Replacing your pickups can completely alter your guitar’s tone, taking a beginner or intermediate level instrument to new sonic heights. Even on higher-level USA made instruments changing the pickups can offer a decisively more powerful tone, or just simply change the character if it doesn't quite meet your need. Humbuckers are incredibly popular due to their excellent output levels and low noise threshold, so we decided to put together this list of the best humbucker pickups to point in you in the right direction when swapping your pickups.
The first instance of humbuckers being used in electric guitars actually came from Rickenbacker, who dismissed the idea because they didn’t like the distortion they created! A couple of years later Ray Butts of Gretsch came up with the Filter’Tron and Seth Lover of Gibson developed the PAF, both pretty much at exactly the same time. This genius invention saw swathes of guitarists converting from their single coils, as humbuckers caused tube amps to break up earlier, as well as getting rid of the annoying 60 cycle hum that affected single coils.
The PAF won the popularity contest thanks to Gibson placing them in their Les Paul, which quickly became the staple tone of rock and blues music, Humbuckers were more mid focused and less treble heavy than their single-coil antecedents, delivering a tightly controlled distortion that paired perfectly with tube amps. Despite having a slightly muffled tone compared to a single coil, the higher output proved too tempting for some guitar players, and they remain incredibly popular to this day.
How do they work?
Humbuckers are essentially two single coils paired together, but they are of opposing magnetic polarity and wired out of phase. Single coils act as an RF antenna, picking up hum and noise from various electrical sources nearby but this issue was remedied thanks to the clever humbucker design, enabling zero hum but retaining a higher output. Thanks to its clever design, you can better control your guitar sound, particularly when paired with high gain amps and pedals.
Best Humbucker Pickups
So now we know more about humbucker history and how they work, lets get onto the good stuff! We’ve picked out some of our most popular humbuckers for you to peruse, with everything from budget offerings to boutique pickups, all of these humbuckers will add fuel to your guitar playing fire.
Probably the most popular humbucker of the modern era, the Seymour Duncan JB has adorned the guitar of many a pro guitarist, with a particular skew towards rock and metal players. With everyone from Jerry Cantrell to Dave Mustaine using one of these, it’s standard issue in many a guitar to this day thanks to its Alnico V magnet that hits the front of your amp hard, without killing it.
The Wilkinson Hot Humbucker is a great option for players on a budget, giving you clear clean tones and full overdrive with excellent sustain. The wax potting ensures no squealing when you crank the volume knob and a ceramic magnet delivers high output, perfect for a modern guitar sound. These make a great upgrade for mid-level guitars like an Epiphone SG or LP and are versatile enough to do a variety of styles.
DiMarzio’s Mo’ Joe is used by the one and only Joe Satriani, so it’s got some serious guitar playing credibility. It’s a hot humbucker, but it doesn’t lose any clarity of definition when you play it. Harmonics sing when paired with high gain and the dynamic range of it is simply staggering. Put it with a PAF style humbucker in the neck position and you’ll have yourself one seriously versatile guitar.
The Tonerider AC2 is designed to similar specs as the classic ‘50s PAF style pickup, delivering warmth and fullness with impeccable sustain. The Alnico II magnet is a large part of what gave the classic PAF it’s sound, and it's why it's often said that a PAF humbucker has more in common with a single coil than a humbucker. When you pair an Alnico II pickup with higher gain settings you get a very fluid sound, similar to that which Slash has utilised so well over the years.
Artec pickups are outstanding value for money, giving clear and powerful tone that’s affordable for any guitar player. The Artec Vintage V Humbucker is brass backed and double wax potted to prevent any unwanted noise and feedback, as well as coming with five conductor wires for coil tapping. The sound of these humbuckers is powerful with a fullness in the low end. The response is warm and even, making it great for blues and rock players on a budget.
Even if you don't have much to spend, there’s always an option to upgrade to a better humbucking pickup. Changing your pickups will offer you massive improvements in tone and coupled with a few simple hardware upgrades, you can take a beginner level guitar to stratospheric new heights of tone.
Need a single coil pickup? Check out our Best Vintage Strat Pickups.
If you’re a Tele player here are the Best Telecaster Pickups.
Want to start fitting your own pickups? Start here with our Guitar Wiring Guide.