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Why choose passive pickups for metal?
Find a passive guitar pickup that best suits your high gain needs.
In the early seventies, pickup manufacturer Larry DiMarzio released the first mass-produced aftermarket pickup.
Since then, aftermarket pickups have become one of the most effective ways guitar players can change up the tone of their instrument. But due to the large number of pickups available, it can be a little difficult to figure out which one you need.
In this article, I’ll give you my top picks for passive pickups best suited for metal.
What Are The Best Passive Pickups For Metal?
The Seymour Duncan JB comes out on top as the all-round best passive pickups for metal. The Alnico V’s higher output and upper midrange bump make it an excellent choice. For those on a budget, look at the DiMarzio Super Distortion. If money isn’t an issue, the Bare Knuckle Riff Raffs will make other guitarists envious of your tone.
With that said, we’ll be diving into 9 of the best passive pickups for metal currently available on the market. Here’s the list:
When it comes to metal pickups the Seymour Duncan JB really needs no introduction. It has been one of the most popular aftermarket pickups the industry has seen. It’s super popular across all genres, with plenty of professional guitarists adopting the JB over the years.
Thanks to its enduring popularity, there’s a good chance your music store will have a guitar with a JB. This makes trying it out a lot easier! This Alnico V sporting pickup is known for its higher output and upper midrange bump, which makes the JB great for defined chords and punchy lead lines that need to cut through the densest mixes.
The best part? It’s under 100 dollars!
Check out this video of the JB in a metal context.
This is the passive pickup that started it all, way back in 1972.
The DiMarzio Super Distortion was the first mass-produced aftermarket pickup available in the world. It was originally designed to hit the front end of a guitar amplifier much harder than regular pickups. Back then, there were no real high gain amps or distortion pedals, so it made sense to compensate with pickups.
This pickup uses a ceramic magnet which helps it achieve the fat midrange it’s known for. The DiMarzio Super Distortion is primarily suited for players longing for liquid high gain sounds that are ideal for chugging power chords and playing intense guitar solos.
Check out this demo video of the Super Distortion.
The Riff Raff is a personal favorite of mine and easily one of the best pickups for metal. I have it in my main guitar, because it can do anything. I can go to the studio knowing this pickup will be great for pop, but also the heaviest of metal.
The Bare Knuckle Riff Raff is what people often refer to as a PAF style passive pickup. A PAF pickup is a low output pickup designed to give a very broad frequency response with a very wide dynamic range. This makes the PAF ideal for a lot of styles.
Bare Knuckle has taken the PAF design and tweaked it in order to create a pickup that has kept the PAF’s dynamic range, but with a little more emphasis on the high mids. This results in a more articulate sound without being too harsh.
In a metal context, this is great for chugging, complex chords, and lead parts that need to cut through the mix. Because this pickup is weaker than the other pickups mentioned in this article you may want to increase the gain on your amp a little bit to achieve the same levels of drive.
Check out this video to see what this these metal pickups sound like in a heavier context.
The Seymour Duncan 59 Custom Hybrid is a unique creation with an interesting backstory. Some members of the Seymour Duncan forum started experimenting with putting the best of two pickups in one by combining two coils from different pickups.
Eventually one of the forum users mixed the Seymour Duncan 59 with the Seymour Duncan Custom. This new “hybrid” caught Seymour Duncan’s attention, so they decided to turn this Frankenstein pickup into a production model.
Sporting an Alnico V magnet and a medium output it’s got the rich full-range sound of the 59, but it remains tight in the low-end thanks to the coil of the Custom.
Having played with a 59 Custom Hybrid a few times I can testify to the fact this pickup is just great for guitar players that are into the late 80’s metal scene, but also want to play rock or more mellow genres.
Check out this demo of the 59 Custom Hybrid by Keith Merrow.
Suhr is primarily known for its high-quality custom guitars. They are one of the most well-known brands in the circle of pro musicians who need a workhorse that’ll last them years.
However, what most people don’t know is that Suhr also makes their own pickups ranging from low output PAFs to high output pickups for those looking for extra aggressiveness.
The DSH+ pickups are known for their rich midrange and tight low end. Its Alnico V magnet ensures the top end of the pickup can cut through a dense mix without it ever sounding harsh, thus making it great for solos and playing thick sounding riffs.
The perpetual Burn pickup was designed in collaboration with shred guitar legend Jason Becker. Seymour and Jason started working on this pickup in the early nineties. However due to Jason Becker’s ALS getting worse, the prototyping phase of the pickup was halted, and only a few years ago they picked the project back up.
This Alnico V humbucker is often being described as a JB with some of the kinks ironed out. The Perpetual Burn has a tighter low end and a less pronounced emphasis on the midrange, therefore making its frequency response across the strings.
The Perpetual Burn’s balanced response makes it great for technically demanding lead guitar, but it’s also very dynamic which is useful for riffs with complicated chord voicings.
The H4 is EMG's one of the best selling passive humbucker for guitar. Combining the power of our active 81 with the soul of a passive PAF, this pickup produces a well balanced tone, with tight bass response, glassy mids, and crunchy highs.
EMG are one of the biggest brands in metal with legendary players like Zack Wylde and Kirk Hammett favouring their pickups, the EMG 81 being a particular favourite across the board with metal fans.
Often synonymous with active pickups, EMG’s H4 (unlike the EMG 81) is a powerhouse of tone that is completely passive. The tight low end with crunchy highs is achieved with over wound coils loaded and ceramic bar magnets, all shielded to reduce unwanted noise.
It’s no surprise that the H4 is EMG’s best selling passive pickup. They sound great, don’t cost the earth and you can order yours in a variety of cap colour.
The L500 was established in 1979 and the patent concluded in 1981. Bill wanted a high performance pickup that could be voiced in many ways. The L500 is used from lapsteel, blues, rock and heavy metal even jazz by a whole range of musicians. You color your sound with all your gear and playing styles.
The L-500XL is very similar in tone to the sound of Dimebag Darrel’s Washburn guitars. These aren’t just pickups for metal either, you’ll also find the L-500 series offer a great sound for blues, rock and even jazz.
Originally patented in 1981, the L-500 series are still going strong today with the XL typically used in the neck position.
The model is made with chrome plastic housing which does add a little to the high end but as Bill himself states ”on volume 10 who can hear it?”.
Why Choose Passive Pickups?
Passive pickups are great for metal because their output allows for a broader dynamic range. They will capture nuances in playing style much better than active pickups.
For modern metal, dynamic range and complex chord structures are part and parcel, so this makes passive pickups perfect for the job (check out our guide to active vs passive pickups here).
So, you can’t just rush out and grab whatever pickup you want based on “what sounds best”. As always, that big question is entirely subjective, so it’s up to you to do your own research here. Figure out what’s missing from your current pickups (whether they are active or passive pickups), listen to YouTube demos from guitarists who play in your style, and even try out some different pickups at a guitar store if you can.
Depending on the style you play and the sound you’re after, I’m confident you’ll be able to find a pickup you absolutely love in this article.