Metal bass is notoriously powerful, with punchy mid-tones and plenty of warmth. A large aspect of achieving the sound is choosing the best pickups for metal. Thankfully, there are some stellar options.
The dynamic and tonal range of metal bass is one of the genre's standout signature features. In this detailed article, I'll present you with the best high-output pickups to bring the best out of your instrument.
The Best Bass Pickups for Metal
Seymour Duncan is to pickups, what Fender is to electric guitars. Their ever-expanding range of single coils and humbuckers set the standard for other manufacturers.
With options to suit all styles and genres, it's no surprise that they offer standout metal bass pickups.
The SPB-3 Quarter Pounder is designed specifically for a P-bass, but it can be used on any metal bass guitar to achieve the desired tone. Single-coil by nature, this pickup produces a sharp and strong attack across the fretboard.
Additionally, the SPB-3 has a high output and is impressively versatile – a quality required for heavy rock and metal. It can be toned down to produce smooth and subdued breakdown sections or cranked up for prominent bass riffs and motifs.
The P-bass is renowned for having crisp, punchy mids and plenty of clarity in the low-end. The SPB-3 was designed by Seymour Duncan to emphasize those qualities, highlighting the "sweet spots" across the frequency range.
Used with gain-based effects pedals like distortion, overdrive, or fuzz, and the SPB-3 is transformed into a high-energy fireball. Conversely, with a touch of compression, it is equally well-suited to smooth melodic playing.
2. EMG GZR-PJ
It's impossible to discuss the most influential metal bassists of all time without mentioning the name of Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler.
Responsible for some of the most recognizable bass riffs and lyrics in rock, Butler's tone is highly sought after by musicians.
This collaboration with rock legends EMG provides you with access to the classic Sabbath bass tones. The vintage-style P and J pickups produce tight low-end frequencies and deep, full-bodied resonance.
EMG chose Alnico 5 magnets to achieve the punchy, tight tone that graced many of Black Sabbath's recordings in the '70s. They have also managed to keep noise to an absolute minimum, promoting clarity in the process.
This set of pickup is well balanced and produces a substantial output that caters to blues, classic rock, and metal. They come equipped with EMG's 5-wire quik-connect output, which is compatible with a variety of bass guitar wiring systems.
To protect the pickups and ensure that they operate with low-noise, EMG and Butler chose to fully shield them. This process eliminates any of the hum and buzz issues that can sometimes plague single-coil high-output bass pickups.
Since he joined Metallica in 2003, Robert Trujillo has been responsible for a plethora of innovative basslines, with his warm and articulate tone becoming synonymous with the band's sound.
His finger-style bass playing relies heavily on having a deep bottom end, midrange punch in abundance, and harmonically-rich highs. With his signature EMG-made pickups, you bring these tones to your instrument.
The EMG pickups provide a wide tonal range and are fitted with several features to make them powerful enough for metal bass. There are ceramic bar magnets, which keep the sound tight and expressive.
Also, the Riptide pickups offer impressively low resistance to inductance ratio. This quality is sometimes overlooked, but it is responsible for clear articulation and polished output.
For convenience, the Riptide Robert Trujillo Signature Pickup Set includes EMG's innovative solderless wiring harness. They are very easy to install on bass with the classic volume/volume/tone setup.
The SPB-4 pickup set by Seymour Duncan was designed in collaboration with Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris. A pioneer of metal bass, Harris is known for his high-energy riffs and melodic playing style.
To produce that revered tone, Seymour Duncan has chosen Alnico V magnets. These are complemented by a unique coil winding, which creates tight and responsive lows, without neglecting the highs.
The treble-end of the SPB-4 boasts impeccable clarity and detail. This quality is ideal for metal bassists, allowing them to switch between the solid bass-end and the singing high-end that the genre requires.
Although the SBP-4s are designed to work best with a Precision bass, they can also be installed on several other popular models. Their dynamic and responsive nature makes them compatible with several 4-stringed instruments.
Iron Maiden's rhythm section is amongst the tightest in the business. That's why the SBP-4s are designed to handle playing velocity so that you can dig into the notes and push your amp to its limits without worrying about unwanted clipping occurring.
Metal Bass Pickups: Single Coil vs. Humbucking
The vast majority of bass pickups for metal are of the magnetic variety. These work by capturing the magnetic field fluctuations, and translating them into voltage. Within this category, two main sub-divisions are likely to be used for metal bass.
These two types of pickups are single-coil or humbucker. Although they work in the same way, there are stark differences between the tones produced by these two pickup types.
It's common for single-coil pickups to be associated with J-basses, while humbucking pickups are linked to P-basses due to the type of instrument they are frequently used on.
When designing metal bass pickups, it's most common for manufacturers to opt for single-coils over humbuckers, with some exceptions.
The reason that single-coil is generally thought to be better suited to metal, is due to the higher-output they produce.
This quality, coupled with the sharp attack, punchy mid-tones, and harmonically-rich highs, makes single-coils the obvious choice for metal bass pickups.
Humbuckers are sometimes used, especially in styles of metal bass that perhaps require a more melodic approach.
The issue that has plagued single-coil pickups in the past is unwanted noise caused by the high-output levels. This is now uncommon thanks to sophisticated wiring techniques and the use of certain magnets.
Manufacturers can provide all of the benefits of single-coil pickups without the historically problematic noise issues.
Many musicians overlook pickups when sculpting their tone. It's natural to consider the bass and amplifier that you are using before the pickups, but for metal especially, the choice of pickups plays a huge role.
The great thing about metal is that there is so much variety when it comes to bass tones. After reading this article, you should hopefully have gained some valuable insights into how you can achieve your tonal goals with the right pickups.