The Best Active Guitar Pickups
Best Active Pickups
Are you tired of the same old humbucking pickups? Have you played every guitar in your local music store and found nothing that can satisfy your hunger for tone? Have you shredded your way through the entire passive pickup market?
You’re not alone. It’s frustrating to play a nice guitar only to discover the pickups are garbage.
The world is saturated with passives, but there’s another option: active pickups. This article explores what makes my choice of the best actives so great and why it’s time for them to get more respect!
I’ve played guitar for over 20 years, and I’ve handled a wide array of pickups from cat turds to the rarest gems. I’ve really gotten into active pickups recently; there are some exciting developments occurring with the technology (See Fishman Fluence).
I’m going to discuss how the best actives operate, compare detailed technical specifications, and then present some pickup demos.
What Are Active Pickups?
Here’s my article on the differences between passive and active pickups. There is a surprising amount of information to explore!
Actives are sometimes criticized for sounding cold and flat, but they may be the best option if you’re looking to reduce noise and increase gain. Actives contain a preamp circuit that requires power (9V battery) to boost output.
This allows the signal to stay strong for longer than it would with passive pickups because the sound is amplified as soon as it leaves the guitar, rather than needing to be sent through an amplifier first.
Actives have a lower coil count than passive pickups, meaning fewer wraps of wire prevent unwanted noise like hums and electrical static from being transmitted through your guitar’s signal chain.
James Hetfield, Zakk Wylde, Paul Gilbert, and Mick Thomson are known for playing actives.
Most actives are humbuckers, but you can find nice single coil pickups.
Consistency is where actives really shine. Whether you’re dealing with extended cable runs or an unnecessarily massive pedal board, you won’t lose frequency response or deal with weird humming when someone turns on a light.
Actives require a stereo output jack, which acts as an on/off switch for the battery. Remember to unplug your guitar before you begin your insane, backstage Motley Crue debauchery.
The battery doesn’t drain much current, so you should get at least 1,000 hours of playtime as long as you unplug after the show.
The first step in finding the perfect active pickup is deciding what kind of sound you want – a metal pickup? Do you want something bright or dark? Do you need a lot of sustain? Is the best pickup hot-rodded?
Once you’ve narrowed down the type of sound you’re going for, you can find some exciting options here for your Sum 41 tribute band.
Actives are popular for their consistent high output and tone, reducing the impact of variables such as tonewood and choice of magnets. More brands are starting to make these pickups. Bare Knuckle is getting in on the action, and Seymour Duncan continues to release some impressive options.
But some players find that active models produce a more compressed sound, which can be great if you’re looking for an aggressive tone but also present a narrower dynamic range than some passive pickups.
If you want to adjust your output, change the height of your pickups. Lowering the pickups will reduce output. You can also just reduce volume. Unlike with passive pickups, volume adjustments do not affect tone with actives.
Compare prices on the best guitar pickups below to determine the amount of money you need to borrow from your step-sister.
We’re not discussing this active pickup!
|PICKUP (CLICK TO CHECK PRICE)||RESONANT FREQUENCY||MAGNETS||MATT’S THOUGHTS|
|EMG 57||2.11 kHz||ALNICO V||Solderless installation • PAF tone coupled with powerful active high output • This bridge position pickup is paired with an EMG 66 as the neck pickup. • Dynamic range seems to decrease as gain increases, so not the best electric guitar pickups for metal tones. • Even and clear, like your mother-in-law when she’s sober. • Tight, crisp bottom end.|
|EMG 66||1.61 kHz||ALNICO V AND CERAMIC||Bassy, high output pickups. Balances well with a 57 in the bridge. • Versatile. Roll off the volume a bit and these sound like low-wind passive pickups. • The least hard rock and metal of the EMG sets. You can play classic rock! • If you’re unsure about trying active pickups, this is a good introductory pickup set with smoother, milder dynamics.|
|EMG 81||2 kHz||CERAMIC/STEEL||Normally used as the bridge pickup in a set with EMG 85. • 3,000 hour battery life. • Designed for high gain lead playing (also called shredding). • Kirk Hammett goes buck wild and uses two EMG 81s on some of his guitars. • Normally used for metal guitar. Output so high you’re unlikely to need an external preamp.|
|EMG 85||1.87 kHz||ALNICO V||Often paired with an EMG 81 in the bridge, but balanced enough to work well with most humbucker pickups. • Opens headroom allowing for more complex tones. • Generally considered a rhythm electric guitar pickup, which is why it’s designed to pair with the EMG 81. • Creamy super distortion. I hear Santana sometimes. Old Santana, not Smooth. • More low-end than mids. The 81 can cut through the mix while the 85 provides balance.|
|EMG HETFIELD||2.11/1.61 kHz||ALNICO V||This set is one of the best pickups for metal guitar and must be used to play metal! • Taller than most pickups, so they sit closer to the strings. This gives you insane output, attack, and high gain. • The quality of these pickups comes through in how controlled they are. You’re getting a wall of sound for sure, but they still sound clean and balanced. • Enter Sandman? More like Enter Toneman! • Nice job by EMG bringing some passive pickup warmth to this product.|
|EMG WYLDE||1.63/1.87 kHz||CERAMIC/STEEL AND ALNICO||A Tweaked 81/85 set that nails Mr. Wylde’s tone! Extended shafts allow for installation on Les Paul-style guitars. These shafts are too long for some guitars, but EMG can accommodate you if this is the case. These are definitely one of the best pickups for metal, but rolling the volume off to 60% unleashes some nice blues sounds. • If you like to chug, the intense super distortion produced by this set is intense. I’m not talking about chugging beverages, but you probably knew that. This pickup can handle the heaviest shit you’ve got. Even death metal has nice string articulation!|
|FISHMAN CLASSIC||3 Voices: Bridge: Voice 1: 2.25 kHz / Voice 2: 1.6 kHz / Voice 3: 4 kHz Neck: Voice 1: 2.6 kHz / Voice 2: 4.5 kHz, 350 Hz / Voice 3: 5 kHz||ALNICO V||Crazy Technology Alert: these are unique and very interesting. Instead of winding insulated copper wire around magnets, Fishman prints coils of wire on circuit boards and layers them. This means that each pickup is exactly the same, and there’s more control over the sound. • The classics have three voices: PAF, clean chime, and vintage single coils (neck) and PAF, hot rod, and overwound single coils (bridge). The switch to change voices can be added to a push-pull pot. • These either need a 9V battery to power the preamp or a rechargeable battery pack that is a direct-fit replacement for a Strat’s back cover (provides 250 hours of playtime for ~$70).|
|FISHMAN MODERN||Alnico (Usually Neck): Voice 1: 630 Hz / Voice 2: 550 Hz, 8 kHz Ceramic (Usually Bridge): Voice 1: 720 Hz Voice 2: 1.8 kHz||ALNICO V AND CERAMIC||These are the heavier Fishman Fluence set, although the underlying technology is the same as the Classics. • Each pickup has two voices, as well: modern active metal and fluid clean (neck) and modern active metal and hot rod (bridge). • Adjusting volume has no effect on the pickups’ tone. • Two layers of circuit boards are stacked with reversed coil direction, meaning these pups are silent as your niece after her fourth glass of wine. • Give these a shot if you’re not afraid of change.|
|SEYMOUR DUNCAN BLACKOUTS||750 Hz / 530 Hz (Neck/Bridge)||ALNICO V AND CERAMIC||Distinct tonal difference between neck and bridge. • Intense; definitely some of the best pickups for metal players. Crispy and crunchy. • Wild pinch harmonics with stellar sustain. • This is not the same kind of blackout your stepdad deals with after Packers games. • Not as precise as EMGs, but warmer with more passive qualities.|
|SEYMOUR DUNCAN EMTY THOMSON||780 Hz / Hz 610 (Neck/Bridge)||ALNICO V AND CERAMIC||I don’t listen to Slipknot, but I love how easily these produce the heaviest tones. • Tighter bottom than me after my Peloton purchase. • Smooth highs, not the insane shrieking you might expect. • The best for low tunings. The lows still retain nice articulation.|
The best actives are ones that have a great tone, but also provide versatility. These pickups offer something for everyone and will help you make the most of your guitar playing experience.
The technology is improving and the prices are declining, so it’s time to act. Are you too good to stick a battery in your guitar? No? Then click the links in the above table and purchase a nice treat.
Whether you’re looking to create more brilliant music or just want better clarity when soloing, these pickups can do it all. Being active isn’t just important related to cardiovascular exercise. Spread your wings and fly (not too close to the sun) to the majestic world of active pickups.
Check out these demos: