Best humbucker pickups 2023


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Jun 08, 2023

Best humbucker pickups 2023

From PAF replicas to modern day active tone monsters, our experts pick the best

From PAF replicas to modern day active tone monsters, our experts pick the best humbucker pickups on offer right now

Whether you’re swapping out like for like or replacing single coils, when it comes to changing your pickups, you’re sure to want to check out the best humbucker pickups that are currently available. Nothing dishes out warm, mellow bass frequencies and punchy mids like a good humbucker, so if you’re currently on a quest to switch up your tone, then read on.

Single coils are great when it comes to spanky, chimey sounds, but you just get more from a humbucker. Humbucker pickups will deliver a hotter output, won't be as prone to hum and interference (hence the name – they literally buck the hum), and tend to have a darker, warmer, more rounded and fatter tone. They’re often associated with classic rock and blues, but honestly, the best humbucker pickups can cater for any sort of music.

Humbuckers work well in the neck and bridge positions. Maybe you’re beefing up a Strat with an HSS configuration, or perhaps you’re looking to add some extra nuance to your already humbucker-equipped guitar. Whatever your plan is, there are lots of great options that cover seemingly any musical scenario.

The best humbucker pickup will of course depend on what you want out of it. For that reason, we’ve chosen the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB as our top pick. It being a hot rodded humbucker, it's got enough vintage flavor to cater for those seeking a classic, golden-era tone, but enough output for those chasing a more modern, edgier sound, making it really versatile.

For active pickups, we love the Fishman Fluence Ceramic humbuckers. They’re super high output and can deliver some blistering tones, but with the two switchable voices you can get a dynamic range not normally found with active pickups. If you’re after an authentic, PAF-style pickup, then one of the best humbuckers to go for is the Gibson Custombucker.

Our expert review:

The Seymour Duncan JB is one of the most popular pickups ever, and there's good reason for that. It sounds great, first and foremost. It has a huge low-end thump, balanced with crisp and detailed treble frequencies. There's also a really nice upper-mid bump that works incredibly well for solos, but also helps lend a bit of weight to chord work too.

It's essentially a modern take on the classic humbucker that people have lusted after for decades. It's got a higher output than the famed PAF and uses Alnico V magnets, so can push your guitar amp a little harder, making it very popular with rock, punk and metal players. It's still super dynamic though, and can sound lovely clean too; this is one that plays very well with your guitar's volume knob.

Our expert review:

The Fishman Fluences are amongst the most innovative electric guitar pickups we’ve seen in recent years. These are active multi-voice humbuckers that give you access to a range of different sounds. They’re noise-free which is particularly handy when you’re going through a high gain rig or whilst recording.

The two voices are basically active and passive. The former is everything you’d expect from an active ceramic pickup – aggressive, crisp, detailed, high output; the low end is powerful but nice and tight (so works well for down-tuned guitars). In passive mode, you’ve still got a huge sounding pickup, however they’re a little more dynamic and respond really nicely to changes in your picking attack. With both voices, the ceramic magnets help increase sustain and harmonic richness, giving you a really powerful and lively tone.

Overall, a versatile choice and certainly one of the best humbucker pickups out there. If you like the sound of this, but want something slightly more traditional, Fishman offer the Fluence humbucker with Alnico magnets too.

Our expert review:

The Gibson PAF pickup is the most revered humbucker of all time, so you’d expect the company behind it to produce a pretty good replica, and they do! The Custombucker is fitted in some of Gibson's most premium Custom Shop guitars and features Alnico III magnets and 42 AWG gauge for an authentically vintage voicing. They’re left unpotted, like the originals, making them nice and open sounding, dynamic and very slightly microphonic.

The Gibson Custombucker is one of the best humbucker pickups if you’re after a warm, responsive and old-school sound. These are perfect for classic rock, blues and jazz, though the sound of a late ’50s Les Paul (which is essentially what these are aiming to replicate) doesn't go amiss in any style of music. They’re available with either nickel covers or without, so you can match them to the look of your guitar.

Our expert review:

You’d normally associate Strats and Teles with single coils, however there have been many players over the years that have wanted to add some extra punch to their otherwise chimey, twangy and spanky sounding guitars. The Dimarzio Super Distortion S or T allows you to transform the sound of your Strat/Tele without the need for re-routing the body to make room for a bigger pickup.

These are powerful humbucker pickups in single-coil sizes. They’ve got a really hot output, so lend themselves nicely to hard rock and metal. The Super Distortion has become a go-to pickup for many heavy players over the years and these allow you to harness that in your Strat or Tele. They also have 4-conductor wiring so you can wire them for split-coil functionality.

Our expert review:

A collaboration between Mr Seymour Duncan and the actual brain behind the original PAF pickup, Seth Lover, has resulted in this vintage-flavored humbucker. As you might expect, it's very much a PAF replica style pickup so expect lots of articulation and dynamic response. This allows guitarists to play with lots of expression and emotion. PAFs don't tend to have a high output (though originals do vary), so this doesn't either – it's perfect for old-school rock, blues, jazz, or anything that you’d like to add a bit of vintage bite to.

Even though it's made using modern day technology, so that production is precise and consistent, there are some nods to the past, like using the same factory that made the molds for the original PAFS to make the bobbin molds. Alongside this, the pickup uses 42AWG plain enamel mag wire, nickel silver covers, and an Alnico 2 bar magnet. Stick these in your guitar and you’ll get a really musical, singing high end that cuts through without being harsh, a full and warm low end and punchy mids; definitely one of the best humbuckers for those chasing the hallowed PAF tone.

Our expert review:

Legendary pickup guru Tim Shaw helped reshape what was Fender's American Standard range a few years back and, in the process, designed a bunch of new pickups. One of these was the Shawbucker – a vintage-inspired humbucker with a few slightly more modern elements to it. It's got a relatively low output and utilizes Alnico II magnets for what Fender call a ‘sweet, musical sound’. All we know is that these things sound incredible.

The Shawbucker has plenty of beef and power. Chords ring out clearly; they’re nice and balanced with a big bass response and detailed top end, and they’re great for lead work too, helping you cut right through the mix. They take inspiration from the late ’50s PAFs, with that open, dynamic sound, but they’ve been designed to resist 60-cycle hum and other unwanted interference, making them a little more user-friendly for the modern player. They’re great for any style of music, but they excel within rock, blues and jazz, as well as heavier styles too.

Our expert review:

An absolutely blistering humbucker that has been at the core of countless classic metal albums over the years. The EMG 81 is an active humbucker with powerful ceramic magnets and delivers a searing hot output. It's perfect for powerful, chunky rhythms and cutting lead tones with bags of sustain.

The EMG 81 is able to deliver clean tones with amazing clarity. Some say that it's a little sterile sounding, but for certain styles of music, having a really blank canvas for your clean tone can work really well. You also get a touch of natural compression. Of course, there's a reason it's such an iconic metal pickup – it deals with high gain sounds really well. Even through super saturated rigs, you get amazing note clarity. These cut through really well too, with plenty of top end, ensuring that you’re heard through the densest of mixes.

Lollar are known for making high quality pickups and their twist on the classic PAF humbucker is no exception. The Imperials deliver the sweet, airy openness that PAFs are known for, as well as the poky but smooth top end, punchy mid-range and rounded low end. They have also boosted the output of the bridge pickup so it's a little hotter – this will drive your amp more into a natural overdrive, and they have improved the frequency balance so that open chords and lead work all ring out with plenty of resonance and clarity.

We really like the Imperials because you’ve got a few options – Regular, Low and High Wind. All sound unmistakably PAF-like, but you can pick the pickups that will tonally suit the guitar they’re going to be fit into. So, if you’ve got a naturally dark sounding instrument, like a semi-hollowbody, then you can opt for the Low Wind, which will tighten up the bottom end and add some sparkle in the top.

You can trust Guitar World Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing guitar products so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

There aren't necessarily set rules you should abide by, but there are some considerations you can make to ensure that you get the best humbucker pickups for your needs. Tone is subjective and can be quite personal, so what sounds good to you might not be as good to someone else. We’ve put together some buying advice to help you hone in on exactly what it is you’re after and how to get it.

Firstly it might be helpful to quickly go over what a humbucker actually is. It's a pickup that uses two coils, usually connected in series, wound in opposite directions. This helps give it its unique sonic qualities and also makes them less susceptible to annoying background noise and hum. Visually, they normally look like two single coils stuck together (in essence, that's what they are). Sometimes they might be covered by a metal plate, but underneath that, it's just the same.

The output of a pickup refers to how much signal it's sending to your amp. If you’ve got a hotter pickup, or one with a higher output (two phrases that mean the same thing), then you’re sending a stronger signal to your amp, and it's going to clip or distort more easily – for some players, that's exactly what they’re after. One thing to look out for which can help determine the output of a pickup is DC resistance. It's not a perfect measurement, but when comparing similar-style pickups, as we are with humbuckers, it's enough to help you on your way.

High output pickups can lead to higher gain sounds more easily. Of course, the sacrifice with this is that your stronger output is going to feed more signal to your amp whilst you’re trying to get a clean tone too. If this is likely to be an issue, then something with a lower output might work best – you can get great clean tones, but because we’re talking about the best humbucker pickups here, you’re still going to have a stronger output than most single coil pickups.

Another crossroad you might arrive at whilst shopping for the best humbucker pickups is whether to go active or passive. Active pickups require a source of power – this is often in the form of a 9v battery that hides inside the body of the guitar. Active pickups usually yield a much higher output and can deal with loads of gain, whilst retaining good note clarity, making them popular with metal players. You can also get really clean sounds with active pickups, though some say that the clean tones lack character and compress a bit too much.

Passive pickups don't require any source of power and are more traditional. They’re usually warmer sounding and more dynamic so you can play with shades of quiet and loud more easily. Of course, if you want to pile on the gain, you can still get high output passive pickups, so that might be something to consider as a bit of an in-between.

Here at Guitar World, we are experts in our field, with many years of playing and product testing between us. We live and breathe everything guitar related, and we draw on this knowledge and experience of using products in live, recording and rehearsal scenarios when selecting the products for our guides.

When choosing what we believe to be the best humbucker pickups available right now, we combine our hands-on experience, user reviews and testimonies and engage in lengthy discussions with our editorial colleagues to reach a consensus about the top products in any given category.

First and foremost, we are guitarists, and we want other players to find the right product for them. So we take into careful consideration everything from budget to feature set, ease of use and durability to come up with a list of what we can safely say are the best humbucker pickups on the market right now.

Read more about our rating system, how we choose the gear we feature, and exactly how we test each product.

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After spending a decade in music retail, I’m now a freelance writer for Guitar World, MusicRadar, Guitar Player and Reverb, specialising in electric and acoustic guitars bass, and almost anything else you can make a tune with. When my head's not buried in the best of modern and vintage gear, I run a small company helping musicians with songwriting, production and performance, and I play bass in an alt-rock band.

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