Standing out from the crowd is at the very core of rock and roll. And when it comes to making sure your unique guitar playing shines, there’s one little thing (or two or three side-by-side) that makes all the difference.
You need THE best electric guitar pickups, and you need them now!
But are you looking for a superb set of electric guitar pickups for sultry Stratocaster fueled blues? Or do you want the best humbucker pickup for in-your-face metal? Maybe you’re looking to breathe new life into an old faithful with the best active guitar pickup? But which?
You play rhythm for a few bars while we lead you through a star-studded lineup of what’s hot and what’s not, amongst today’s best pickups for electric guitar.
So, let’s get straight to it by sizing-up the competition: Small list. BIG names.
Top 5 Best Electric Guitar Pickups of 2023
1 Fender Custom Shop Strat Texas Special Pickups – Best Stratocaster Guitar Pickups
Ah, the trusty Stratocaster. With parts from tuning heads to the bridge tail piece all at standardized sizes, even a Stratocaster copy can be a modder’s dream. The parts are often affordable, varied, and easier than ever to fit yourself with online guides.
Putting together your own Frankenstein “Parts-caster”?
Or do you just want more bark and bite from your ax? Either way, look no further than a set of Fender Custom Shop Strat Texas Special pickups.
A huge part of the success of the Stratocaster is its endorsement by rock and roll icons. And no doubt Stevie Ray Vaughn ranks amongst the top Stratocaster-wielding guitar heroes. These Texas Special pickups are the same as those featured in the SRV signature model Stratocaster.
These pickups are excellent if SRV and his high-output, incendiary sound is something you’re looking to emulate or incorporate into your own playing. Regardless, the Texas Special pickups will do wonders for improving the sound of your blues, rock, indie, country, and more.
Specifically calibrated for each pickup position with a reverse coil as well as a reverse-wound middle pickup for extra noise cancellation. Each pickup features Alnico 5 magnets, the magnet wire being enamel-coated for those warm vintage tones we love. Extra-wound for higher output with staggered pole pieces giving balanced output. The results are a set of pickups with midrange bark and crisp high-end bite.
The extra spice these Fender Custom Shop Texas Special pickups add is hot!
- Boosted middle and bass frequencies.
- Twangy and spanky Stratocaster tones.
- Complete set of three pickups.
- Extra winding/high-output could be too hot for your tastes.
2 EMG JH James Hetfield Electric Guitar Pickups – Best Active Guitar Pickups for Metal
We promised you big names, and in the world of metal, it doesn’t get much bigger than Metallica and James Hetfield. Their sound helped define a genre with hits launching them into popular music culture.
Want that sound for yourself?
‘The Het’ has been using EMG pickups in his ESP guitars since the 1980s. Specifically an EMG-60 in the neck and an EMG-81 in the bridge.
EMG was the first company to produce active pickups, powered by a 9-Volt battery for higher-output than passive pickups. This gave metallers, and other guitarists sorely needed noise cancellation, which single coils could not compete with at high outputs.
Great sounding… and looking
In 2009 Hetfield challenged EMG to create a stealth-looking set that captured the clarity and punch of a passive pickup while still retaining that iconic active tone. The result is the JH James Hetfield ‘HET-set’. And you won’t just sound great with these pickups, but you’ll look great too.
EMG Metal Works provide you with Gold, Chrome, Brushed Gold, Brushed Chrome, and Brushed Black Chrome finishes.
Consisting of the JH-N (Neck) and the JH-B (Bridge) pickups, they are patterned after the EMG-60 and EMG-81 pickups, respectively. However, they feature a number of significant improvements.
The JH-N has individual ceramic poles and bobbins with a larger core and is taller than the EMG-60. The JH-B utilizes the same type of core but is upgraded with steel pole pieces, unlike the 81’s bar magnets. This produces that familiar and desirable tight attack, but now with less inductance, resulting in cleaner lows.
With the EMG ‘HET-Set,’ you’ll be ‘Master of Pickups’!
- All the punch of a passive pickup but with active tone.
- Tight attack with clear bass frequencies.
- Legendary noise cancellation and humbucking.
- Solderless install system.
- Different EMG Metal Works finishes.
- Your guitar needs to have space for a 9V battery.
3 DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Pickups – Best Humbucker Guitar Pickup
We’ve already mentioned some legendary names in our Best Electric Guitar Pickups review, but regarding the pickups themselves, there’s none bigger than the DiMarzio Super Distortion. This was the first pickup specifically designed to punch a tube amp into a crunchy overdriven breakup.
Replacement pickups simply didn’t exist before its invention in the early 1970s. Without this historically important guitar pickup, there wouldn’t be reviews like this one!
So how does this innovator stack up against the current competition?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that just like Canada inventing basketball, by now, someone else must do it better. Right? Well, the Super Distortion set the standard and is still the benchmark against which other high-output pickups are measured.
Favored by guitarists as varied as Kurt Cobain, Paul Gilbert, Al Di Meola, and Kiss’s Paul Stanley. The Super Distortion is a fantastic all-rounder, especially for music styles based on rock or want a fatter, high-output sound. With a perfect blend of power and tone, both individual notes and chords pack a breathtaking punch.
Primarily designed as a bridge pickup, its versatility means you can also have one as the neck pickup of your guitar. This might just be the best high-output guitar pickup ever made!
Strat-like split and series-parallel modes are easily accessible with the versatile 4-conductor wiring of the Super Distortion. Ceramic magnets give balanced tones of classic thick, boosted mids, big lows, and fat highs. High-output and humbucking for noise cancellation.
‘Super Distortion’ says it all, and these pickups do it all!
- Top performing all-rounder, especially for rock.
- The legendary pickup which set the standard.
- Excellent high-output.
- Powerful middle and boosted bass frequencies.
- Single humbucker. Not a paired set.
4 Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates Pickups – Best Humbucker Guitar Pickups for Blues
Our next big name comes equipped with a big beard and even bigger Texas blues rock tones. It’s none other than Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame. His 1959 Gibson Les Paul, named ‘Pearly Gates’, is a legend itself and is the inspiration for the next set of pickups in our review.
Seymour Duncan and his company have been lovingly creating high-quality guitar pickups since 1976. He discovered that Gibbon’s P.A.F style (Patent Applied For) bridge humbucker had a higher output than others at the time. Naturally, this helped to create the powerful and legendary blues rock grit that so many guitarists desire to this day.
But surely it’s not all about output?
You’re absolutely right. The Pearly Gates pickups will provide meaty high-output growl from low tones as well as light, airy, treble-forward spice from the Alnico 2 bar magnet. The real Texas sizzle comes in the midrange, jumping out with strong tailored mids ready to rock any BBQ.
Always focusing on vintage accuracy, these pickups are lovingly hand built in their Santa Barbara, California factory. Each Pearly Gates pickup is wound on the original Leesona winding machine from the early Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
4-conductor lead wires provide a multitude of wiring options, and the pickups are also vacuum wax potted for squeal-free performance. Alnico 2 bar magnets provide a brighter, hotter upgrade. Pearly Gates pickups will turn your middle-of-the-road sounding Les Paul into a leather-clad road warrior!
Pearly Gates pickups are the ZZ-Top choice for blues rock!
- Excellent blues sustain.
- Picks out harmonics beautifully.
- Premium build quality.
- Not really hot enough for metal.
5 Fender Tex-Mex Strat Pickups – Best Strat Pickups for the Money
Money is always going to be an issue, especially for musicians. We load thousands of dollars of equipment into a car worth a few hundred, just to get paid ten for the show. And that’s if we get paid!
So what’s the best way to spend money effectively when upgrading pickups?
More on this later in our Electric Guitar Pickups Buyers Guide. But let’s round out our list with the Tex-Mex Strat Pickup set by Fender.
Not just an honorable mention!
If you’re upgrading your Strat on a budget but still want to give it a real boost in both tone and power, Tex-Mex pickups are perfect. Your thriftiness will be rewarded, and you’ll be very pleased with the sonic results. Not only with the increased output, but the sparkling highs and attention-grabbing warm tones we desire from a true Stratocaster.
Just like its brother, the Texas Special, the Tex-Mex is also found in a signature guitar. None other than Jimmie Vaughan and his signature Tex-Mex Strat. Yes, that’s SRV’s brother!
Again Fender are giving you the opportunity to have high-end signature-level hardware but at the most affordable price yet.
Complete three pickup set allows for easy replacement of stock Strat pickups.
The set features a reverse-wound middle pickup so that when you’re going for that spanky Stratocaster quack, the pickups together provide helpful noise-canceling properties. Alnico 5 magnets provide focus and dynamics to the sound, and the Polysol-coated magnet wire manages familiar warm vintage-esque tones. Overwound for higher output, these pickups really shine with overdrive.
These pickups pack a confident punch without it turning into a white-hot fist fight!
- Best value for money.
- High-output and handles overdrive very well.
- Versatile and a fantastic upgrade on stock pickups.
- Not a truly vintage sound. Modern materials.
Best Electric Guitar Pickups Buyers guide
Buying a guitar is a big investment, and the start of a relationship that can be as rewarding as it is rocky. But thankfully, replacing the pickups in your electric guitar can be a fantastic way to breathe new life into your instrument. It can even re-inspire you to play the way you always wanted.
Of a guitars parts, it’s the pickups which provide the biggest difference in tone. And tone is king.
Know your ax…
Before buying, however, be sure on whether you’re replacing single coil pickups (such as those found on Fender Stratocasters or Telecasters) or Humbuckers (as found on Gibson Les Pauls, Gibson 335’s, etc.).
Single coils and humbuckers are not interchangeable without extra modification or specifically designed pickups. They each have distinct qualities, and the decision is usually sown to the style of music you play. Generally speaking, genres like blues, surf rock, rockabilly, and country will utilize the clarity, bell-like chime, and treble-forward snap of single coil pickups.
The birth of the Humbucker…
In the 1950s, Seth Lover’s Patent Applied For (P.A.F) humbucker shook things up, leaving an impact on the rock scenes of the 60s and 70s that eventually lead to heavy rock and metal.
Humbucker pickups are naturally bigger, with more coils and higher-output. Their design also cancels out a lot of unwanted noise, ‘bucking’ undesirable hum at this higher output range (hence the name). Humbuckers can also be ‘Active,’ equipped with an onboard pre-amp powered by a 9-Volt battery for extra noise cancellation.
If you’re interested in active pickups, make sure to consider if your guitar has room for the battery.
As a last hot tip…
Always remember the value of the guitar you’re upgrading. Ideally, we would never sell a beloved instrument, but we’ve all struggled with rent!
While your super modded, hot-rodded, tweaked, sleek Strat copy might now play better than any highly-priced off-the-rack genuine Fender, it’s unlikely to give you a good return on the investment. Often it’s better to spend the money on a guitar with higher build quality from the outset, because the re-sale value is virtually guaranteed.
While upgrading the pickups on an OK guitar can really turn it into a great sounding one, make those upgrades for your own enjoyment, not as an investment. Also, keep a hold of the original pickups you replace so that you can put them back in the guitar if you ever sell it.
Looking for more superb Pickup options?
Then check out our reviews of the Best Stratocaster Pickups, the Best P 90 Pickups, the Best Acoustic Guitar Pickups, the Best Guitar Pickups, the Best Telecaster Guitar Pickups, the Best DiMarzio Pickup, and the Best Single Coil Pickups you can buy.
So, what are the Best Electric Guitar Pickups?
Considering that it’s clarity that we desire from our pickups as much as output, let’s clearly say which pickup comes in top of our review of the best guitar pickups for electric guitar.
If you’re upgrading a set of single coil Stratocaster pickups, the…
…are our winner. The easy upgrade you achieve over stock pickups is unparalleled at its price point. And it surprises with some qualities that put it above its pricier brother, the Texas Special.
If you need higher output and a humbucker, the…
…is the pickup that just keeps giving. The original replacement pickup designed specifically for the iconic push into overdrive that we’ve loved on countless platinum selling records.
Happy six-string slinging!