
Swapping out pickups in a Les Paul is a matter of improving quality and getting close to a preferred sound.
Use this guide to figure out which brands and humbucker models will get you closest to the sound you're looking for, while also getting you a quality upgrade over whatever pickups are already installed on your guitar. Keep in mind, you don't want to spend a ton of money upgrading a guitar that is super cheap, though you also don't want to mod out parts from a guitar that's expensive, and therefore already of a decent quality.
You're looking for a Les Paul in that middle ground, perhaps in the $300 to $500 price range that's cheap enough to benefit from an upgrade, but also nice enough that it's worth upgrading and keeping.
If you have questions, feel free to drop them in the comments section below.
- Seymour Duncan Wiring Diagrams, Resource Page
- Arturo Mawcinitt YouTube Channel
- EMG Zakk Wylde and Solderless Pickup System, EMG Product Page
- Seymour Duncan Home Page, Seymour Duncan's Website
- Tosin Abasi's YouTube Channel, Fishman Shootout Demo Video
- Fishman Fluence Technology, Fishman YouTube Video to Demo Pickup Design