Active Pickups: What They Are, How They Work, and Why You Need Them

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 10, 2023

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If you’re looking to get a lot of volume out of your guitar, you might be considering getting some active pickups.

Active pickups are a type of guitar pickup that use active circuitry and a battery to increase the signal strength and deliver a purer, more consistent tone.

They are more complex than passive pickups and require a cable to connect to an amplifier.

In this article, I’ll explain what they are, how they work, and why they’re better for metal guitarists.

Schecter Hellraiser without the sustainiac

What You Need to Know About Active Pickups

Active pickups are a type of guitar pickup that use electrical circuitry and a battery to boost the signal from the strings. Unlike passive pickups, which rely solely on the magnetic field created by the strings, active pickups have their own power source and require a wire to connect to the battery. This allows for a higher output and a more consistent tone, making them popular among metal players and those who want a more dynamic sound.

The Differences Between Active and Passive Pickups

The biggest difference between active and passive pickups is the way they work. Passive pickups are simple and rely on the vibrations of the strings to create a signal that travels through the copper wire and into the amplifier. Active pickups, on the other hand, use complex electrical circuitry to boost the signal and deliver a more pure and consistent tone. Other differences include:

  • Active pickups tend to have a higher output compared to passive pickups
  • Active pickups require a battery to function, while passive pickups do not
  • Active pickups have a more complex circuitry compared to passive pickups
  • Active pickups can sometimes interfere with cables and other electronics, while passive pickups do not have this issue

Understanding Active Pickups

If you’re looking to upgrade your guitar’s pickups, active pickups are definitely worth considering. They offer a lot of benefits compared to passive pickups, including a higher output and a more consistent tone. However, it’s important to understand how they work and what their pros and cons are before making a decision. By reading up on the different types of active pickups and the brands that make them, you can find the perfect set of pickups to give your guitar the character and tone you’re looking for.

How Do Active Pickups Work and What Are the Benefits?

The main reason why active pickups are so popular among guitarists is that they allow for a tighter, more focused sound. Here’s how they achieve this:

  • Higher voltage: Active pickups use a higher voltage than passive pickups, which allows them to produce a stronger signal and achieve a tighter sound.
  • More dynamic range: Active pickups have a wider dynamic range than passive pickups, which means they can produce a wider range of tones and sounds.
  • More control: The preamp circuit in active pickups allows for more control over the tone and sound of the guitar, which means you can achieve a wider range of tones and effects.

Choosing the Right Active Pickup

If you’re considering installing active pickups in your guitar, there are a few things to consider:

  • Your style of music: Active pickups are generally better suited for heavy metal and other styles that require high gain and distortion. If you play rock or acoustic music, you may find that passive pickups are a better choice.
  • The sound you want to achieve: Active pickups can produce a wide range of tones and sounds, so it’s important to choose a set that will help you achieve the sound you’re looking for.
  • The company: There are several companies that make active pickups, including EMG, Seymour Duncan, and Fishman. Each company has its own version of active pickups, so it’s important to find one that you’re familiar with and that you trust.
  • The benefits: Consider the benefits of active pickups, such as higher output, less noise, and more control over the tone and sound of your guitar. If these benefits appeal to you, then active pickups may be the right choice.

Why Active Pickups are the Perfect Choice for Metal Guitarists

Active pickups are powered by a battery and use a preamp circuit to generate a signal. This means that they can produce a higher output than passive pickups, resulting in more gain and distortion. Additionally, the preamp circuit ensures that the tone remains consistent, regardless of the volume level or cable length. This makes them the perfect choice for metal guitarists who want a consistent and powerful sound.

Less Background Interference

Passive pickups can be susceptible to interference from other electrical devices or even the guitar’s own body. Active pickups, on the other hand, are shielded and have a lower impedance, which means they are less likely to pick up unwanted noise. This is especially important for metal guitarists who require a clean and clear sound.

Transforming Vibrations into Electrical Energy

Active pickups use a magnet and copper wire to transform the vibrations of the guitar strings into electrical energy. This energy is then converted into a current by the preamp circuit, which is sent directly to the amplifier. This process ensures that the signal is strong and consistent, resulting in a great sound.

The Logical Choice for Metal Guitarists

In summary, active pickups are the logical choice for metal guitarists who want a powerful and consistent sound. They offer higher output, less background interference, and transform vibrations into electrical energy, resulting in a great tone. With famous guitarists like James Hetfield and Kerry King using them, it’s clear that active pickups are the perfect choice for metal music.

When it comes to heavy metal music, guitarists need a pickup that can handle the power and distortion required to produce the tight and heavy tones that define the genre. Active pickups are the perfect choice for metal players who want a pristine and powerful sound that can handle the demands of heavy music.

Are Active Pickups the Best Choice for Clean Tones?

If you want to use active pickups for clean tones, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Use a high-quality battery and make sure it is fully charged.
  • Route the battery cable away from other electrical components to avoid unwanted noise interference.
  • Set the pickup height and tone controls to achieve the desired sound.
  • Choose the right type of active pickup for your playing style and guitar configuration. For example, a vintage-style active pickup may offer a warmer and slightly muddy tone, while a modern-style active pickup may offer a cleaner and brighter tone.
  • Mix and match active and passive pickups to achieve a variety of tones and sounds.

Are Active Pickups Common in Guitars?

  • While active pickups are not as common as passive pickups, they are becoming more popular in the guitar market.
  • Many affordable electric guitars now come with active pickups as a standard configuration, making them a great option for beginners or those on a budget.
  • Brands such as Ibanez, LTD, and Fender offer models with active pickups in their product range, making them a popular choice for metal and high gain players.
  • Some signature series guitars from famous guitarists, such as the Fishman Fluence Greg Koch Gristle-Tone Signature Set, also come with active pickups.
  • Retro-style guitars, such as the Roswell Ivory Series, also offer active pickup options for those looking for a vintage sound with modern technology.

Passive Pickups vs Active Pickups

  • While passive pickups are still the most common type of pickup found in guitars, active pickups offer a different tonal option.
  • Active pickups have a higher output and can provide a more consistent tone, making them a popular choice for metal and high gain players.
  • However, passive pickups are still preferred by many jazz and blues guitarists who prefer a more organic and dynamic sound.

The Dark Side of Active Pickups: What You Need to Know

1. More Complex Circuitry and Heavier Profile

Active pickups require a preamp or powered circuit to generate a signal, which means more complex circuitry and a heavier profile. This can make the guitar heavier and more cumbersome to play, which may not be ideal for certain players.

2. Shorter Battery Life and Need for Power

Active pickups require a battery to power the preamp or circuit, which means that the battery needs to be replaced periodically. This can be a hassle, especially if you forget to bring a spare battery to a gig or recording session. Additionally, if the battery dies mid-performance, the guitar will simply stop producing any sound.

3. Less Natural Tones and Dynamic Range

Active pickups are designed to produce a higher output signal, which can result in a loss of natural tonal character and dynamic range. This can be great for metal or other extreme genres, but may not be ideal for players who want a more natural, vintage sound.

4. Unwanted Interference and Cables

Active pickups can be more susceptible to interference from other electrical devices, such as lights or other instruments. Additionally, the cables used with active pickups need to be high-quality and shielded to prevent interference and signal loss.

5. Not Suitable for All Genres and Playing Styles

While active pickups are popular among metal guitarists and players who want extreme tones, they may not be suitable for all genres and playing styles. For example, jazz guitarists may prefer the more traditional and natural tones produced by passive pickups.

Ultimately, whether you choose active or passive pickups depends on your personal preferences and playing style. While active pickups offer benefits such as extreme tones and the ability to produce spicy notes, they also come with certain downsides that you need to keep in mind. Understanding the differences between active and passive pickups is key to finding the ultimate pickup type for your guitar and playing style.

The Power Behind Active Pickups: Batteries

Active pickups are a popular choice for guitarists who want a higher output volume than what typical passive pickups can produce. They use a preamp circuit to produce a higher voltage signal, which means they require an external power source to work. This is where batteries come in. Unlike passive pickups, which work without any outside power source, active pickups require a 9-volt battery to function.

How Long Do Active Pickup Batteries Last?

The length of time an active pickup battery will last depends on the type of pickup and how often you play your guitar. Generally, you can expect a battery to last anywhere from 3-6 months with regular use. Some guitarists prefer to change their batteries more frequently to ensure they always have the best possible tone.

What Are the Benefits of Using Active Pickups with Batteries?

There are several benefits to using active pickups with batteries, including:

  • Higher output volume: Active pickups produce a higher output volume than passive pickups, which can be beneficial for playing metal or other high-gain styles.
  • Tighter tone: Active pickups can produce a tighter, more focused tone compared to passive pickups.
  • Less interference: Because active pickups use a preamp circuit, they are less susceptible to interference from other electronic devices.
  • Sustain: Active pickups can produce longer sustain than passive pickups, which can be useful for creating solos or other lead parts.
  • Dynamic range: Active pickups can produce a wider dynamic range than passive pickups, which means you can play with more nuance and expression.

What Should You Consider When Installing Active Pickups with Batteries?

If you’re thinking about installing active pickups with batteries in your guitar, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Check the battery compartment: Make sure your guitar has a battery compartment that can accommodate a 9-volt battery. If not, you may need to have one installed.
  • Grab some extra batteries: Always keep a few spare batteries on hand so you don’t have to worry about running out of power mid-gig.
  • Wire the pickups correctly: Active pickups require slightly different wiring than passive pickups, so make sure you know what you’re doing or have a professional do it for you.
  • Consider your tone: While active pickups can produce a great tone, they may not be the best choice for every style of music. Consider your playing style and the type of tone you want to create before making the switch.

Exploring the Top Active Pickup Brands: EMG, Seymour Duncan, and Fishman Active

EMG is one of the most popular active pickup brands, especially among heavy metal players. Here’s what you need to know about EMG active pickups:

  • EMG pickups are known for their high output and impressive sustain, making them perfect for heavy distortion and metal music.
  • EMG pickups use an internal preamp circuit to boost the guitar’s signal, resulting in a higher output and greater dynamic range.
  • EMG pickups are usually associated with a modern, heavy sound, but they also offer clean tones and a lot of tonal variety.
  • EMG pickups are equipped with a battery that needs to be replaced periodically, but they are generally reliable and long-lasting.
  • EMG pickups are pretty expensive compared to passive pickups, but many heavy metal players swear by them.

Seymour Duncan Active Pickups: The Versatile Choice

Seymour Duncan is another popular active pickup brand that offers a wide range of options for guitar players. Here’s what you need to know about Seymour Duncan active pickups:

  • Seymour Duncan active pickups are known for their clarity and ability to produce a wide range of tones, making them a versatile choice for many styles of music.
  • Seymour Duncan pickups use a simple preamp circuit to boost the guitar’s signal, resulting in a higher output and greater dynamic range.
  • Seymour Duncan pickups are available in a variety of styles and types, including humbuckers, single-coils, and bass pickups.
  • Seymour Duncan pickups are equipped with a battery that needs to be replaced periodically, but they are generally reliable and long-lasting.
  • Seymour Duncan pickups are more expensive than passive pickups, but they offer a lot of benefits for players who want a greater range of tones and more dynamic control.

Passive Pickups vs Active Pickups: Understanding the Differences

Passive pickups are the basic type of pickups found in most electric guitars. They work by using a wire coil wrapped around a magnet to create a magnetic field. When a string vibrates, it creates a small electrical signal in the coil, which travels through a cable to an amplifier. The signal is then amplified and sent to a speaker, creating sound. Passive pickups do not require any power source and are usually associated with traditional guitar sounds like jazz, twangy, and clean tones.

Which Type of Pickup is Right for You?

Choosing between passive and active pickups ultimately comes down to personal preference and the type of music you want to play. Here are some things to consider:

  • If you’re looking for a traditional guitar sound, like jazz or twangy tones, passive pickups may be the way to go.
  • If you’re into metal or heavy rock music, active pickups may be a better fit for you.
  • If you want more control over your guitar’s tone and sound, active pickups offer more options.
  • If you’re looking for a low-maintenance option, passive pickups require little upkeep and don’t require a battery.
  • If you want consistent sound and minimal interference, active pickups are a great choice.

Some Popular Brands and Models of Passive and Active Pickups

Here are some popular brands and models of passive and active pickups:

Passive Pickups:

  • Seymour Duncan JB Model
  • DiMarzio Super Distortion
  • Fender Vintage Noiseless
  • Gibson Burstbucker Pro
  • EMG H4 Passive

Active Pickups:

  • EMG 81/85
  • Fishman Fluence Modern
  • Seymour Duncan Blackouts
  • DiMarzio D Activator
  • Bartolini HR-5.4AP/918

Famous Guitarists and Their Active Pickups

Here are some of the famous guitarists who use active pickups:

  • James Hetfield (Metallica)
  • Kerry King (Slayer)
  • Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society)
  • Alexi Laiho (Children of Bodom)
  • Jeff Hanneman (Slayer)
  • Dino Cazares (Fear Factory)
  • Mick Thomson (Slipknot)
  • Synyster Gates (Avenged Sevenfold)
  • John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
  • Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders)

What Are Some of the Popular Active Pickup Models?

Here are some of the popular active pickup models:

  • EMG 81/85: This is one of the most popular active pickup sets, used by many metal guitarists. The 81 is a bridge pickup that creates a hot, aggressive tone, while the 85 is a neck pickup that creates a warm, smooth tone.
  • Seymour Duncan Blackouts: These pickups are designed to be a direct competitor to the EMG 81/85 set, and they offer a similar tone and output.
  • Fishman Fluence: These pickups are designed to be versatile, with multiple voicings that can be switched on the fly. They are used by guitarists in a wide range of music styles.
  • Schecter Hellraiser: This guitar features a set of active pickups with a sustainiac system, which allows guitarists to create infinite sustain and feedback.
  • Ibanez RG series: These guitars come with a variety of active pickup options, including the DiMarzio Fusion Edge and the EMG 60/81 set.
  • Gibson Les Paul Custom: This guitar features a set of active pickups designed by Gibson, which offer a fat, rich tone with plenty of sustain.
  • PRS SE Custom 24: This guitar features a set of PRS-designed active pickups, which offer a wide range of tones and plenty of presence.

How Much Time Do You Have with Active Pickups?

Active pickups are a kind of electronic pickup that requires power to work. This power is usually provided by a battery placed inside the guitar. The battery powers a preamp that boosts the signal from the pickups, making it stronger and clearer. The battery is an important part of the system, and without it, the pickups won’t work.

What Kind of Battery Does an Active Pickup Need?

Active pickups usually require a 9V battery, which is a common size for electronic devices. Some proprietary active pickup systems may require a different kind of battery, so it’s important to check the manufacturer’s recommendations. Some bass guitars with active pickups may require AA batteries instead of 9V batteries.

How Can You Notice When the Battery Drops?

When the battery voltage drops, you’ll notice a drop in the signal strength of your guitar. The sound may become weaker, and you may notice more noise and distortion. If you spend a lot of time playing your guitar, you may need to replace the battery once a year or more. It’s important to keep an eye on the battery level and replace it before it dies completely, as this can damage the pickups.

Can You Run Active Pickups on Alkaline Batteries?

While it’s possible to run active pickups on alkaline batteries, it’s not recommended. Alkaline batteries have a different voltage curve than 9V batteries, which means that the pickups may not work as well or may not survive as long. It’s best to use the kind of battery recommended by the manufacturer to ensure the best performance and longest life for your pickups.

Do Active Pickups Wear?

Yes, they do. While guitar pickups don’t wear out easily, active pickups are not immune to the effects of time and use. Here are some factors that can affect the performance of active pickups over time:

  • Battery life: Active pickups require a 9V battery to power the preamp. The battery drains over time and needs to be replaced periodically. If you forget to replace the battery, the pickup’s performance will suffer.
  • Rusting: If the pickup’s metal parts are exposed to moisture, they can rust over time. Rust can affect the pickup’s output and tone.
  • Demagnetization: The magnets in the pickup can lose their magnetism over time, which can affect the pickup’s output.
  • Trauma: Repeated impact or trauma to the pickup can damage its components and affect its performance.

Can active pickups be repaired?

In most cases, yes. If your active pickup is not working correctly, you can take it to a guitar technician or repair shop to have it repaired. Here are some common issues that can be repaired:

  • Battery replacement: If the pickup is not working because the battery is dead, a technician can replace the battery for you.
  • Rust removal: If the pickup has rusted, a technician can clean the rust off and restore the pickup’s performance.
  • Demagnetization: If the magnets in the pickup have lost their magnetism, a technician can remagnetize them to restore the pickup’s output.
  • Component replacement: If a component in the pickup has failed, such as a capacitor or resistor, a technician can replace the faulty component to restore the pickup’s performance.

Grounding in Active Pickups: What You Need to Know

Grounding is essential for active pickups because it helps to protect your gear from damage and ensures a good sound quality. Here are some reasons why grounding is important for active pickups:

  • Grounding helps to reduce or eliminate the buzz caused by unwanted noise and interference in the signal path.
  • It helps to provide a clear and clean sound by ensuring that the current flows smoothly through the guitar and amplifier.
  • Grounding can help to protect your gear from damage caused by electrical surges or feedback loops.
  • It is necessary for humcancelling designs, which are a major feature of many active pickups.

What Happens if Active Pickups are Not Grounded?

If active pickups are not grounded, the signal path can be interfered with by electrical noise and unwanted signals. This can cause a humming or buzzing sound to come out of your amplifier, which can be very annoying and distracting. In some cases, it can even cause damage to your gear or affect your ability to play the guitar properly.

How to Ensure Proper Grounding in Active Pickups?

To ensure proper grounding in active pickups, you can follow these steps:

  • Make sure that the pickup is properly anchored to the guitar body and that the grounding path is clear and unobstructed.
  • Check that the wire or foil connecting the pickup to the grounding point is properly soldered and not loose.
  • Make sure that the grounding point on the guitar is clean and free of any dirt or corrosion.
  • If you are making modifications to your guitar, ensure that the new pickup is properly grounded and that the existing grounding path is not interfered with.

Should I unplug my guitar with active pickups?

Leaving your guitar plugged in all the time can cause the battery to wear out quickly, and it can also cause potential danger if there’s a surge in the power supply. Additionally, having your guitar plugged in all the time can cause damage to the internal circuits of the pickup, which can result in a lower quality sound.

When is it safe to leave my guitar plugged in?

If you’re playing your guitar regularly and you’re using a high-quality amp, it’s generally safe to leave your guitar plugged in. However, it’s still a good idea to unplug your guitar when you’re not using it to extend the battery life.

What should I do to extend the battery life of my guitar with active pickups?

To extend the battery life of your guitar with active pickups, you should:

  • Keep your guitar unplugged when you’re not using it
  • Check the battery regularly and replace it when necessary
  • Use an extension cable to power your guitar instead of leaving it plugged in all the time

Combining Active and Passive Pickups: Is It Possible?

The short answer is yes, you can mix active and passive pickups on the same guitar. However, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

  • The signal from the passive pickup will be weaker than the signal from the active pickup. This means that you may need to adjust the volume levels on your guitar or amplifier to get a balanced sound.
  • The two pickups will have different tonal characteristics, so you may need to experiment with different settings to find the right sound.
  • If you’re using a guitar with both active and passive pickups, you’ll need to make sure that the wiring is set up correctly. This may require some modifications to your guitar’s construction.


So, that’s what active pickups are and how they work. They’re a great way to get a louder, more consistent tone from your guitar and are perfect for metal players looking for a more dynamic sound. So, if you’re looking for a pickup upgrade, consider active ones. You won’t regret it!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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