There are two basic types of electric guitar pickups: active and passive. While most guitarists have a good idea of how passive pickups sound and work, there’s a lot of misinformation around about active pickups.
It’s common to see online debates about active vs passive pickups with devoted guitarists on both sides. Some guitarists hate active pickups and some hate passive pickups. Guitarists can be quick to hate something, so it should be no surprise that there’s a lot of angry forum threads about pickups.
The goal of this guide is to give you a solid understanding of what active pickups are, how they compare against passive pickups, and how to figure out which one is right for you.
Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups
Let’s start by comparing active and passive guitar pickups. Having a basic understanding of how they work helps you identify them in guitars. Understanding how active and passive pickups work also explains why they produce different tones.
Passive guitar pickups are the most common type of pickup on electric guitars. Passive pickups are built by wrapping coils of copper wire around a magnet. When your guitar string vibrates next to the pickup, the vibration disrupts the magnetic field and turns into an electric signal.
Some passive pickups produce a high output while others produce a low output. The type of magnets used and the number of windings of the copper wire impacts the end tone you hear.
Passive pickups also have a huge dynamic range. This means you can roll your guitar’s volume knob down and hear a warm and mellow tone, then crank the volume up for a biting and powerful tone.
A big downside of passive pickups is that they’re sensitive to interference. The humming in passive single-coil pickups can be extreme, but even passive humbuckers can produce hum or noise. While modern humbuckers are really good at preventing hum, they’re not immune to interference.
This is why feedback can be an issue with guitarists who use passive pickups. With high volume and gain, the sensitive passive pickups can get caught in a feedback loop.
Active pickups are far less common on electric guitars (however they’re extremely common in bass guitars). Active pickups are still built using coils of wire around a magnet, but they use far fewer windings. The signal then goes through a built-in preamp that boosts the signal level and applies EQ and filters on the signal.
Think of active pickups as a combination of a pickup and a booster pedal wrapped into one housing.
The low wire windings in an active pickup produce a very low output. While that might seem bad at first, it means the pickup is far less sensitive to interference. Less output means less interference.
You’re far less likely to get any hum, interference, or feedback with active pickups.
While an active pickup starts off with a low output signal, the preamp boosts it. Active pickups are usually louder than passive pickups for this reason.
This boosting also compresses the signal, which means you end up with less dynamic range than a passive pickup. Some guitarists hate the way active pickups compress the signal, while other guitarists love it.
Depending on the style of music you play, it can be a good or bad thing to have. If you’ve ever used a compressor pedal before, it should give you a rough idea of what to expect with active pickups.
While a compressor pedal gives you the flexibility to play around with the settings, active pickups have been dialed into a specific setting by the manufacturer.
Why the rest of your rig matters
Ever listened to a blind test on YouTube and was surprised by how similar the active and passive pickups were? Then when you compared a few sets in a guitar store it was obvious how different they were?
The rest of your guitar rig makes a big difference in your tone. It’s possible to tweak an amp to make an active pickup sound almost identical to a passive pickup.
We know that an active pickup is basically a low-output passive pickup with a booster and EQ, so with the right gear, we can make any passive pickup sound like an active pickup.
There are two lessons here:
First, take YouTube listening tests with a grain of salt. While some of them were created to genuinely compare different options, many are manipulated based on the YouTuber’s own biases. So if the YouTuber hates active pickups, he will make them sound like trash. If he hates passive pickups, he’ll make them sound like trash.
Second, make sure the rest of your guitar rig compliments the type of pickups you use. Your entire rig should all work together to bring you towards the tone you want.
If you’re unhappy with your current pickups, before you look at ‘upgrading’ them, take a closer look at how you’re using the rest of your gear. You might be surprised by how tweaking a few dials on your amp suddenly brings new life to your pickups.
Active vs passive pickups playing metal
A good example of how the rest of your rig needs to match your pickups is when playing metal.
With metal, we aim to have a high output tone that gives a nice tight and punchy feel when playing riffs. Let’s look at how the type of pickups should influence the way you set your amp.
Passive pickups generally have a lower output than active pickups. To compensate for their lower output, we tend to turn the gain up higher on an amp. This helps drive the output higher and give us that punchy tone we’re looking for.
Active pickups already have a very high output. So if we connect a guitar with active pickups to an amp with a high gain setting, it will sound like trash. Mixing high output pickups with high output amp produces a messy tone that’s overly compressed and mushy.
Imagine two distortion pedals and cranking both of them to maximum gain. The signal will be a mess. But if the first pedal is cranked to full, you can still achieve great tones by adjusting the second pedal to work with it. It’s the same with pickups and your amp.
The solution with active pickups is to turn the gain down on the amp. The pickups already give us a high output, so by turning the gain down on the amp we end up with a punchier tone.
In short, your amp’s settings need to compliment your pickups. If you have high output pickups, use lower gain on the amp. If you have low output pickups, use higher gain on the amp to compensate.
If you do play metal, check out this guide for advice on some great guitar pedals for metal.
Active Pickups Battery
An active pickup’s built-in preamp is powered by a battery installed in the guitar. Seeing a battery compartment on the back of a guitar is the easiest way to tell if a guitar uses an active pickup.
Active guitar pickups use 9V batteries. You can use rechargeable 9V batteries or standard disposable batteries and both will work fine.
The battery life with active pickups is surprisingly long. How long your battery will last depends on how often you play, whether you leave your guitar plugged in all the time, and the type of battery you use.
To give you a basic idea, you should get anywhere from 1000 – 4000 hours of battery life in a guitar with active pickups.
Rechargeable 9V batteries can be handy if you use active pickups as well as guitar pedals. Find out about using rechargeable batteries in this guide.
Installing Active Pickups on a Passive Guitar
If you wanted to install an active pickup on your guitar that currently uses passive pickups, the main thing you need to consider is where the battery will go.
The main option is to use a router and create a cavity to install the battery. This is the option most guitarists take when they want to install active pickups.
If you’re hesitant about permanently creating a new cavity in your guitar, grab a 9V battery and see whether it will fit in the existing cavities.
You may find that your tremolo cavity or the cavity behind the volume and tone knobs give you just enough room to safely store the battery. This gives you a chance of testing out active pickups in your guitar. You can always go back to passive pickups and not have to worry about an extra cavity in your guitar.
Many guitars have tight cavities that have no room for a battery, but you might get lucky and have one with just enough room.
Active Pickup Pros and Cons
Here are some basic pros and cons for active pickups to give you a better idea whether they’re right for you.
Active pickup pros:
- No hum or interference in your tone
- Generally more sustain than passive pickups
- High-output signal may suit some guitarists
- Crystal clear clean tone
- You may prefer the tone compared to passive pickups
Active pickup cons:
- Runs on batteries
- May need to add a cavity to your guitar to change to active pickups
- Less dynamic range
- The volume knob on your guitar won’t clean up your tone as it does with passive pickups
- You may not like the tone compared to passive pickups
The real answer is that it depends on your preference for tone. There’s no way to know whether active pickups are right for you until you try them out and hear them for yourself.
Best Active Guitar Pickups
While there are countless passive pickups across brands to compare, active pickups are fairly limited.
When most guitarists think of active pickups, they immediately think of EMG. EMG is the most popular producer of active pickups and has been making them since the 70s. But it’s worth mentioning that Seymour Duncan also produces some great active pickup options.
EMG has a lot of options when it comes to active pickups. In addition to the wide range of humbuckers, you can even get active pickups to replace your single-coils, P-90s, or even 7-8-9 string guitars.
I’m not going to try and pick the best active pickups from EMG because there are so many different models so suit different guitarists. Instead, I’ll mention the two most popular EMG options to check out as your starting point, then you can continue looking at different EMG options.
Here are some of the most popular active pickups available today from both EMG and Seymour Duncan:
EMG 85 & EMG 81
EMG’s 85 and 81 active pickups are possibly the most well-known active pickups out there. If you see a guitar sold with active pickups, the chances are they will be 85s.
EMG 85s are typically installed in the bridge position as their voicing tends to suit that position. EMG 81s are usually installed in the neck position to balance out the tone.
These pickups come in a good variety of cap colors as shown below, so you can match your pickups to the style of your guitar.
The 85/81 combination is incredibly popular and provides the classic tone most people think of when they think of active pickups.
Solderless install: It’s also worth mentioning that EMG sells their active pickup sets with a solderless install system. This means if you remove your current pickups and replace it with EMG’s solderless system, you’ll find it a breeze to install and change pickups in the future to different EMG models.
As you can see from the above photo, installing new EMGs is as simple as connecting the connectors together. Check out the different EMG solderless wiring kits here.
EMG JH James Hetfield Signature
The EMG JH pickups are almost as popular as the EMG 85 & 81s. These pickups were created to sound like the passive pickups James was previously using while keeping the benefits of an active pickup.
If you’ve heard Metallica live, you’ve heard these pickups in action. They give the attack and high output you would expect from an active pickup and a solid low end in the neck position.
The above options show the different caps you can choose to match the style of your guitar.
While there are other signature EMG models worth checking out, a good starting point is with the James Hetfield model.
Seymour Duncan Blackouts
If you’re looking at active pickups, it’s a good idea to have a listen to Seymour Duncan’s Blackout range before you make your mind up.
Rather than merely copy what EMG have done with their active pickups, Seymour Duncan tries to provide something completely different in tone.
The Blackout pickups attempt to keep the natural tone you would expect from a passive pickup while providing the clarity and punch well-known in active pickups.
There are a few options available in their Blackouts range including signature models from Jeff Loomis and Mick Thompson.
There are also 7 string versions available in the basic Blackout, Jeff Loomis, Mick Thompson, and Dino Cazares models. There are even 8 string models available in the basic Blackout model.
Seymour Duncan Duality
The Duality pickups by Seymour Duncan are interesting because they aim to find a middle-ground between active and passive pickups.
Compared against typical active pickups, these pickups sound closer to what you would expect from a passive pickup, with the clarity and punchiness of an active pickup.
If you’ve tried a few active pickups before and didn’t like what you heard, it’s worth seeing how the Duality pickups fit with you. This type of pickup may suit you if you don’t always play hard styles of music. Being able to also get passive-like tones on top of a tight metal tone can add a lot of versatility to your guitar.
Seymour Duncan LiveWire II Classic
If you’re looking for something vintage sounding, there is one active option worth checking out.
The LiveWire II is an interesting active pickup because it attempts to produce a P.A.F voicing. P.A.F stands for ‘Patent Applied For’ and is the phrase ‘PAF voiced’ is typically used when describing vintage Gibson pickups from the 50s.
The below photo shows the ‘Patent Applied For’ stamp on the back of a vintage Gibson pickup:
While there are countless passive pickups that do a fantastic job of giving you a vintage tone, it’s interesting to hear a vintage-styled tone coming from a set of active pickups without having any hum or interference that plague actual vintage pickups.
If you’re reading this article you probably aren’t looking for vintage tones, but if you see one of these pickups on a guitar, try it out. It might change the way you think of active pickups.
Active Pickups FAQs
Are all EMG pickups active?
No, not all EMG pickups are active. While EMG are popular for their active pickups, they also produce passive pickups such as the EMG-HZ series. The easiest way to tell if a pickup is active or passive is to check if there is a battery compartment. Active pickups use 9V batteries, so if the pickup comes with a battery compartment, it is active.
Are Fishman Fluence Pickups Active?
Fishman Fluence pickups are a new type of pickup that doesn’t quite fit the active pickup label. While they do offer some of the benefits you only get with active pickups, they’re also able to get tones similar to what you hear in passive pickups.
The reason Fishman Fluence pickups shouldn’t be thought of as active pickups is that they’re not wire-wound like a typical active pickup. They use a completely different type of technology than wire wrapped around magnets.
Are active pickups louder than passive?
Active pickups produce a higher output due to their inbuilt preamp. Active pickups start with a low output, then the preamp boosts the signal. This makes a louder pickup than most passive pickups. The preamp also slightly compresses the signal, which adds to the perceived loudness.
Some passive pickups are made in a way that produces a higher output than most active pickups, but generally speaking, most active pickups are louder than passive pickups.
What are the best pickups for metal?
The best type of pickups for metal are humbuckers. Both active and passive pickups can be used for metal with great results. The best pickups for metal depends on what type of tone you want. A good starting point is to look at the types of pickups your favorite metal guitarists use. From there, you can figure out whether you want passive or active pickups.
Are active or passive pickups better?
The best type of pickup depends on what you play and what you want in your tone. In any style, there will be some guitarists who prefer active pickups and some prefer passive pickups. Some styles may lean towards one type of pickup over the other, but there are always people trying different options.
The best way to find whether active or passive pickups are better for you is to try them out and compare them.
Do active pickups need batteries?
Yes, active pickups need 9V batteries to work. Active pickups have an inbuilt preamp, which requires power to run. If you try to use active pickups without a battery, you won’t get any signal at all.
How long do EMG pickups last?
A typical 9V battery will last around 3000 hours in an active pickup before the voltage drops enough for the signal to cut out. If you have two active pickups in your guitar, you can expect this to drop to around 1500 hours.
The actual battery life depends on the mAH (milliamp hours) rating of the battery and how much power the pickup draws.
You will know when your battery is near the end of its life when you start hearing strange distortion when you pick the strings. This means the battery’s voltage is dropping to the point where the circuit cannot run correctly.
Keeping your guitar unplugged when you’re not using it is an easy way to extend battery life. Active pickups turn on when your guitar is plugged in, so if you leave your guitar plugged in all the time, you can expect your battery to run out quickly.
Do active pickups need a preamp?
Active pickups have an inbuilt preamp too boost and filter the signal. This means you don’t need an external preamp to use active pickups.
Can you put passive pickups in an active guitar?
If you have a guitar with active pickups and you want to replace them with passive pickups, you will need to do some rewiring to make the switch. You basically need to rewire the guitar from scratch including the pots and jack. It isn’t as simple as dropping passive pickups in – it won’t work.
If you want to have a guitar with both passive and active pickups, few guitarists have the electronics knowledge to do this properly. While it is technically possible to put passive pickups in a guitar with an active pickup, it isn’t easy to achieve. A lot of modifications would be required to let the two pickups work together.