Written by Bobby
Parent article: Best Guitar Pickups
Recently updated on November 20th, 2020
Updated links to pickups and checked for availability. Added sections for explaining passive and active pickups, magnet types, and several other FAQs.
Metal tone is all about high output, gain, and getting your guitar to sound heavy.
Usually, that means you need a guitar pickup set that can handle a high-level of gain and saturating distortion without sounding weak or messy.
It has to keep distortion tight, while putting out a good clean sound that won't drown out melody. This is a balancing act that's usually handled best by humbuckers, as opposed to single coil pickup you might find on a Stratocaster or Telecaster.
That's why this list will focus exclusively on humbuckers.
I'm going to highlight five of the best pickups for metal based on how accommodating they are to distortion and metal playing styles overall.
We'll look at three sets from Seymour Duncan and one each from Fishman and EMG.
Best Pickups for Metal: Top 5 Picks
This is a table of the five humbuckers we've chosen for this list. Note that the orange buttons link to Sweetwater pages for these products, which do not change your shopping experience in any way. It's simply a way for us to support Guitar Chalk while offering you great content.
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Fishman Fluence Modern Humbuckers
Seymour Duncan Invader Humbuckers
Seymour Duncan Jeff Loomis Blackouts
Seymour Duncan Mick Thompson Signature Humbuckers
EMG Zakk Wylde Active Signature Pickups
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1. Fishman Fluence Modern Humbuckers
Instead of the traditional method of wound copper wiring, Fishman uses new pickup construction technology where they stack coils on top of one another inside their pickups.
This has yielded the Fluence Modern and Classic humbuckers, which produce some of the best tones I've ever heard.
Here's a particularly good demo (gets right into it):
Their Modern humbucker sounds like a cross between passive and active pickups, is low noise, and handles distortion like a dream.
You can hear from the above video how tight and percussive the sound is, even with a heavy layer of gain.
By far, they're my favorite humbucker recommendation for metal players who want a low-noise pickup that can handle heavy distortion while also keeping their gain levels sounding tight.
IDEAL FOR: Metal, rock, and rhythm/lead hybrid styles
2. Seymour Duncan Invader Humbuckers
The Invader humbucker set by Seymour Duncan is one of the highest-value buys on this list, with a budget-friendly price tag and an aggressive, high-output voicing.
This is one of our top pickup recommendations for Les Paul electrics and modern playing styles in general, particularly if you run a lot of heavy gain and saturating distortion.
Read more: Seymour Duncan's wiring resources
Here's a clip of me playing them on my PRS for a Disturbed cover:
IDEAL FOR: Modern rock, metal, and heavy power chords
3. Seymour Duncan Jeff Loomis Blackouts
Arch Enemy's Jeff Loomis designed these pickups with Seymour Duncan to be accommodating of his quick, high-energy heavy metal playing style.
However, the Loomis signatures also fair well in a wide range of stylistic application. While they sound tight and focused under piles of gain, they also sport a good base clean tone that enhances pick dynamics and holds a lot of sustain.
It's a great set for metal players who also play a lot of clean picking patterns.
Think sweep picking and arpeggiated chord progressions.
IDEAL FOR: Lead metal and speed
4. Seymour Duncan Mick Thomson Pickups
Mick Thomson's signature Blackouts were designed by Seymour Duncan specifically to handle low tunings and heavy power riffs.
Deep notes sound really tight which helps keep low tunings from sounding too thick or undefined. Palm-mutes sound really percussive and heavy, like you would expect from a metal-voiced humbucker.
Cleans and high melodies come out surprisingly clear, good for single-note runs and sustained chord strumming.
They're an active pickup set that comes with everything needed to install and get started, so there's no additional purchase required.
Keep in mind, active pickups require a 9V battery to run, but those batteries last for a long time, even with heavy playing.
IDEAL FOR: Metal, sustain, and drop tunings
5. EMG Zakk Wylde Active Pickup Set
All active EMG pickups ship with their own solderless installation kit, potentiometers and require a 9V battery to run.
The Zakk Wylde Signature set by EMG is a combination of ceramic and Alnico 5 magnets that produce a uniquely metal sound with a ton of sustain that feels a little less tight than the Seymour Duncan Mick Thomson set.
We like this one set better for lead players who want a little more feedback and "chaos" in their distortion.
The Mick Thomson set is more rhythm while the Wylde set is more lead.
IDEAL FOR: Lead metal, low tunings, and aggressive styles
Difference between bridge and neck pickup?
Generally, an electric guitar's bridge pickup is brighter, emphasizing the higher-end of the EQ while the neck pickup is thicker and heavier, emphasizing the low-end and bass of the guitar's tone.
Technical differences between both pickups - within a single humbucker set - is usually determined by the copper winding (how thick it is) or - in some cases - what kind of magnet is used.
Most humbuckers are sold in pairs with one pickup designated for bridge duties and another for the neck.
However, you can get specific pickups for one position or the other.
Take the DiMarzio PAF for example. This one is specifically for the bridge:
That number on the box - the DP223 - indicates the bridge version of the PAF. The neck version is the DP103. In almost every case you can buy humbuckers as a set, or on their own if you want to mix and match.
Active or passive?
Active pickups, like the Mick Thomson signatures, require a 9V battery to run because they actually produce some of their own power which assists the magnets in picking up the vibration of your guitar's strings.
This usually means active pickups have a higher-output rating (higher DCR) and produce smoother tone that's very accommodating to high levels of distortion and long-winded sustain.
Here's a diagram of the Blackout active humbucker from Seymour Duncan:
Passive pickups don't require a battery and aren't necessarily a bad option for heavier styles. On their own, they just sound less aggressive and put more emphasis on midrange and treble in the balance of EQ.
This difference is part of the reason Fishman Fluence pickups have been so revolutionary.
The stacked coil technology they use produces a sound that seems both active (high output) and passive. You get a heavy, smooth sustain that also produces really sweet, chime-friendly high-end notes, like what you would expect from a single coil Stratocaster pickup.
Are Fishman pickups good for metal?
This design gives Fishman humbuckers a lot of appeal in both clean and distorted tone departments.
The same is true for a wide variety of musical styles, but we especially like them for metal because of the active pickup tone qualities.
The Modern Fluence humbucker set is uniquely voiced for heavier styles, but we wouldn't be disappointed with any of the Fishman pickups in any musical style.
They're great for just about everything, including metal.
Single coil pickups can handle a lot of different musical styles, but they're typically used for cleaner tones and aren't as accommodating of the heavier distortion levels we see in metal.
That's why in this article I've only recommended using humbuckers for the metal style.
This means you're usually going to be using a dual humbucker configuration, like we see in the following graphic.
You have one humbucker at the bridge position and another at the neck position.
Guitars that use this configuration are common, though the most popular brands would include Gibson, Epiphone, PRS, and ESP LTD.
Ceramic or Alnico Magnets?
What about the difference between Ceramic and Alnico magnets?
Does it have any implications for metal guitar players?
I would say, yes.
We see Alnico magnets used more often in most pickup types, but my personal preference - at least for metal guitar styles - would be ceramic pickups.
In my experience they're a little smoother and thicker, where Alnico magnets tend to emphasize a brighter tone profile. When you have the dual humbucker configuration with Ceramic magnets, you're going to have a more percussive, bass-driven tone profile, even in your clean signal.
Ceramic magnets also tend to handle heavy layers of gain better, creating a tighter, more controlled response.
Keep in mind:
I don't avoid pickups simply because they use Alnico magnets.
There are plenty of great pickups that do and are great for metal guitar styles. However, if I see a Ceramic magnet on a spec sheet, I'll give that humbucker a slightly longer look.
Not a right/wrong issue, but definitely a preference of mine, based on first-hand experience.
Conclusion & Summary
The best pickups for metal should have a high (hot) output, produce plenty of sustain, have a percussive and punchy response, and be able to handle high gain levels without causing notes to lose their shape.
In a lot of cases this leads me to recommend a pickup with a ceramic magnet and/or active electronics.
Again, the Fishman Fluence series is probably the best of both these worlds.
They're my top recommendation in most cases, but particularly for metal.
Since pickups are hard to "try out" you need to be as comfortable as possible with the purchase - up front - before you pull the trigger and actually buy a set. In my experience and others that have tried these humbuckers, what we've listed are all proven, reliable options.
Though it's understandable if you still have questions.
Those that do should leave them in the comments section below and I'll try to help out as much as possible.