Humbuckers are the sound of rock music! For big, beefy tones that pound out of your speakers like a herd of wild horses, you can’t go wrong with these classic pickups.
They’re responsible for the rich, creamy sustain of many of your favorite solos and the solid chunky rhythm grooves that get you to move your feet.
Nothing says you’re ready to rock like strapping on a guitar with some fat humbuckers and cranking up your favorite amp.
There are a lot of humbucking pickup designs on the market nowadays.
Since Seth Lover, looking for a way to reduce hum from guitars, designed the first humbuckers for Gibson in 1955, the legendary PAF (literally standing for patent applied for) pickups, brand after brand have followed in his footsteps.
They offer humbuckers that focus on the warm, round humbucker sound that the PAFs established, or that seek to create a noise-free signal with more of the clarity and chime of single coils.
There are high-output humbuckers, vintage hand-wound humbuckers, rail and stacked, and mini-humbuckers. So the question to you is, which humbuckers are best for your guitar?
This handy article will help you make the best choice, taking you through some of the best humbuckers on the market today and offering a buyer’s guide so that you can make the most informed decision you possibly can. Get ready to rock!
OUR TOP PICK
These are the classic original humbuckers that you will have seen and heard in many a vintage Gibson Les Paul. Two coils wound in opposition to negate the hum from a single-coil pickup encased within a shiny cover.
There are a huge variety of PAF clones available that aim to recreate the ‘59 sound in incredible detail, and these Seymour Duncans, named after the creator of the PAF himself, are a great set.
They’re lower-output compared to a lot of modern humbuckers and have a very warm low-end response plus a good deal of brightness and sparkle in the top end.
If the sound in your head is that of crunchy ‘60s and ‘70s rock, you’re probably looking for a PAF-style pickup.
You can buy PAF clones from many big mainstream pickup manufacturers, and there is a thriving boutique market too with smaller manufacturers digging down into the absolutely tiny details of what makes the PAF so great; you’ll find hand-wound coils, pickups with more or less wax potting (where the pickup is dipped in wax to prevent unwanted vibrations that can cause howling at higher gain levels), and pickups using different compositions of alloy for their magnets.
Seymour Duncan Seth Lover pickups are unpotted, giving a musical percussiveness to the attack of your notes, and are designed to recreate that classic rock sound that changed the world.
- Classic PAF pickups - if you’re going to make pickups with Seth Lover’s name on, they’d better nail the tone of a PAF. These are excellent recreations of that singing, musical sound.
- Great for jazz, rock, and blues - sweet tone and great responsiveness are the order of the day here, making these pickups perfect for a little overdrive and a lot of feel.
- Seymour Duncan quality - a major name in pickup manufacture, Seymour Duncan is a company that knows how to make a great, reliable pickup.
- Lower output - if you’re looking for screaming high gain, these aren’t the pickups for you.
- Mainstream PAF - you know what you’re getting when you buy from Seymour Duncan, but with the multiplicity of PAF clones in the market, you could shop around for something more specific if you have a certain tone in mind.
Gibson’s other great pickup innovation was the P90, a single-coil pickup that was developed in 1946 and which Seth Lover built upon when designing the PAF humbucker.
Mini humbuckers are P90-sized humbucking tone machines, first created by Epiphone, smaller than their famous brethren but still capable of a wide variety of voicings.
The mini-humbucker lacks the legendary status of the PAF, but this means that the mini market is full of different options that can turn your guitar into the perfect instrument for you, whatever your style of music and playing.
Our choice here is another Seymour Duncan pickup, and another from their extensive range of vintage hardware. There is a reason why we’ve chosen the Antiquity II mini-humbucker, and that’s the exceptional tone.
These pocket-sized wonders produce a phenomenal classic tone, singing with classic rock and blues vibes when overdriven, and shading into jazz territory clean with a little treble rolled off.
They’re snappy enough to handle funk duties and have the clarity to pull off alt-country styles too. If you’re hunting for the clarity of a single-coil without the hum and want a classic sound, grab a set of these.
- Classic tone - hand-wound and aged electrics give you a super-vintage tone with the modern build quality you would expect from Seymour Duncan.
- Perfect replacement for P90s - if you’ve got a guitar with a P90 and want to swap it for a humbucker, this is your best choice.
- Versatile all-rounders - the tight, focused tone with its warm frequency response and single-coil style snap and transparency make these pickups perfect for almost any style of music. Okay, maybe not thrash metal, but almost any style of music not requiring blistering high gain.
- Vintage vibe - it’s not for everyone! If you’re after a modern set of humbuckers, these might not do the trick.
EMG active humbuckers are a modern classic, behind the tone of some of the greatest metal guitarists of all time.
They’re not just for metal though, with their precision and clarity also being highly sought after for punk and even top-end pop acts; one of Kylie Minogue’s guitarists is an EMG endorsee!
What really makes these pickups special is their laser-focused precision. Every aspect of their tone is tight. The frequency response is even, and when played clean they might surprise you with their smoothness and transparency.
There’s a decent amount of snap in the treble and a rich, ringing low-end, and they sustain beautifully and consistently. Add a healthy whack of distortion and you have shred heaven.
Those same sonic signatures that make the EMG 85s a dream to play clean lend themselves to mighty riffing and blistering solos with power and consistency that is absolutely legendary.
What makes active pickups stand out is their powered pre-amp circuitry.
To put it simply, active pickups are hotter than passive ones, with lower impedance and therefore higher gain, hence them being the weapon of choice for guitarists who want to really blow an audience away.
- High gain - these pickups are built to rock, delivering a hot signal for your favorite distortion to take to new heights.
- Surprisingly good clean - ringing, clear clean tone with incredible even tone means they’re not just for shredding.
- Extremely consistent and precise - everything about the way these pickups sound is tight, but not in the sense that they are constrictive. They deliver with unbelievable focus and accuracy.
- Clinical - along with that clarity and precision comes a certain clinical edge. If you’re looking for that mythical soul in your pickups, you’re better off looking for a vintage model.
Say you want that humbucker tone but you’re a dedicated Strat fan. You could route out a space for some full-size or mini-humbuckers, but if you don’t want to go down that road then there is a solution in the form of rails-style humbuckers.
These are made in various sizes, including full-size humbuckers, but are popular as a drop-in replacement for Fender-style single coils. Instead of six pole pieces, they have a single rail per coil that generates the magnetic field.
This means they can be much more compact, fitting two of those rails easily into a Strat-shaped pickup housing.
The Di Marzio Super Distortion S is a classic of the breed. Built specifically to sit in the slanted bridge position of a Stratocaster or classic Telecaster, this pickup is beefy and full, with a high output perfect for all styles of rock music.
This is a fantastic pickup to get incendiary leads with a true Fender sound.
- Built for Strats - this pickup is designed specifically to give you as a Strat player access to Di Marzio’s famed humbucker tone.
- Versatile wiring - the Super Distortion S has the option to split the coils too, so it can function as a bridge single-coil as well as a powerful humbucker.
- Responsive and expressive - you don’t lose the soulful edges of the Fender sound when you replace your bridge pickup with a Super Distortion S, only pump it up.
- Modern tone - this pickup is perfectly suited to playing styles like ‘80s and modern rock and Nashville country but isn’t going to give you vintage warmth. It’s still a great, versatile replacement, but if you’re looking for ‘70s single-coil heaven this isn’t the pickup for you.
If you love the classic sound of the Fender Telecaster but want to be rid of that annoying hum, these are the pickups for you.
A matched pair that is designed to replace the classic Telecaster straight neck and angled single-coil bridge pickups, you get faithful, true Telecaster sound with a higher output and lower noise floor.
That might sound too good to be true, but it’s 100 percent real. These are stacked humbuckers, meaning the two coils sit one on top of the other within a single-coil casing.
This keeps the magnetic field small and focused, just like a regular single coil.
You get a warm, rich tone from the neck pickup that shades towards jazz with a little of the volume rolled off, and a full, expressive sound from the bridge that, again with a little volume reduction, takes you straight into classic spanky Nashville Telecaster territory.
Remember that these pickups are higher-output than the single-coils that you would be replacing them with, so to gain access to your favorite single-coil tones backing that volume control off a little is the key.
- Classic Tele tone in a humbucker set - you get the benefits of high output and low hum, but you can dial in that legendary Telecaster sound with just a little twist of the volume knob.
- Matched pair - designed to be used together, these pickups sound phenomenal soloed or in the blended middle position.
- Versatile tone - it’s that Telecaster sound, a staple of almost any genre you care to mention, just beefed up a little. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you’re in the right place.
- Not best suited for super - heavy styles - you’ll see a lot of guitarists in heavy rock bands playing Telecasters, but they’re normally modified versions with heftier humbuckers. These aim to replicate the single-coil sound, so if you’re a metaller who loves the feel of a Telecaster, there are better options available.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are humbuckers available now to fit any guitar you might play.
They have a huge range of applications and different voicings, so there are a few things you need to take into consideration when you’re shopping around for your perfect humbucker replacement.
We’ve put this set of FAQs together to help you hone in on the questions you should be asking when trying to find the perfect humbuckers for you.
What Size Pickups Do I Need?
For your ease, it’s best to choose a new pickup with the appropriate form factor for the guitar you’re trying to fit it to.
You can of course make the pickup choice the priority and modify your guitar to suit, but if you want a simple replacement then look for a pickup that is designed to fit in the space of the one you are removing.
There are lots of options available to suit all models of guitars and all playing styles, so don’t feel limited by that.
Vintage Or Modern?
Humbuckers are not a new invention. They’re part of the power behind the rock sound from the ‘60s onwards and have a home in jazz, blues, and pop music of all stripes.
You’ll have a sound in your head that you’re hoping to find. If you’re looking for warm, crunchy classic vibes, you’re best off looking in the PAF or vintage mini-humbucker area.
If you want screaming high gain for punk and metal, active humbuckers like those made by EMG are the place to be.
Can Humbuckers Sound Like Single-Coils?
Are you trying to keep the playing characteristics of a guitar you love and give it a sonic makeover, or do you want the hum-free sound and higher output of a humbucker with the tone of your existing single coils?
That’s an important consideration, particularly when swapping out pickups in Fender-style guitars. As shown from our list of favorites above, there are options that go in both directions.
You can either opt to drop in something like a Di Marzio Super Distortion S and make your Strat a high-gain shred machine, or you can look at options like the Seymour Duncan stacked pickups to get your existing tone with a little more punch.
Are Active Or Passive Humbuckers Better?
The biggest point here is how hot you want your signal to be. Active pickups are simply more powerful than passive ones. Active pickups can feel sterile, though that can also come across as being precise and controlled.
The other thing to consider with active pickups is that you will need to replace the batteries, which isn’t a major hassle but is something you don’t have to do with passive sets.
The best thing you can do is listen to some recordings of the pickups you are considering buying and test them in person if you can.
At the end of the day, it is your playing style that you’re working with, and your dream tone that you are looking for. There are humbuckers out there for every guitar and every player. Go get that tone!