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Passive pickups have all of the necessary qualities for metal – from the ability to absorb gain from your amp or pedals to the sensitivity required for intricate melodies and chord sequences.
Passive pickups were first introduced in the early 1950s when iconic manufacturers such as Fender and Gibson began using them on their electric guitars. Decades later, they would become hugely popular amongst metal guitarists.
These pickups are characterized by having a magnet, most commonly alnico or ceramic, which is wrapped in copper wire. When the passive pickup is positioned close to the strings of an electric guitar, this creates a magnetic field.
If you’re a metal guitarist, choosing the best passive pickups for your sound is no easy task. We’ve searched extensively for the best options available and will provide you with all of the information you need to make the right decision in this guide.
In a Rush Roundup
How We Tested
To accurately test these passive pickups, we initially analyzed the frequency output that they produced when they were used with a range of electric guitars and amplifiers. This included solidbody and hollowbody guitars, along with tube and solid-state amps.
We then added different amounts of gain to the signal to ensure that these pickups could produce all of the common tones used for metal guitar. Then, we assessed their compatibility with a range of effects pedals.
Best Passive Humbucker Pickups for Metal Reviews
Seymour Duncan is considered one of the most prolific and reliable pickup manufacturers in the world, and they’ve consistently delivered exceptionally good metal pickups for many decades.
The Pegasus/Sentient 6-string pickup set consists of a pair of specifically selected humbuckers, which combine to offer a broad range of tones ideal for heavy rock, metal, or heavy blues guitar playing.
In the neck position, there is a Seymour Duncan Sentient humbucker. This pickup is a mixture of two classic Seymour Duncan sounds – the warm, vintage ‘59 tone and the smooth, jazzy PAF sound.
The bridge pickup is a Seymour Duncan Pegasus humbucker, which has been chosen due to its positive effect on note separation and clarity. This makes it perfect for the fast-paced fretting and strumming techniques used by metal guitarists.
These two pickups combine to produce a powerful, high-output tone that can easily push a tube amplifier into overdrive. If distortion is one of your staple effects, you’ll enjoy the energetic tone of this passive pickup set for metal.
- High output passive humbuckers
- Sentient neck pickup
- Pegasus bridge pickup
- Blends vintage and modern tones
- Great for fast, technical metal playing
- Merges PAF and traditional humbucker qualities
- Works best with bright-sounding tonewoods
The EMG Revelation pickup set is designed to provide you with all of the tonal and dynamic benefits of active pickups, with the convenience of a passive design.
The first thing you’ll notice about these passive humbuckers is the excellent clarity and note definition that they produce, despite also being ready to handle as much gain as you can subject them to.
One of the key reasons that this pickup set is so versatile is that the neck and bridge pickups are identical, so they interact with one another seamlessly and don’t clash in any way.
Both of these passive pickups for metalcore are fitted with an Alnico II magnet, which adds a smoothness to the tone and controls the dynamic range.
Additionally, these pickups have custom bobbins that have been wound with expert precision to ensure the best performance possible.
- Custom bobbins
- Alnico II magnets
- Solderless installation
- Balanced tone
- Powerful, clear low-end
- Vintage warmth with modern sharpness
- These pickups sound the best with tube amps
Metal guitarists aren’t usually afraid of cranking up the gain on their amplifier or obliterating their signal with a distortion pedal. Neither of these actions will be effective, though, unless the pickups can handle the heat.
If there’s a manufacturer that knows how to design pickups to absorb distortion, it’s Seymour Duncan. This Nazgul/Sentient humbucking set is designed to help rock and metal guitarists achieve a high-gain tone without compromising on clarity.
The Nazgul bridge pickup is, in my opinion, one of Seymour Duncan’s best guitar pickups for metal. It includes a bulky ceramic magnet, and enhances the power and stability of the low-end, making drop-tunings sound exceptional.
This pickup also adds noticeable sustain to the lower mids, so that crunchy chord sequences can be rung out for added effect. Combined with the Sentient pickup in the neck position, the Nazgul flourishes.
The neck pickup is slightly less aggressive sounding, but it adds definition to the upper registers of the guitar’s fingerboard. The contrast between the dark, powerful Nazgul and the more refined Sentient is ideal for metal guitar.
Whether you predominantly play lead or rhythm or like to switch things up, this passive humbucker set will provide you with all of the options you could need for metal and heavy styles of rock guitar.
- High-output humbucker set
- Sentient neck pickup
- Nazgul bridge pickup
- Ideal for aggressive metal tones
- Plenty of sustain in the higher frequencies
- Excellent note separation for fast playing styles
- Chords sound crunchy when the neck pickup is selected
The Super Distortion was one of the first pickups that popular manufacturer DiMarzio ever made and it continues to rank amongst the best heavy metal pickups in production. The brand is synonymous with metal guitar tones, and this pickup is the perfect example of why that is.
With its extremely high output, the Super Distortion isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you love pushing your amp to the limit, then this pickup is worth considering.
Rather than simply increasing the aggression of a guitar’s tone, the DiMarzio Super Distortion simply enhances the qualities of the guitar, amplifier, and other parts of your rig. It injects energy into the sound and increases its power significantly.
One of the interesting aspects of this passive pickup for metal is that it can be used in two different ways. The conventional method is to install it in the bridge position, which will achieve the classic overdriven metal tone it is best known for.
Alternatively, you can install it alongside another passive humbucker in the neck position. This is recommended if you’re using a clean-sounding amplifier that doesn’t add too much gain.
- High output bridge humbucker
- Four conductor wiring
- Ceramic magnets
- Great definition in the upper mids
- Highly compatible with distortion or overdrive
- Works with solid-state or tube amps
- May be too aggressive for lighter styles of metal guitar
If you’ve ever listened to Rancid’s music, you’ll be aware of the unique tones and sounds that lead guitarist Lars Frederiksen is known for. With the LF-DMF pickups, EMG has made his tone available to metal and rock guitarists everywhere.
An interesting aspect of this pickup set is that the bridge and neck pickups use different magnets to produce their sound. This results in a diverse tonality that couldn’t be achieved if they were both of the Alnico V or ceramic variety.
In the neck position, the Alnico V, which is the strongest of its kind, adds a powerful response to each note that is played. It sounds punchy and aggressive, which are both desirable qualities for metal guitar playing.
The bridge pickup has a ceramic magnet and a DC resistance of 17K, which is considerably higher than the 7.45K resistance of the neck pickup. The ceramic magnet sounds bright and clear and copes with a lot of distortion.
EMG has managed to capture Frederiken’s tone with this pickup set, but you can customize it and tailor it to your specific style by combining the pickups with different pedals and metal amp settings.
- Alnico V magnet in bridge pickup
- Ceramic magnet in the neck pickup
- Two rows of adjustable pole pieces
- Increases the sustain of higher frequencies
- Warm, well-balanced, clean tone
- Absorbs gain effortlessly
- Lacks some dynamic range in the low-end
The Little ‘59/Vintage Stack humbucker set by Seymour Duncan provides an energetic tone without the noise issues often experienced by single-coil pickup users.
These humbuckers are unique because they are the same size as traditional single-coil pickups. This means that you can enjoy the thick, creamy tone of a humbucker even if your guitar is configured for a pair of single coils.
In the bridge position, Seymour Duncan has included the popular SL59-1b Little ‘59 humbucker. This pickup provides a warm, vintage sound that, when played clean, wouldn’t sound out of place on a 50’s country number.
In the neck position, you’ll find an ATK-T1n Vintage stack pickup. This passive humbucker enhances the clarity of the upper registers of the guitar and boasts an impressive dynamic response.
Despite being designed for rock n’ roll guitar playing, we’ve included this passive pickup set because of the way they sound when a lot of gain and compression is added to the signal, which is highly suitable for metal guitar playing.
- Humbuckers in a single-coil size
- STK-1n vintage Stack neck pickup
- STK-SL59-1b Little ‘59 bridge pickup
- Blend of metal and rock n’ roll tones
- Prominent upper midrange
- Thick sounding low-end
- Sounds a little harsh with distortion on the neck pickup
Passive Pickups for Metal Buyer's Guide
Metal guitar playing involves various techniques that require particular tonal and dynamic qualities. A set of passive pickups can provide expressive tones with the power and sensitivity that metal guitarists need.
Pickups are an integral part of a metal guitarist’s sonic arsenal, and it often amazes me how many musicians are unaware of the impact that they can have on their tone and dynamics.
Many people associate metal guitar with crunchy distortion and ultra-fast playing techniques. Although these are undeniably important parts of the style, choosing pickups that highlight the finer details of metal guitar playing is also important.
Passive pickups are a great choice for metal guitarists due to their aggressive, powerful tone and easy installation.
You can find more helpful information along with some things to consider when buying them below.
Things To Consider When Buying
Consider the output
If a pickup is described as “higher-output,” it generally means it will produce a darker tone with a prominent low-end and lower midrange. This type of passive pickup is ideal for lead metal guitarists who like to use distortion or overdrive.
Think about coil-splitting
Coil splitting is a useful feature installed on some metal humbucking pickups. This feature allows you to add more depth to your guitar’s tone, using a switch to split the humbucker into two separate pickups.
Consider bass response
Metal and heavy rock guitarists often like to use drop tunings, where the low E string is detuned to a D, C, B, or any other lower note. It’s important to choose pickups that are designed to increase the power and clarity of bass frequencies if you want to use this method.
Decide between PAF and conventional humbuckers
PAF pickups have been around longer than conventional humbuckers and continue to be popular amongst metal and rock guitarists for their thick tone and versatile, dynamic response.
The Essential Qualities of Passive Metal Pickups
Passive pickups are the traditional choice of metal guitarists. Although some modern players prefer the sharper tone of active pickups, there’s something special about the original variety that cannot be replicated.
On top of not requiring a battery to operate, passive pickups also benefit from the ability to highlight the slight nuances of your metal-style guitar playing.
Vintage-style passive pickups are designed to compress the sound of the string’s vibration minimally so that you are in complete control over the dynamics of your instrument.
In recent years, manufacturers have also designed passive pickups to provide some of the qualities more commonly associated with their active counterparts.
This has led to the creation of higher output passive pickups – which are ideal for metal guitarists who need to cut through the mix and be heard over the rest of their band.
Passive pickups with slightly lower outputs are great for melodic styles of metal guitar. You can always crank up the power by running your instrument through a high-gain distortion pedal to compensate for the reduced output.
When manufacturers design their passive pickups, one of the most important things they decide is which magnets to use. The magnets impact the tone and dynamics of the pickups significantly.
Alnico magnets are commonly used in passive pickups for metal. There are several different varieties of Alnico magnets, each producing varying results.
The two varieties you’re most likely to come across when searching for metal pickups are Alnico 2 and Alnico 3 magnets.
Alnico 2 magnets are the second weakest variety, and this reduced magnet strength results in a lesser pull against the guitar’s strings. These magnets are great for metal because they have a strong midrange and less intense highs than other varieties.
Alnico 3 magnets are preferred by many metal guitarists because they have a weaker magnetic pull than Alnico 2s, which results in increased warmth, with no weak spots in the frequency range.
You may also find that some metal pickups use Alnico 5 magnets, which are renowned for a more bluesy tone that can handle lots of distortion without sounding too harsh.
Pickup Windings for Metal Guitar
The number of times the coil is wound around the pickup impacts the capacitance, which in turn affects the tone.
Some manufacturers prefer to use machine winding, which is effective in increasing capacitance.
Others may prefer to hand wind the coil, a technique that is also sometimes called “scatter winding.” This method results in less capacitance and an overall brighter tone that may be better suited to lead guitar.
Most machine wound pickups are mass-produced because it is easier to accurately replicate the winding again and again. Hand-wound pickups are more likely to sound unique in comparison to other passive pickups.
Passive Pickups for Metal FAQs
Does Pickup Output Affect Tone?
The output level of a pickup has a significant impact on the tone of a guitar. This is because a high output pickup promotes consistency, which makes it sound tighter and more defined.
Lower output pickups are less consistent in the amount of power they emit; therefore, they’re generally better for expressive styles.
The higher the output is, the better a pickup is likely to sound when used for heavier styles of guitar playing, such as metal, rock, and heavy blues.
How Can You Tell if a Pickup is Passive or Active?
The simplest way to determine whether a pickup is active or passive is by checking whether it has a battery port. If it does, it is an active pickup; if it doesn’t, you know it is a passive pickup.
Can You Use Active and Passive Pickups in The Same Guitar?
Although it’s not something, you’ll commonly come across, installing one passive and one active pickup in the same instrument is possible. To do this, you’d need to separate the signals from the active and passive circuitry.