Best Guitar Pickup Review – Top Rated Models in 2020 with Buying Guide
This guide will help you find the best guitar pickup and don’t worry, it will help you make the good choice even if you’re short on time. You will also find our opinion about the best acoustic guitar pickup out there. Our team has analyzed the most sought-after models on the market and after careful evaluation, we have come to the conclusion that the EMG JH James Hetfield set of two pickups is the one that will suit most needs. It has a unique sound as it combines the clear tone of active guitar pickups with the rich one of passive models. It’s great for distortion as it produces great attack and high output and the pickups are also easy to mount; you can fit them even if you have no previous experience, especially if you had EMG pickups before. If you, unfortunately, can’t find the first recommendation for sale, you should try the EMG H4 Passive pickup, which is next on our list.
Our Top Choice
This set of pickups is a collaboration between EMG and famous James Hetfield and that ensures its quality. It combines the clear sound of active models with rich tones of passive pickups. The pickups are good at producing more attack and a higher output, great for distortion. They are also easy to put into place, particularly if you’re using EMG models already.
They require one 9V battery to work and constantly changing the battery can become a nuisance.
Being used by one of the most popular guitar players, these pickups provide a clear sound and a high output too.
Offering sweet sounding harmonics, excellent range, and great responsiveness, this pickup is very popular. It combines the soul of a passive pickup with the clarity of an active one. The pickup is loaded with fully-shielded ceramic bar magnets and the coils are over-wounded and that reduces the noise. The volume and control knobs are pre-wired for an easy installation.
It’s a pickup made for heavy modern rock, so it won’t sound great when playing stuff like blues.
Despite being a passive model, the sound produced has no noise and the range is excellent and clear sounding.
The sound of this pickup has been considered a standard in the industry since the ’50s and that is due to the smooth tone. When placed in the bridge position the sound obtained is a velvety one. Enamel-like coated wiring and alnico 2 magnets provide a clear sound and they do well in overdrive as well. This pickup also offers more output than previous models.
The Alnico 2 magnet used can make the pickup sound dark, muddy and sometimes muffled.
Being a reminder of the classic Gibson sound of the late ’50s, this pickup delivers a smooth and consistent tone.
9 Best Guitar Pickups (Reviews) in 2020
Pickups should offer a great sound, but they should also be a good fit for most music styles. We checked what experts had to say about the most popular models; we also analyzed sales statistics and what people generally believe about certain pickups and this is how we got the guitar pickup reviews below.
- 1. EM943260 JH James Hetfield E-Guitar Pickup Set
- 2. EMG H4 Passive Humbucker Pickup
- 3. Gibson Gear 57 Classic Plus Humbucker Nickel Cover
- 4. Luvay Acoustic Guitar Pickup
- 5. Fishman Rare Earth Humbucking Soundhole Pickup
- 6. EMG ZW Zakk Wylde Signature Active Pickup Set
- 7. YMC Humbucker Pickup Chrome for Les Paul Replacement
- 8. DiMarzio dp419 W Micro Handle 6 String Electric Guitar Pickup
- 9. HDE Guitar Pickup Acoustic / Electric Transducer
- Yearly Guide & Report
- Frequently asked questions about guitar pickups
1. EM943260 JH James Hetfield E-Guitar Pickup Set
Coming from the collaboration between EMG and Metallica’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, James Hetfield, this set of pickups should impress any metal fan. Hetfield has always been a fan of EMG products and has collaborated with the company.
In the making of this set of pickups, he wanted something that combined the clear sound of active circuitry with the warm and rich tones of passive pickups. The manufacturers managed to deliver that with these pickups. In the neck position, the pickups produce higher output, a fuller and cleaner low end and more attack.
If you already use other EMG pickups, you will have an easy time replacing them with these ones. The pickups offer more overtones than usual, making everything sound richer. The neck pickup is great for leads and it offers clean tones, excellent for picking chords. And the pickups look cool, too.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($249)
2. EMG H4 Passive Humbucker Pickup
This is one of EMG’s best selling humbuckers and the reason for that is because it’s an excellent pickup to be used in the bridge position where it shines offering sweet harmonics, responsiveness, and an excellent range. It is the sort of pickup that is made for those that love the power of the active 81 model form EMG and the soul of a passive pickup combined.
The characteristic tonalities of this model are given by the over-wound coils that are loaded with fully-shielded ceramic bar magnets. This technology makes everything sound less noisy and thus clearer. It’s the kind of pickup that goes well with a heavy modern guitar song or a big rock one.
Because it’s an EMG, changing one of the company’s other pickups with this one is fast and easy. You can do that even if you’re not an electrician. There are pre-wired volume and tone controls, a battery clip, an output jack, and diagrams.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($99)
3. Gibson Gear 57 Classic Plus Humbucker Nickel Cover
This pickup is a reminder of the Gibson classic humbuckers that first hit the market in 1957. The original models were considered a standard due to their velvety and smooth tone. Exactly like the original pickups, these ones use slightly overwound balanced coils, for the same sound. The place most suited for such a pickup is in the bridge position.
To achieve a smooth tonality that is rich and clean, the pickup uses enamel-like coated wiring, maple spacers, and an Alnico II magnet. Much like the original models, it delivers a good tone in clean or overdrive mode. The pickup is also fully wax potted to eliminate any kind of microphonic feedback.
The advantage of this humbucker compared to its predecessor is that it offers more output. These humbuckers can come with gold-plated guitar pickup covers, nickel-plated or with open coils.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($175.99)
4. Luvay Acoustic Guitar Pickup
This is a different type of pickup, one that can be attached to any stringed musical instrument. It offers you the possibility to transform an acoustic instrument into an electro-acoustic one with ease. It is a device that attaches to your guitar and it works with nylon strings and steel strings too. It even has a control knob that lets you adjust the sound volume, giving you more versatility.
The device is simple to install, as you just have to stick it next to the instrument’s sound hole. It comes with 4 stickers of its own, to make that task easier and it has a compact, round shape, to let you express freely. Surprisingly, it needs no source of power and no battery to work.
It also comes with an amplifier cable that is 10ft long and that has a standard 1/4in connector.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($17.99)
5. Fishman Rare Earth Humbucking Soundhole Pickup
Made for classical guitar enthusiasts that want to transform their instrument into an electro-acoustic one, this acoustic guitar pickup combines a magnetic pickup and an internal microphone. Similar to previous models from Fishman, this pickup has a narrow-profile housing for fitting easily into the guitar’s sound hole.
It features a pair of cork-padded clamps that are used to fit it in and Phillips-head screws for fixing it well. The microphone is incorporated into the pickup housing and it’s a mini cardioid one. The pickup is smaller than previous versions, making it easier to fit onto the guitar’s body.
There is also an adjustment wheel used to mix in the signal coming from the microphone and the pickup and the wheel is easy to reach. If you want to reduce the low frequencies coming out of your guitar, you should know that the pickup also comes with a bass roll-off switch.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($168.97)
6. EMG ZW Zakk Wylde Signature Active Pickup Set
You can consider this as EMG’s all-purpose set. Generally, when getting a guitar with EMG pickups on it, most often than not, these two are the ones present on the guitar. And that is for a good reason, as these two pickups are the ones liked the most by Zakk Wylde, best known for being Ozzy Osbourne’s and Black Label Society’s lead guitarist.
These pickups help Zakk and any guitarist rip it up and get a good shredding sound, no matter the string being played. The set is composed of an 81 pickup and an 85 one. These humbuckers have been known and used since the ‘70s and have been representing a standard for the metal music since the ’80s.
The 81 one should go in the bridge position as it offers great highs and a clean sound that never gets muddy. The 85, on the other hand, should sit on the bridge position as it gives a thicker sound, with better tonalities in the low frequencies.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($199)
7. YMC Humbucker Pickup Chrome for Les Paul Replacement
This pickup is popular amongst amateur guitar players due to the incredible price it has. But keeping that price in mind, the actual quality that the pickup provides is impressive. They have been made to be a nice replacement for standard Les Pauls pickups. These pickups are easy to mount and they each come with height adjusting screws and springs.
The design is simple, offering a chromed look with a black frame. To make sure that no noise gets into the final sound of the guitar, the humbuckers have been triple-wax-dipped and vacuum sealed. This also ensures that there is no feedback in the mix.
In terms of sound, they offer the classic warm tone of the Gibson LP Epiphone guitar but with more output. Although ideal for Les Pauls, they don’t fit that well on guitars with other body styles; however, you can force them in different guitars, if you’re willing to do some cutting.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($14.83)
8. DiMarzio dp419 W Micro Handle 6 String Electric Guitar Pickup
This pickup takes its sound from Jimi Hendrix’ late ‘60’s Stratocaster tone and it’s best suited for the middle or neck position. It does sound like a classic ‘60’s guitar, but without the noise that an old guitar like that would produce. No matter the power source, this single-coil model will have almost no noise.
Its sound is clear and bright and it has the “glassy” feeling of an old Stratocaster. The pickup is bright in terms of sound, doing great in the high frequencies, without sounding too harsh. The mid frequencies sound a bit scooped, particularly when comparing the sound to modern humbuckers, but that is the sound that reminds you of the ’60s.
The only limitation that this pickup has is that it must be paired with a 500k potentiometer. And most Stratocasters don’t come with that. So you will have to change the potentiometer too if you wish to change the pickup.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($79.99)
9. HDE Guitar Pickup Acoustic / Electric Transducer
Made of durable plastic, this mountable pickup for acoustic guitars is simple to install. The player just needs to put this device over the guitar’s soundhole and connect it to a 1/4in output and everything is ready. The pickup also comes with a cable that is 9 feet long, so you will have plenty of room to move around. You can also add more length to the cable if needed.
However, if not positioned correctly, the device can interfere with the guitar’s chords and make everything sound bad, adding a lot of humming noises. You must pay attention to where you position it. Although not a tool used by professional players, this device offers a quality sound and it does a good job at picking up all the frequencies.
Because it is a passive pickup, meaning that it requires no power input to work, it doesn’t offer the possibility to adjust the volume or the tone.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($11.99)
Yearly Guide & Report
A guitar pickup is basically made of magnets wrapped in insulated copper wire coils that, when active, create a magnetic field around the chords. When the chords are played that leads to a sound being produced. Because the end sound depends on many factors, the quality of the pickup is highly important. The following are some of the aspects that influence how a good guitar pickup sounds.
Types of coils
Initially, all pickups were single-coil models, but in 1955 the Gibson company discovered that by joining two single-coils together, the sound produced had the same tonalities, yet the noise canceled out. These dual-coil pickups later caught the name of humbuckers, and Gibson Les Pauls have mostly been associated with them and their sound.
In terms of performance, humbuckers offer more sustain, a stronger output, and less noise. They may seem superior to single-coil models, but what really matters is the tone that each pickup provides.
Depending on what sounds you want your guitar to have, you should know that single-coil pickups are brighter and crisper in their tone, while humbuckers are warmer and darker. Thus, the first ones are preferential for high frequencies, and the later for low ones.
Single coils work better with clean sounds, while humbuckers are more suitable for distorted ones. So if you want to play some heavy metal, go for the humbuckers. There is also more definition between strings when playing a single-coil pickup. That works well with picking techniques.
Despite these general tendencies, nearly any sound can be achieved by a pickup and that is because the end result doesn’t only depend on the pickup type.
Active or passive models
What also affects the sound of a pickup and thus of a guitar, is the circuitry that makes the pickup. A pickup produces sound and generates a voltage using one of two methods. The first of them is passive and it employs magnets only. The second method is called active and it uses magnets and a preamp coupled with them.
As you might expect, all pickups were passive at first. Active designs appeared in the 1970s and have been popular as well since them. Both kinds of pickups are used nowadays and there are certain aspects that favor each of them. It should be noted that acoustic guitar pickups are most often passive.
Active pickups have the advantage of offering a greater tonal clarity. Furthermore, the tonality is consistent no matter the volume used. The quality of the sound is affected less by the length of the cable and active pickups offer a stronger amp overdrive. These aspects make them particularly useful for bass players.
Generally, active pickups are better than passive ones. That is also because passive pickups require stronger magnets to generate a sufficient voltage and if they don’t have that they produce a bad tone and don’t have enough sustain. The preamp in the active models offers a boost in voltage and thus avoids these issues.
Despite all these benefits of active pickups, some players still prefer using the passive ones, and that may be because most people have become accustomed to the classic sound of passive pickups or just because they want some cheap guitar pickups.
High vs moderate output
Although passive pickups generally lose the battle against active models, they can offer an increased output. A professional player can increase the output of a passive pickup by adding more winds of copper wire to it. But that is only an option to a certain point.
Leaving that aside, when choosing a guitar pickup you have 3 options to choose from. There are high-output models, moderate-output ones, and vintage-style ones. These are the pickups that produce the lowest output and are made to replicate the classic sound of old guitars.
Depending on what you intend to play, you should know that a high output means that you will have an easier time when using distortion but you also have less dynamic range. If you want a clean sound, you should look for low output. But that will make it difficult for you to get a nice sound in an overdriven scenario.
Because pickups are magnets with copper wire around them, the magnets used are important. Most often, you will see that manufacturers refer to their magnets as Alnico and that stands for the elements used in them: aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. The layout of the magnet is important in the end sound.
Single coil pickups tend to use individual magnet poles and these ones offer a thinner, brighter sound. Humbucking pickups tend to use poles extending from a magnetic bar, as they produce a darker, fatter tone. For playing styles where the strings are bent a lot, the magnets are positioned in a blade style and that replaces all the individual magnets with a single metal bar.
Frequently asked questions about guitar pickups
Q: How do guitar pickups work?
At the core of a pickup is a magnet and around that magnet, there are copper wires. The magnet forms a magnetic field around it and this field extends upward toward the guitar strings. Because they are made of nickel and steel, the strings are ferromagnetic and interact with the magnetic field. When the strings move, they produce a changing magnetic field.
The coil of thin wire wrapped around the magnet captures the vibrations of these strings and this change in the magnetic field induces a tiny electric current in the copper coil. This current is then passed on until it reaches the amplifier and sound is produced.
Q: How to make a guitar pickup?
To make a simple single-coil pickup you first need a magnet structure. There are different magnets used when making a pickup and most often than not they are referred to as alnico magnets. You also need a bobbin to place those magnets on and you can make that from plastic.
After you position the magnets in the bobbin, you need to wrap a copper coil around the bobbin and the magnets. Once done, take the two ends of the coil, isolate them and attach them to the rest of the guitar’s electronics.
Q: How to change guitar pickups?
Before changing your electric guitar pickups make sure to find a suitable place to do that and also take pictures of the guitar and the old pickups on it. After you’ve done that and know how the guitar’s electronics work, you can remove the strings. Clean the area around the pickups and de-solder the pickup wiring. Proceed to remove the old pickups.
You will then need to figure out the wiring. Unfortunately, each pickup manufacturer uses a different set of color codes for wiring and you will need to check the manufacturer’s instructions on how to wire the pickup. After you do that, solder the wires, place the pickups in their spot and screw them tightly. Restring your guitar and test it.