Rock On: Can Single Coil Pickups Deliver the Power of Metal?

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Heavy metal is a musical genre that will soon be 55 years old. During all this time, many things happened and influenced its history, many things varied and changed the genre, and many things always remained there. We will talk about guitars in heavy metal. What makes them so special? Is it the design, is it its appearance, or its components? What defines the sound of a guitar? How important are microphones?

So, the question is can you play metal on single coil pickups?

History indicates that you can`t. Let’s see why.

Short History Of Metal Genre

Heavy metal, or simply metal, is a musical genre that was born in the late 1960s and early 1970s in both the United Kingdom and the United States, whose origins come from blues rock, hard rock, and psychedelic rock. It is mainly characterized by its strong and distorted guitars and emphatic rhythms, the bass and drum sounds are denser than usual and the voice is generally high-pitched or guttural.

Until today there is no precise consensus that defines which was the first heavy metal band, some mention Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, while others leave that seat exclusively to Black Sabbath. Later, other successful groups such as Scorpions, Rainbow, Judas Priest, and Motörhead, continued to give shape and exposure to the genre. In the second half of the seventies and at the height of punk, the New Wave of British heavy metal emerged, led by Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard, which gave a new value to the genre, resulting in the birth of a subsequent subculture on both sides of the Atlantic.

With the arrival of the eighties the first metal subgenres began to appear; On the one hand, glam metal (headed by bands like Europe, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, W.A.S.P., Whitesnake or Mötley Crue) led the sales, and music charts of the main markets and, on the other, extreme metal that came from the scene underground. Thrash metal led by Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax emerged with widespread popularity from the latter, and with significant repercussions. However, in the following decade, this commercial success declined due to the rise of new alternative sounds not typical of metal, although in continental Europe, Japan, and Latin America they continued to be popular and subgenres such as power metal experienced their boom (highlighting bands such as Helloween, Blind Guardian, Gamma Ray, Stratovarius or Rhapsody), in the same way that other new subgenres emerged and resisted commercially on a global level, such as groove (Pantera). At the end of that decade, even more extreme genres emerged, such as death metal and black metal, which had a boom in the early 1990s.

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When the new millennium arrived, there was already an infinity of subgenres, each with specific characteristics and influences from other styles such as classical music, industrial music, funk, and rap, for example, which have broadened the definition of metal until reaching the present. In turn, its popularity has increased in recent years, mainly in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Japan.

Guitars Used In Heavy Metals

The electric guitar and the power through amplification have historically been the key element of the genre, whose sound comes from the combined use of high volumes and heavy distortion. Over the years, guitarists have innovated in the techniques and effects, such as the tresillo, seisillo, palm mute, bend, hammer-on, tapping, and sweep-picking mainly. In addition, the riff, the power chord, and especially the solo that define a song and the subgenre in which it is performed became very important elements.

A band can have two guitarists; one leader and another rhythmic, but there are cases where it is only one or, in specific situations, it can even be three. In some bands the guitarists apply the term twin-guitars, where both can be leaders, simultaneously playing a solo or interspersing their participation within it.

As Metal spread and branched out into a multitude of styles during the 1980s, manufacturers decided to go full throttle when it came to designing guitars specially designed to suit their tastes, even though some of the most influential dates back long before the genre became popular.

Why Are Single Coils Rarely Used For Metal? Can You Play Metal Without Humbuckers?

A pickup is nothing more than a coil of wire wound around a magnetic element, placed at a distance from the strings, which generates a current analogous to the vibration produced by them.

The thickness of the wire, the type of magnet, the height or width of the coil, the number of turns of wire, and the power of the magnet, make great sound differences; That’s why there are so many varieties of microphones on the market. Generally, single coils are cleaner and clearer, and the double coils are more powerful and “bodied”.

Given the volume, power, and distortion that characterizes the genre, guitars with single-coil pickups are rarely, if ever, used. Instead are more often used in other genres, where guitar presence is not intended to be so overwhelming. As we said, double-coil microphones provide much more power and presence.

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Let’s talk about the guitars most linked to the genre, the most influential, the most meritorious for their contribution, and those that we have ended up seeing more frequently on stage. Of course, we can play metal with many other guitars, but these bring together the sound, attitude, and look that become much of metal’s identity.

Gibson Flying V and Gibson Explorer

The Flying V and the Explorer were two models introduced by Gibson during the 1950s, not widely accepted. The world probably needed more time to be ready for the disruptive shapes of these two guitars, in a world dominated by classical designs.

When metal arrived, they were embraced by bands from all over the world, from Metallica to Accept, and later groups like Mastodon and Machine Head. They are guitars with a glued neck and built-in mahogany, qualities associated with a usually thick and solid sound. Although you can find versions with a floating bridge, they usually come in a fixed bridge format, and with double pickups.

James Hetfield from Metallica with a Gibson Flying V

Jackson Randy Rhoads, one of the most influential guitarists of the Heavy Metal sound, was a great lover of Gibson Les Pauls. However, there is another guitar for which we also remember him, the Jackson in the shape of an arrow that would take his name. Jackson has made countless versions of this model varying color combinations, grades, pickup types, bridge types, and just about any other modification he could make to this basic silhouette.


ESP is one of the most specialized brands in metal genres that exist in the market. This Japanese brand becomes strong thanks to models such as the Eclipse, the Horizon, and the M-II. Equipped with Floyd Rose and EMG or Seymour Duncan pickups, depending on the version, it served as the basis for the legendary Kirk Hammett signature model, one of the best-selling metal guitars in the world.

BC Rich Warlock

Used for a long time by Thrash Metal guitarists such as Max Cavalera from Sepultura or Kerry King from Slayer, it is one of the most used guitars in the genre. There are many different models, with or without a Floyd rose bridge and with EMG, Seymour Duncan, or other brand pickups, but always humbuckers, that is double pickups.

Schecter Hellriser C-1

It is a guitar with a much less transgressive aspect, but with quite logical features. The appearance and some features such as its double cutaway, refer us to classic models such as the Stratocaster, but its thickness, its choice of woods, and its construction style are inspired by guitars usually with a darker and denser tone. The result is a guitar that, both in its fixed bridge and Floyd rose version, gives good results both in solo and rhythmic work in terms of comfort and sound.

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Dean ML

One of the most important guitars for historical reasons: is the model used by the late Pantera guitarist, Dimebag Darrell. Made of mahogany, with a maple neck with a 625 mm scale, 22 frets, and a glued neck, it can feature DiMarzio/Seymour Duncan pickups and, usually, a Floyd Rose bridge.

Ibanez JEM

The Ibanez JEM shouldn’t exactly be a metalhead guitar. It is the model popularized by guitarist Steve Vai, a musician who is admired by countless guitarists, with a great connection to hard rock and the fusion sound. It is a reinterpretation of a Stratocaster, collecting the best of the 80’s Super Stratos, adding some ergonomic improvements and more modern elements. The result was a guitar with a neck that called for speed, pickups that played perfectly with high gains, a floating bridge to unleash exaggerated tricks, and a striking lug that pierced the body, providing the element destined to attract the glances in straight.

Steve Vai with his Ibanez JEM

Are Passive or Active Pickups Best For Metal?

Heavy guitar pickups should be powerful enough to distort the amp at the right point, so, active pickups are ideal for genres such as metal or hard rock. Thanks to active preamp technology, background noise is practically non-existent, allowing higher volume without unwanted noise. They also have an equalizer circuit, which allows modifying the timbre of the microphone in a much more precise way, so, this makes them without a doubt the best option when it comes to playing metal.

What Kind of Pickup Is Best For Metal?

As we said, to play metal, humbuckers are better than single coils, and active pickups are much more useful than passive ones. So active humbuckers are without a doubt the best option we can consider. There are many interesting models today, generally made by DiMarzio, like the Megadrive or Paf Pro, by Seymor Duncan, like the JB or Custom, and by EMG, like the 81 or 85. Each one provides a particular sound and color. Well worth investigating!

Humbucker pickup design

EMG 81 Humbucker Pickup


Heavy metal has developed an aesthetic and reached new places through the years. These characteristics, so marked and particular, are not due to the use of a guitar, or a microphone in particular, but in the sum of many elements, among which the overwhelming, distorted and fast sound is a fundamental basis. Today, we can say that these sounds can be achieved with a wide variety of instruments, but again, history speaks for itself when it comes to heavy guitars.


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