Electric guitar pickup guide: Used and abused

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First off I must state that a pickups sound can vary in different guitars and also through different amplifiers and FX units, so sometimes it's a matter of taking the manufacturers description as a rough guide only. 

This is all stuff that I've actually tried myself, mostly in my own guitars/gear and in many cases wasted money!
My musical tastes mainly lean towards the heavier side of things but there's a few milder choices too.


Brands covered are EMG, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Fender, Jackson, Ibanez, Dragonfire, Entwistle and Warman.

The big names...



Only the one.
Tone Zone: Big and creamy distortion but with just enough clarity and a hint of fuzz without being fizzy. Super fat.


Some have said that EMG's suck tone and sound sterile and the same in every guitar, this is not quite true. What they do is impart their own sound more strongly than most passive pickups - a duff plank will sound dead and a class axe will sing EMG's or not.
EMG active products are rated to 27 volts and using a higher voltage over the standard 9v usually gives a cleaner, more open sound with greater depth, playing dynamics and extended frequency response. I don't think that this makes them more 'organic'.

81: The modern metal standard and for good reason. High output with a razor sharp attack, great sustain, tight low end and remains clear even with massive gain and low tunings. The downside is a lack of playing dynamics and sounds compressed and shut in (dry is the term usually used) when up against a good passive pickup. Terrible clean, it's way too focused for that sort of thing and sound flat, forward and lacks sparkle. 18v will bag a slightly more open sound, improved dynamics, complex harmonic overtones and an even faster attack.

85: Alnico magnet option that can just about cover anything from 'on the edge' blues break up to gut wrenching death metal. Still high output, still a touch dry but looser, more open and less of a 'distortion' pickup than the 81. Can be a bit boomy in the neck position but I find mounting it in an angled ring will cure that and add a touch of pick attack to lead playing ala James Murphy. Cleans are alright but slightly artificial to my ears. 18+ volts will clean up the bass and improve dynamics.

60: Like a fattened up 81 with a fuller bass and a lot less definition when the gain is set to stun. Clean is much better than the 81 but the 60 has a hard clang to the treble and bass can boom a bit. the 60 responds really well to a higher voltage and delivers a more controlled bass and sweeter highs. Fit an EXG circuit (see further down), run 18+ volts and it will start to really sing, dirty or clean.

60A: The Alnico magnet take on the 60. Rare as rocking horse sh*t on the used market and one of my personal favourites for neck position. It has warm (for an active) full bass, smooth highs and just enough power and sustain without too much muddiness for that fluid high gain jazz'esque solo tone on the neck position and works well clean for big acoustic sounding chords. Use 18v for extended high frequencies and cleaner bass. Use 50k pots for more bite.

S: Ceramic bar magnet single coil sized pickup. loud and percussive with a prominent upper mid attack. Listen to the intro on Metallica's "One" and you you'll know what I'm talking about. A little too hard for my ears but then some of this was possibly down to my Jackson Soloist which isn't exactly sweet... However if you want a loud, modern 'in yer face' Strat meets hot Tele tone then seek an S out.

SA: Bold and bell like, modern, HiFi and not overly Stratty but then it uses an Alnico bar instead of polepieces. If you want higher output and a bit more openness out of your single coils then this should be on the short list. Can deliver an almost electro acoustic quality to clean chords, more so with 18 volts.

SAV: I think it shares the same preamp as the SA but the pickup has flush Alnico polepieces. More focused than the SA with added punch and attitude to the big bold sound, loves a bit of dirt and definitely one for the rockers. Big tough Strat with steroids for breakfast.


SV: Notably less output than the others, this is the most vintage/passive sounding of the EMG's I've tried. It has much more of the true Strat "quack" and is nicely balanced with just enough attack without being harsh and breaks up nicely for that between clean and dirty sound.


PA2 Gain boost: On/Off toggle switch with a circuitboard mounted trim pot to adjust the boost. The circuit has no true bypass and converts a high impedance (passive) signal to low impedance. Adds a Hi Fi sheen but removes much of the character and dynamics of passive pickups in the off position, I didn't notice a change (No boost setting) with active EMG's. Flick on the boost and things sound bigger with more sustain. High levels of boost can sound fizzy and hiss can intrude. 18v is a must to preserve any of a passive pickups dynamics and tone.


EXG Tone expander: Shifts and extends the high and low frequencies whilst scooping out the mids. Not very effective with the 81 but worked wonders with the 60 both clean and dirty by removing the clang and replacing it with deep but controlled lows and a much sweeter treble for electro acoustic cleans and a more open and clear crunch when the gain is turned up high. 18v increased the effect. Hiss is slightly intrusive but not enough to spoil the fun.

Seymour Duncan

Most of Duncan's humbucker range comes in bridge (B) and neck (N) versions and wider TB spacing for Floyd Rose equipped guitars. 4 conductor wiring opens up wiring options.

SH4/TB4 JB: "Sweet warm tones to raw rock 'n' roll" says Duncan and this is indeed a versatile high output pickup. Balanced tonal response with plenty of sustain, fantastic harmonic content and good single note clarity. It will mush chords with drop tunings but will kick out anything from Blues rock to Thrash metal. Aggressive crunch in an Ibanez RG505 but fuller and rounder in a Charvel 475, both basswood bodied, maple/rosewood necked, Floyd equipped superstrats and demonstrates what I previously stated about how pickups interact with different guitars! The cleans aren't too inspiring, even in split coil and parallel mode but give it gain (lots of) and the JB is a lead guitarists dream.

SH5/TB5 Duncan Custom: Duncan say "A hard-diving kicking sound" and that's about spot on, not harsh but tough, focused with a strong output for a chunky crunch. There isn't the harmonic overtones of the JB but there's good clarity so you can drop tunings and whack up the gain without thing turning to mush (Duncan Distortion...). Not too offensive using the coil split and parallel wiring option has a nice Gretsch like jangle for for clean work. Kick the coils back to the series and the testosterone floods out for muscular Hard Rock/Heavy Metal riffs at which it excels.

SH6/TB6 (B) Duncan Distortion: The JB has power enough for Rock/Metal solo's and the Invader is the one to crush bones but if you want an even hotter pickup with even more mids then the hugely overwound coils of the Distortion is where you want to head. I found it produced a fizzy distortion and lacked clarity. Remains the only Duncan I don't like... For anything. Clearance issues with pickup rings and pickguards due to the coils being so overwound.

SH8 Invader (B): Sounds just like it looks; Beast! It packs the low end from hell and huge output while crisp highs provide attack and good clarity - Death Metal a go go. When making use of the 4 conductor wiring in parallel you get a nice jangle for clean chords (honest) and in split coil mode it works well enough for medium gain applications. Neck version rolls off the output a fraction and gets more highs. Brutal.

SH10/TB10 (B) Full Shred: Don't let the name fool you it's not a one trick pony. It has the JB's crunch and harmonic overtones but trades some of the power and mids for a tighter bass with more highs and clarity. Single note definition is superb, response to playing dynamics is excellent even with high gain and when you roll off the volume pot the cleans are highly convincing. Think JB lite.

SH11/TB11 Custom Custom: Warm with a full but loose bass, medium+ output. Too flabby in the low end for high gain but I reckon It'd make a great bridge position pickup for Blues Rock, or, if you simply want to warm up a bright sounding guitar and don't want a really hot output then go for it. Don't put it in the neck slot.

SH12/TB12 Screamin' Demon: This is one big, open sounding pickup, it can make your 15w practice amp sound like a full stack! Medium output with super harmonic content and backs off on the volume pot for very impressive clean tones. Despite what Duncan claim it will get very harsh if you turn the gain up too high so not one for the Thrash boys but a top choice if you play Blues or Hard Rock.

SHPG1/TBPG1 Pearly Gates: Only spent about 10 minutes with a borrowed USA strat so I can't say much other than it had medium output and a nice sparkle on the highs without being thin. Sweet highs.

AHB1 Blackouts (B): Duncan's active EMG 81 rival. It's closer to the Duncan Distortion than an 81 with more bass, a shed load more mids and even more output, this is a very hot pickup! The treble is smoother and it doesn't have the same attack or ultra tight low end of the EMG. It is more organic sounding (but not as natural as a passive pickup) than the EMG's and if you found the 81 a bit thin and dry then it's well worth checking out. Dynamics? If you want something with this level of output are you really worried abut 'em?

AHB3 Mick Thomson EMTY (B): Duncan have taken the original Blackouts, tightened up the low end, backed off the mids and added more high mid/treble snap - an EMG 81? Not quite, the EMTY is bigger and louder than the 81 with better response to picking dynamics, filters less of your guitars natural tone and clarity easily rivals the 81 with drop tunings and massive gain. It's still quite active sounding - not sterile but still has what I descibe as a "Plastic" element to the tone - and cleans are not going to win any awards but they're not nearly as bad as you might think and still beat the EMG 81. I'm not a Slipknot fan.

Dave Mustaine Livewire set (B): Touted as an active JB and yes there is some similarity but the Mustaine has a charcter of it's own. There's the expected low impedance sheen on the highs and a bit of compression but the guitars natural tone comes through pretty well. Loads of power so it breaks up into distortion earlier and the overall sound is tighter than the JB. The all important 'Syphony of Destruction' crunch is there in spades with a pleasing growl on power chords. Clean is OK, there's depth and the EQ is fine but it doesn't respond to playing dynamics well and it sounds much the same if you roll off the volume pot. Seems to me that Duncan have spent the time on the preamp in this pickup to make it sound less artificial than most active pickups too.


AS-1 (N): Much as expected; bigger, louder, hotter and more organic than the EMG SA. It has a fuller bass whilst the high mids are slightly less scooped so you get a little more Strat quack. Really clear when driven hard with a well defined fluid sound that's great for fast arpeggios. Cleans up in true Strat style and responds well to picking dynamics if you like to do the clean to crunch the old fashoned way.

SLSD1 Li'l Screamin' Demon: A lot like it's full size brother but in a single coil size package. How do they get that full stack whack out of this little puppy? Beware of the Strat sized humbuckers with polepieces as they use some very strong magnets to get the output and the string pull will chop your sustain if you don't leave enough gap.

SJBJ1 JB Jr: Sweeter and smoother than the JB proper, still high output with the even tonal balance but doesn't do rude like big bro can.


SHR1 Hot Rails: Little spitfires! Classic 80's heavy metal sound. A touch compressed and slight lack of definition but it's a trade off for the size and output, not bad clean when using the 4 conductor wiring to run the coils in parallel. The rails models are less of a problem with string pull as they have a less focused magnetic field. Hairspray and spandex.

SCR1 Cool Rails: Like the hot rails with the output backed off. Alright for hard rock and useful if unexceptional clean, the trouble is that they sound too hard for milder styles but doesn't have the poke for full on metal. The active EMG's and Duncan Blackouts are better if you want a loud hum cancelling single coil size pickup. Yes, you can mix active and passive in the same guitar.

STKS4 Classic Stack: Hum canceling stacked coils with vintage stagger polepieces. Quite simply the most beautiful Strat sound I've ever heard with sweet highs and incredibly natural and woody. A touch of class for even the cheapest plank.


BMP-1 Blackouts Modular Preamp: Active preamp and volume control that can be wired for up to 2 individual pickups or on the output for all. Not a gain booster like the EMG PA2 but a way to convert passive high impedance pickups to low impedance signal that will cut through FX and long cables like active pickups. It does add a little Hi-Fi sheen (it's a low impedance thing) but doesn't rob the character and dynamics of your favourite passive pickups like the PA2. Which is nice. Now give me a Blackouts gain boost on a switch for my Full Shred please Duncan.


The cheap ebay names...

Most of thse names buy in 'Off the shelf', that is to say existing designs made in the far east. Ever wondered why Wilkinson, Armstrong, IronGear, Warman, and even Duncan Design have a couple of pickups that are remarkably similar in looks and specs; Detonator, 12 Gauge, Hammer Head... Just sayin!



TNT Guitars include height screws and a battery clip but not the 25k pots and swtched stereo output jack you need to convert to active unless you buy a listed full set. Decent value but high price for international snail mail.

S: 9v Active single coil size stacked humbucker with a ceramic bar magnet. Sounds like the EMG S that it's modelled on. Dragonfire active pickups can be run on 18v with no damage. Looks the same as a pickup I seen on one of the Chinese flea market ebay store (the ones that sell cheap crap of every possible kind).


81C: No prizes for guessing what this one's about. I sold my EMG 81's some time ago so I can do a side by side test but from memory I'd say the EMG had the edge on definition and has a tighter bass, I would also say that the EMG responded better to 18v too but the Dragonfire has the character nailed and punches well above it's price-tag. There's also an 85A an SA and a possible future law suit from EMG???



Entwistle seem to have some unique designs and have the logo printed on the pickup so maybe some of the models are actually spec specific to Entwistle?

X3 (B): High output ceramic magnet with chromed rails humbucker. Has a tonal curve a bit like an EMG 60; very modern, with plenty of highs but perhaps a bit more in the lower mids and less bass. Think Dimebag (RIP) rhythm. Cleans are a little tight and dry but have sparkle on the top end and are quite usable when you roll off the volume pot.


Josi Warman, fellow Leicestershire man and sells pickups (not sure about the hardware) that deliver top value for money.

12 Gauge (B): Invader for the cash strapped. Crushing output, crisp highs, evil chugging low end and 4 conductor wiring are all present, it's only missing the Seymour Duncan logo and £80 price tag. In all honesty I can't truly evaluate the 12 Gauge against the Invader without a side by side comparison and the build quality isn't a match for Duncan (bobbins not perfectly aligned and a cheap sticker istead of printed logo) but this thing sounds ridiculously good for £10.50. Buy one before he puts the price up... Oh, he has.

G rails: Ceramic rails/Alnico polepiece humbucker with a multitude of switching options -  thoughts to follow when I find something to drop it in!


OEM stuff.

Fender early 90's USA Stratocaster stock single coils: It's a strat and does what a pukka Strat does even if I did think they were a little thin and sour for what was supposed to be a prestige USA brand and harsh when the Fender twin (both belong to a friend) was cranked up for some power stage break up but otherwise pretty nice.


V7/V8/S1 stock in Japanese guitars: Not bad, pretty versatile but never let anyone fool you into thinking that they are a match for Duncan, DiMarzio etc. They have a dry, slightly nasal character and lack depth is the main complaint against them.
V8 is a little underpowered for a thrash blast but fine for anything less extreme but then it's also a little flat for anything less extreme...
V7 neck humbucker has a bold but hollow (scooped lower mids) sound that's highly usable if a little uninspiring.
S1 single coil has a thin DI piezo character and is the weakest link.

Jackson USA
Some sellers are playing the 'vintage' card (like 50's/60's vacuume tubes) and asking big bucks for the USA made J series - don't fall for it. Some of them are very good (JE1200 mid boost circuit) but honestly I'd say buy cheap and be chuffed or spend a little more on used Bareknuckle/Dimarzio/Duncan/EMG.

J50C/J200: Stock in higher end mid 80's to early 90's Jackson/Charvel guitars.
J200 stacked coil pickups are good enough to be useful if a bit lifeless, hard to describe but to me they are just bland and have no real tone.
J50C is pretty good and one of the better own brand pickups out there. Medium high output, bright and fairly clear without sounding thin, a bit like a thinner, more compressed Duncan Custom and delivers the 80's rock/metal sound that it was intended to do. Also works great in the neck, breaking up smoothly and keeping the low end tightly under control.

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