One of the best things about being a guitarist besides getting all the attention, getting all of the endorsements, getting all of the killer solos, getting all of the babes and getting to use pretty much any type of effects pedal out there – among several more benefits – is the guitar’s ability to dramatically change its natural sound with just one important upgrade – changing those pickups! Yes, what better way to make your ax truly reflect its owner than by taking off those stock pups and injecting in a set that can take your tone to the next level! In today’s article, we’re going to be checking out some of my own favorite choices for hard rock slash metal and blues pickups for Stratocaster (3 single-coil set), Telecaster (2 single-coil set) and humbucker-slot styled guitars (2 humbucking pickup set) that are each among the best in their class.
One of the most popular guitar bodies ever produced is that of the Fender Stratocaster. There are innumerable clones of varying quality and even a diverse model assortment of the real thing, and while certain aspects may be different from one to the other, one thing that you can always count on is the uniformity of the pickup slot sizes, letting your Fernandes Strat don the pickups of the real thing. The Stratocaster and their clones use three single-coiled pickups with only very few exceptions in the case of special models, but for all intents and purposes, my choices will be for your standard Strat pickup configuration. The Telecaster is probably just as popular as the Stratocaster when it comes to the history of the electric blues. Although it is naturally a bit more popular for country music due to its unmistakable twang, the Telecaster can rock out, blues in, metal up, or do any sort of directional-based jamming you’d like, and while many will tell you that nothing beats the stock pickups on a classic, there are several out there who have undoutedly given other pickups a try have been thoroughly convinced about making the change. If you’re looking for something a bit bolder than your standard Tele pickups, it is highly recommended you give some of these a try.
And as far as you 2 humbucker equipped guitars go, think of a Gibson Les Paul or an SG. These bad boys are known for their distinct thick tone along with their advantages at playing solidly with high gain distortion which is an absolute must for hard rock and metal but that doesn't mean that with some slight overdrive that they can't cry out an awesome blues sound as well. Hopefully, you'll find some variety on my choices that can fit your exact tonal needs.
Alright, let’s get started!
Editor’s Choice: Hard Rock/Metal Pickups
Quite possibly the most popular pickups in all of metal, the 81/85 combo is used by hundreds of metal guitarists around the world. Zakk Wylde popularized the 81 lead 85 rhythm configuration used by most today although other notable players such as Kirk Hammett use 81s as both neck and bridge pickups. Known for their distinct tone, these pickups give metal players the extra boost of signal power made available through their active setup while producing a smooth control at higher levels in comparison to most standard pickup models. This means better high gain control and less feedback when pumping it up to 11. These pickups are so popular several notable guitar manufacturers feature them as stock for several of their models including ESP, Schecter, Dean, Epiphone, B.C. Rich, Jackson and Paul Reed Smith.
Another solid and popular choice for aspiring metal guitarists, the Blackouts features a more old-school metal sound combined with the power of an active pickup system. You’ll get plenty of compressed but powerful tones complete with that aggressive deep chunky sound that older metal is known for. Their added humbucking design means less noise and more pure tone. The biggest difference between these and the EMG 81/85 is that they have a far wider range of output signals, meaning higher highs and lower lows, which can be good or bad depending on your preference. Those on the side of the blackouts dislike the overly compressed tone of the EMGs while the other side of the fence complains about the excessive bass on the Duncans.
One of the most popular guitars today is the Telecaster and one of its most lauded features is the classic twang created by the pickups. For those of you who do not want to give up that signature sound but need a little more oomph in the hard rock department, check out the Little 59s. Not only do they retain the twang, but when set to distortion, this pickup rocks… HARD. Seymour Duncan designed the ST59 to reproduce the classic warm and smooth sound of the ’59 Les Paul, albeit with a lot more spunk. Add a bit of gain to the amp and you instantly notice a very controlled snarl with plenty of presence, much more than you would with your stock Tele pickups. Although they won’t give you the outright extreme distortion metal fans are looking for, those who love the sound of classic rock with a heavy kick will love the Little 59.
For all of you Stratocaster fans looking for something with a bit more bite, Seymour Duncan has the absolute perfect set of pickups for you. Not familiar with Hot Rails? Iron Maiden used them in all of their Strats, and believe me, they rocked pretty damn hard. Much like the EMG-81s, these pickups give you a fat chunky tone with plenty of sustain for heavy hitting riffsm and yes, you can still play these babies clean and noiseless if you so desire. Although these are humbucking pickups, they retain the size of your average Strat pickup, so those worried about having to do surgery on their guitar in order to take advantage of the noiseless qualities of humbuckers needn’t worry.
Editor's Choice: Blues Pickups
These are definitely one of the most popular Strat-styled pickups you can get your hands on, working great not just for blues, although the benefits shine best with the genre. Those looking for a clean sound with plenty of presence will love the tone on the Texas Specials. Although these aren’t humbucking pickups, the reverse wound design on the middle pickup clears most of the extra noise, giving you a much cleaner sound than stock Stratocaster pickups. Those looking for a bit more bite than the standard will love the rich tone the Texas Special. Just give it a bit of gain and you’ll get a nice thick tone with a decent amount of twang, all with very little hum, perfect for the harder rock form of blues. All in all, the general consensus out on these pickups is that they rock- blues style!
Although these are not actual humbuckers, these pickups will amaze you in the chimey clear tones it can produce along with the controlled snarl and punch when played with a little distortion, meaning no worries about unwanted noise when maxed out. Being a Stratocaster pickup, you won’t get as many of the highs and lows offered on the Telecaster but as long as you keep the frequency within its range, fewer Strat pickups can give you as many rich tones and direct command of sound as these, all with a warm vintage resonance.
Made specifically for lead guitar players who want to add a bit of the hard rock bite to their solos while maintaining that vibrant bluesy feel, Duncan’s ST59-1s offer a lot to like. Based off of a 1959 patent for a humbuking pickup that featured that signature Telecaster twang, the Little ’59 offers beefed up tone with warm execution creating a smooth blend of rock and blues. The ST59-1 is sold as a single lead pickup so try combining this with a bridge pickup of your choice to create your ultimate signature sound!
Those looking for a bit of the vintage ’50 Telecaster twang with modern output strength should definitely check these out. While the bridge might be a bit brighter than you would expect, a simple EQ configuration will subdue the extra tone into a subtle sparkle much more appropriate for the moody stylings of the blues. On the other hand, if you’re looking to be a bit more of that country feel, the brighter mids are definitely a welcomed feature of the pickups, with just enough twang and plenty of resonance. The strong output ensures you get a fat chunky bite when you want to add a bit of rock into your twelve-bar guitar tune and can masterfully handle maxed out settings without any noticeable slip. For those of you looking for to keep that signature Tele twang while beefing up the tones, look no further than the Lindy Fralin Special Blues Telecaster pickups!
Those looking for something definitely out of the ordinary will love what the SHPR-1s can bring to the table. These hybrid pickups will ensure that your Les Paul (or any other humbucker slot-style guitar) is uniquely its own, taking several popular features of different pickups and putting them into a great solid package. Yes, these are humbuckers, so expect no noise for all of your controlled situations, but more importantly than that, these pickups give you the vintage feel of the P-90s as well as the tone balance and flavor of a bluesy Stratocaster, something that up until now would require three separate guitars to attain (as the P-90s and Strat pickups will not fit humbucker slots). Besides the blend of sought after specs, the entire product gives you a very sparkling and sustained sound when played clean and a nice fat tone when a bit of bass and gain is applied. So for those of you a bit bored of your standard humbucker sound without wanting to get rid of its best features, Seymour Duncan’s SHPR-1 Hot Rails are just what the doctor ordered!