Two things surely happened when you first got a guitar with a humbucker. You stepped on stage and, for the first time, heard no static single coil Strat noise. The other was the joy of hearing the fat and big overdrive coming from the speakers. For all of you who have been there or want to experience the same, here’s my list of the best Humbucker pickups for all genres and a guide on picking the best for your style.
Today, there are more choices of pickups than ever. But as with everything in guitar and music, too many options become distractions. It’s easy to go for the best vintage pickups – yet there are more reissues of the 50s and ’60s pickups today than the original ones, plus there are multiple new features like coil switch and coil tap. So, which Humbucker is best for you?
In this guide, I’ll answer that question using the concept of the gain stages – in simple words; I’ll point to the best pickups depending mainly on how much gain you need to wield.
When Do You Need a Humbucker?
I insist on the word ‘need’ to go beyond the ‘want.’ Even though music and tone are subjective – in many cases, Humbuckers’ well-rounded and solid nature is needed. In fact, they were precisely invented to solve the issue of single-coil feedback on stage and, over time, allowed players to access more options with overdrive and distortion.
Without not taking anything off a good old single coil, especially the in-between P-90s, a guitar with good humbuckers will open many sonic doors and also solve many issues, especially those tied to being versatile on stage.
How to Pick The Best Humbuckers
Take all your experience with the guitar and leave it aside for one moment. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Humbucker – but I find it best to always go down to the basics of tone and reflect on whether you truly need something.
You might find something that best fits you and your guitar, saving money in the meantime.
The Genre & Tone
Different genres require a different set of tones or range in which the tone mainly falls. Nothing is set in stone in the world of tones, yet you would not expect to hear metal without distortion. With guitar, this is best demonstrated through gain stages. I think in 4 different gain stages.
- Stage 1: Crisp clean
Here lies the classic country twang, early rock n’ roll days, and much of pop or dry-to-the-bone metal clean sounds. The leading indicator here is that no matter how hard you pick, the tone remains clean, perhaps almost acoustic-like, depending on the guitar. The delayed Edge clean sounds on U2 songs might be a good guide here, as well as anything jazz and blues from the 50s and mid-60s and much of the Beatles. Imagine John Lennon playing his Epiphone Casino here.
Single coils do the trick here for dynamic 50s 60s style cleans and most modern pop. Very high output and compressed pickups work for you if you don’t like the ‘classic’ clean sound; Preferably, active ones you would use for extreme metal will get you a dry Metallica-like clean sound.
- Stage 2: At the edge of a breakup
Now we come to the realm of classic rock and Jimmi Page riffs, where amps started getting just slightly heavier, and the Les Paul helped guitarists for the first time get proper sustain. This sound and era created rock as we know it, the sonic bed of Jimmi Hendrix and the birth ground of metal and blues rock.
This is my favorite type of half-clean sound in the sonic spectrum and is in the category of the legendary PAF sound. You will need a very dynamic, low-output humbucker or a good pair of P90s.
- Stage 3: Heavy but dynamic
Van Halen was the first to crack the code of the ‘Brown’ tone. Very fat, yet aggressive and defined. It’s the sound you use to down-pick heavy riffs that still keeps some of that ‘squish’ of the string clean sound.
Nunno Bettencourt sound, all 80s glam, Slash, Jeff Beck, pretty much every one of the greats has touched this sound and made it their own. You can also make it yours, and the good news is that the do-it-all average to high output humbuckers to the tricks here.
The more gain you put on this sound, the more genres you include. A significant part of metal falls here, classic, and just recently, even the modern ones that are gradually reducing the gain for more clarity.
- Stage 4: As far as it goes
This is the stage where you can’t go any farther, as there’s nowhere else to go. Even humbuckers have their limit, but luckily, it coincides with the most brutal and heavy metal we invented so far.
EMGs, active pickup, and high-output passive pickups will do the trick here. Yet, beware of especially the first, as raising the gain should be matched by some EQ-ing out of the boomy low-end that ruins the band mix.
First, look at the guitar to decide what kind of Humbucker fits best. There’s the technical part that considers the size of the humbuckers and whether it will fit on the body, and also the stylistic part that considers how well the other hardware and electronics fit the humbuckers.
For example, if you’re using an SSS Stratocaster style guitar, You might need to get a new pickguard along with the pickup or could opt for a single-coil-sized humbucker. That is why the HSS Strat is one of the best guitars to modify.
Besides the pickup’s size, the body type of the guitar matters. EMG high-output pickups will not be a great fit on your Hollow Body Gretsch that’s made for maximum classic rock, even if pushed to the limits. Not only is the design too classic for heavy metal, but all the hardware is made not with the shredder in mind.
In the old days, players would use high-output pickups to push the clean amps to the extreme, get the sweet sustain, and drive out the Marshall. There were no high-gain amps, just a few green boxes. Nowadays, the opposite is happening. You do not need a pickup to push the amp, as high-gain amps are available and plugins do wonders; you need a pickup that best controls the amp.
For example, in the modern Prog world, it’s usual to hear snappy, half-crunchy sounds from downturned 7-string guitars. The amps are cranked, but the sound is still defined without the extra low-end for one reason only: the pickups are not extremely high-output but an in-between. In the classic heavy and thrash metal world, we have the opposite. Metallica’s dry, in-your-face scooped high output EMG sound became almost the norm. In this scenario, a high-gain active pickup controls a mighty 5150 amp.
The Playing Style
The playing style and genre differ, as one relates to how much gain and what sound the genre needs, and the other relates to how you approach the guitar. For example, I like dynamic humbuckers for rock and metal, meaning that the main criterion I put for a humbucker is how well it responds to my touch. If it cleans up when I play soft and distorts when I pick hard or turn the volume knob down, it’s perfect.
Other players might play the same song as me, aim for the same sound, but use pedals, not the picking, to control the gain. A different kind of Humbucker might be helpful here.
It sounds cliche, yet nothing is as essential as the pickup and setup in all the tonewoods, electronics, and body shapes discussions. Sometimes, an affordable humbucker could be exceptional, yet if you’re buying a new one, don’t settle for something cheap and a better compromise on other guitar parts.
Our guide on hot rodding your guitar best covers the compromises it’s best to make.
Best Humbuckers For Classic Rock and Blues
The PAF 59 has The classic rock n’ roll sound and is arguably one of the best pickups you could fit in a Les Paul—pure class and versatility for gain stages 1, 2, and even 3.
Beyond the faithful to the original PAF’s sound, these pickups take it a step higher, offering even the vintage looks. It’s particularly great if you own a vintage instrument that deserves the best of its era.
Inspired by the great Jeff Beck, these pickups have considerably more output than the previous two and are the jack-of-all-traders you want to own if you’re going through many gain stages in one set.
Best Humbucker For Hard Rock
The ‘brown’ sound has come from these pickups, and they will always be hard, extremely versatile rock beasts.
This humbucker set is inspired by Slash and his sweet, mid-rangy, overdriven sound and provides the ultimate 80s rock tone.
The most high-output pickups of this section, the SH-6 Myhem, are ideal for thrash and heavy metal but still keep the clarity of the notes at high gain without sounding too dark and heavy.
Best Humbuckers For Metal
Dimebag Darell contributed to the world of tone as well as to the world of guitar playing. The Dimebuckers are the humbuckers you need if you’re after Aggressive metal.
Heavy, with a fat bottom and almost infinite sustain, the EMG 89 will help you get the Black album’s heavy Metallica rhythm and lead sound.
The Black Dog Bareknuckles are a particular case of Metal pickups. They are highly versatile and could be used even for blues, yet have become popular among modern guitarist due to their great articulation.
Humbucker Alternatives: Why Not a Hot Single Coil?
P90s may technically be single coils, but their tone can be far from the woody, clean sound of a Strat neck pickup. They are incredibly versatile in anything except for heavy metal and have the most sensitive response to the touch, making for the ultimate edge-of-breakup sound.
Beware, though, as they are particularly tricky to play until you get used to the sensitivity.
Final Tip: It’s All About Blending in The Mix
Ultimately, your tone doesn’t matter, and your humbuckers are not worth it if you don’t consider blending in with the band mix.
My final tip is to think of your guitar as part of a greater sound and make compromises so that the music delivers a punch as a whole. This would opt for less drive when needed, eliminating the extra low-end, using all the pickup configurations in different parts of the song to leave space for others, and many other things that only experience with a good humbucker can teach you.
Question: Are active humbuckers better than passive ones?
Answer: It depends on the sound you are looking for. Active humbuckers provide more sustain and higher output than passive humbuckers, yet they can be less dynamic.
Question: How to install a humbucker on a SSS Stratocaster?
Answer: The easiest way to install a humbucker on a Stratocaster is to replace the original pickguard with a HSS model.
Question: Will two humbuckers of different brands fit on my guitar?
Answer: Yep, they will fit; you only need to be careful when installing them to set the phase correctly, as they might sound out-of-phase depending on the model.
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