There comes a time when every guitarist just wants to get up on stage and shred. Idols like Axel Rose, Zakk Wylde, and James Hatfield have inspired many of generations of guitar players, and will likely continue to do so for the coming decades. But how does one achieve that monstrous, nasty metal sound? It goes without saying that you will need to be well versed in power chords and familiarity with the pentatonic scale is about all you know to shred with the best of them. Learning your way around a guitar with dropped D tuning can help make your playing a lot more dark and powerful. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that having a warm and powerful guitar amp can make a huge difference, and of course you will be leaning heavily on effect pedals such as distortion and overdrive. However, something that is often overlooked is the setup of the guitar itself. Among the most important guitar components for that heavy metal sound resides in the guitar pickups.
Humbuckers vs. Single Coil
Generally speaking, the best guitar pickups for metal are going to be active humbuckers. There are a ton of options available on the market today, and each can impart a unique tone and character. It’s important to find the set of pickups that will best suit your playing style – some emphasize noise and driven harmonics while others have massive amounts of sustain that will keep you shredding for days. The importance of using humbuckers however cannot be overstated. Whereas single coil pickups commonly found on Fender Stratocasters will impart a twangy (though delightful) aura on your sound a la Eric Clapton, humbuckers will give you warmth and thickness that originally embellished the power of blues music. This really has to do with the way that they are wired and there is some electrical engineering involved which we will not get into here, but suffice to say that if you are looking for a thick and crunchy metal sound then humbuckers are the way to go as opposed to single coil pickups.
Active vs. Passive
The second component of the guitar pickups that is important to pay attention to is whether they are actively or passively powered. The easiest way to identify this is by whether or not your guitar is equipped with a 9v battery. Have you ever noticed that many bass guitars require a battery to work properly, yet the majority of six string guitars do not? This is because bass guitars really need the active pickups to capture the fullness of the bottom end. The same thing happens in a six string electric guitar when active pickups are installed. In addition to capturing more of that thick bottom end, active guitar pickups will impart far more harmonic distortion than you will achieve with passive guitar pickups, resulting in a much richer tone once overdrive and distortion are applied.