One the best ways to quickly give your guitar or bass an extra shot of power and control is to equip it with a set of active pickups. Popular with metal and hard rock guitarists, active pickups offer a number of benefits over traditional passive pickup designs, but they are not without their drawbacks. If you want to know what active pickups can do for your sound as well as a few of our own personal recommendations, don’t stop reading.
Up until the 1970s, pickup manufacturers were looking for how to create more powerful pickups that wouldn’t negatively affect tone. At the time, the technique used to increase the gain involved increasing the magnet size or the number of winding around the magnet, but this caused several problems. Oversized magnets affected string vibration and too many windings could pick up unwanted noise, both of which messed up the tone of the guitar.
It wasn’t until 1969 that Alembic founder, Ron Wickersham, discovered a method that would increase the output signal without increasing the unwanted attributes that came with the previous methods. His idea was basically creating a low-impedance pickup by decreasing the number of windings. This yielded a pickup that had less radiation and less unwanted noise, but it also meant weaker output. In order to combat this, Wickersham built a system that included an internal preamp built inside the instrument itself in order to boost the low-gain signal. And with this, the active pickup, as we know it, was born.
The biggest benefit of having an active pickup system is the stronger overall signal. As far as tone goes, this means a louder sound with plenty of bite, along with more sustain and greater dynamic range. Active pickup systems also typically include a form of built-in EQ that allows for much greater control over your overall sound. Aside from tone, active pickups do not create a lot of unwanted noise compared to passive pickups. Active pickups are also much less susceptible to hum and outside signal interference.
While active pickups offer a lot of advantages over passive pickups, they do have their own share of drawbacks. First and foremost, they require battery power in order to function, usually in the form of a 9-volt battery. They also lack that natural, organic tone that some players might not be willing to give up in exchange for added power and control. Active pickups might not be for everyone, but if an added power and control sound like something you’d be interested in, do yourself a favor and check out a few of our favorites below.
While there are a lot of benefits to active pickups, they are not without their drawbacks. So when Seymour Duncan got together with the Megadeth frontman, their mission was to create a pickup preamp that produces organic sound and has a feel of passive pickups with the high gain aggression of an active set, all without losing any clarity. Suffice it to say that the Livewire Active set delivers on the promise, as these are some of the smoothest active pickups around. These are high-gain pickups through and through, perfect for classic rock, garage, punk, thrash, nu-metal, death metal, hard rock and plenty of other high-energy styles. Best of all, this set comes with the necessary pots, mounting hardware, jack, and battery clip for easy installation.
While there are several techniques that guitarists employ to get different sounds from a single set of pickups, such as coil-tapping or switching, those sounds are still bound to a general type of tone. In other words, you can’t convert your pickups' tone from vintage to hot, or from hot to line-in quality clean, at least not without a noticeable loss in output level. With the Fluence line, Fishman did just that, offering pickups that feature two truly distinct and useful sounds in one setup. These are true multi-voiced pickups, bringing together classic, familiar tone colors along with brand new ones. Whether you're looking for humbuckers or single-coils, classic or modern voicings, even ceramic or alnico magnets, Fishman has a Fluence pickup set that's perfect for your electric. Other key features include a noise-free operation, virtually non-existent signal degradation (even with cables over 50-feet long) and over 200 hours of continuous use on a single 9v battery.
The mix of vintage-inspired sound and EMG’s uncanny knowledge of modern active pickups make the 57 Bridge and 66 Neck a very unique set of humbuckers. One of the first things you’ll notice about this pickup combination is just how well it reacts to picking dynamics as well as the sensitivity of the volume knob, specifically in its eerily biting and PAF-like response. Sure, the 57 and 66 aren’t as smooth as some other PAF reproductions but what you lose in smoothness you get back in its excellent dynamics. Although this combo’s slight loss of fidelity and dynamics when played under medium to heavy gain might be a drawback for some of EMG’s typical fan base, guitarists looking for a whole new refresh on what a modern PAF tone can be will absolutely love the detail and clarity.
One of the most popular pickups in hard rock, the EMG 81, is an obvious choice for any guitarist looking for a high-quality active humbucker. While this pickup was originally designed to work with lead guitarists in mind, the 81 works amazingly well for bands with just one guitar player, as it packs plenty of punch, has great sustain during overdrive and features a distinctive fat chunky tone that works perfectly for hard rock rhythms. As an active pickup, the 81 works best with an amp that can convey the high output of the signal, although you won’t have to worry about latent noise as it is pretty much as noiseless as it gets; no buzz, no humming – just pure fat rhythms and amazingly sustained leads, all with a smooth fade while switching pickups selectors. For a classic combo, we highly recommend pairing up this bad boy with the EMG 85.
These pickups feature an old-school metal sound that takes advantage of the power of an active pickup system. You’ll get plenty of compressed but powerful tones complete with that aggressive deep chunky sound that older metal is known for. Their added humbucking design means less noise and more pure tone. The biggest difference between these and the EMG 81 is that they have a far wider range of output signals, meaning higher highs and lower lows, which can be good or bad depending on your preference. Those on the side of the blackouts dislike the overly compressed tone of the EMGs while the other side of the fence complains about the excessive bass on the Duncans. Either way, both make for a solid choice as a metal guitar pickup.
While active guitar pickups might not be for everyone, players that love the thought of a powerful, high-gain sound with greater dynamic range and more control should definitely make the jump. Have a question about the pieces above or any other gear we have? Don’t hesitate to chat with one of our friendly ProAudioLand pros by using the live chat feature below or you can call our toll-free line at 1 877-671-2200.