It’s easy to get confused when checking out the different types of pickups. Today we take a look at active pickups, and how they work.
There are tons of different types of pickups out there. There are all kinds of different models, price points, and companies. The truth is, they all definitely make different sounds, and you want to make sure that your pickups are suited for whatever sound you are going for. Some people will tell you that pickups aren’t that important to your tone, but I tend to disagree.
For example, I probably wouldn’t choose Fishman Fluence Modern pickups to play Country music. Sure, you could technically use them for anything you want, but almost every pickup has a specific use and function. For example, Fishman Fluence Modern are ceramic-based pickups made for handling distortion, making them not the first choice for Country guitar playing.
Active pickups have become synonymous with metal these days, and I can see why they are chosen over passive pickups. Companies like EMG and Seymour Duncan have tailored the design of their active pickup towards Metal, and Hard Rock. Even though, active pickups were originally made for…believe it or not, JAZZ! There were also used for acoustic guitars too!
So What Are Active Pickups?
Active pickups use additional circuitry and/or a separate preamp to filter, attenuate, or boost the guitar signal. Active pickups usually rely on an external power source, like a 9 Volt battery to power the active preamp. The active preamp can be as simple as a gain boost, or as complex as completely changing the pickup’s frequency. Because of bar magnet construction, low output, and built-in preamps, most active pickups are noiseless by nature.
The use of the bar magnet in an active pickup usually makes the output relatively low, something you would not expect for a high gain pickup. The extra “oomph” is added by the preamp powered by the battery. This is why they are usually noiseless and can be adjusted closer to the strings. While the magnetic pull of a passive pickup can affect the way your strings behave, actives do not have the same pull.
So basically, and active pickup can completely change the sound of your whole rig. Something like a Seymour Duncan Blackout hits the gain stage of your amp much harder than a passive pickup and causes it to distort smoother, and faster. I have used EMG for years, and I am used to having to turn the gain way down on my amp.
Active pickups really started showing up in the ’80s and were made popular by EMG. Everyone from David Gilmour to Slayer started using them, for different reasons. But the general consensus behind using active pickups over passive is pretty universal. Actives have some great advantages:
- Noiseless sound: Less feedback, and overall cleaner tones.
- Handles high gain tones well, and keeps a clear signal even with tons of distortion.
- Actives are consistent, regardless of the guitar model.
Being noiseless in nature can be both a blessing and a curse. I like active pickups for the noiseless features and this is especially true in the studio where a bad ground wire anywhere in the room can cause your guitar to hum while recording. At the same time, this lack of noise means it’s much harder to get your guitar to feedback, even at high volumes/gain. Considering some guitarists use feedback to their advantage, this can be a hard pass for lots of players.
Whether you play a Les Paul, or a Flying V… most actives are going to sound the same no matter what guitar you put them in. The preamp handles your tone, while passive pickups rely more on the wood and construction of a guitar to achieve a specific tone. I have had an EMG 81 pickups in 3 totally different types of guitars, and they all sound relatively the same. But this consistency can also seem like a disadvantage.
Some guitarists think that active pickups are “soulless” or “sterile” sounding because they are so consistent. This of course, is a matter of opinion, and you mostly hear this rhetoric from “guitar purists”. Likewise, some guitarists would rather not have to deal with a battery in their guitar. Most active pickups are powered with a 9 volt battery, and without any power going into the pickup… you get no sound. So it’s important if you’re gigging, to always have batteries handy.
Much like an EMG, it can be hard to get crystal clean tones from Blackouts. But that is because these are designed for handling a lot of gain and distortion and boosting the distortion way past what your amp is capable of. Ideal for Metalcore, Nu-Metal, Extreme Metal, and Classic Metal
Are Active Pickups For You?
This is going to depend completely on your style and situation. I mean, I can tell you why I personally like active pickups for a lot of applications. I have relied on them for years. But that’s the cool thing about guitar, everyone is very different. No matter what kind of tone you are chasing in your head, there is a pickup out there somewhere that will help you get that tone.
For me, that usually means active pickups. I have a guitar that has passive pickups in it as well, and I use it pretty often to get different tones when the actives just aren’t cutting it. But 8/10 times, I prefer actives. Why?
I like that I have a “roadmap” in my head of what my guitar sounds like through a myriad of tonally different amplifiers. Because of the active pickup’s consistency, I know what it will sound like through a Mesa, and Orange, or a Marshall. I also have grown to really love recording with active pickups, as I never have any noise in my signal that has to be edited out later. When I used to play live gigs, I always knew that my signal chain would be clear. To me, these features are invaluable.
The best way to find out what you like is to experiment. I know people that are die-hard active fans and would never play anything else. I also know some guitarists that only use passive pickups, and would never give an active the time of day. I think the best answer is probably in the middle… everything has an application. It’s up to you to create with it!