New Year, Fresh Tonez: Passive or Active?

I remember being 12 or 13 and getting my first real close look at metal. My best mates' family had splashed out on Galaxy, the earliest format of cable TV in Australia and we were smashed to bits by MTV’s Headbangers Ball. I was the kid that used to sit up ‘til 4am watching Rage to get a glimpse of maybe 3 heavy video clips and now I was getting a full hour of the good stuff on the reg... and so the education began! Headbangers Ball back then was very thrash heavy, and I really closely examined the guitars in classic thrash film clips because l firmly believed that my lack of brutal sound was something missing from my guitar.

The first thing I noticed was active pickups.

I didn't know they were called active pickups. All I knew was they looked like solid black rectangles, they made stuff metal, and I MUST HAVE THEM! Of course, I didn't actually own a good set of active pickups ‘til my 20s (EMG 81,85 set) and to my horror I discovered something I never thought would be the case... I didn't like them.

After years of playing passive pickups, I learned to pull sounds from my equipment using overwound passives like the Seymour Duncan JB. So I was blown away by the differences tone wise I experienced using actives when compared to what I was used to.

Two main factors immediately got my attention: Compression and Voicing.

Unlike passive pickups that use magnetic coils to receive the guitar string vibrations, active pickups have less coils but use a preamp section powered by a 9-volt battery to drive them into higher output than their purely magnetic cousins. Think of it like having a boost pedal inside your guitar. Sounds awesome right!?

Now let's consider the implications. Boosts are a very useful tool in tone sculpting but essentially having one you can never turn off can be a drag. The level of compression is always high meaning subtlety starts to go out the window. All your hand dynamics get stifled. Heavy picking sounds like regular picking, light picking sounds like regular picking – you’re always in the parameters of the pre-amp. Now this is considered a plus by many metal players as uniform strikes mean consistent palm mutes regardless of your picking consistency which is a handy little cheat but it does make your playing a little less expressive.

The compression is one thing but the voicing is what will really be noticeable with many classic active pickups, and it's a real love or hate affair. I swear I can tell if someone’s playing EMGs with my eyes closed, blindfolded, whilst standing behind a wall. No matter how you tweak them the internal voicing pervades all. 

I've had conversations with other high gain users and for some, what I don't like about actives is the thing that they love. Consistency of tone and tight compression instantly (providing you change your 9-Volt battery regularly). Realistically, you could nail them to a bus, attach strings and get the same response as any other active equipped instrument. Thus, making every guitar a tonal clone of the next one off the rack. Things like that can be a boon to live sound guitar changeovers. Also, the player can be confident in the standard responsiveness. It might make your sound a little vanilla but reliability is a big consideration, and who doesn't like vanilla sometimes, it’s totally under-rated flavour!

I am aware that I've talked a lot about EMGs as they are really the active pickup industry standard but almost all actives suffer the same problems or strengths depending on your point of view. Notably, I have found Seymour Duncan Dualities to have a far more subtle compression and voicing than most. Also, Levinson have equipped their Blade series guitars with active/passive hybrids that you can adjust the voicing with a tone pot in the back.

I hope if you're considering a pickup change this has been informative. Tonez are subjective. One player's Excalibur can be another's Kryptonite so arm yourself with knowledge and give some things a try. Experimentation is the key to enjoyment of your instrument and development of your sound.

And if you're still bewildered but desire a change, drop into the shop and let's talk about what could take you to the next level!


Till next time stay safe, riff hard and a happy, healthy New Year to ya.


Chris Re-Animator.

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