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Best electric guitar pickups 2021: single-coil, humbucker, P-90 and active pickups

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Best electric guitar pickups 2021: single-coil, humbucker, P-90 and active pickups
(Image credit: Future)

You don’t need a new guitar to dramatically improve your tone; choosing the right pickup for your guitar is the most effective way to enhance it. And the good news is there’s never been more choice out there with a huge variety of pickup types that allow you to make the right choice for your style of playing. We’ll guide you through the best electric guitar pickups here so you can make the right choice.

A pickup is essentially a metal coil wrapped around magnetic pole pieces that creates a magnetic field to reproduce frequencies. These are detected by the pickup when your electric guitar strings vibrate as you’re playing and then amplified. A number of factors can affect what frequencies a pickup listens to – including the type of magnet and number of coil windings – and this determines its character and the kind of strengths and weaknesses it may have for different musical styles.

Generally, a pickup with a ceramic magnet type produces a stronger magnetic field than Alnico with a response that can result in a hotter sound with stronger treble attack. Alnico magnets are more common and smoother with Alnico IIs especially good for jazz, with their smooth clean response, while the hotter and wider range Alnico V pickups prove the most popular with guitar builders.

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What are the best electric guitar pickups?

Best electric guitar pickups: Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates SH-PG1B and Fralin Vintage Hot

(Image credit: Seymour Duncan, Fralin)

Seymour Duncan makes some of the most versatile humbucker pickup options for general use; specifically classic and blues rock playing. While its ‘59 and JB humbuckers are established classics, it’s the Pearly Gates that draws on the influence of the past to create an unbeatable combination – especially if you have a Les Paul to upgrade.

The original influence for its character and name is the bridge humbucker from ZZ Top legend Billy Gibbons’ 1959 Pearly Gates Les Paul. Those legendary early Gibson LPs featured PAF humbuckers that are regarded by tonehounds to be the cream of pickups, but the Seymour Duncan spin on the design offers more output to boost your overdrive. The midrange growl seals the deal.

For us, the best all-round single-coil pickup is the Fralin Vintage Hots. Now celebrating its 30th birthday, the enduring popularity of Lindy Fralin’s design isn’t a mystery when you hear it in action. The clarity and balance with classic Strat high end sparkle can really revamp your tone and make your guitar feel new, with added articulation and sensitivity that makes all pickup positions addictive.

The best electric guitar pickups: how to buy

If you find a guitar that you love the feel of but feel its lacking once plugged in, new pickups can be the most effective way of trading up your tone for a fraction of the price of a new guitar. But knowing what you want and what’s on offer from various pickup types is a vital first step. That’s where this best electric guitar pickups guide can help. 

A pickup can contain one magnet – or even several magnets – that can vary in shape. Think of these magnets as a pickup’s engine. Traditional single-coil pickups found in guitars like Strats and Teles have rods made of magnetic material rising up through the pickup. These rods are called pole pieces, and they direct a magnetic field to each of the strings.

Humbucking pickups usually have an additional bar magnet under the pole pieces. Single coil pickups are more susceptible to noise from hum and interference due to having one wire coil, while the two coils in a humbucker create a reverse polarity that reduces or ‘bucks’ the hum. In humbuckers, both coils create a magnetic field, which increases the signal strength they produce and adds more sustain to your tone.

You might also want to consider a P-90 pickup. Think of them as a hot-rodded single coil with a wide coil that accentuates the mids; good if your tone is getting lost in your band’s mix. Gibson designed it in 1946 and it’s often referred to as a soapbar because of the rectangular shape. Billie Joe Armstrong, Pete Townshend, Neil Young and Tony Iommi have all harnessed P-90 power. 

Active pickups use additional circuitry in a preamp built into the pickup that usually requires a 9-volt battery to provide power. They have been adopted by players ranging from Metallica’s James Hetfield to David Gilmour. If you’re a humbucking metaller, or you’re looking for less hum and more compression to your single-coil tone, active pickups are well worth a look. 

The best electric guitar pickups available today

Best electric guitar pickups: Seymour Duncan ‘59 Neck

(Image credit: Seymour Duncan)

1. Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates SH-PG1B

The best all-round humbucker pickup

Price: £109/$105
Magnet: Alnico 2
DC resistance: 8.1k (bridge), 7.3k (neck)
Reasons to buy
+Great for blues sustain+Well balanced for rock styles +Pinched harmonics sing
Reasons to avoid
-Metal players may want a hotter 'bucker

The legendary tone of the Gibson ‘59 Burst Les Pauls is coveted by players for good reason – and Billy Gibbons’ Pearly Gates is an iconic example. So when one of the greatest pickup manufacturers sought to recreate its humbuckers, the results were always going to be special, and that’s why this is number one on our best electric guitar pickups rundown.

Whether you’re a Les Paul owner looking to supercharge your bridge position tone, or want some golden era vintage blues mojo for your humbucker upgrade – these won’t disappoint. 

A relatively bright high-end offers sustain with rich harmonics, while midrange raunch can be found too. The Pearly Gates comes with a four-conductor hookup cable to allow for a variety of pickup-switching options.

Best electric guitar pickups: Fralin vintage hot

(Image credit: Fralin)

2. Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot

The best all-round single-coil pickup

Price: £77.99 - £279/$95-$250
Magnet: Alnico 5
Reasons to buy
+A great upgrade for Strat players+Balanced and open sound+Great for leads
Reasons to avoid
-Best bought as a set 

A best-selling design by Lindy Fralin, the Vintage Hot has been a go-to pickup for Strat players looking to upgrade for three decades now and its name is pretty suggestive as to what you can expect – an open sound but with sizzle in the higher end that’s ideal for lead players wanting to shine. 

The Vintage Hot is pitched between Fralin’s other two popular single-coils – fatter than it’s most vintage Read ‘54 but brighter than its Blues Special. It’s all about balance and clarity that many players regard as the ultimate Strat pickup.

Best electric guitar pickups: EMG James Hetfield Het Set

(Image credit: EMG)

3. EMG James Hetfield Het Set

The best active guitar pickup for metal with versatility

Price: £200/$249
Magnet: C (neck) & C/S (bridge)
DC resistance: 2.11k (neck), 1.61k (bridge)
Reasons to buy
+Great for metal rhythms+Neck pickup offers impressive clean tones+Attack and low end
Reasons to avoid
-Needs guitar space for 9V battery

As they were first to the table, EMG once had a monopoly in the active pickup field, and although competition is fiercer, its established models still prove to be popular with players - including metal’s greatest rhythm player. 

A longtime EMG user in his ESP models, it wasn’t until 2009 that Hetfield asked the company to combine its active tone with some of the character of a single-coil. This set was its response and an evolution of the popular EMG-81 bridge and 60 neck the guitarist used for 30 years. 

The JH-N’s larger core offers more attack and low end than the 60. The JH-B offers a clearer low end to combine with the 81’s attack.

Best electric guitar pickups: Mojo Pickups Mojo’Tron

(Image credit: Mojo Pickups)

4. Mojo Pickups Mojo’Tron

The best boutique humbucker for classic Gretsch tone

Price: £100/$121
Magnet: Alnico 5
DC Resistance: 5k (bridge) 4.2K (neck)
Reasons to buy
+For vintage Gretsch tone lovers+Single-coil spank +Great hum cancellation 
Reasons to avoid
-Not enough chunk for heavy rockers

Whether you’re looking for vintage country and rockabilly tones from the schools of Chet Atkins and Eddie Cochran, or something a little different for a humbucker upgrade, the Mojo’Tron is a great choice. The original Gretsch Filter’Tron is an early humbucker design that has more spank and punch than your usual ‘bucker, and is thinner with lower output and a more open sound.

The British-made Mojo’Tron is a boutique take on the design; ‘bright and twangy’ for that rockabilly bite. They’re even available in P-90 models, as well as the standard Filter’Tron size. Be patient though as Marc Ransley’s pickups are handmade to order with no shortage of customers, so you may have to wait a little while. But it’s worth it!  

Best electric guitar pickups: Fender Tex-Me

(Image credit: Fender)

5. Fender Tex-Mex

The best value Fender pickup set

Price: £119/$99 Strat (set of three), £85/$99 Tele (set of two)
Reasons to buy
+Great value for entry-level Fenders+Boosted output for rock
Reasons to avoid
-Not for fans of clean country twang

If your entry level Squier or Fender Strat or Tele needs upscaling in the tone department, Fender have the answer here with one of the best electric guitar pickup options when it comes to value. 

Available in Strat or Tele sets, the Tex Mex bridge pickup is overwound and proves its beefier worth with overdrive – cutting through with grit and balance. Blues fans can also be comforted to learn these are the same pickups found on the signature Jimmie Vaughan Tex-Mex Strat.

Best electric guitar pickups: Mojotone 56 Quiet Coil P-90 Soapbar

(Image credit: Mojotone)

6. Mojotone 56 Quiet Coil P-90 Soapbar

The best vintage P-90 pickup without the unwanted hum

Price: $120/£98 (each), $230/£189 (set)
Magnet: Alnico 5 bar
DC resistance: 8.6k (bridge), 8k (neck)
Reasons to buy
+P-90 goodness without the excessive hum+Available as a set+Vintage style
Reasons to avoid
-More expensive than some rivals

There’s a lot to love about the vintage P-90s of the 50s – clarity and highs that cut with fat mids. Less appealing is the 60-cycle hum that can prove maddening in certain situations. Mojotone deliver the old school vintage spec 42 gauge coil wire, lower Gauss Alnico magnets and scatterwound coils for handwound character... but without the hum.

Mojotone don’t use stacked coils or active circuitry to get these results but their design works. And if you’ve been wary of single-coils before because you want more beef or gain and without the unwanted noise, these are an investment worth making.

Best electric guitars pickups: Fishman Fluence Classic

(Image credit: Fishman)

7. Fishman Fluence Classic Humbuckers

The most cutting-edge electric guitar pickup available right now

Price: £139/$176 (each), £235/$337 (pair)
Magnet: Alnico 5
DC Resistance: N/A
Reasons to buy
+More versatile than most humbuckers+Kills unwanted hum+Revolutionary design
Reasons to avoid
-This technology costs 

It’s not often that a guitar pickup can be called revolutionary in that last fifty years but the Fluence range is. An active pickup range available in single-coil and humbucker designs, but they offer a unique blend of classic and modern by offering distinct ‘voices’ the player can choose between.

Launched in 2014, Fluence pickups use a solid core instead of the traditional wire coil and the magnets used on these Classic Humbuckers (Modern and Signature sets for artists including Deftones’ Stephen Carpenter, Greg Koch and Tosin Abasi also available) feature blade magnets that create an even magnetic field to enhance definition. There’s also a preamp onboard each pickup that can be charged via USB.

The neck Classic offers two ‘voices’; vintage or clear chime and the bridge has a classic ‘vintage PAF’ and over-wound-style ‘Classic Hotrod’. The third voice for each is a single coil tone. You’re covering a lot of tonal ground here.

Best electric guitar pickups: Bare Knuckle Juggernaut

(Image credit: Bare Knuckle)

8. Bare Knuckle Juggernaut

The best humbucker pickup for modern metal tones and seven-string guitars

Price: from £139/$168
Magnet: Alnico and ceramic mix (Bridge), Alnico 5 (neck)
DC resistance: 13.3k (bridge), 8.9k (neck)
Reasons to buy
+Great for metal +Neck position tones are dynamic+Mansoor-approved!
Reasons to avoid
-Not for vintage tonehounds. Obviously.

The Aftermath humbucker proved very popular for Bare Knuckle, with an incredibly tight response for fast metal rhythm work. The Juggernaut was developed with one of its high profile fans, tonehound Misha Mansoor of progressive metallers Periphery and the results are more versatile than the Aftermath while living up to the Juggernaut name.

The attack of a ceramic pickup when picking hard with the harmonic response of an Alnico any time you need it? Yes indeed! It delivers in the low end and mids for huge rhythm sounds, while reflecting the detail of the sophisticated chord voicings often found in progressive metal. It’s even available for eight-string as well as six and seven-string guitars.

Best electric guitar pickups: DiMarzio Super Distortion S

(Image credit: DiMarzio)

9. DiMarzio Super Distortion S

The best single coil-sized humbucker pickup

Price: £75/$79.99
Magnet: Ceramic
DC Resistance: 13.18k
Reasons to buy
+Superb all-rounder for rock+Single-coil and humbucker available+A guitar legend
Reasons to avoid
-Not available as a matching set 

As well as being a great humbucker, the Super Distortion is historically important. The whole concept of buying a replacement electric guitar pickup didn’t really exist before the Super Distortion became a benchmark by which other high output pickups were measured.

Designed to give your tube amp a push into glorious overdrive, it still stands up today and has been used by the likes of Paul Gilbert, Kurt Cobain, Def Leppard’s Phil Collen and Kiss’s Paul Stanley. But why should only humbucker guitar players get all the fun?

The Super Distortion S offers the famed thrills of its older brother, but is designed to fit in the Strat’s slanted bridge position. It’s a great all-rounder – you’ll have a super Strat in no time!

Best electric guitar pickups: Seymour Duncan ‘59 Neck

(Image credit: Seymour Duncan)

10. Seymour Duncan ‘59 Neck

The best neck pickup for blues

Price: £77/$79
Magnet: Alnico 5
DC Resistance: 7.6k
Reasons to buy
+A classic humbucker +For versatile blues playing+A classy Gibson link
Reasons to avoid
-Medium output not hot enough for some

The sound of a solo on the neck pickup can be a gloriously warm and fat tone, but many of us find our stock neck pickups too dark and muddy. The ‘59’s popularity is huge for a reason; versatile and clear, adding sustain and some bright attack from a slightly boosted high end for leads where you need it. That’s alongside a full low end with subtly scooped mids that make it a go-to for smooth clean work.

It’s got serious provenance behind the name too; the ‘59 is wound on Seymour Duncan’s Leesona 102 machine that was originally used in Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory in the fifties.

Best electric guitar pickups: EMG SA

(Image credit: EMG)

11. EMG SA

The best hum-cancelling single coil pickup

Magnet: Alnico 5
DC Resistance: Not available
Reasons to buy
+No more unwanted hum!+Good enough for Gilmour… 
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks the vintage character of some passive single coils

The main downside of single-coil pickups is the unwanted sound they produce by their very nature – hum. It’s especially frustrating when recording, so the chance to get the bright and open Strat sound with its plummy bottom end, but without unwanted noise, is the SA’s trump card. 

It was enough to convince David Gilmour – needless to say it’s great for driving effects chains and expressive, versatile blues work.

The SA is a medium output active pickup available in black, white, ivory or even red to match your scratchplate.

Rob Laing

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before that I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar.