One of the best things about owning a Les Paul – or any guitar with such enduring fame – is the countless resources available to upgrade or modify it. While the flagship Gibson models rarely warrant an upgrade, ‘Gibson-like’ guitars or Epiphone models can benefit from a pickup-swap.
Whether you want to swap to a pickup that suits your style/genre or you want to upgrade from the muddy stock electronics of an Epiphone, a good aftermarket pickup is the most cost-effective way to transform a Les Paul.
There are a great deal of options for upgrading and it can be perplexing to zero in on the right choice. I’ve presented a genre-based roundup of P90 and humbuckers to supercharge your LP. I recommend that you continue to the next section if you have already identified the tones you desire from a swap or upgrade.
If you are still undecided, check out the ‘what to look for section’ below before you start scouting for the right pickup for your Les Paul. That said, let’s get right to it.
- Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates – Best Les Paul Pickups for Hard Rock/Alternative
- Seymour Duncan Hot Rodded Humbucker Set – Best Les Paul Pickups for Modern Rock/Metal
- EMG 81/85 – Best Les Paul Pickups for Thrash Metal
- Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat P90 – Best P90 Pickups for Les Paul
- Fishman Fluence Modern – Best Les Paul Pickups for Modern Metal
- Seymour Duncan SH-55 – Best Les Paul Pickups for Jazz/Blues
- Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro Slash APH-2 – Best Les Paul Pickups for Classic Rock
- Best Les Paul Pickups by Genre
- Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates – Best Les Paul Pickup for Hard Rock/Alternative
- Seymour Duncan Hot Rodded Humbucker Set – Best Les Paul Pick for Modern Rock/Metal
- EMG 81/85 – Best Les Paul Pickup for Thrash Metal
- Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat P90 – Best P90 Pickup for Les Paul
- Fishman Fluence Modern – Best Les Paul Pickup for Modern Metal
- Seymour Duncan SH-55 – Best Les Paul Pick up for Jazz/Blues
- Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro Slash APH-2 – Best Les Paul Pickup for Classic Rock
- What to look for when buying Les Paul pickups?
- Final Thoughts
Best Les Paul Pickups by Genre
Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates – Best Les Paul Pickup for Hard Rock/Alternative
The Pearly Gates pickups debuted in the 1959 Gibson LP and have become synonymous with the ‘Billy Gibbons’ tone by Gibson. The SD Pearly Gates pickups were designed to recreate the ZZTop magic with a feisty – but not too hot – Burstbucker-like tone.
The Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates are spec’d to mimic single-coil tones that suit several styles and genres. Nevertheless, they purr when you overdrive power tubes and shimmer with a velvety clean timbre for smooth arpeggios.
Whether you add them to a modest Epiphone model or a formidable Gibson LP, the boosted high-mids, top-end sparkle, vintage richness, and additional clarity/volume make them especially suited for alt-rock and hard rock genres.
They have excellent sustain with treble-rich clean tones with plenty of harmonics. The bridge tones are hot-as-fire potent for soaring leads in the blues-rock territory. Plus, they fit into coil-tapping guitars without any hassles.
They are hotter than most ‘vintage’ pickups but not as powerful as modern high-output options. The fat lows, creamy midrange come to life when you dig into the lower strings. At the same time, they can sound unapologetically defiant when you crank up the volume and gain.
The Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates is as good, if not better than any other pickup gunning to recreate the classic LP tone. Overall, the Pearly Gates offers a lot of clarity, oomph, and fullness that pairs well with all-mahogany Gibson or Epiphone models. For something slightly different, I recommend pairing the bridge pickup with a Seymour Duncan ’59 in the neck.
Seymour Duncan Hot Rodded Humbucker Set – Best Les Paul Pick for Modern Rock/Metal
The Hot Rodded Set refers to a combination of the Seymour Duncan Jazz Model (SH-2n) for the neck and the JB (SH-4) humbucker for the bridge position. It is one of the most sure-shot ways to turn a muddy, low-level electric into a well-defined, versatile workhorse.
The SH-2n – the Jazz model – is famed for its articulate and treble-rich response. Armed with alnico magnets and a proprietary coil winding, it yields a scoped midrange with thick/tight lows and a hi-fi (glassy) high-end. It performs the role of an excellent low-output neck humbucker that has clarity, brightness, and versatility.
The SH-4 – aka the JB model humbucker – is the kingpin of bridge p’ups. It is famed for its tight and focused lows and harmonically rich highs. Its tight and articulate tones are characterized by an unmistakable upper midrange attack. That’s what makes it a staple in modern rock and metal guitars.
When these two humbuckers partner up, they cover nearly all the sonic bases, giving your LP the juice it needs for a powerful, articulate, and versatile tone. They’ve served the likes of Randy Rhoads, Jeff Beck, and S. W. Duncan himself.
Verdict: Say hello to glass and goodbye to mud. The ‘hot rodded set’ is an enduring classic that can transform any low-line Epiphone or add value to a flagship Gibson model. The set sounds bold and dense. It’s our top recommendation for modern rock/metal and its sub-genres. However, it can cover a wide range of styles from split-coil twang to dark n’ creamy jazz.
EMG 81/85 – Best Les Paul Pickup for Thrash Metal
The EMG 81 & 85 (81/85) pickup combination needs no introduction to tone enthusiasts. It’s a highly coveted set, famously used by thrash metal icons like Kerry King, Gary Holt, and James Hetfield among others.
From aggressive riffs to powerful shredding, the 81/85 combo is associated with fat distortion and a thick low-end. They feature as the stock pickups in PRS, Jackson, ESP, Schecter, amongst others.
The active EMG 81 is the metal player’s weapon of choice. Goose it with your volume and it’ll roar right through the thickest of band mixes. That’s why you’ll commonly see it in the bridge position. Those ceramic magnets can yield massive firepower.
The classic EMG 85, on the other hand, delivers smooth and well-rounded tones for rhythm playing and warm solos. The lows are buttery and thick and the overall tone has a lot of definition. Expect a smooth/bluesy tonality with organic warmth and a hearty bite.
If you want more clarity and less aggression, I recommend the EMG 85X instead of the 85. The 85X sounds a lot more like a passive humbucker. Either way, the deadly combination of magnets makes both variations of this set a highly versatile option for thrash metal guitarists.
You can also go a step further and pair it with the EMG X-series preamp (18v mod) to fashion the ultimate high-gain metal axe. Or, you can skip the active overhaul and stick with the fat-sounding EMG-81 and EMG-60 pair for a full range of high output tones.
Verdict: The EMG 81/85 is an absolute crowd favorite with oodles of praise across reviews and forums. However, it would be a disservice to write it off as a ‘go-to’ set for thrash metal. The 81/85 and 81/85X set might be ‘hot and active’, but they are fully capable of delivering stage and studio-worthy tones for ballads, blues, hard rock, and a variety of genres.
Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat P90 – Best P90 Pickup for Les Paul
Whether you own a second guitar with humbuckers or you fancy more brightness in an LP tone, the Phat Cats are an excellent choice to add P90-magic to your tone. They are favored in genres like country, punk, rock, and blues.
While they are tagged as P90s, they aren’t a typical ‘soapbar’ pickup. Seymour Duncan has made some appreciable improvements to the traditional design. For instance, they feature a silver-nickel bottom plate for noise reduction and vacuum wax potting to prevent squeals.
Phat Cats have featured as stock p’ups in LP Junior, LP Special, and other lower-line Gibson models. They derive their tone from Alnico 2 magnets. Broadly speaking, they sound punchy and crisp, with ample clarity and sustain.
They are bright, but at the same time, noticeably warmer than single-coils. Like most P90s, they have that ‘bite’ in the midrange that cuts through the mix brilliantly. Their sweet ‘n warm tones can make clean chords and arpeggios sing.
In the bridge position, the SPH90 delivers thick and wild overdriven sounds that sound tailor-made for blues and rock. Some players may find them lacking in the low-end, but that’s usually the norm for any P90-style pickup.
The Phat Cats are made to fit the standard humbucker route so you won’t need any modifications to your instrument. Plus, they offer the benefit of noise-cancellation when used in conjunction. However, it’s common for people to only use one of these, typically in the bridge position.
Verdict: Seymour Duncan SPH90s have an iconic and familiar tone that boasts of clarity, warmth, and sweetness. If you want a versatile P90 pickup without making any mods to your guitar, Seymour Duncan’s SPH90 delivers creamy, smooth, and studio-worthy tones when fitted in any Les Paul.
Fishman Fluence Modern – Best Les Paul Pickup for Modern Metal
Fishman took their sweet time to enter the unfathomably crowded electric guitar pickup market, but when they did – in 2013 – they forced the competition to stand up and take notice.
The Fluence Modern and Classic set is the first revolutionary change to the traditional pickup designs in a long time. These ‘game-changers’ use interconnected stacks of printed coils as opposed to the traditional wound copper coils.
In simple words, the coils are ‘applied’ rather than wound. This yields a modern, multi-voice pickup that eliminates any semblance of hum, noise, or inductance in a way that wire-wound sets can never dream of. They can be powered through a USB back plate or a 9V lithium battery that can last for up to 200 hours of play.
Tonally speaking, this cutting-edge set has shot to fame for its accuracy, exceptional clarity, and monstrous output. It sounds dynamic, powerful, and consistent, with an awe-inspiring balance across the tonal range.
The Fluence core has two selectable voices to function as an active or passive set. This makes it that much more versatile. That said, they instinctively cater to the needs of modern and heavier metal guitarists due to the monstrous output.
This is evidenced by the fact that modified versions of the Fluence Modern have been used in signature guitars for bands such as Animals as Leaders, Killswitch Engage, and Lamb of God. However, this video demonstrates how versatile they are when paired right with an LP:
That leads us to the Fishman Fluence Classic Set, which as the video demonstrates, would be a better choice for non-metal guitarists. The Classic set is relatively warm and mellow. It caters to musicians who seek more active clarity, classic tones, and/or a desire for vintage-flavor.
Verdict: The Fluence Modern has found favor with Tosin Abasi, Devin Townsend, and Greg Koch amongst others. Fishman’s re-imagined take on pickups is edgy, original, and incredibly versatile. They are highly recommended for modern and heavy genres, especially if you value clarity, heat, and a multi-voice capability to switch between fluid humbucker tones to active alnico sounds.
Seymour Duncan SH-55 – Best Les Paul Pick up for Jazz/Blues
The SH-55, also called the Seth Lover model, is a definitive option, celebrated for its celestial cleans and resounding projection. Many players prefer them to the lower-line stock pickups and Burstbuckers on account of the additional volume and clarity.
The SH-55 sounds great for jazz, fusion, and blues. It’s best suited for guitarists who frequently use clean tones and mild overdrive. The harmonics ring out in a tone that is fat but well-defined. Expect warmth, stellar clarity, and mids that come to low in low-gain situations.
They pair well with the all-mahogany bodies in Gibson and Epiphone models. Plus, the swap is a painless and solder-free process for most LP-style guitars. In the bridge position, the pickup sounds bright with a jazzy warmth and shimmer. The low-end is full, thick, and open-sounding.
The mids come to life in low-gain situations but aren’t very capable to cut through a cluttered or busy band mix. They can begin to squeal and lose their grain when pushed too far. These PAF-style pickups shine in a 6/4/8 (bass/mid/treble) setting with overdriven power tubes.
Verdict: Seymour Duncan’s SH-55 is best described as ‘a fat-sounding bridge tone humbucker with a vintage touch’. Other brands have tried to replicate the SH-55, but the replicas pale in comparison. Seymour Duncan is privy to Seth Lover’s design formula. Their incredible purity brings arpeggios to come to life and they can dish out crunch blues (think Gary Moore) or saturated rock tones that you hear in the Scorpion albums in the 80s.
Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro Slash APH-2 – Best Les Paul Pickup for Classic Rock
Slash’s peculiar style and guitar tone have inspired many guitarists to find ways to sound like him. If you are enamored by the ‘Appetite for Destruction’ tones – from the Guns ‘n Roses album – the Pro Slash APH-2 signature humbuckers offer the definitive solution.
These pickups, also used in the Les Paul Slash Signature model, are available in a variety of color options that include black, nickel, Zebra, and reverse Zebra. The mag wire and winding are adjusted to emulate the tones Slash milked from his Derrig Les Paul copy back in the 80s.
The end result is a tone with an unmistakable fullness in the mid-range, crunch that makes you go weak in knees, and flamboyant sustain. Don’t be fooled by the name. These pups are a great choice for every guitarist, regardless of their mania for Saul Hudson (Slash).
Whether it’s powerful riffs or feisty lead tones, the APH-2 sounds fat and resounding. As a neck pickup, it’s sweet and warm when subjected to light distortion or understated overdrive. In the bridge position, it roars majestically with punchy mids, distinct clarity, and blaring highs.
Plus, it delivers an excellent output and a ton of sustain for chord work. That said, the pickups work best in rock, blues, and modern metal. They won’t disappoint unless you need an output that compares to Fishman’s Fluence or other pickups designed for aggressive metal genres.
Check out the chest-punching impact of APH-2 in action with a Les Paul replica in this video:
Verdict: Seymour Duncan’s Pro Slash APH-2 is a staple in the wish list of rock, blues, and modern metal guitarists. Their classic tone is dipped in sweet sustain and sprinkled with crunchy mids – a famous and familiar tone. If you need a top-shelf pair that delivers high-quality tones, this signature set promises that for a very reasonable price.
What to look for when buying Les Paul pickups?
Over the years, Gibson has made several changes to components and electronics in Les Paul guitars. The pickups used in LPs fall into two categories –
P-90s are, at heart, single-coil pickups that look similar to humbuckers. They have one pole piece with fewer coil wraps. They were first introduced by Gibson in 1946 as an alternative to the Fender single coils but they really came into their own during the punk rock era.
Modern P90 pickups have a coiled wire around a plastic pole (bobbin), 2 Alnico bar magnets, and they use wire coiled around plastic bobbins with Alnico magnets.
Generally, they are not interchangeable with humbuckers. The route for a P90 is narrower and wider. However, manufacturers have started making interchangeable P90s and humbucker pickups.
Tone-wise, P90s are known for their dirty and gritty tones. They yield a bright, thin, and crispy sound that is close to a Fender single-coil (but not the same). They are raspy and have more warmth in the lows compared to single-coils.
P90s are often described as the middle ground between a humbucker and a Fender single-coil – the best of both worlds. However, they are not ‘hum canceling’ and will produce noise if you crank up the gain. Their spark, transparency, and definition make them suitable for funk, blues, jazz, rock, and country genres.
Humbuckers are electric guitar pickups that use two coils with reversed polarity to cancel electromagnetic interference. This interference usually refers to ‘mains hum’ and the pickups ‘buck the hum’ – thus the name. They were introduced by Gibson in 1955.
Humbuckers are coveted by jazz, rock, and metal players for their “thick” sound. This sound – a fat, round, and smooth tone – results from their focus on the midrange frequencies. They are built to handle gain and distortion much better than any other type of pickup.
However, single-coil enthusiasts often accuse humbuckers of lacking tonal ‘personality’ and dynamism. While that may be subjective, there is no doubting the fact that the chunky body of Gibson and Epiphone LP models pair brilliantly with humbuckers.
Generally, humbuckers are the pickup-of-choice for rock and metal guitarists who want punchy frequency selection and warmth in clean and distortion tones. However, they aren’t that great for pristine arpeggios or bright, jangly rhythm work.
P90 or Humbucker?
The cost and tone are the main differences between a P90 and humbucker. They also have differences in coil geometry and magnet designs, but we’ll skip the technicalities for now. I’ve outlined the sonic traits of each so you can use this information to find the right match.
Due to the way that they’re mounted, swapping pickups in an LP was considered to be a daunting task. Luckily, manufacturers have recognized and remedied this issue in the past decade and to offer standard sizes. This makes it easy to swap a P90 with a humbucker and vice versa.
Either way, ensure that you get the right pickup if you plan to use them interchangeably, or be prepared to have a guitar tech do the installation for you. It may involve the unthinkable – cutting chunks from your guitar if the route doesn’t match.
Most of the pickups I’ve selected make for an easy mod, with several ‘set and forget’ options. I hope you will benefit from this list and find the missing link in your guitar’s electronics.
Don’t forget to take a look at KGR’s Les Paul Upgrade Guide. It features a comprehensive list of simple-to-intermediate upgrades to transform your instrument’s tone and playability.
Feature image courtesy of Nenad Stojkovic on flickr.