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Active vs Passive Pickups Explained

Latest posts by Pietro Venza (see all)

Pickups are one of the most important factors that characterize the sound of any amplified instrument, and the electric guitar is no exception. Essentially, the pickup is a device whose primary function is to convert string vibrations into electricity. You probably asked yourself if you were better off going with Active vs Passive pickups if you’ve been playing for a while.

The answer to this question is entirely subjective, and it depends on a massive number of deciding factors, such as the genre you play, what kind of guitar you have, and what sound you’re going for. So, there is no overall better choice.

I tend to have a preference for Passive Pickups. I find them more reactive to the way I pick the strings, and I feel that they don’t compress the sound nearly as much as Active Pickups do. Generally, the overall compression and the higher output of active pickups make passive pickups the better choice for a blues-oriented guitarist like myself.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that active pickups have a terrible reputation among the guitar community, especially if you talk to the “purists” of guitar tone. Still, some of the most prominent guitar players have taken advantage of this technology. Of course, this pickup style is mainly used in Metal and Heavy music, but that doesn’t mean it is just for that.

For example, David Gilmour, one of the most praised guitarists when it comes to tone, famously uses EMG DG-20 active single-coil pickups in his Red Strat. Also, Steve Lukather, arguably one of the most successful session players, has his signature set of active pickups: the EMG SL20 H-S-S (Humbucker in the bridge, single-coils in the middle and neck positions).

As I said, I’m a fan of passive pickups, but I love Lukather’s sound, and I grew up on Pink Floyd and Gilmour. So, today I want to step outside my comfort zone and compare Active and Passive pickups without any prejudice.

Main Differences Between Active vs Passive Pickups

The main differences between Active Pickups vs Passive Pickups are:

  • Active Pickups use a preamp circuit to produce a higher output volume than you typically get with Passive Pickups.
  • Active Pickups require a 9 Volt Battery to function, while Passive Pickups work without any outside power source.
  • Passive Pickups are generally considered more versatile, while Active Pickups are usually associated with higher gain tones, like in Metal and Heavy Rock.
  • If you buy a Passive Pickups set for your Strat-style guitar, you should know that soldering is required during the installation process, while Active Pickups sets usually come pre-soldered and with a pickguard.

Electric Guitar Pickups Construction and Components

Before comparing Active and Passive pickups, I thought it could be good to look at what makes a guitar pickup.

Pickups have changed the sound of the electric guitar since they were first invented in the mid-1930s. Although Harry De Armond built the first magnetic pickup, the Rickenbacker Electro A-22, designed by George Beauchamp, was the first electric guitar with a pickup introduced on the market in 1934. A couple of years later, in 1936, Gibson designed their version of a pickup, which was used on the ES-150 hollow-body guitar famously used by legendary Jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.

During the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the technology used to build electric guitar pickups continuously evolved. Single-coil pickups, PAF humbuckers, and P-90s result from several years of experimentation trying to improve the design and functionality of the electric guitar pickup.

Generally, an electric guitar pickup is made from a few different components: magnets, copper wire, and a bobbin. The size of the bobbin can alter the sound of the pickup. For example, tall and thin bobbins will result in a brighter sound than flatter and wider bobbins, which are more commonly associated with a fatter sound. An excellent example is the noticeable tonal differences between the thinner bobbin of a single-coil Stratocaster pickup and the broader bobbin of a P-90.

The copper wire gets wrapped around the bobbin thousands of times. This process is done through the use of winding machines. Modern pickups are built using these machines throughout the entire process, while hand-wound pickups leave a few steps to the experienced hands of the builders.

The winding technique is a determining factor in the sound of a pickup. An increase or decrease of as little as one hundred turns of copper wire around the bobbin could alter the pickup’s tone in a very noticeable way.

The last component in a pickup is the magnet. Have you ever heard some of your guitar friends talk about Alnico or Ceramic? These are the two most commonly used types of magnets in guitar pickups. Alnico magnets usually translate to medium output, warmer, “vintage” tone. On the other hand, Ceramic magnets generally produce a higher output, resulting in a punchier overall sound.

Passive Pickups vs Active Pickups

Now that we roughly know how a pickup is made, let’s compare Active and Passive guitar pickups. On the component level, the active version of a pickup is nothing but a passive pickup with a preamp circuit built-in to amplify the signal, resulting in a higher output.

This circuit requires a 9-volt battery to function. Besides this main difference, there isn’t a lot more that changes. Still, there are very noticeable differences in the overall tones produced from a passive or active pickup. Let’s look at it like this: whether we like it or not, active pickups are a technological advancement compared to passive pickups. They’re more efficient, giving a higher output, but they remain silent.

I remember playing guitar in orchestras, with choirs and actual string sections. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of funny looks I received whenever I rolled up the volume on my trusted Fender Telecaster with single-coil passive pickups. The amount of hum noise was incredible, even on the cleanest of amps. Can you imagine a very delicate solo string section of a song entirely ruined by the sound of a thousand mosquitoes coming from a guitar amp? I surely can.

Now, I loved the sound of that guitar, and, as I said, I wouldn’t have even considered the option of putting active pickups in it. Still, that would have solved the problem, and maybe that could have been a more professional, less “selfish” move on my side.

So, active pickups qualify as a technological improvement of passive pickups. Now, let’s be honest: the guitar community is not the best at adapting to new technology. I know I’m not. Guitar players tend to be one of the most conservative groups overall, at least among musicians. Still, some of the advantages of the active pickup technology are also undoubtedly responsible for a change in tone and feel, but whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to each player’s personal preferences.

For example, I love the different sounds I can get from my guitars by playing with the volume knob, but that will change depending on the style of pickup I’m using. When turning down the volume knob on an electric guitar equipped with passive pickups, you usually get decreased amounts of overdrive. Still, that’s not the only thing that changes.

Generally, the overall EQ is subject to variation, and as a result, you’ll get fewer high frequencies, giving you a warmer, more mellow tone. This tends not to happen with active pickups, which retain more or less the same frequency spectrum throughout the entire range of the volume knob.

If I weren’t a guitar player, I would qualify this as an improvement. But after more than fifteen years of playing electric guitars with passive pickups, I’ve gotten used to the loss of frequencies that happens when I turn down the volume on my instruments. So, whenever I have played guitars equipped with active pickups, it felt weird not to have that.

Also, even the hum (already mentioned above) you generally get when playing an electric guitar (with passive pickups) through an amp is now something I would miss from any of my single-coil instruments if I were to “upgrade” to active pickups. Of course, I’m not talking about the horrible noise whenever you’re not playing anything. I’m referring to the natural sound of an overdriven single-coil pickup. In a way, the hum is part of it.

As I said before, different guitar players perceive all of these factors entirely based on their particular needs. Probably Steve Lukather needed his guitars to be extremely clean-sounding whenever he was playing. I mean, if you were recording “Thriller” (one of the most successful albums in music’s history), I bet you would have the same need. The same goes for David Gilmour. Could you imagine a massive hum noise going through a thousand delays and reverb pedals? It is all based on need and preference. That’s it.

Best Active Pickups For Metal

Now that we’ve talked about the main differences between Active and Passive pickups, I should address some of the best Active options available for Metal.

As I said before, high-gain heavy music is not the only context in which this pickup style is used. Still, I think that an article talking about active pickups would be entirely out of touch if I didn’t talk about what’s their most used application. So here are a few of my favorite active pickups available on the market for Metal music.

EMG 81 & 85 Set

As you probably know, EMG is perhaps the leading active pickup brand. This classic humbucker combination of 81 (in the bridge position) and 85 (in the neck position) delivers massive high-gain tones without compromising the overall warm characteristics of classic humbuckers.

The 81 uses active ceramic magnets, while the 85 is made with Alnico V. This great pickup combination has made Heavy Rock and Metal history. People like Zakk Wylde changed the genre’s sound using these same pickups, and his signature EMG pickups (which is also a valuable alternative to the 81-85 pack) are nothing but his version of this classic set.

Seymour Duncan Blackouts Set

Coming from arguably the biggest name in the pickup game, Seymour Duncan dropped the Blackouts on the active pickup market. This wonderfully made humbucker set is the starting point for all of the signature sets that the company makes for fantastic Metal guitar players, like Mick Thomson and Jeff Loomis, to name a few.

We find on Seymour Duncan’s website about the Blackout set: “With a focus on retaining passive-like dynamics while extending the treble and bass response, AHB-1s are both familiar and new. Think of a Duncan Distortion on steroids. We’re talking powerful lows, aggressive highs, and articulation that takes no prisoners.”

EMG JH HET (James Hetfield Signature Set)

When James Hetfield (lead singer and guitarist for Metallica) reached out to EMG to create his new signature pickups, he wanted something that could give him the clarity and punch of an active pickup while still retaining a classic overall tone.

The results of his request were the JH-N (for the neck position) and the JH-B (for the bridge position). This pickup combination allows Metallica’s frontman to achieve a fuller low end in the neck position (due to the ceramic pole pieces in the JH-N) that is utterly useful to get the classic “chug” Metal rhythm guitar tone while retaining a tighter attack with clearer low-end in the bridge position.

Fishman Fluence Modern Set

Although more well-known in the acoustic guitar pickup market, Fishman recently released this game-changing pickup, equipped with new technology. The Fluence Modern Set of humbucker pickups allows you to choose between two individual “voices” for each pickup.

This selection can be assigned to a switch and is fully reversible at any time. You can choose between an Alnico-voiced pickup and a Ceramic-voiced pickup, giving you the best of both worlds at the touch of a button (or flick of a switch). Also, the battery lasts for 200+ hours, which is not bad at all.

FAQs

Question: I don’t play Metal. Should I still consider buying Active Pickups?

Answer: It depends. I know I wouldn’t need them as a Blues player. Still, if I were to play something different, maybe some music with more tight and intricate lines, I might think about getting a set of Fishman Fluence pickups. I would go for their Classic set, not the Modern one I talked about. Pickups are just tools for a job, just like guitars, pedals, picks, etc…

Question: Can I play Metal with passive pickups?

Answer: Of course, you can. I’ve listened to some tremendous high-gain guitar tones obtained on an off-the-shelf Fender Telecaster! You have to realize that most of your sound comes from the amp and the speaker or their digital counterparts. Pickups, strings, and other “minor” components will only partially influence your overall tone. Maybe 15-20%. That’s a fact.

Question: Can I put active pickups on any guitar?

Answer: Generally, yes. The only thing is that you will have to find a way to accommodate the 9-volt battery in your guitar. Besides this minor adjustment, you should be good to go. Still, I recommend having a professional luthier do this work on your instruments. It requires soldering (or un-soldering), and I wouldn’t advise you to try that on your precious guitars if you have never done this before.

Conclusion

So, although I’m no Metal player by any means, I feel like I now have a better understanding of what active pickups are for and who they’re for. If you need extreme precision and cleanliness in your tone, with absolutely zero background hum, you might find that Active Pickups could be the right choice. If you need spotless consistency throughout the frequency range that your pickups give you, you will also find some benefits if you choose the active option.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy a bit of dirt and buzz in your guitar tone, you may not need active pickups. If you want your guitar sound to be “inconsistent” in the most natural and “historically correct” way, you will be happier with passive pickups. As I’ve already said, this is a matter of personal taste, need, and preference. Nothing more than that.