Why Do Pickups Matter?
Pickups are a key component of an electric guitar. In fact, they may be the most important element in how your instrument sounds. Pickups are small transducers that can transform vibrations from strings into electrical signals so the world can hear those incredible melodies you’ve been developing.
There are two types of pickups, active and passive. Both are made with magnets wrapped in copper wire.
Active pickups contain a battery-powered internal preamp that amplifies the signal from the strings. Passive pickups do not need any power source, they just pick up on the vibrations from the guitar string when it is put under pressure by a finger or pick.
Genius ideas flow from your brain to the guitar, to the pickups, to your insane pedal board, and then out of your amp where you blow everyone away.
The type of pickup you use can affect your tone significantly so it’s important to know what you’re getting before making a purchase!
You know what they say, guitars are just like people. You can’t expect them to behave perfectly if you don’t treat them with respect. The only thing worse than buying the wrong guitar is getting it home and hearing screeching tones that wake up your step dad.
Guitar players often change pickups because we are insane and on a never-ending quest for perfect tone. And unfortunately for guitar players everywhere, choosing pickups is just one part of the complicated equation that aggregates into a perfect playing guitar.
You have tried and failed to find an electric guitar pickup with perfect balance between highs and lows, cleans and overdrives, magnetized poles and bar magnets–not to mention buying dead or damaged pickups.
It’s time it’s time for a deep dive into the murky waters of active and passive pickups. There is an exciting world of magical sound out there if you’re ready to do some research.
Pickups are transducers built by wrapping many coils of copper wire around ceramic or alloy magnets.
When the magnets are close enough to the strings, the strings become magnetic as well. This disturbs the electromagnetic field causing current to flow through any nearby copper wires.
The resulting signals are then amplified through your tweed Fender. No additional power is needed, just plug-in. The amp is more important for passive pickups because it’s what boosts the sound.
While this basic technology hasn’t changed much in over 60 years, advancements have been implemented.
From using different types of magnets and wire gauges that provide a punchier tone, to placing humbuckers in single coil bobbins, these designs make life easier on guitarists who need more nuance and excitement than your average pickup can offer.
Active pickups have increased in popularity over the last 30 years. Widely famous for articulated distortion, these monsters are quite popular in the hard rock and metal genres.
Bass players love active pickups and use them more than guitarists use them. The ability to boost any frequency on the bass itself (because of the preamp) means immediate adjustments can be made to the entire frequency range.
Some people (not me) state that bassists want these convenient EQ adjustments because they allow the bass to cut through the mix and upstage the guitarists, who are cooler. Research shows that the only bassists cooler than guitarists are Jaco Pastorius and Bootsy Collins. And Victor Wooten.
Makers of active pickups include EMG, innovators back in the 1980s, stalwarts like DiMarzio & Seymour Duncan, and boutique builders like Fluence.
Active pickups are, like passives, made with insulated copper wire wound around magnets. Active pickups contain far fewer coils of wire, however, instead using a preamp powered by a 9V battery to boost output and frequencies to a functional level.
Converting a guitar from passive to active pickups, therefore, means you need to make room in the control cavity for a battery.
Fluence introduced a battery pack that is installed in place of a guitar’s back cover. This pack provides 250 hours of play time and is recharged via USB. We’re likely to see similar innovations from other manufacturers, as many guitarists are uncomfortable with carving a battery hole next to the volume pot.
Passive pickups generally possess subtler tones, and are highly versatile. They can be used for any genre of music. They are considered more organic and vintage sounding, with a wide dynamic range and expressive voicings.
Passive pickups, mostly single coils, can emit 60-cycle hum caused by electrical interference. The guitar cavities must be properly shielded to mitigate this output, which has plagued guitarists for decades.
If your guitar has passive pickups set too close to the strings, the strength of the magnetic pull can impact sustain and intonation due to the strings not vibrating as freely as they otherwise would.
Because active pickups have fewer wraps of copper wire around their magnets, the magnetic pull on the strings is lower than with passive pickups.
Active pickups’ higher output also makes them perfect for dealing with high gain. The natural (pre-preamp) output of actives is quite low, so they’re almost noiseless. These factors make active pickups especially good for metal, where heavy distortion and well-articulated notes combine.
If the output of a passive pickup is boosted by increasing the number of wire wraps, high end will be lost and the pickup will become increasingly muddy. Because the active pickup output is boosted without impacting tone, the reasons for metal players liking actives become apparent.
Active pickups are not just used for metal, however. David Gilmour used an active single coil (EMG SA) in his Strats. Are you implying he has cold, lifeless tone?
Fishman Fluence pickups are used for the full spectrum of genres. These use a system of stacked circuit boards instead of coiled wire, and the output is impressive. It’s a wild time to be alive.
Active And Passive Pickups On The Same Guitar
Yes, you can install active and passive pickups on the same guitar, but most people agree it’s not worth the effort and is, at best, an inconvenience. Do you really want a Telecaster pickup paired with an EMG? Insanity!
You need to be experienced with guitar wiring and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. You need to plan on using each pickup separately, each with its own volume and/or tone knobs.
Therefore, you need to install separate volume and tone pots for the pickup varietals at the correct ratings (250k or 500k for passive; 25k for active). The output difference between the pickups could be problematic and jarring.
You would need to install a stereo output jack. But active pickups already use the jack as a battery switch (which is why you should unplug your dormant active pickup guitars), so you would need to find another way to toggle the battery.
Combining the pickups in the middle position is out. I mean, you could do it, but it would probably sound crazy, like your brother when he steps on a Lego.
With the plethora of pickups available for you to install in these modern times, there is no need to drive yourself insane with this project. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment. It’s like Nike says, “just don’t do it.”
It’s no secret that guitarists have a lot of opinions about which type of pickup they prefer. I know this because I see the comments all over social media, in forums, and on my blog posts!
While it may not seem like such an important decision to make when you are just starting out as a guitarist or picking up your first electric guitar for the very first time, there are many factors to consider before settling on one style or another.
Both types of pickups offer advantages and disadvantages depending on what kind of music you want to play. What’s your favorite?