Swapping a guitar’s stock pickups out for something with a different flavor is a common, easy modification.
With 7-string guitars becoming increasingly fashionable over recent years, pickup manufacturers are taking notice and building incredible pickups designed for the unique tone and playing capabilities of these extreme instruments.
Because 7-string guitars are most commonly used in extreme and progressive metal genres, the best pickups designed for them accommodate the tones in these genres.
The pickups in a 7-string guitar need to be capable of articulate, glassy clean tones as well as crushing, brutal distortion. Because 7-string guitars typically have an additional low string (typically a B beneath the low E), they risk becoming muddy or too bass-heavy. For this reason, many 7-string voiced pickups prioritize a crisp, precise tone that clears up any muddy low frequencies.
In this article, I’ll list some of the best pickups for 7-string guitars on the market today from the biggest and best pickup makers in the business, and share my honest evaluation about each of them based on my personal experience while using them.
5 Best Pickups for 7-String Guitars
Table of Contents
1. Seymour Duncan Nazgul/Sentient
This set from Seymour Duncan, one of the most popular high-gain pickup builders on the planet, is perfectly matched for high-octane metal. The Nazgul-Sentient set is aimed squarely at extreme metal players looking for power and punch in their tone.
First of all, the Nazgul bridge pickup gets major heavy-metal cool points for being named after the ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings. These are some of the hottest passive pickups on the market and are extremely well-suited to the brutal low-end riffage of extreme metal.
The Nazgul offers tremendous clarity even at the highest gain setting. Even downtuning to Drop C doesn’t render the bridge pickup muddy or flabby. Palm mutes are appropriately chunky and you can make out enough pick attack to encourage variation in technique.
Considering that the Nazgul was designed especially for extended-range guitars, its excellent voicing for chugging, down-tuned metal riffs makes sense. The bridge pickup sounds similarly terrific for lead lines: high-gain licks have plenty of sizzle and character, with all the precise fire and fury of modern metal.
The Sentient neck pickup is a little more restrained, although it is by no means a shrinking violet. Neck pickups, especially on seven-string guitars, risk being a little muddy, but the Sentient strikes a great balance between clarity and warmth.
Clean tones on the Sentient sound nicely clear and glassy. It responded particularly well to playing with a very subtle chorus effect. The high-gain sound, on the other hand, is as sweet and thick as you’d expect from a Seymour Duncan neck pickup, but offers plenty of edge and grit.
2. Fishman Fluence Modern
Most guitar players will recognize Fishman as the premier acoustic pickup builders. In recent years, they’ve turned their attention to electric sounds.
The likes of Tosin Abasi, Matt Bellamy, and Trivium’s Matt Heafy are recent converts to the Fluence Modern pickup, a diverse, powerful high-gain alnico pickup.
These active pickups, as expected, offer a high-gain tone, but without the buzz, hum, or excess noise that plagues many old-school active pickups. That’s definitely a bonus in my estimation.
However, the Fluence set requires more modification to your guitar than most pickup installations. The Ibanez guitar I played had the Fluences already installed, but if you want to put these in a guitar you already own, you’ll need to install the power source, wiring, and new potentiometers as well as the pickups themselves.
While these are all included in the kit, it’s a lot to add to an instrument.
Tone-wise, however, these pickups are excellent. The low strings are chunky without being flabby, and the higher strings sound crisp and thick. You can clearly make out every note in every chord, even when alternating between brutal chugs and open strings or chords with high gain.
The Fluence pickups offer serious tonal diversity, too. The first tone is pure molten high-gain shred. However, a simple pull of the push-pull pot reveals a second guitar tone from the same pickup. The second Fluence tone lends itself very well to the kind of clean, compressed neo-soul playing popularized by Polyphia’s Tim Henson, who is a devoted user of these pickups himself.
These are excellent, diverse pickups, if your guitar can handle the extensive modifications required to install them.
3. EMG 81-7
EMG’s high-powered active pickups were embraced wholeheartedly by metalheads in the ‘80s looking for an ever more powerful tone from their instruments. EMG’s 81 pickup was originally designed for the six-string guitar, as wielded by Zakk Wylde and Metallica.
Now, the 81 is available in a 7-string configuration, offering a modern take on this vintage metal classic.
The clean tone of this pickup is relatively thin and brittle for my liking, although the addition of some 80s-style chorus brings it into usable “Sanitarium” territory.
However, when used to drive a high-gain amp, these pickups truly shine.
Palm muting is remarkably chunky and responsive, with no loss of note definition on the low B string even when subjected to aggressive downtuning.
Lead lines scream and sustain, with these pickups responding particularly well to rapid vibrato. The sustain and feedback from these pickups is incredibly satisfying to play.
The tone of the EMG 81 works best in the bridge position, where it encourages you to unleash rapidfire palm mutes and chunky, downpicked thrash riffage.
Although the sound of the 81 is best suited to classic ‘80s style metal, the 7-string version of this pickup has enough heft and brutality to cover modern metal styles as well.
As an active pickup, the EMG 81 requires a 9-volt battery to provide the extra juice needed to give these pickups their extra distortion.
If you’re installing these in a guitar built for passive pickups, you’ll need to find room somewhere to install the 9-volt battery. In some guitars (like some old Les Pauls) there’s room in the potentiometer cavity, particularly if you swap in mini pots.
4. Seymour Duncan Black Winter
Not for the faint of heart, Seymour Duncan’s Black Winter pickups, as the name and Gothic typeface suggests, are built for black metal. If your heart craves the icy, nasty, tremolo-picked distorted tones of Scandinavia’s brutal black metal exports, these may well be the pickups for you.
These are some of the highest-output passive humbuckers on the modern market. Be warned: the Black Winter pickups are noisy. Upon plugging in and turning up, I was greeted with the sound of a thousand angry wasps screeching at me from the amplifier.
Of course, extreme metal isn’t supposed to be pretty, and these pickups are built for black metal and grindcore. How do they hold up?
The first thing to do was run through the opening riff from “Deathcrush,” which immediately quelled any concerns I had about the 7-string variation of this guitar failing to handle the forefathers of the genre.
The sustain of these pickups is incredible, and they responded very well to pick attack. Chugging sounded satisfyingly hefty, but where these pickups really sound great is with unmuted lead playing.
There’s a slight fizz and crackle to the note decay with the Black Winter pickups. This sounds great when you’re playing white-hot solos, giving your licks plenty of icy character and bringing a thick, powerful sound to single-note playing.
This crackling quality really encourages you to play rapid, classic extreme metal licks, blending legato and staccato techniques.
These might be some of the best heavy metal pickups on the market, and they’re not to be underestimated. I wouldn’t recommend them to players outside the extreme metal genres, but those who demand brutal performance from their instruments will be truly satisfied.
5. DiMarzio Titan 7
DiMarzio pickups have been a mainstay of hard rock and heavy metal since the 1970s. The classic double-cream humbucker of DiMarzio’s Super Distortion pickups graced the guitars of gain-hungry players in Iron Maiden and KISS long before seven-string guitars were even invented.
Today, the Titan 7 brings Larry DiMarzio’s more-is-more approach to high-gain pickup building into the modern era.
The Titan 7 is the signature model of Periphery axeman Jake Bowen, who is known for his uncompromising high-gain tone as well as his terrifying technical ability. Predictably, these pickups sound great for playing the brutal, progressive riffs Periphery are well-known for.
The demanding, wide-ranging riff from “Marigold” sounds terrific with these clear, powerful, articulate pickups. In particular, you can clearly make out the notes played on the lowest string, even when downtuned with a massive amount of gain.
The biggest risk with seven-string guitars is a loss of note clarity, so this is a very welcome feature.
The overall tone of these pickups is extremely aggressive, with a lot of tight, focused midrange. I was somewhat surprised by this, expecting a more balanced tone, but Periphery is a three-guitar band, and Jake Bowen’s sound is the most forward of the three.
The most impressive feature of this pickup, however, is the excellent clean sound. The high definition and note clarity from the high-gain sound carries over into cleaner tones, with rich harmonic density and touch sensitivity.
I wouldn’t play a seven-string guitar for a country or jazz gig, but you could very easily use these pickups in either of those squeaky-clean guitar settings without batting an eyelid. A surprisingly diverse pickup from one of modern metal’s most brutal players.
How to Choose Pickups for Your 7-String Axe
What You’ll Play
The most important thing to consider when choosing a pickup for your guitar is the kind of music you plan on playing. Although most 7-string guitarists are looking to play extreme modern metal, the 7-string guitar can be well-suited to other genres, like prog or jazz.
If your playing demands high gain and punishing distortion, you’ll need pickups that can handle that while still offering note clarity and the appropriate tone for the genre. On the other hand, you might prefer clean tones, and prioritize that in a pickup.
Active vs Passive Pickups
Another consideration is whether you’ll need active or passive pickups. Passive pickups tend to be noisier than active pickups under high-gain, and offer a less clear, searing distorted tone. However, passive pickups usually sound better for clean or crunchy playing.
Passive pickups are the type usually found as stock in electric guitars. They don’t require batteries and you can usually swap your stock pickups straight out for passive pickups.
However, active pickups require a 9-volt battery to provide the extra power they need. Your guitar might require additional modification to create a battery cavity, which is commonly found on guitars that are built for active pickups.
Some new pickups will require you to break out the soldering iron and melt the solder connecting your current pickups to the guitar. Others have a quick-install capability that requires no soldering, although you’ll often need to use a soldering iron to remove the original pickups.
Learning how to do this basic modification yourself is worthwhile, but it takes trial and error, and is worth practicing with solder away from your precious instrument first. Soldering is a high-heat affair that requires you to melt metal and you’ll want to avoid accidentally damaging your guitar.
Many guitarists simply leave pickup changes to a guitar tech or, for those of us without a personal guitar tech, a local luthier or guitar repair store.
Level of Modification Required
Some new pickups have additional capabilities that require further modifications to your guitar. Some need special potentiometers with different resistances, or push/pull capabilities. Some require you to install additional switches on your guitar.
While some guitarists like swapping out pickups as a do-it-yourself at home modification, the most extensive mods may necessitate the services of a professional.
Any guitar player looking to change the pickups in their instrument should seriously consider how much they are willing to modify their guitar to accommodate the new pickups. Vintage instruments will lose their value if you add cavities or replace the original parts, for example.
Likewise, they should consider the time and money required to do so if you need to hire a pro to create new cavities in your guitar.
Choosing the right pickups for your guitar can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. 7-string guitars offer tremendous tonal possibility thanks to their extended range. Often, the only thing holding back a guitar from unlocking its potential is the stock pickups.
It’s easy to swap out a guitar’s pickups for an upgrade, and just as easy to put the old pickups back in if the new ones aren’t to your liking.
When it comes to seven-string guitars, pickups tend to be tuned to handle higher levels of distortion and offer extra clarity on the lowest strings.
They should be optimized for downtuning and high gain, offering tremendous note clarity even with brutal downtuning and obscene amounts of distortion.
The pickups on this list are all well-suited for high-gain playing and modern metal. Some of them are tailor-made for this genre, do it very well, and won’t stray into other sounds.
Others are far more versatile, and will reward open-minded, imaginative playing with a wide range of tonal possibilities.
Whatever your musical palate, this list should be a handy starting point to finding the right pickups for your seven-string guitar.