6 Best Pickups For Les Paul (Classic Rock, Blues, Metal) In 2020

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  • The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most legendary guitars ever.
  • What makes it such a classic instrument?
  • Here are 6 of the best pickups for Les Paul.

The Gibson Les Paul is one of the earliest solid-body electric guitars and also heralded as one of the most legendary guitars ever.

They were created in 1952 as a response to Fender’s Telecaster. Gibson worked with guitarist and inventor Les Paul in one of the most commercially successful collaborations in history. The original Les Paul in the 50s had the iconic gold top, pickguard, trapeze tailpiece, four knobs, and their signature toggle switch.

Unlike Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster models, the first designs were far from perfect. The Les Paul guitars went through many changes in the 50s, and Gibson finally settled on a sunburst top, stopbar tailpiece with a Tune-o-Matic bridge, and Seth Lover humbuckers in the late 50s.

Today, this design remains as the gold standard for all Les Paul guitars, and the fact that Gibson continues to follow the same manufacturing process is a testament to how timeless it is.

What Are The Best Pickups For A Les Paul?

Although you can theoretically use whatever pickups you want for your Les Paul guitar, humbucker pickups are still the best pickups for Les Pauls, in most cases.

The original Les Paul models had P90 pickups, which were Gibson’s version of single-coil pickups. Although they are great pickups, Seth Lover came up with an even better design when he invented the humbucker pickup. The humbuckers designed by Seth Lover had a much fuller sound and higher output, and when combined with the Les Paul’s mahogany body, the Les Paul sound that we all know and love was born.

In this article, we are going to look at various kinds of humbucker pickups that you could use to find your dream Les Paul tone.

1. Seymour Duncan SH-55 Seth Lover Humbucker Pickups (Our Pick)

These are a tribute to the original Les Paul humbucker pickups that were designed in 1955. Just like the original 1955 PAF humbuckers, you can get the historic PAF Gibson tone with the SH-55.

These pickups simply sound warm, smooth, and creamy, with plenty of mids and low end.

With the SH-55 humbuckers, you can really experience the full resonance of the mahogany-body Les Paul. They give you a full, creamy sound much like Eric Clapton’s early tone. The clean tone from SH-55 is also very impressive, and works perfectly across many different styles of music, though it is especially suited for jazz, blues, and classic rock.

Although you can still play hard rock and metal with these pickups, they really are designed for blues and classic rock, so keep this in mind.

(Metal guitarists can check out our guide to the best passive pickups for metal.)

Also, another useful feature is the hum-canceling feature, which was groundbreaking when they first came out in the ’50s. Equipped with Alnico II magnets, you can expect the best possible vintage and classic tone out of the SH-55 Seth Lover humbuckers.

Pros:
  • The original design of PAF humbuckers.
  • Warm, smooth, and creamy tone with full mids and bass.
  • High-quality hum-cancelling .
  • DC Resistance: Bridge – 8.1k, Neck – 7.2k.
Cons:
  • Maybe not as versatile as the modern humbuckers.

2. Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates

If you’re into classic and vintage tones, here is another “tribute” pickup that packs a punch. For readers who are fans of ZZ Top, these pickups are the ones for you!

This particular model was created to copy the sound of Billy Gibbons’ legendary Pearly Gates guitar, which is a 1959 Les Paul. These pickups can be found on Gibson’s recreation of the Pearly Gates, but you can also buy them separately.

While the Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickups are hot, they are not too hot compared to the output of modern humbuckers like Burstbuckers. The Pearly Gates pickups have a characteristic Texas growl when you dig into the strings through a tube amp, and the tone is generally warm and sweet.

You get clear harmonics in the sound and the tone has spanking mids and soaring highs. The low end is also spongy and full, making them perfect for both lead and rhythm playing.

This pickup can also work for coil tapping enabled guitars, allowing you to play through a single-coil tone as well as humbucker sound.

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Naturally, Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickups thrive on all-mahogany instruments, including SGs and Les Paul guitars. They are also great for hollow-body and semi-hollow body guitars like the Gibson ES-335.

Similar to the SH-55 pickups, these are a great choice for blues, jazz, and classic rock. While you can certainly get high-quality rock tones through these pickups, modern humbuckers might be a better choice for hard rock and metal.

Overall, these are a superb clone of the pickups on the original Pearly Gates guitar, and an outstanding pickup for getting that vintage and classic Les Paul sound.

Pros:
  • Vintage sound with a touch of rough Texan personality
  • Sweet, clear tone – perfect for natural amp overdrive
  • Works amazingly well with mahogany body instruments
  • Perfect set of pickups for blues, jazz, and rock
  • DC Resistance: Neck -7.3k, Bridge – 8.35k.
Cons:
  • Maybe not the best choice for genres like country or modern rock.

3. Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro Slash APH-2 Humbuckers (Best Budget)

If you are mainly a rock and metal guitar player, the Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro Slash APH-2 is an amazing option. This signature model was based on the pickups in Slash’s “Appetite for Destruction” guitar. The Appetite Les Paul is known for being Slash’s main axe for recording many of his legendary rock guitar riffs, and combined with a Marshall amp, he was able to get this gorgeous, full midrange overdriven tone with crazy amounts of sustain.

Seymour Duncan has done their best to copy the pickups on that guitar, releasing the Pro Slash APH-2 humbuckers as signature models. These pickups became an extremely popular humbucker set for rock guitars, and it’s easy to see why.

This set features the zebra/reverse zebra colors found on Slash’s guitar, and has a single conductor cable, long-legged bottom plate and a wooden spacer. The neck pickup is very fat-sounding and warm, and they pair beautifully with some light distortion or overdrive.

You can easily achieve that iconic, full, and majestic Slash neck guitar tone with these. The bridge pickup has stacks of mids with a fair amount of highs as well. It will easily cut through a full rock band, and it’s perfect for a screaming rock guitar lead tone. The bridge pickup also gives you a whole lot of sustain to work with, and you can use them for power chords as well.

The output from the Pro Slash APH-2 is higher than the classic sounding pickups above, but compared to metal guitar pickups, the output is moderate. The Pro Slash APH-2s work well for rock, classic rock, and blues. And despite the super high-quality tones and specs of these pickups, you can still find them at an affordable price.

Pros:
  • Alnico II magnets with sweet sustain and dirty crunch.
  • Great for blues, classic, modern rock.
  • Easy to install, and is one of the top-rated blues pickups.
  • Now offered at an affordable price.
  • DC Resistance: Bridge – 8.53k, Neck – 7.92k.
Cons:
  • No coil tap wiring option.

4. DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion

The DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups have had a reputation for well over 45 years, and were one of the first ever sets of pickups by DiMarzio. They are known for having ultra-high output and are easily one of the “hottest” pickups in this list. If you plug these into a nice Marshall valve amp, you can expect some serious fireworks!

One of the key differences between the DP100 and other pickups is they use ceramic magnets instead of Alnico magnets. Ceramic magnet pickups are generally cheaper than Alnico magnet pickups, but that does not mean they are worse. Ceramic magnets are favored in metal and hard rock scenes for their hotter, treble-rich tones.

The DC resistance comes in at around 13.68k, which is way higher than Alnico pickups. Because of the super high output nature of this pickup, most people use the Super Distortions at the bridge position. Don’t take that as gospel though – by all means, if you’re a distortion maniac, they can be used as a neck pickup as well.

Like you would expect from the name, the tone from the Super Distortion is powerful with a huge presence. Both the single notes and the chords are going to growl and be right in your face. It has a thick, boosted mid-range with fat highs and rather open-sounding lows.

It’s a versatile pickup, and if you love playing metal and hard rock on a Les Paul, the DP100 Super Distortion would certainly be a great choice. However, if you also want a high-quality clean sound, you might want to consider getting a more vintage style humbucker for your neck pickup.

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Pros
  • A lot more affordable thanks to the ceramic magnets.
  • Super high output for metal and hard rock.
  • Can be used for both the neck position and the bridge position.
  • Versatile pickup.
  • DC Resistance: 13.68k.
Cons
  • Maybe not the best choice for warm and mellow clean sounds

5. Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat P90s (Most Versatile)

These might look like humbucker pickups, but they are actually P90 pickups disguised as humbuckers! P90s have been around since the late 1940s and were Gibson’s response to Fender’s single-coil pickups.

The P90s were actually the first pickups that were put onto Les Paul guitars in the 1950s, until the invention of humbuckers. They have a clear, distinctive difference in tone from humbuckers and Fender-type single-coil pickups.

P90s have a much warmer tone compared to other single-coil pickups. You can think of them as being in-between single-coil and humbucker pickups. Check out our detailed breakdown of single-coil vs P90 vs humbucker pickups for more info.

The Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat is a historic and legendary pickup, and any serious P90 lover will be familiar with what the Phat Cat P90s are capable of.

The Phat Cat is offered separately for both neck and bridge, and it has a warm but crisp tone. As a result, it’s great for blues, fingerpicking, funk-style playing, and even country because it has a lot of clarity in the tone.

Phat Cats also sound beautiful with overdrive, and you can easily get that vintage P90 tone (less mids and highs than humbuckers). There’s plenty of attack in these pickups too.

This pickup is recommended as a replacement for either the neck or the bridge pickups, but not both. The idea is to have both a P90 and a humbucker sound available in one guitar. For example, if you had P90 for the neck and a humbucker for the bridge, you can access warm and sweet tones in the neck, and wilder and fat overdrive sound in the bridge.

Pros

  • Warm and crisp tone.
  • Good replacement pickup.
  • Very affordable.
  • Historic and vintage tone.
  • DC resistance: Neck 8k, Bridge 8.5k.

Cons

  • Not as versatile as a humbucker.

6. EMG 81/85

The EMG 81 & 85 pickup set is one of the most well-known and sought after pickup combinations for serious hard rock and metal guitarists. Many famous metal and hard rock guitarists like James Hatfield love the EMG pickups for a good reason — they provide all the power that you require for shredding.

The EMG 81 is an active ceramic pickup and is most often used as a bridge pickup. Because it is both active and ceramic, naturally it’s going to have much more firepower.

It has a signature “super-fat” distortion and overdrive tone, making it one of the top humbucker pickups for metal and hard rock.

The EMG 85 is made of Alnico V magnets instead of ceramic magnets, and is often used as a neck pickup. For that reason alone, the 85 is generally quite versatile for many different genres, from blues to extreme metal and everything in between. You can use this pickup for more smooth lead sounds and rhythm playing. If you’re looking to play mostly metal and hard rock on your Les Paul, I recommend the EMG 81/85 combination.

Pros

  • Pickup set optimized for metal and hard rock.
  • Fat distortion from the 81 and a versatile smooth tone from the 85.
  • Experience two different magnet types – ceramic and Alnico V.
  • Thrives at high output.

Cons

  • Maybe not the best choice for delicate clean guitar playing.

Final Thoughts

Les Paul lovers have plenty of options to choose from when customizing the pickups on their guitar. Depending on the style of music you play and what sort of tone you are after, there are several options available for you to check out.

As usual, hit up YouTube, listen to demos, read reviews, and judge for yourself. Thanks to the enduring popularity of the Gibson Les Paul, there are a ton of resources available to help you choose the best pickups for your guitar.

Need an awesome amp sound without breaking the bank? Here are the best free amp sims you can download right now.