The history of rock has been written on iconic riffs played on a Les Paul. As the first guitar that made the humbucker popular, the Gibson Les Paul single-handily defined the sound for a generation and is still the archetype guitar to play various styles of jazz, blues, rock, and up to the heaviest metal.
Experimenting with pickups is what I like best, and my work as a studio guitarist required me to have all the tones in my sack- as such, I prepared this list of best Les Paul Pickups, from Vintage P90s up to the most modern-sounding split coil you would ever want to fit on your guitar.
A Sophisticated Rock Machine
Before getting into the best options, I want to stress one of the most misunderstood concepts about Les Paul and their affinity with rock.
Back in the 60s, there were no high-gain amps, and pedals were still new. The only way to get enough sustain for bends and a crunchy tone was to push the amp with a Les Paul. Clapton, Beck, Peter Green, and Page all started the British Invasion of Les Paul as it was the only way to bring in a new range of sounds.
As time passed and amps became more sophisticated, many players started opting for Strats or other Gibsons; a Les Paul was no longer necessary but one of the options you could pick. Clapton and Beck are the leading examples of switching to a Strat and mixing up humbuckers and single coils.
A Les Paul is a fantastic rock guitar but is not limited to being rock machinery. The multiple volumes, tone knobs, and different pickup choices make it as almost as versatile as a Stratocaster or even more.
With the many variations of the model and brands you can find today from Gibson and other builders, there is nothing from Jazz to Extreme Metal the guitar can’t cover.
What Makes a Great Les Paul Pickup?
Les Pauls, especially Gibsons, naturally tend to sound warmer and have more sustain due to how the body is built, the hardware, and the tonewood choices. The neck-through-body design, the bridge, and the heavy Mahogany ensure that all pickups you place on a Les Paul, even a Strat-like single coil, sound different.
The criteria for picking the best Les Paul pickups all complement the born nature of a Les Paul, enhance the ability to reproduce iconic Les Paul tones or modern ones, and add some versatility to the mix or specific sound characteristics for the Genre.
Considering how much ground pickups can cover depending on the guitar, what serves well for classic rock could be perfect for jazz and blues. So the best way to categorize Les Paul pickups for players of all styles is in:
Classic Les Paul pickups that focus on vintage sounds and genres, Modern Les Paul pickups that focus on heavier or more experimental sounds, and the Do-It-All Humbucker which fits somewhere in between the two eras.
Best Classic Les Paul Pickups
Les Paul dominated the guitar scene from the mid-60s up in more than one genre. The British invasion started with blues and classic rock, with the Yardbird and Fleetwood Mac leading the pace, and then the sound began to leak into the unlikely hands of the country and jazz greats.
If you want to pick the proper pickup to recreate those vintage tones, you want to find the rare original or replicas that stay true to the legacy of the right blend of warm and bite.
The two defining classic Les Paul pickup styles, and arguably the most famous Les Paul pickups, are the P.A.F. and P90s.
P.A.F. Pickups – Best for Classic Rock and Blues
The first P.A.F. was invented by Seth Lover, in 1955, with the term standing simply for ‘Patent Applied For.’ P.A.F. now refers not to a single model but a distinct range of pickups that reproduce the tone that the first Les Paul humbucker made famous, as much as to define what a humbucker should sound like.
Their main characteristic is the warm low-mid, scooped mids, and aggressive high-end with a moderately low output for a humbucker.
P.A.F. pickups have a well-defined low end and treble when the amp is cranked or after an overdrive pedal.
They can go from clean to dirty from the pick attack alone – making them versatile for everything in the classic rock world, from the AC DC crunchy riffs to the high-gain Lynyrd Skynyrd epic parts and bluesy Pete Green mellow warm leads.
The major downside of P.A.F.s is the boomy nature of the low-end and that among the many modern replicas, some share few similarities to the vintage sound.
Seymour Duncan Antiquity Humbucker
The SD Antiquity is among the most faithful replications of the 50s P.A.F. sound you can purchase today. They are straightforward, down to the core P.A.F.s that follow all the slightest Seth Lover design details, such as the unwaxed pots, and even have an aged look that fits the most expensive 59′ gold top.
Very well suited for anything blues and jazzy besides classic rock.
DiMarzio DP103 PAF 36th Anniversary
This particular pickup has been on many of the records I’ve recorded after I was lucky enough to find it and fit it first on my Les Pual and later on an S.G.
It’s the most articulate, single-coil-like humbucker I’ve ever played – almost like a P90s blended in with a heavier J.B. humbucker. The volume knob cleans up the sound perfectly to sound tele-like and fattens up in a creamy way.
I recommend you put it on the neck, as it can sound harsh on the bridge unless you’re going for a more rounded country twang.
DiMarzio P.A.F. 59 Neck Pickup
Larry DiMarzio was directly responsible for inventing the rock n’ roll sound of the 60s and 70s with his P.A.F. pickups designs. These pickups are inspired by the Les Paul he played, known for more bite and hotter than the typical P.A.F. or the other two on the list.
Best suited for those who like to crank up the gain a notch higher than the rest. Many Les Paul players tweak the electronics to brighten these pickups if they sound slightly muddy on your guitar.
P90 Pickups – Extremely Versatile Single Coils
P90s are another range of pickups that defined the Les Paul sounds. They look like P.A.F.s, but in contrast, P90s are high-output single coils, not humbuckers. When asked how they sound, I generally answer ‘like a Stratocaster on steroids.‘
P90s are bright sounding with a better defined mid-range versatile – fitting to give rock and blues a more aggressive sound and perfect style into the country, jazz, and even modern pop.
What I love about P90s is how well they clean up and break up by rolling off the volume knob on your Les Paul and avoiding getting muddy on any gain stage. This sparkly character is ideal for cutting in the mix, thus finding a place for the P90s in practically every genre that does not use high gain.
They are also extremely responsive to touch, perfect for expressive Jazz players who like the warmth of a lowered tone knob but are keen on getting all the nuances of their playing out only using a guitar and a good tube amp.
The major downside is that they share the noise and hiss of single coils, starting to shrill with too much gain, and are so sensitive that you need time to get used to the touch.
P90s vs. Humbuckers is still a hot topic in the studio whenever I meet any other player with a Les Paul.
Seymour Duncan Antiquity P-90 Soapbar Single Coil
Soapbar pickups are a common sight on vintage Les Pauls, and their name does justice not only to the looks. The tone is clean and clear, with the best representation of what a P90 is about, with even the materials being aged as to sound from the 50s.
This is the proper pickup for you if you want to go for as vintage as possible.
Seymour Duncan SPH90-1n Phat Cat
In the range of P90s, the Phat Cat is my favorite neck pickup due to its well-rounded nature and warm mids. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether you’re playing a full-on humbucker when you roll the tone knob down to get the warm blues sounds.
The double nature makes it my overall favorite blues pickup of all time.
Seymour Duncan TBPR-1b P-Rails Pickup
This pickup is the oddest on the list, as it blends various sounds into one. Even though I’m not always a fan of multipurpose pickups, the Trembucuker, as they call it, has three convenient gain stages, P90, P.A.F., and Full on Humbcukers – all of which sound impressive.
Pick the one bridge pickup if you are unsure of what classic era you belong to, or check out our list for more P90s.
Should I Get P.A.F. or P90 Pickups for my Les Paul?
If you’re more into the classic rock heavier side or blues lead, P.A.F. will help you get a tighter humbucker tone and avoid all noise on stage – if, on the other hand, you want the bite of edge-of-breakup tone and are keen on keeping the doors open for cleaner jazz and country style or even fit a dense pop mix.
Hot-rodding your guitar to fit a P.A.F. on the bridge and P90 on the neck is a perfect classic combo if you are not settled in one genre and style.
The Do-It-All Humbuckers
A guitar is a product of its era’s music, as are the pickups. After young Van Halen ended the ‘classic’ period by bringing a new sound with his Frankestrat, the P.A.F., and P90s were limited in how much gain they could handle.
The late 70s and 80s saw the birth of the high-gain Les Paul pickups pioneered by legends like Slash and his Epiphone and then the grunge guitar heroes of the 90s. What I like about these pickups is that they keep a part of the vintage nature, hinting at a P.A.F-like sound while shredding when needed.
There is no downside to using these pickups unless you want to go super classical or extremely heavy and downed where other specs are needed.
Seymour Duncan APH-2s Alnico II Pro Slash Signature
The Slash signature Les Paul pickups became the archetype for the guitar’s sound for a decade. The warm mid-rangy sound with a lot of sustain and enough bite, almost ‘squishy’ of this pickup can fit anywhere in the rock realm.
Gibson T Tops
The very pickup Jimmy Page replaced his P.A.F. for in the 70s as Led Zeppelin got heavier, and more gain and aggressiveness on the bridge was needed. It’s one of the few moderately low-output pickups of that classic era that can hold up to the 80s glam and cross to heavy metal.
E.V.H. Frankenstein Plus Pickup
Contrary to what many think, Eddie did not use as much gain in any of his records; he even started using less of it along his career – thus, the signature E.V.H. pickups cover a lot of ground in the classic rock section besides being one of the best hard-rock pickups for lead and rhythm players.
Best Modern & Heavy Les Paul Pickups
Thrash metal in the 80s, and after new metal, prog, and extreme metal followed in the 90s – all of these new genres had a district sound that needed new pickups.
I use a combo of high-gain passive pickups, active pickups, and split coils to fit in the sonic range of modern guitar genres that often rely on heavy distortion.
The biggest advantage of all modern pickups is their reliability, polished sound, and versatility using coil taps. The major disadvantage is that they push the player to overly saturate the sound or naturally saturate it, thus losing the dynamics at the core of all classic genres and giving modern tones a ‘unison feel.’
E.M.G. 89 Active Alnico Coil Splitting
The ‘Metallica E.M.G. sound’ standard quickly became the standard of all new bands jamming to power chords. They sound thick, full and aggressive, handling massive amounts of gain, making them the ideal Thrash Metal and heavy metal pickup.
The downside to E.M.G. is their boomy nature which beginners players usually fall prey to. To compensate, the 89 Coil Spilling pickups add a single coil option, which clears up some of the low-end and makes for some dry clean sounds, but never as dynamic as a Strat’s pickup.
E.M.G. Revelation Passive Signature
Passive E.M.G.s are not that common in the heavy metal world but are handy to get more dynamic low-gain rock sounds and also in the prog, djent, and other genres where note clarity and a snappy attack are essential.
The lower you go with the tunning, the harder it gets to get a good tone both live and in the studio. Passive pickups help tighten the sound, adding a layer of clarity to all the distortion.
Bare Knuckle Black Dog Humbucker
Bare Knuckle pickups have recently stormed the modern guitar world, offering some of the best punchy metal pickups for baritone, six, seven, and 8-string guitars. These pickups can get extreme but still retain a vintage P.A.F. quality of the transparent highs and high-mids that help down-tuned distorted guitar stand out in the mix.
You can combine a Black Dog on the neck and get an E.M.G. on the bridge of a heavy axe that jumps from one metal subgenre to the other in a switch.
Best Les Paul Pickups Guide: FAQs
Question: Should I Mix Different Pickup Types in my Les Paul?
Answer: You can make your Les Paul extra-versatile if you mix different types of pickups. Different pickup brands work together nicely, which the only possible tweak being a change in the wiring you can do yourself to avoid phase issues.
Most Les Pauls give you two pickup slots, and I took advantage to create the ‘ultimate’ classic combo. My S.G. is my favorite sounding and among my most versatile guitars, with a hot P.A.F. on the bridge and a brighter low-output P90 on the neck.
Question: What are The Best Pickups Brands for a Les Paul?
Answer: Dimarzio and Seymor Duncan are the top classic pickup brands focused on the rock, blues, jack, and country range, while E.M.G. is the most popular metal pickup brand for Les Pauls.
Question: Should I Buy Used Vintage Pickups or Modern Replicas?
Answer: If you want to go as classic as possible, the original vintage pickups will deliver the best experience; however, they are hard to find, costly, and in rare cases, the tone might have changed over time as much as to lose their best qualities.
Modern replicas are easy to find, assure you won’t have any problems installing the pickups and can be very faithful to the original tone.
Will My Guitar Affect The Pickup’s Tone?
Ultimately you want the best pickups that suit your guitar. Depending on the tonewoods, electronics, body type, and brand, Les Pauls have different qualities that affect how the pickups sound.
A hollow-body Les Paul won’t handle the heavy E.M.G.s well, and your P90s might go to waste on a 7-string guitar. So think carefully about whether you need new pickups or a new guitar to fit quality pickup – at the end of the day, how the guitar with its qualities inspires your hands to play will affect your tone most of all.