Active Pickups Explained (VS PASSIVE PICKUPS)

By Mike D. Schmitt

Updated on

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Hey there! Let’s talk about active pickups for guitars. You may have heard of active pickups before, but maybe you’re not exactly sure what they are or how they differ from passive pickups. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

Here are some key points to know about active pickups:

  • Active pickups require a power source, usually a 9-volt battery, to operate. This power source helps boost the signal from the guitar strings, resulting in a stronger and more consistent output.
  • Active pickups are known for their high output and clarity, making them popular in heavy metal and hard rock genres. They also tend to have a more “modern” sound compared to passive pickups.
  • Passive pickups, on the other hand, do not require a power source and rely solely on the magnetic field created by the guitar strings. They are generally known for a more “vintage” or classic sound.
  • Active pickups often have more advanced features such as EQ controls, allowing for even more tonal versatility.
  • Some of the most popular active pickup brands include EMG, Seymour Duncan, and Fishman. Each brand has their own unique design and sound, so it’s worth doing some research to find the best fit for your playing style and desired sound.

Now, let’s dive a bit deeper into the specifics of active pickups and how they can enhance your guitar playing experience.

Pros of Active Pickups:

  • High output: As mentioned earlier, active pickups are known for their high output and clarity. This means that your guitar will sound louder and more powerful, making it easier to cut through a mix in a band setting or when playing with distortion.
  • Consistency: Active pickups are designed to provide a consistent output, meaning that the sound won’t vary greatly depending on your playing style or the position of the pickups. This can be especially useful for recording or playing live shows where a consistent sound is important.
  • Noise reduction: The active circuitry in these pickups helps to reduce unwanted noise, such as hum or buzz. This means you can play at higher volumes without worrying about unwanted interference.
  • Advanced features: Some active pickups come with advanced features such as EQ controls or active/passive switching, allowing for even more tonal versatility.

Cons of Active Pickups:

  • Battery life: Since active pickups require a power source, you’ll need to remember to replace the battery periodically. While 9-volt batteries are relatively cheap and easy to find, forgetting to replace a dead battery can be a hassle.
  • Installation: Installing active pickups can be more complicated than passive pickups due to the extra wiring required for the active circuitry. This means you may need to enlist the help of a professional guitar technician to install them properly.
  • Cost: Active pickups are generally more expensive than passive pickups due to the added circuitry and advanced features. However, the increased cost may be worth it if you value the benefits of active pickups..

Who makes the best active pickups?

There are many great guitar pickup manufacturers, and the best one for you will depend on your personal preferences and the style of music you play. However, here are some of the most popular and well-respected active pickup brands:

  • EMG: EMG is one of the most well-known and respected brands of active pickups. They have been making pickups since the 1970s, and their pickups have been used by many famous guitarists across a wide range of genres.
  • Seymour Duncan: Seymour Duncan is another top brand of guitar pickups, and they offer a range of active pickups in addition to their more traditional passive pickups. Their pickups are known for their clarity and high output.
  • Fishman: Fishman is best known for their acoustic guitar pickups, but they also make a range of active pickups for electric guitars. Their pickups are designed to provide a natural and transparent tone, and they are popular among jazz and fusion guitarists.
  • DiMarzio: DiMarzio is another popular brand of guitar pickups, and they offer a range of active pickups designed for different styles of music. Their pickups are known for their high output and clarity.

Ultimately, the best active pickup for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. It’s always a good idea to try out different pickups and see how they sound with your guitar and playing style before making a purchase.

Advantages of using active pickups over passive pickups in guitars

Active pickups are a popular choice among guitarists, especially those who play heavy metal or hard rock music. Here are some advantages of using active pickups over passive pickups:

  • Increased output level: Active pickups use an onboard preamp, which boosts the signal and gives a stronger output level than passive pickups. This allows for more gain and distortion, which is ideal for heavy music genres.
  • Improved clarity and definition: Active pickups have a wider frequency response than passive pickups, which means they can capture more nuances in the sound. This leads to improved clarity and definition, making it easier to distinguish individual notes in a chord.
  • Low noise and interference: Since active pickups have a built-in preamp, they are less susceptible to picking up noise and interference from external sources such as lighting fixtures or other electronic devices. This makes them ideal for live performances and recording sessions.
  • Consistent tone across different setups: Active pickups are less affected by changes in the guitar’s tone and volume controls, making them more consistent in different playing situations. This is particularly useful for guitarists who use a lot of effects pedals or switch between clean and distorted sounds.

Disadvantages of using active pickups over passive pickups in guitars

While active pickups have many advantages, they also have some disadvantages that should be considered before making a decision to use them. Here are some of the potential drawbacks of using active pickups:

  • Higher cost: Active pickups are generally more expensive than passive pickups, due to the added cost of the preamp and other electronics. This can make them less accessible to beginners or hobbyists on a budget.
  • Battery-powered: Active pickups require a battery to power the preamp, which needs to be replaced periodically. Forgetting to replace the battery can result in a sudden loss of power and tone during a performance.
  • Less natural tone: Some guitarists prefer the natural, organic tone of passive pickups, which can sound warmer and more dynamic than the more clinical tone of active pickups.
  • Less versatile: While active pickups excel at high-gain, distorted sounds, they may not be as versatile as passive pickups for other genres or playing styles. This can limit their usefulness for guitarists who play a wide range of music.

Overall, active pickups can be a great choice for guitar players who want a high-output, consistent sound with advanced features. However, they may not be the best fit for everyone, and it’s important to consider the pros and cons before making a decision.

By Mike D. Schmitt

Mike is your 'Go-To-Guy' for all things music and pro audio. Engineer, musician, luthier, and quite possibly the biggest gear head on the planet. With over 30 years of industry experience in the studio, and on the road, we turn to Mike and his expertise for those hard hitting music and pro audio questions.

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