Continuing on my topics of debate in the guitar world, I thought this week I would talk a little bit about pickups. For those of you who don’t know, pickups are those square boxy things towards the bridge of the guitar (that would be the part where you strum the strings). Compared to what amp you decide to you, pickups don’t matter nearly as much when it comes to the tone you’re going after. Amps have a much greater influence over that, but pickups can still effect certain aspects of your sound. For this post though, I will be specifically focusing on a long and heated debate in the guitar community regarding active versus passive.
First, you have to know how the different pickups work. Basically, guitar pickups work as a channel from the strings of the guitar, to your amp, and through your speakers. When you strum a string on your guitar, the pickup “picks up” the vibrations and electronically transfers them to your amplifier. Inside the pick up is a bar magnet wrapped with a lot of fine wire, which grabs the signal. This is pretty much the definition of a passive pickup. I’m not going to go too much into exactly how it all works from a technical standpoint, but if you would like to read more into that you can check out this link.
To put the difference between active and passive pickups simply, actives act in a similar way to the passives but with a nine volt battery. That means that active pickups require there to be room in the body of the guitar to have a nine volt battery compartment. When your pickup runs out of juice, you have to replace it.
Now when it comes to this big debate over which one is best, it really comes down to personal preference. Arguments still arise anyway, with one side saying actives have too much output and sound artificial, and the other saying passive pickups don’t have enough output and bite. The guys that prefer passives over actives like the dynamic range they provide. They can be great with any genre of music really, and have a real character to them. People that tend to lean towards the active side, are most likely metal heads like myself. The high output and “hot” signal you get from them is perfect for a lot of distortion. While they may not have the range passives do, I still believe that they can be used for other genres as well.
I have owned both passive and active pickups, and personally think both are great, but I still prefer actives. The entirety of my playing is old school thrash metal like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Testament. Every one of those bands use actives. Interestingly enough, the pickups I have in my guitar at the moment are James Hetfield’s signature EMG set which were made to have the dynamic of passives and the output of actives. In my opinion, they’re the greatest pickups for metal I’ve ever heard and the modified EMG 61 in the neck is perfect for clean bluesy stuff.
To close up, this debate over what pickup is best is pretty pointless. Each guitarists is going to like something different, and you shouldn’t care what people think of your tone as long as you like it.
Seymour Duncan Passive Pickups