You’re probably reading this because you own an electric guitar (or several), and you want to install new pickups to change the tone. You’re wondering what are the best single-coil pickups to get “that sound.” You can’t describe it, but you know it when you hear it.
And you’re understandably bewildered by all the choices and the ornate and confusing descriptions.
However, to help you make a wise buying decision, we’ve assembled a choice selection of the very best single-coil pickups available for different guitar models. These are no cheap knock-offs included here; they’re all premium products.
Maybe you don’t know all the industry buzzwords and technical jargon. No problem! We’ll start by giving you some historical background, and then cover some basic concepts to help you make an informed choice.
All About Guitar Pickups
The earliest guitar pickup designs were developed nearly 100 years ago. In the 1930s, the Gibson Guitar company introduced its first guitar with a pickup, the ES-150. Jazz guitarist Charlie Christian began playing one with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and the popularity of the electric guitar took off.
These original pickups had a simple design that’s still used today, with many improvements, of course. Thin electrical wire is coiled around a form, called a “bobbin,” and placed atop a permanent magnet. This is the essence of a single-coil pickup today.
When the guitar’s steel strings vibrate, they disturb the magnetic field of the pickup. This induces a current in the pickup’s coil. The weak signal is sent through lead wires to the guitar’s output circuitry and an amplifier.
Output & Tone
A strong magnet creates more magnetic flux and thus more output. However, it also pulls harder on the strings, which can reduce sustain and cause intonation problems.
Adding more turns of wire to the coil also increases a pickup’s output. But this also increases its impedance (a combination of the wire’s DC resistance and the inductive reactance of the coil), and this can reduce its high-frequency response. Pickups that have more or fewer than the standard number of turns of wire are “overwound” or “underwound.”
The turns of wire close together also form, in effect, a capacitor. Combined with the coil, this forms a resonant circuit. More wire equals a lower resonant frequency, which gives a pickup a mellower tonal character.
The shape of the coil also plays a significant part in shaping a pickup’s sound. For example, a typical Stratocaster coil is tightly wound and relatively tall, about .56 x 2.56 inches and .44 inches high. By comparison, the coil of a Jazzmaster pickup is about 1.5 x 3.5 inches and only .13 inch tall.
The flatter design creates a differently-shaped magnetic field that produces a stronger bass and midrange response with a characteristic “twang.”
Gibson P-90 pickups (and their third-party copies) have a coil shape similar to the Jazzmaster. However, the P90 has one large magnet bar on the bottom and six adjustable steel poles, whereas the Jazzmaster pole pieces are also the magnets. This design difference gives the P-90 a mellower tone.
Guitar pickups use magnets made of different materials, and each imparts a characteristic tone. The most common metal in common use for pickups is Alnico. This is an alloy of iron mixed with aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, as well as a few other elements.
These are used in many vintage pickups and are less powerful. Pickups that use Alnico 2 magnets have a lower output and a smoother and slightly warm tone with lots of midrange. And an Alnico 2 is best used in a bridge pickup where it helps tame the natural brightness somewhat.
This is the weakest of all Alnico magnets, and tend to produce more treble, a slightly scooped midrange, and a tight low end. A bridge pickup with Alnico 3 and slightly overwound coils gives a warm, compressed tone with less edge than an Alnico 2 but with some high-end shimmer.
These produce a flatter overall frequency response, somewhere between Alnico 2 and Alnico 5. Pickups with Alnico 4 magnets are often recommended for Gibson SG and Les Paul, and PRS style guitars.
This is the strongest of the most commonly-used magnets and a popular option. It yields higher output, a scooped midrange, and brilliant treble. In an underwound neck pickup, it can produce a very crisp tone. In the neck position, a hotter Alnico 5 pickup can sound a bit boomy and overpowering.
These pickups are rare. They tend toward a response with less low end and a strong upper midrange. They can also exert more string pull.
These are even stronger than Alnico. These have a very crisp high end and remain clear even with heavy distortion. MFD pickups, used in G&L guitars, have pickups with ceramic magnets.
These are approximately seven times stronger than Alnico, so they can be made smaller. They’re rare in guitar pickups, more offering used for bass guitars.
The simplest way to adjust a pickup’s output is to change its distance from the strings. A pickup is mounted with springs, such that turning the mounting screws raises or lowers it. This can also change the frequency response and intonation because a closer magnet has more string pull.
Most pickups have individual cylindrical pole pieces that extend upwards from the pickup body under each string. On a single-coil pickup, these are sometimes screws, and they can easily be individually raised or lowered with a screwdriver to adjust the output of individual strings.
Unfortunately, those coils of pickup wire also make a great antenna, picking up electromagnetic radiation in the environment. This comes mainly from power lines, which in the US is 60 Hertz, plus its harmonic frequencies (120 Hz, 180 Hz, 240 Hz, etc.). This very annoying hum gets mixed with the pickup’s signal.
To resolve this problem, Gibson invented the “humbucker” pickup. It has two side-by-side coils that are connected in series but wound in opposite directions. While they work together to pick up even more guitar signal, the out-of-phase coils cancel the antenna effects and eliminate much of the hum.
However, humbucker pickups don’t sound like the best single-coil pickups. The difference is described as a lack of high-end response, “thick,” lacking in “focus,” or other vague terms that define a very audible phenomenon.
A pickup with true single-coil sound, but no hum has been a Holy Grail for pickup designers for decades. Recently, several companies have developed novel solutions that come very close to being perfect.
The most common configuration isn’t technically a single coil at all, but a variation of the humbucker design. Two coils wound with opposite polarity are stacked on top of each other in the space of a single-coil bobbin, with the magnet sandwiched in the middle.
A different noise-cancelling strategy is the Lace Sensor pickup, which uses proprietary screened bobbins. Meanwhile, Kinman Pickups uses a variety of patented technologies, including a cryptic “600 Ohm noise sensor.”
Most pickups are passive. In other words, they convert magnetic energy to electrical energy and don’t require a power source in order to work.
Active pickups include an electronic circuit to filter, attenuate, or boost the pickup signal. They require a power source, usually a battery. The circuitry must be a low-power design to optimize battery life, which can limit the dynamic range.
Top 16 Best Single-Coil Pickups Of 2020 Reviews
Here we present a selection of high-end pickups originally designed for Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Jazzmaster guitars, along with Gibson P-90 and Gretsch HiLo’Tron designs. Of course, you can install them on any guitar, though you might have to rout the body to make them fit.
1 Fender Custom Shop Custom ’54 Stratocaster Pickups
Fender’s Custom Shop Custom ’54 Strat® pickups are designed to authentically recreate the tone and sustain of 1954 Stratocaster guitars.
These pickups feature Alnico 5 magnets with staggered hand-beveled pole pieces, Forvar magnet wire, fiber bobbins, and cloth-insulated lead wire. They include a 1-year warranty.
- Classic Strat sound.
- Authentic Fender parts.
2 Fender Eric Johnson Stratocaster Pickups
Fender developed this Stratocaster pickup set in close collaboration with guitarist Eric Johnson. The neck pickup is based on the original 1954 Strat pickup, but with an oversized Alnico 3 magnet.
The middle pickup is an emulation of the 1963 Strat pickup, with a specially treated Alnico magnet. As with all Strat sets, it’s reverse-wound to cancel hum when used in combination with the neck or bridge pickup.
The bridge pickup has an Alnico 5 magnet. It has been voiced for a hotter output without any loss of top-end shimmer.
- Hotter bridge pickup output.
- Authentic Fender parts.
3 EMG SA-Set
The EMG-SA is an active single-coil pickup and EMG’s most popular model for Stratocaster-style guitars. Its tone begins with a vintage Strat sound, then adds stronger midrange response and higher output for bell-like harmonics and longer sustain.
A single Alnico bar magnet helps deliver classic overdrive with smooth midrange distortion, while still retaining the familiar single-coil high end of. These characteristics make the EMG-SA more versatile than most single-coil pickups. It’s favored by guitarists like Steve Lukather and David Gilmour.
The EMG-SA Set includes a pre-wired split-shaft volume/tone control set and five-position switch, ready to drop into your pickguard. Also provided is EMG’s exclusive Quik-Connect cable output jack, a battery clip set, and mounting screws and springs.
- Active pickups with high output and tone control.
4 Mojotone Lipstick Stratocaster Pickup Set
Mojotone’s classic Lipstick Stratocaster pickups produce a clear, glassy tone that sounds great clean, or cranked with heavy overdrive. They’re designed for a slightly thicker and cleaner tone with all the tone of an old-school lipstick pickup. Mojotone also beefed up the bridge pickup for more sustain and midrange.
The middle pickup is reverse-wound to cancel hum in positions 2 and 4. All pickup coils are vacuum potted and fit standard Stratocaster routing and pickguards.
- More sustain.
- Unique tone.
- Not a traditional Strat sound.
5 Kinman WDSTCK+ Set Woodstock Plus Pickup
The Woodstock Plus pickup set is from Kinman Guitar Electrix, a boutique Australian maker of innovative “Zero-Hum” single-coil guitar pickups. The AVN designation stands for “Authentic Vintage Noiseless.” Kinman claims their patented pickups sound like vintage models, but with no hum, longer sustain and better high-frequency response.
The Woodstock Plus set is a variation of their Jimi Hendrix signature pickups, but with a more powerful bridge pickup. They’re ideal for hard rock and heavy distortion. Proprietary Alnico-K magnets produce lower string pull for longer sustain and less fret buzz.
- Classic sound with low noise.
6 Lace Sensor-Red Pickup Black
Designed to duplicate an early Fender single-coil pickup, the Lace Sensor Red has the hottest output of the Sensor series. It’s perfect in the bridge position if you’re looking for a fat, punchy humbucker sound from a single coil.
Lace Sensor pickups are true single-coil designs, but with a difference. Like the pickups featured on the Fender Jaguar, the coil and magnets are surrounded by a metal Radiant Field Barrier that reduces electromagnetic interference. It also focuses the magnetic field so a weaker magnet can be used. The reduced string pull results in better intonation and sustain.
A patented Micro Comb replaces the traditional bobbin. This yields a wider tonal range and better string balance than with traditional pickups.
- Bright sound and high output.
- Tone may be too prominent, depending on playing style.
7 DiMarzio DP419 Area ’67 Hum Canceling Strat Pickup White
The DiMarzio Area 67TM pickups are hum-canceling. They’re designed to be used primarily in the middle and neck positions, and they have a very bright tone profile: Treble 9.5 (out of 10), Mid 4, Bass 3.
A patented technology allows Area™ models to use weaker Alnico 2 magnets without reduced output. With 40 percent less string pull, sustain and intonation are improved. In the bridge position, Area 67™ pickups are very bright but not brittle, with the iconic chime of 60s pickups. They have an internal DC resistance of 5.86K.
- You might find the sound too bright.
8 Fender Pure Vintage Reissue Telecaster Pickups
Often imitated but seldom (if ever) surpassed, these vintage pickups deliver the Fender Tele twang famous for over 60 years. They’re standard on Fender American Vintage Telecaster guitars.
Fender Pure Vintage Reissue pickups feature Alnico 5 magnets with enamel-coated magnet wire and fiber bobbins for warm vintage-style tone. Output wires have period-correct cloth insulation.
The bridge pickup has staggered pole pieces and includes a copper shielding plate for balanced volume and tone across every string.
- Classic Telecaster twang.
9 Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickups
Fender Vintage Noiseless Telecaster pickups emulate the brilliant clarity, definition, and twang of a vintage 1960s Telecaster, but without the hum. These were the standard pickups on pre-2010 American Deluxe models.
They feature enamel-coated magnet wire wrapped around a plastic bobbin and flush-mount pole pieces for an even string response. Alnico 2 magnets provide a smoother attack and less aggressive midrange.
- Slightly less aggressive sound than original Telecaster pickups.
10 DiMarzio DP172C Pick-up
The DiMarzio DP172C Twang King Telecaster neck pickup recalls the best of Broadcaster and Telecaster sounds and more. Twang King pickups have unmatched dynamic response. Light picking produces a soft, quiet tone while harder playing yields a louder and harder sound than a standard single coil.
DiMarzio accomplishes this with special magnet wire, controlled-tension coil-winding, and hand-calibrated Alnico 5 magnets. It comes with a chrome cover and is double wax-potted for feedback-free performance. Its tone profile is Bass 5 (out of 10), Mid 7, Treble 7.
- Outstanding dynamic response.
- Double wax-potted.
11 Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Tele Pickup Set Telecaster
The Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Telecaster pickup set includes the STL-3 bridge pickup and the matching STR-3 neck pickup. Handmade in Santa Barbara, California, they’re wax potted for squeal-free performance.
The STL-3 is the company’s highest output true single-coil Tele bridge pickup, with enough power to compete with humbuckers and hot P-90s. Quarter-inch diameter Alnico 5 pole pieces increase the output and make possible a special overwound coil. This gives it exceptional treble bite and a full midrange. It sounds especially good when overdriven.
The matching STR-3 neck pickup uses 3/16-inch pole pieces and an overwound coil. It comes with a chrome-plated brass cover.
12 Fender Pure Vintage ’65 Jazzmaster Pickup Set
Fender Pure Vintage pickups are wound to very precise specifications to deliver authentic, traditional Fender tone. If you’re looking for the edgy twang of a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster, these are the pickups for you.
Enamel-coated magnet wire is wound on period-accurate oversize fiber bobbins, with Alnico 5 magnets for classic tone and enhanced dynamics. Flush-mount pole pieces ensure even string response. They’re wax-potted and come with cloth-insulated wire. A 1-year warranty protects against manufacturing defects.
- Classic Jazzmaster surf tone.
13 Fender V-Mod Jazzmaster Guitar Single-Coil Pickups
Fender’s V-Mod Jazzmaster Pickup Set was developed by pickup guru Michael Frank, who also created the Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Pickups. This new Jazzmaster pickup design pumps out vintage-inspired tone with plenty of punch and definition. Taller coils and magnets and a narrower wire bundle than traditional Jazzmaster pickups deliver enhanced midrange response.
These pickups feature Alnico 5 magnets and aged white covers. DC resistance is 8.2k (bridge) and 7.6k (neck). All installation hardware is included.
- Enhanced midrange response.
- Not vintage Jazzmaster sound.
14 Seymour Duncan Antiquity P-90 Dog Ear Pickup
Antiquity pickups from Seymour Duncan are engineered to mimic famous classic designs, in this case, the Gibson P-90. The Retrospec’d Series puts that vintage tone in a new, pristine package.
The Antiquity P-90 Dog Ear uses two specially-calibrated Alnico 2 bar magnets with a custom coil wind that delivers the vintage growl of a late 1950s Gibson ES-330 neck pickup. They’re wound with reverse polarity to be hum-cancelling. The pickups are drop-in replacements for any standard Gibson P-90 Dog Ear-sized routing.
The neck pickup features a DC resistance of 7.8K and the bridge pickup 8.6K. They include an aged black cover and a braided shield.
- Not hum-cancelling.
and Seymour Duncan Retrospec’d Antiquity Dog Ear P90 Neck Black
15 Lindy Fralin P-90 Soapbar Pickup Set Black
Fralin Pickups is a small US company that makes extremely high-quality pickups to order. Their P-90 Soapbar set is designed to deliver the fat midrange Gibson’s design is known for.
Fralin’s stock P-90 Soapbar set includes adjustable pole pieces, Alnico 4 bar magnets, and soap bar covers. The neck is underwound by 10% so that the pickups balance. The bridge pickup is reverse wound to provide hum canceling when both pickups are on.
An advantage of buying Fralin pickups is that you can customize them to your taste, changing the number of neck or bridge coil windings, and choosing the type of lead wires. They are all hand-made and carry a remarkable 10-year warranty against manufacturing defects.
- Hand-made in the USA.
- Customized design.
- 10-year warranty.
16 Gretsch HiLo’Tron Single-Coil Electric Guitar Pickup Chrome Bridge
The HiLo’Tron pickups from Gretsch were introduced in 1960. George Harrison was an avid early HiLo’Tron user. Redesigned and reissued in 2001, these pickups have both brilliant highs and mellow lows, with a scooped midrange.
and Gretsch HiLo’Tron Single-Coil Electric Guitar Pickup Chrome Neck
Other Pick-up Choices?
Looking for some other pickups for your other guitars and basses? If so, check out our reviews of the Best Telecaster Guitar Pickups, the Best P 90 Pickups, the Best Precision Bass Pickups, and the Best Jazz Bass Pickups currently available.
But Which Are The Best Single-coil Pickups?
There’s no winner here, no one “best” single-coil pickup. Only you can know the sound you’re aiming for. And a pickup that might sound amazing on one guitar might be only average on another.
If you’re upgrading an instrument and want to give it a true vintage tone, then you’re probably better off buying vintage reissue pickups from the manufacturer.
But if you’re looking for a different and unique sound, something brighter, twangier, more bell-like, thicker, or any other adjective that has different meanings for everyone, then perhaps you should experiment.
Be adventurous! If the pickups you choose aren’t right, try something else. Eventually, you’ll discover the best single-coil pickups – for you.