Electric Guitar Pickups 101 - Active Pickups

Electric Guitar Pickups 101 - Active Pickups

Before starting, let me congratulate you for making it this far. We’ve come to the final leg of our journey, and, by now, you must be an expert in electric guitar and bass pickups.

If this is the first article you read in this series, please check out the previous ones:

  1. Electric Guitar Pickups 101 - The Basics
  2. Electric Guitar Pickups 101 - Single Coils & Humbuckers
  3. Electric Guitar Pickups 101: P90s, Mini-humbuckers, and Hybrid Configurations

In this fourth and final part of the journey, we’ll talk about active pickups and unveil everything you need to know about them from installation tips to tone, feel, and best uses.

Are you thinking about upgrading your guitar’s pickups? Well, read on and find out if you should get an active set or remain in the passive realm of guitar electronics.

Talk about Active Pickups

It all started in 1976 when Rob Turner founded an electric guitar pickup company that would revolutionize the market entirely. The name rings a bell to most bass and guitar players worldwide, EMG.

In case you’re wondering, it stands for Electro Magnetic Generator.
Based in Santa Rosa, California, Turner’s company started making active pickups to allow guitarists to add more gain to their instruments without sounding muddy or losing definition.

Although the idea was revolutionary, the initial years of EMG were spent on the outskirts of the music business. That was until 1981 when Steinberger (is there anything more ‘80s than headless guitars?) made them standard for all their instruments.

This was the first push EMG got but not the only one. Steve Lukather, Toto’s virtuoso guitarist started playing with them as well as David Gilmour who even got his own signature set.

The final push into the mainstream came from one of the biggest (if not the biggest) metal bands in the world, Metallica. Yes, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield use these active pickups exclusively on their axes.
Later, Zakk Wylde, Les Claypool, and many other artists embraced this technology and made EMG one of the biggest electric guitar and bass pickup companies in the world.

How Do Active Pickups Work?

Active guitar pickups work like passive pickups with an active preamp. Yes, if you were to peel off the black cover of an active pickup, what you would find is a very familiar design, coil wire, and magnets.

The key to their sound is that the coils are wrapped in very little copper wire, and thus, generate a very weak signal. Indeed, the pickup’s original signal is weaker than even the lowest-output passive pickup.

This weak signal is then taken to an active preamp (this is where the 9-volt battery comes into play) that shapes tone and boosts volume. As a result, what you have is a pickup that sounds tight and compressed with a very low noise floor. This is a low-impedance signal. In other words, it’s got low voltage at a high current.

Finally, when you piece it all together, the resulting sound is usually punchier, hotter than most passive electric guitar pickups, but much quieter in terms of noise.

Beware of The Learning Curve

Now that the technical side of the active pickups is down, it’s time to get into the player perspective. Here, I have to say, from guitarist to guitarist: beware. Yes, there’s a learning curve attached to the move from passive to active electric guitar or bass pickups.

Let me summarize it for you:

• Transparency – Active pickups are transparent and stay that way even in the highest-gain settings. Well, especially in those scenarios. Therefore, they will make you shine if you play accurately but will also make your mistakes scream out loud. You will have to re-learn a part or two, trust me.

• Response – Active electric guitar pickups react very differently to pick attack. Yes, if you have ever played live with an active set, you’ll know that everything feels more compressed, and dynamics are a little harder to come by.

• They require a Battery – If you’re not used to active guitar pickups there are two things you need to consider. Firstly, if your battery is not dead but running low, then your tone will change. Secondly, battery usage is triggered when the guitar is plugged in, so don’t leave it with a cable on the stand for the night.

Boosting Frequencies

Do you know what the tone controls on a guitar with passive electric guitar pickups do? Well, it’s very easy, they can cut frequencies out of the spectrum. Well, since active guitar pickups require an active EQ in the process, they can also boost frequencies.

This is very common in bass guitars. For example, if you’ve ever played a Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass or an Ibanez with an active pickup set, you can clearly feel a middle point in the tone-shaping knobs. That’s zero. Turning it clockwise boosts the signal and doing the opposite cuts it.

A passive bass can only attenuate, thus, if you lower the tone knob on a Jazz Bass with a passive pickup set, you can only roll off the highs but never boost the lows.

Active Single Coils

Since EMGs were made big in the hands of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, their relationship with metal has been uncanny. Yes, they are perfect for the heavy chugging, palm-muted, down-picking riffs.

But, what about active single-coil pickups?

Well, active single coils answer a very important need single-coil lovers have, they eliminate hum. Because of the low-impedance design, hum noise is virtually gone. But that’s not all, because active single coils can also give a guitar a lot more clarity and punch while retaining the character of the instrument.

For example, those who love the glass-like clean Stratocaster tones will get even more out of their ax playing with an active set.

The one thing purists and most players who love the broken SRV, Frusciante, and Hendrix tone will miss is the dirt. That punchiness and clarity take away some of the nuances and typical midrange bump that is paramount to playing the blues.

Active Humbuckers

This is what most active electric guitar pickup lovers look for. Active humbuckers deliver the kind of oomph and punch you need to take any riff to the next level.

Furthermore, they work perfectly with down-tuned guitars.

For example, if your band plays in drop-D, drop-C, or if you play seven strings, or play in drop-A, active humbuckers will help you keep the low end tight while the highs remain clean and cutting.

Furthermore, active pickups bring more sustain to the already muscular sound of humbuckers. Yes, due to the lower magnetic pull from the pickups, guitar strings tend to vibrate for longer and hence give you more sustain to keep that note going until it turns into sweet feedback.

Finally, active humbuckers tend to be very loud and powerful and will propel your playing forward. That said, they will propel everything, so they will very likely make you a much more precise player.

Can You Fit Them in Your Guitar?

Now that you’re probably saying “Hey, active pickups aren’t so bad and menacing after all. I should get a set and try them out”, it’s time to see whether they would fit or not.

Besides the usual concern about pickup size, you’ll need some extra room to install and wire a battery inside your guitar.

For example, if you play a Strat-style guitar (or anything with a large pickguard), you can perhaps make some room under the pickguard. It will be kind of a pain every time you change it, but you won’t have to cut a hole in your guitar’s body.
If you play something like a Les Paul, on the other hand, then you’ll have to either be very creative or cut a small hole in the back and install it there.
Bear this in mind when upgrading to an active set.

The Double-Battery Gain Trick

If you can find room to fit a battery what about making room for two? Yes, you can run your active pickups to 18 volts! I know what you’re thinking, but no, your pickup won’t have twice the power.

These are the two ways to do this trick:

• Parallel Wiring – If you wire the batteries in parallel, you’ll get your battery life span extended drastically.

• Series Wiring – If you wire the batteries in series, you will enlarge the headroom of your pickups and get somewhat faster transients. Bass players who love fast slapping might benefit as well with instant power in all frequencies.

The Transformation Requires More than just the Pickups

Besides making room for the battery (or batteries), you’ll have to change your guitar pots. Yes, the traditional 500k vs 250k dispute doesn’t work with active pickups. (If you are not familiar with this, you can read everything about pots and caps. On the contrary, the pots you’ll need for the new pickups are 25k. This is because of the low impedance we talked about above.

Some manufacturers, like EMG, include them in the box when you buy the pickup. In fact, they include the entire circuitry for ease of assembly. You won’t have to buy anything extra.

Action & Active Pickups, A Great Plus

If you like your guitar’s action real low, and your pickups hot, you’re in trouble. Hot pickups require many turns around the coil. This generates a powerful magnetic field that might give you tuning issues because it will pull the strings if they’re too near.

Remember how we said above that active electric guitar pickups require a very low number of turns because the initial signal needs to be very weak? Well, this solves that old problem that shredders have had forever by giving you a very hot signal with no string pull. Even with two batteries.

Understanding Active Pickups Tone & Gain

Now that we’ve been through all technicalities and feel, it’s time to answer the mother of all questions when it comes to active electric guitar pickups.

How do they sound?

Well, every pickup will have its own distinct voice. That said, there are certain qualities you can find virtually in any active pickup.

• Tight, Very Tight – The first thing you notice when you plug in an active set is that the low end on your guitar or bass has transformed. The sound coming from the lower strings is tight, focused, and powerful, and chords and riffs feel cleaner and more concise.

• Compression & Dynamics – Compression and dynamics are usually the opposites of the spectrum. Well, although active pickups tend to sound more compressed and make you lose some dynamics, they also extend the frequency range. You may start noticing ringing notes in your playing you didn’t use to hear. So, they tend to sound fuller and more powerful in every frequency.

• Colder – Some people, including this writer and guitarist, find active pickups to have reduced warmth when compared to passive electric guitar or bass pickups. In return, you get a tighter sound with a broader frequency range.

In terms of gain and power, most active pickup models offer a very hot signal.

Solving the Volume-Roll Issue

Do you play your guitar or bass using the volume knob to modify the gain and go through a song or a show using that instead of pedals? Well, some instruments are great in those scenarios because they hold their tone and just lose some gain while others lose tone, lows, and mids, and end up being a mosquito attack.
Well, active pickups hold their tone when you roll the volume off because you’re decreasing the volume of the preamp instead of the pickup’s gain.

Handling Long-Cable Runs

It’s no news that long cables deteriorate the signal running through them. If you’re an old-school guitar or bass player who likes to move around the stage but can’t stand relying on wireless units, then active pickups can be the solution to the tone drain your long cable is causing.

Yes, the low-impedance design of active pickups ensures that the signal can run as far as you without losing any of their character, tone, or gain.

Are Active Pickups Only for Metal?

This is a question I get too often. The answer is no, there are plenty of players who use them to play other musical styles. I guess naming David Gilmour, Lou Reed, and Prince as EMG artists is enough to settle it.
Any musical style can benefit from the punch, clarity, and transparency of active pickups.

Get Active Pickups if You

Active pickups are the right choice for shredders, metal players who tune their guitar down, players who use a lot of gain, players who are looking for a way to cut through a dense mix with their instrument, and those who need an extra dose of punch with no noise.

Also, it can be a great way to breathe new life into an ax you have forgotten about or haven’t played in a while. Active pickups can bring definition to the low end, clarity to the highs, and a healthy dose of extra power.

Finally, if you’re into ultra-clean tones to play fast and accurately like Cory Wong or Nile Rodgers, active single-coil pickups can take your guitar to the next level.
I wouldn’t recommend them for those looking for an organic, extremely touch-sensitive, warm-sounding set of pickups with mild gain. Yes, if you’re a purist and are very used to hearing and playing through passive pickups, a set of actives might stir your world a little too much.


We’ve come to the end of the fourth leg of our journey but also to the end of our trip together to the core of electric guitar and bass pickups.
By now, you must be aware of the different types of pickups, how they work, and, most importantly, what each of them can do for your tone as a player.
Now that you have all the information, head over to Guyker Pickups and find the one that’s best for you.

Let me tell you, before finishing this that tone pursuit is a lifelong endeavor.

Moreover, the perfect tone is a moving target, and a hard one to hit too. In that sense, pickups make a rather inexpensive tone experiment. So go ahead, try some different options, and get closer to the tone you hear in your head.

Happy (active and powerful) playing!


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