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Active Vs. Passive Pickups:


Dave I
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Not entirely wood-working related, but . . . I am curious what people's experiences and thoughts are with active pickups. In particular, what do you like about them or hate about them over passive pickups?

The one that comes up the most is the EMG 81 (and the EMG 85 and 89 getting some nods here and there), but I have gotten at least one recommendation for Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. Then again, Seymour Duncan JB's and Jazz pickups (both passive) still get a lot of nods as well. So in short, my questions are:

1) What are the advantages and disadvantages of active pickups over passive pickups (or vice versa)?

2) Are there certain active pickups that are better than others? In my case, looking for a nice high-gain sound without it sounding like crap (I want a nice metal sound, but not harsh or ridiculous), but also at least passable clean tones (even though that is not their forte), but any generalities are welcome.

3) Is there a thread already talking about this? I found one that was nice, but this subject came through almost as an after thought and was only partially covered and can be seen here:

http://projectguitar.ibforums.com/index.ph...ssive*++pickup*

If there is another great thread that I missed, or some other great web-source, if you post the URL I can check it out to save you some typing. Thanks a million!

-Cheers

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It has alot to do with what kind of sound you are trying to achieve and what music you like to play in my opinion. I personally dislike active pickups when compared to passive pickups just because i dont like the harshness in the tone i get using actives. 2 guitars ago i put an emg 85 in the bridge (81 is usually the emg bridge pickup but i like the more warm tone given by the 85) and while the guitar sounded good... it just didnt feel right.. it wasnt what i was going for. I then built a guitar and put seymour duncan passives in it... quarter pounder i beleive and i absolutly love the tone and response of the guitar. My advice would be go to a music store like guitar center and play alot of different pickups to try and get a feel for what they sound like and what you are looking for.

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i love actives over passives more than anything. my playing style calls for high gain, the kind you cant get with medium output passives. my playing also doesnt require great cleans, wich opens the options even wider. i have tried every major pickup model, and nothing compares to emgs and guitarheads for their gain and volume.

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actives will have the least hum.

most people believe that they are sterile sounding, but thats really what you want for high gain playing, as the character comes from the overdriven preamp, not the pickups. if the pickup didnt have such a flat frequency response then it would get muddy with all the gain used. it really depends on what you are playing. same reason metal players like basswood, as it gives a flatter frequency response (ie sterile sounding).

im generalising alot on the active pickups, im more talking about emg actives. other styles would be designed for a different outcome, but emg's are the most popular. alot of people find that emg actives limit the sound shaping that the instrument can create, as the effects of the pickups overpower the instrument construction and such. wether it is good or bad depends on the situation, but i wouldnt want to put them on one of my builds, as i want to hear what ive made, not what emg has made. i make my own pickups now so thats not a problem

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Most people like actives for high gain work, and passives for more mild stuff. But I find myself taking down my EMG equipped guitar and playing just about anything on it, ditto for the passives, so it's all up to personal choice.

I'd say go try out many guitars in the store that have active and passive, you'll hear the difference real quick.

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When it comes to the advantages of active pickups

1) they stay noiseless at high gain

2) most have gain circuts built in alowing greater levels of gain to be achieved

3) they are usually more responsive to harmonics and sustain well

Now the disadvantages

1) batteries required

2) almost always less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding to me

3) harder to get good clean sounds and sometimes I find it impossible to do this

Now the tone part is really subjective to what you like to play and the sounds you like. If you are into hard rock and metal the active pickups are what I would use but if you want a more balanced and versatile sound go with passives. I've seen dimarzio d-activators that seem to get the benefits of active and pasive pickups without being active

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I like both as each have their qualities. The Seymours in my Ibanez S are a great set, and the sounds are different to what I get from my Explorers. Comparing active to passive is just as relevant as comparing single coil to humbucking. You choose what is right for what you want.

I actually get nice clean from the EMG-60, but the 85 and 81 are too high an output to not drive the front end of most amps. The nature of actives is that there is always power on tap, so pulling back on your playing style doesn't end up being as dynamic as on passives. Actives feel "linear" to me, but I wouldn't use the term "sterile". Same as I wouldn't term passives as being "characterful". There are a hell of a lot of sterile passives out there, and actives can be just as characterful, but perhaps not in the same areas.

I'm happy to sit on the fence of this one because I use both, and have no need to weigh judgement on either against the other. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the differences between EMG and "common" pickup rout cavities for the soapbar 707, 81-7 and 808. Pshaw.

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Would something like a Dimarzio D-Activator work better if I wanted a nice high-gain bridge pickup that I could clean up moderately well by rolling the volume back, and still retain the ability to let pick attack dictate how hard the pickup drives the amp? Or should I stick with a JB (or similar) pickup in the bridge and rely on my pick attack, OD, boost, or distortion pedals to drive the amp harder?

I'm happy to sit on the fence of this one because I use both, and have no need to weigh judgement on either against the other. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the differences between EMG and "common" pickup rout cavities for the soapbar 707, 81-7 and 808. Pshaw.

Is the route size between the EMG 81 (and similar) different than the route for a typical humbucker pickup?

-Cheers

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The 808, 707 and 81-7 use the EMG extended range bass pickup soapbar style housings - 40 for the 808 and 35 for the 707 and 81-7. They don't have ears like the 81/85/60 etc. which have pretty much standard humbucker style housings, although with tighter corner radii on the cover. Most guitars with pickup rings will accept an 81/85/60 in a standard humbucker route, but some need a bit of opening up on the corners to accommodate.

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I've had two sets of D-activators and in both cases they had a really great tone but nothing more exciting than a super distortion. They still have passive noise (don't care what DiMarzio claims) but they have a bit more midrange than EMG actives.

If you want a good cross over check out the active pickups sold by guitarheads. I have one in my warlock and I absolutely love it! Active electronics with a passive tone. It's the best of both worlds if you ask me.

Along with that, Seymour Duncan make several active pickups that blow EMG away but they cost more.

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I've had two sets of D-activators and in both cases they had a really great tone but nothing more exciting than a super distortion. They still have passive noise (don't care what DiMarzio claims) but they have a bit more midrange than EMG actives.

If you want a good cross over check out the active pickups sold by guitarheads. I have one in my warlock and I absolutely love it! Active electronics with a passive tone. It's the best of both worlds if you ask me.

Thanks for the recommendation; I will try to check them out.

How much difference in gain and tone between an active pickup (EMG 85, or Guitarheads active [w/ passive tone], etc.) and something custom wound for high-gain but more natural tone like WCR pickups? I guess I am inclined to go with an overwound passive because I like warmer sounding melodic metal and not necessarily as-heavy-as-possible metal (although having one such guitar in the future might be nice, not what I am looking for now . . .), or something that sounds like a computer or synth created distorted guitar. I will definitely consider all options though; if I was totally sold one way or the other I would not bother asking, hence this thread.

Anyway, thanks for the great responses so far as well as any future replies!

-Cheers

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I've had two sets of D-activators and in both cases they had a really great tone but nothing more exciting than a super distortion. They still have passive noise (don't care what DiMarzio claims) but they have a bit more midrange than EMG actives.

If you want a good cross over check out the active pickups sold by guitarheads. I have one in my warlock and I absolutely love it! Active electronics with a passive tone. It's the best of both worlds if you ask me.

Thanks for the recommendation; I will try to check them out.

How much difference in gain and tone between an active pickup (EMG 85, or Guitarheads active [w/ passive tone], etc.) and something custom wound for high-gain but more natural tone like WCR pickups? I guess I am inclined to go with an overwound passive because I like warmer sounding melodic metal and not necessarily as-heavy-as-possible metal (although having one such guitar in the future might be nice, not what I am looking for now . . .), or something that sounds like a computer or synth created distorted guitar. I will definitely consider all options though; if I was totally sold one way or the other I would not bother asking, hence this thread.

Anyway, thanks for the great responses so far as well as any future replies!

-Cheers

The EMG-81 has a very sharp attack with helps getting proper note definition when playing fast rhythm passages and lead lines. The DiMarzio super distortion is right up there in terms of power too and has a similiar attack to the EMG-81, but it sounds more old school with its midrange and its not as compressed as the EMG-81. Just to say that you don't need a custom wound passive pickup. The D-Activator sounds like it has a lot of power too but I can't comment on it because I never tried them.

If you don't like the attack of an EMG-81 or Dimarzio Super Dist, you might want to look into something that has an alnico magnet. If you like high gain but still want a bit of dynamics, the Tone Zone is kinda nice.

The thing is, you can't look at the pickups without looking at the kind of speakers you have in your guitar cab. Its like the difference between a Celestion Greenback, Celestion Vintage 30 or a G12T-75 in terms of attack. The "active" equivalent would be the Celestion Century and Century Vintage with their slighty tighter sound and higher output (102db efficiency). Using an EMG-81 with a greenback is stupid in my opinion because you lose the note definition. Just something else to look into when selecting pickups.

Edited by guitar2005
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I can't speak from personal experience with all the actives out there; but it's worth at least mentioning that EMG has had plenty of endorsees and players who love the pickups who are NOT high-gain players. It's a mistake to think active = high gain.

David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Vince Gill... not high gain players. Lukather... not always much with the gain...

I think of the sound as more "high fidelity" than "sterile". All the frequencies are there, in remarkable clarity. Then it's up to you to do something with them. Whereas passives tend to have a fairly distinctive frequency response, you might find yourself needing an EQ pedal in-line with an active in order to get the sound you're after. Or use onboard EQ shaping for added flexibility.

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The thing is, you can't look at the pickups without looking at the kind of speakers you have in your guitar cab. Its like the difference between a Celestion Greenback, Celestion Vintage 30 or a GT12-75 in terms of attack. The "active" equivalent would be the Celestion Century and Century Vintage with their slighty tighter sound and higher output (102db efficiency). Using an EMG-81 with a greenback is stupid in my opinion because you lose the note definition. Just something else to look into when selecting pickups.

Well, I currently use Vintage 30's in a 4X12 setup. Not sure how (if at all) that changes your recommendations (either in pickups or in speaker recommendations).

-Cheers

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The thing is, you can't look at the pickups without looking at the kind of speakers you have in your guitar cab. Its like the difference between a Celestion Greenback, Celestion Vintage 30 or a GT12-75 in terms of attack. The "active" equivalent would be the Celestion Century and Century Vintage with their slighty tighter sound and higher output (102db efficiency). Using an EMG-81 with a greenback is stupid in my opinion because you lose the note definition. Just something else to look into when selecting pickups.

Well, I currently use Vintage 30's in a 4X12 setup. Not sure how (if at all) that changes your recommendations (either in pickups or in speaker recommendations).

-Cheers

With a Vintage 30, I'd go with an Alnico magnet pickup. EMG 60, 60A, 89 are good choices in active pickups in my opinion. With the Vintage 30's mellower tone (vs G12T-75), you should be pleased. In passives, there's tons of choices. Have a look at the Dimarzio website - They have tons of info for their pickups to help in selecting one (including sound clips).

Going with a pickup that has more definition and attack with the Vintage 30 could be interesting. Its all a matter of taste. The Vintage 30 could tame some of the in your face sound of a ceramic based pickup. I don't have V30s right now so I can't comment from A/B ing. I should have a new cab with V30s very soon though - 2-3 weeks time. I could post some A/B clips. The EMG 81/89 sounded horrible with the Greenbacks.

Edited by guitar2005
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With a Vintage 30, I'd go with an Alnico magnet pickup. EMG 60, 60A, 89 are good choices in active pickups in my opinion. With the Vintage 30's mellower tone (vs GT12-75), you should be pleased. In passives, there's tons of choices. Have a look at the Dimarzio website - They have tons of info for their pickups to help in selecting one (including sound clips).

Going with a pickup that has more definition and attack with the Vintage 30 could be interesting. Its all a matter of taste. The Vintage 30 could tame some of the in your face sound of a ceramic based pickup. I don't have V30s right now so I can't comment from A/B ing. I should have a new cab with V30s very soon though - 2-3 weeks time. I could post some A/B clips. The EMG 81/89 sounded horrible with the Greenbacks.

Thank you for the input! If you get a chance with your new V30 cabinet I would be interested in your A/B comments/clips. Thanks for the thoughts & opinions thus far though. There is actually a guitar I am interested in getting (it's an ESP LTD V-500 and I have heard V's can be kind of unforgiving to build) what comes with EMG 81's so I could just try them. However, if I do not like them, it is nice to have advice on some backup options. I greatly appreciate it!

-Cheers

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I think of the sound as more "high fidelity" than "sterile". All the frequencies are there, in remarkable clarity. Then it's up to you to do something with them. Whereas passives tend to have a fairly distinctive frequency response, you might find yourself needing an EQ pedal in-line with an active in order to get the sound you're after. Or use onboard EQ shaping for added flexibility.

This is a key point ! Having played active basses with fairly elaborate EQ setups in the instruments themselves as part of the active system, I was surprised at the tones you could elicit by changing the EQ *before* it hit the amp - particularly if you're hitting a tube preamp stage first - changing the mids before it hits the amp, for example, is a lot different than changing the mids on the amp itself.

This makes sense for guitars as well, especially where overdriven guitar stages are more the norm. These EQ possibilities present whole new tonal possibilities beyond just "hitting the amp harder".

EQing the signal in different places results in radically different tones. At it's most basic, and drastic, think of the tonal differences of putting a Wah-wah pedal before or after a fuzz, or the differences between scooping the mids out of your signal with a stompbox, on the amp, or after you've recorded everything. Shaping the sound earlier presents a different end result than shaping it later in the chain.

One of my favorite local players uses active pickups, precisely for the reasons Greg states - the broad "flat" frequency responses lets him shape his EQ at the begining of the chain immediatly after the pickups. He has some sort of FX processor that does this, and he uses pretty much just the EQ settings as his presets. He notches and boosts certain frequencies and it enables him to do a pretty decent job emulating classic guitar sounds with one guitar. Does it sound spot on? No, but for his covers band, it lets him get close enough without having to bring three guitars to the gig.

Some of the active pickup guitars I've played, I just wouldn't want to play without some sort of EQ in there. But that's the beauty, with the whole spectrum on tap, it seems like it could be very versatile. I don't use them because I've got a sound that's pretty constant throughout my whole bands set, but I would love one for studio work, where dialing in the perfect sound for a fill or part might be something beyond what I normally do with my gear.

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In regards to this:

Now the disadvantages

1) batteries required

2) almost always less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding to me

3) harder to get good clean sounds and sometimes I find it impossible to do this

Now the tone part is really subjective to what you like to play and the sounds you like. If you are into hard rock and metal the active pickups are what I would use but if you want a more balanced and versatile sound go with passives. I've seen dimarzio d-activators that seem to get the benefits of active and pasive pickups without being active

With something like the EMG 81 & 85, can I get past the "less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding" attributes (which I hear a lot of people say) by using an EQ pedal to shape the sound? And from there, can I use the EQ pedal just for active pickup guitar(s) and take it out of the loop for passive guitars so I am not constantly tweaking my amp? I currently play a Marshall Vintage Modern and use a Fulltone OCD for overdrive, as well as a few other pedals or a Digitech GNX4 processor, and do not want to have to change setting everytime I change guitars. Otherwise, I might eventually pick up another amp strictly for high-gain stuff at some point.

-Cheers

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In regards to this:

Now the disadvantages

1) batteries required

2) almost always less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding to me

3) harder to get good clean sounds and sometimes I find it impossible to do this

Now the tone part is really subjective to what you like to play and the sounds you like. If you are into hard rock and metal the active pickups are what I would use but if you want a more balanced and versatile sound go with passives. I've seen dimarzio d-activators that seem to get the benefits of active and pasive pickups without being active

With something like the EMG 81 & 85, can I get past the "less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding" attributes (which I hear a lot of people say) by using an EQ pedal to shape the sound? And from there, can I use the EQ pedal just for active pickup guitar(s) and take it out of the loop for passive guitars so I am not constantly tweaking my amp? I currently play a Marshall Vintage Modern and use a Fulltone OCD for overdrive, as well as a few other pedals or a Digitech GNX4 processor, and do not want to have to change setting everytime I change guitars. Otherwise, I might eventually pick up another amp strictly for high-gain stuff at some point.

-Cheers

The EQ thing is BS if you ask me. EMGs sound fine on their own. For clean sounds... again... fine with me. The EMG clean is certainly different than a PAF, or PAF Pro or something like a single coil in a Strat. Different isn't necessarily bad. Different guitars and pickups for different sounds, right? The only thing with clean sounds is that the EMGs really hit the input of the amp hard so you might need to roll down the volume knob on your guitar.

If you find that you need to -externally- EQ your sound outside of your guitar amp with EMGs, don't buy EMGs. Just my opinion.

What exactly does less toneful mean anyways? Its all subjective. Listen to artists that use EMGs and go from there. Do you like their sound?

What kind of music is this for?

BTW, nice amp choice with the Vintage Modern. If you like the Zakk Wylde sound, you'll be happy with EMGs combined with the Marshall. In a mahogany guitar, they should scream.

Edited by guitar2005
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In regards to this:

Now the disadvantages

1) batteries required

2) almost always less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding to me

3) harder to get good clean sounds and sometimes I find it impossible to do this

Now the tone part is really subjective to what you like to play and the sounds you like. If you are into hard rock and metal the active pickups are what I would use but if you want a more balanced and versatile sound go with passives. I've seen dimarzio d-activators that seem to get the benefits of active and pasive pickups without being active

With something like the EMG 81 & 85, can I get past the "less toneful and somewhat sterile sounding" attributes (which I hear a lot of people say) by using an EQ pedal to shape the sound? And from there, can I use the EQ pedal just for active pickup guitar(s) and take it out of the loop for passive guitars so I am not constantly tweaking my amp? I currently play a Marshall Vintage Modern and use a Fulltone OCD for overdrive, as well as a few other pedals or a Digitech GNX4 processor, and do not want to have to change setting everytime I change guitars. Otherwise, I might eventually pick up another amp strictly for high-gain stuff at some point.

-Cheers

The EQ thing is BS if you ask me. EMGs sound fine on their own. For clean sounds... again... fine with me. The EMG clean is certainly different than a PAF, or PAF Pro or something like a single coil in a Strat. Different isn't necessarily bad. Different guitars and pickups for different sounds, right? The only thing with clean sounds is that the EMGs really hit the input of the amp hard so you might need to roll down the volume knob on your guitar.

If you find that you need to EQ your sound with EMGs, don't buy EMGs. Just my opinion.

What exactly does less toneful mean anyways? Its all subjective. Listen to artists that use EMGs and go from there. Do you like their sound?

What kind of music is this for?

BTW, nice amp choice with the Vintage Modern. If you like the Zakk Wylde sound, you'll be happy with EMGs combined with the Marshall. In a mahogany guitar, they should scream.

Thanks for the opinion(s). I will just give them a try. If nothing else, it will give me something different to play with, and at worst I can always replace them.

-Cheers

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The EQ thing is BS if you ask me. EMGs sound fine on their own. For clean sounds... again... fine with me. The EMG clean is certainly different than a PAF, or PAF Pro or something like a single coil in a Strat. Different isn't necessarily bad. Different guitars and pickups for different sounds, right? The only thing with clean sounds is that the EMGs really hit the input of the amp hard so you might need to roll down the volume knob on your guitar.

If you find that you need to EQ your sound with EMGs, don't buy EMGs. Just my opinion.

Kind of a weirdly hardline statement. Whether with passives or actives, EQ is an important part of many guitarists' arsenal. It's "BS" to think that you need EQ to "fix" something inherent in EMGs... and I would agree wholeheartedly that if you don't like the core EMG sound, they're not for you regardless of any EQ. But that's a different statement, innit? EQ is the second-most important thing in achieving a good sound (the first being, as you allude to, a good base sound to begin with) and it's a mistake to dismiss the possibilities as some sort of trick or cover-up.

I'm not one to EVER poo-poo the idea of versatility in tone shaping. And that's what EQ gives you.

As an additional thought, it's absolutely classic and fundamental for many metal guitarists throughout history to mid-boost before hitting the pre, and then mid-scoop in the tone stack. Just another example of how EQ can be used in a thoughtful and versatile way.

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I find the 85 to be nice and crisp in a clean setting...not like an S or SA,but still spankingly clean.

If you can't get clean with emg,it is because either your amp is not really all that clean,or you have the pickups too close to the strings.Everyone wants to put the pups as close to the strings as possible,as though that makes it "higher gain" or something...all it REALLY does is add mush.

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