8 Best Pickups for Metal Guitarists – Passive & Active

Updated on by Gavin Whitner | There may be affiliate links on this page.

If you’re a metal guitarist then you know at least one thing to be true. The best pickups for metal, be it death metal, doom metal, thrash metal or any form of heavy metal, aren’t the same for everyone.

No matter how aggressive or messed up your genre is, no one will listen to you if you don’t sound good.

Even in the muddiest grind riffs, there’s a certain degree of note separation, clarity, and personality that should be audible whether you’re playing live or otherwise.

8 Best Pickups for Metal - Crowd Favorites

Because metal tones can vary so wildly, picking your first replacement pickups can be a difficult task. Check out my top picks to find out why these types of pickups differ so much.

The EMG JH pickups are the brainchild of James Hetfield and EMG. This collaboration started with James’s desire to have a stealth-like pickup set that boldly captured the unique Metallica sound. These pickups aren’t as expensive as you might think, all things considered.

Although they come in multiple finishes, it’s the standard brushed chrome finish that James uses, which naturally makes it the fan favorite. The EMG JH are humbucker pickups that combine the best of both worlds when it comes to passive and active pickups.

As a result, the tone is quite similar to that of an active pickup. It’s clear and capable superb note separation. However, it’s also punchy and brighter than you would expect, both characteristics of passive pickups.

The tight attack and the clean low-end response give the pickups a unique tonal quality, no matter how many effects you use on your guitar. Since they pack quite a punch, you can use the EMG JH pickups for just about any type of metal, short of djent or extreme metal that favors lower key tunings.

  • Universally recognizable sound
  • Impeccable note pickup and separation
  • Very loud
  • Vintage and modern tone accents
  • Combines the characteristics of active and passive pickups
  • Slightly expensive

The Seymour Duncan Black Winter pickups are 4-wire split-able pickups, mostly used for their highly aggressive tone. They are passive pickups with very high output and an aesthetically pleasing all-black finish, which should work great on any metal guitar.

Although the pickups don’t have the cleanest of clean tones, they should perform great as long as you tweak the amp enough. The pickups use ceramic magnets due to the versatility they can bring to the metal scene.

Despite being initially developed with black metal in mind, the Black Winter humbucker pickups have since been used in a much wider range of genres. And still, there is something to their tone that immediately gets you thinking of Scandinavian metal.

Keep in mind that adjusting the tone slightly is recommended if you want to step outside the black metal genre. The pickups are tuned to emphasize highs over mids and lows so it is possible that the tone will turn out too bright without a proper setup.

  • Ideal for extreme metal
  • Versatile in other softer genres
  • All-black finish
  • Passive pickups
  • High output
  • Less clarity on clean

The EMG Zakk Wylde Signature set includes the EMG 81 and EMG 85 active pickups. This combination can give you an impressive amount of note sustain, not to mention an aggressiveness that would be ideal for fast riffing and soloing.

Both pickups are powerful and have a universal metal tone. The versatility of the EMG 81 pickups is legendary as they’re perhaps the most popular EMG pickups for the majority of guitars with passive pickups.

But what makes this Zakk Wylde signature set different from the standard EMG 81 & 85 pickups? They have a longer shaft volume and tone controls. They also come with a Zakk Wylde signature pick and his name written on the pickups.

Although technologically the same as the EMG 81 & 85 standard combo, this signature set is a great way to show your appreciation for the legend. And, visually they’re a lot more impressive too, especially if you’re rocking a Zakk Wylde signature guitar.

  • Cool signature set
  • EMG 81 & 85 active pickups
  • Great note sustain
  • Suitable for fast play styles
  • Versatile tone
  • Slightly expensive

Mick Thomson has become a household name due to his association with the band Slipknot. The band is known for its unique guitar riffs and sound, in addition to the crazy live performances and impeccable vocals. It should come as no surprise that the Seymour Duncan Mick Thomson Blackouts are pickups that can give your guitar a very nu-metal hardcore vibe.

These pickups excel with drop D or lower tunings. They do a great job of providing note separation and heavy richness for those who use palm muting a lot. If you’re looking for maximum definition of the lower and higher registers, these might be the pickups for you.

There are of course some shortcomings too. The Blackouts are not as versatile as other metal pickups. If you want to play Iron Maiden riffs, for example, the tone may not be as melodic and bright as you want. That said, metal covers a lot of sub genres, many of which prefer the modern sound made popular by bands like Slipknot and Korn.

  • Unique sound
  • Consistent delivery
  • Good for riffing and soloing
  • Nice clean potential
  • Not too big on highs

Say you only need to replace or upgrade your bridge pickup. If that’s the case, buying a complete pickup set may not be necessary. The EMG 81 is universally regarded as one of the most versatile bridge pickups for metal riffing. Although it can be used as a neck pickup too, the EMG 81 is usually only used for the bridge, as its companion the EMG 85 makes a better fit at the neck.

The tone of the EMG 81 pickup is very intense but also detailed. It has a high-end cut and very good sustain. Powered by a loud amp, the EMG 81’s trademark response is its very sharp attack, and of course the high output.

It’s also worth mentioning that EMG 81 pickups are known for their low battery consumption, which makes them very convenient for touring guitarists. Also important is its solderless installation which makes it an easy swap from stock pickups, even for guitarists with limited hardware knowledge.

  • Long-term reliability
  • Sharp attack
  • Highly versatile
  • Clear clean tone
  • High output
  • Needs a good amp

The DiMarzio DP100 is still DiMarzio’s flagship humbucker pickup for metal enthusiasts. The pickup can warm up a tone and give it a vintage feel. You can get pretty much anything you want whether it’s crunchy mids, fat highs, thick lows, or a bit of everything.

Most guitarists would agree that the DP100 Super Distortion pickup is not something you should pursue if you don’t like an open natural sound. That’s because the response on the low end is not as tight as one might expect.

Where the DP100 Super D excels at is, believe it or not, clean and soft distortion. This pickup is less Six Feet Under and more Def Leppard or Boston. Of course, you could force it and get a sweet thrash sound out of the pickup, if you’re looking for a tone that’s more 80s or 90s.

  • Vintage metal sound
  • Very clear clean tone
  • Durable and reliable
  • Coil splitting available
  • Not for extreme metal genres

Inspired by the terrifying Nazgul from Middle Earth, the Seymour Duncan Nazgul is a passive pickup that’s all about extreme intensity. The Nazgul has been designed for very low tunings and is generally considered as one of the hottest pickups.

The Nazgul is available in a few models, which include a 7 and 8-string model. This is another reason why it’s one of the best-suited pickups for extreme metal of any kind. It has a thick midrange and high-end cut.

A word of caution about the low-end. There’s definitely a bass note to the Nazgul pickup. Therefore, make sure to tweak the amp accordingly, unless you’re going for that ultra-heavy low-end definition. It can add richness to clean parts but not so much for fast riffs and distortion. Especially if you’re going more than two steps down with your tuning.

  • Badass tone for extreme genres
  • Available for 6, 7, and 8-string guitars
  • Very good midrange definition
  • Affordable
  • Great for chug-heavy riffs
  • A bit bass heavy

So you want to invade your audience’s mind and plant unforgettable crazy riffs. Well, that’s what the Seymour Duncan Invader pickups are for. These are absolute beasts for heavy metal, thrash, even melodic death riffs.

The richness of the tone is largely a byproduct of the very responsive low end and crunchy treble. It’s a pickup that balances out lower tunings to a point where they’re heavy but also maintain superb note separation.

The Invader pickups are loud, aggressive, and sometimes too much for anyone but a metalhead to truly appreciate. That being said, having SD Invader passive pickups at the neck and bridge can turn just about any sad guitar into a real beast.

Not to mention that the SD Invader pickups are a lot more forgiving if you want to step into the realm of virtuoso playing.

  • Crunchy treble
  • Very rich sound
  • Evens out low tuning shortcomings
  • Affordable
  • Requires some experience for coil splitting

Active vs. Passive Metal Pickups - Pros and Cons

You just know that everyone has a favorite when it comes to the active vs. passive debate. So, without getting too personal about it, here’s what you should keep in mind.

Passive pickups are loud on their own. When run through a powerful amp, they can reach impressive volumes but may cause some unwanted distortion.

Active pickups are quieter without amplification. But, because of this, their tone is a lot clearer and will have better note separation. 

Performance-wise, choosing between these two types really depends on what other gear you have.

But, you should know that many guitarists opt for passive pickups because so many top manufacturers design passive pickups with metal riffs in mind.

Can’t Put Just Any Pickup on Your Guitar

You may have noticed that most pickups are designed for 6-string guitars. That’s because even though 7-string and 8-string guitars are now in high demand for djent and extreme metal genres, the 6-string is still the most popular type of guitar.

In most cases, using a 6-string pickup on a 7-string guitar is a bad idea. Not only are the size requirements unlikely to be met, but there’s also the matter of the pickups needing to pick up on certain frequency ranges.

7-string and 8-string guitars work a bit differently in that department. The good news is that you don’t need an engineering degree to pick a suitable pickup set. Simply look for those made for your type of guitar and chances are they will fit perfectly.

Are Signature Series Worth It?

This simply comes down to budget. Manufacturers rarely make custom pickups for metal guitarists or bands. What usually happens is that a manufacturer would launch a limited series edition of the same pickups they’ve been making for a while that just so happen to be the favorite of a popular guitarist.

These LTD pickups may have custom graphics and maybe some other small differences but under the hood you’re unlikely to see any differences in a side-by-side comparison.

So, if the sound is the same, you just have to ask yourself how much do you like that dude? If the graphics are to die for and you’re a big fan of the guy, then by all means, pimp your guitar with some signature pickups.

If not, go with the standard pickups and you won’t be sorry. Manufacturers tend to always list what type of pickups they’ve used for their signature series, so finding the original model shouldn’t be difficult.

Be Loud, Be Bold, But Be Smart

Loud and aggressive are adjectives that go hand-in-hand with metal riffs. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be smart when shopping for metal pickups.

Using the tips in this article should help you narrow down your perfect fit. As should be able to tell by now, there’s no reason to settle for versatile metal pickups if you only have one goal in your head. And, all the pickups in this article are more or less ideal for a specific type of metal.

About Gavin Whitner

A guitar player, songwriter, composer, and also the lead editor of MusicOomph, Gavin is one of the four musician friends behind this site. Outside of music, he's an avid sports fan and hardly misses anything from football (soccer) to F1.

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