If you’re tired of the single-coil sound, or if you just want to upgrade your stock humbucker pickups for the first time, you’re in luck. You’re living in a time where the best humbucker pickups are very affordable. You can use them to turn even the oldest, poorest-sounding vintage Les Paul into a modern beast.
There aren’t that many tricks to finding the right humbuckers for your guitar, your tone ideas, and your favorite genre. Manufacturers nowadays do a great job of calibrating their pickups for specific styles. Here’s what I mean.
8 Best Humbucker Pickups for Les Paul & Other Guitars
Table of Contents
- 8 Best Humbucker Pickups for Les Paul & Other Guitars
- How Do You Know If the Pickups Will Fit?
- Why Humbuckers and Not Single Coil Pickups?
- Should You Opt for Passive or Active Pickups
- Summing Up the Humbucker Sound
This humbucker set has one mission – it is there to capture the original AFD Les Paul sound. It offers an impressive midrange, significant crunch, and a very desirable sustain, much like you would expect to hear from Slash’s very own guitar tone.
Although the pickups have the same Alnico 2 Pro magnets, the winding and mag wire is very different. The build involves a maple spacer, wax potting, long mounting legs, a nickel silver plate, as well as a braided lead wire (single conductor).
While it won’t let you do any splitting, the Slash Signature set would be a shame to split anyway. It would take away from the pickup’s interference rejection properties, which would, in turn, alter that iconic GNR tone.
Given the tone you can get with the Slash Signature Model humbucker set even on a stock Epiphone Les Paul guitar, this is one of the best pairings you can get without spending a fortune. And, it’s a guarantee to get that crunchy hard rock tone, with plenty of clarity for intricate solos.
Don’t think that just because I’ve reviewed mostly rock and metal humbuckers, I’ve forgotten about other styles too. Here are my favorite blues pickups, the Seymour Duncan Vintage Blues set.
I find this an ideal solution for anyone that wants to get into blues, jazz, fusion, or even classic rock. With the vintage SH-1 ’59 pickup in both positions, this set will allow you to overhaul your tone completely. I like the idea of using the same configuration for the bridge and neck positions as it keeps the tonality consistent and recognizable.
All the mounting hardware comes in the package, and the schematics are detailed enough to help even less tech-savvy guitarists make the upgrade on their own. The pickups feature Alnico 5 magnets, which give them that unique tonal character.
Are there any downsides? You may not be able to use these pickups on some custom Les Paul guitars.
If you’re looking for a vintage hard rock/heavy metal sound, the EVH Frankenstein might get you what you want. It’s made with Alnico 2 magnets and emulates the sound of the original bridge pickup in Eddie’s famous Frankenstrat exceptionally well.
The pickup is a single conductor design that features braided ground wire and comes with Gibson Les Paul pole spacing. I like that the wire coils are exposed. It gives it that classic Van Halen looks that many people are chasing.
The tone is impressive. You won’t hear any muddy lows, and you won’t get any unnecessary screams in the upper register, either. The harmonics sound natural, a bit warm even.
But what’s most impressive about this pickup is that it delivers on all fronts. It can give you that glam/heavy soloing tone while also giving you enough power for bone-crushing heavy metal, punk, doom, and stoner riffs.
The Zakk Wylde Signature Pickup Set features the EMG 81 and 85 active pickups. They are among the best-sounding active humbuckers for metal. It doesn’t matter if you own a Gibson Les Paul, a Jackson Flying V, or any other electric guitar.
The idea behind the sound was something aggressive with enough sustain to accommodate Zakk Wylde’s unique tone and playing style. You may also appreciate the solderless installation, which should come easy even to a beginner guitarist.
One of the things I like the most about this set, besides the sound, is that it uses long shaft volume pots. That makes it easy to fit the pickups on almost any type of electric guitar. The tone control is decent, too, offering enough versatility for virtually any genre heavier than hard rock. After all, these pickups aren’t there for blues and jazz players.
Designed with enamel-coated wiring, Alnico 2 magnets, and the same maple spacers as featured on the original Seth Lover design, the Gibson ’57 Classic Plus, can give your Les Paul some extra oomph.
I like that this model doesn’t take away anything from the vintage LP tone. If anything, it just gives it a bit more volume and some additional clarity. It also adds a certain richness reminiscent of the late 50s and early 60s LP Standard models. The final result is a more balanced transition between clean and overdriven tones.
The high-quality wax potting does an excellent job of minimizing feedback, and the two-conductor wiring allows for some intricate coil-splitting options. However, I advise against doing that unless you know your way around electric guitar wiring.
The ’57 Classic Plus is there for all Les Paul enthusiasts who want a chunky blues/rock tone with rich lows and chiming highs. You would be hard-pressed to find a better replacement/upgrade for your classic Gibson tone.
The James Hetfield Signature pickup set by EMG delivers the iconic frontman’s tone without breaking the bank.
These pickups come in various shades and have a very polished and professional look. Since these are active humbuckers, you should expect plenty of volume and clarity. What’s best about them is that they have punchy lows and consistent output.
As is the case with most active EMG pickups, the installation is straightforward, and all necessary components are in the box. What might throw off fans of the classic Metallica sound of the 80s is that these humbuckers sound more like passive pickups. That’s what Mr. Hetfield asked for when he gave his input on the design.
Installing a DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion humbucker on a Gibson Les Paul can have significant implications. Don’t worry, though; it’s an improvement over the vast majority of stock options. This humbucker pickup spices up the classic Les Paul sound and gives it more warmth than you would expect.
Some may argue that the DP100 Super Distortion causes one too many EQ spikes in the low-end and midrange. However, the sound is quite balanced. It also produces some pretty lovely harmonics, even though they may not be as articulate as I would like.
The bottom line is that the crystal clear highs, crunchy mids, and beefy lows create a potent tone that lends itself to many styles and genres. And, although the clean is quite impressive too, the DP100 was made for distortion and overdrive.
Although these humbuckers may not have the same craftsmanship and build quality of some brand-name models, I still recommend them as one of my favorite four-conductor humbucker sets.
These pickups have some unique tonal characteristics. The Alnico 2 magnets in them give the guitar a very vocal midrange quality. At the same time, the highs are much warmer and richer than one would expect. The low end lacks a bit of punch, but it’s overall a pretty balanced tone.
If you don’t like a particularly bassy or boomy tone, these could be the pickups for you. Especially since these are among the cheaper humbucker sets that work well with Les Paul guitars. At the very least, the bridge compatibility and sound is way above the asking price.
How Do You Know If the Pickups Will Fit?
Here’s the thing. As long as your guitar has stock humbucker pickups, then you can get just about any humbucker pickup replacement or upgrade, and it will fit. It doesn’t matter whether you have a Gibson, PRS, Jackson, Schecter, etc.
That’s because most humbucker pickups are made in a standard size. So that guitarists can experiment with different tones as much as they like, without having to switch instruments. Seth Lover set the standard back in 1957 with the original PAFs, and DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan followed suit in the 60s and 70s. After that, all other guitar and aftermarket pickup manufacturers accepted PAF dimensions as a standard.
Why Humbuckers and Not Single Coil Pickups?
My preference has a lot to do with how these pickups handle interference. Single coil pickups are bright-sounding and can be fantastic for soloing. But at the same time, almost all single-coil designs are susceptible to interference from other instruments on stage. In other words, you’ll hear a buzz coming from your amp when you’re not playing.
Humbuckers use two coils. That helps them reject interference and noise through phase cancellation. As a result, you also get a smoother sound as well as more volume and sustain. That’s why you can’t hear any noise coming out of the amp when you’re not playing. Of course, cheap and poorly made humbuckers might be very noisy.
Should You Opt for Passive or Active Pickups
Guitarists have been debating and arguing about which pickups are better, passive, or active, ever since the active pickups appeared. Passive pickups are very convenient to use because they don’t need an external power source.
But they also lack a bit of volume and oomph. That’s because you can only take away from a passive pickup’s sound with volume and tone knobs.
On the other hand, active pickups typically offer more volume and raw power. Of course, you need nine or sometimes even 18-volt batteries to power them up. The battery acts as a sort of a preamp for the pickup, and it can boost its signal.
If you play aggressive music or you need exceptional volume levels, active pickups might be a better solution. If you play high-octane rock & roll or heavy metal, go active. If you play blues, jazz, and soft rock, then you might want to invest in some passive humbuckers.
Summing Up the Humbucker Sound
Apart from noise-cancelling capabilities, humbuckers also have a very recognizable tone. This type of pickup is often associated with rock and metal genres because of its beefy output.
The sound is thick, rich, and considerably more massive than that of a regular single-coil pickup. At the same time, humbuckers don’t have the same cutting power as single-coil pickups. For some guitarists, this is not ideal.
But if you’re looking to get a more potent tone, play heavier music, compose aggressive riffs and melodies, a humbucker pickup would be the obvious choice. Last but not least, well-designed humbuckers also play a considerable role in blues and jazz music.
Picking the Right Humbucker Is Easier Than You Think
If you play loud and aggressive music, humbuckers are the way to go. That goes both for the recording studio and live settings. Just settle on whether you need active or passive pickups, and then go with the model that’s best-tuned for your style and favorite genre.