Active or Passive Pickups for Playing Metal?

Pickup choice is an important factor when playing guitar for the identifiable sound for high gain, saturated and aggresive metal.

Pickups contribute a large portion to a guitars sound along with amp, pedals, and effects compounding to provide an individual tone.

Choosing between active vs passive pickups will no doubt cross players minds when it comes to function, sound and sculpting their ideal metal tone.

The Aim of This Post

In this post, I will explain the differences in sound, tone and the versatility between both active and passive pickups for the guitarists looking to play metal (including its many sub-genres.)

And in the process, it may help you decide which pickup is the right candidate for you if you are still undecided which to go for.

The Short Answer…

Although subjective, active humbuckers are generally more favored for metal as they are ‘high output.’ Passive pickups, on the other hand, cannot produce as much output but are known for being more versatile in tones compared to active pickups due to the increased frequency range.

Before we begin…

Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong answer to this question both active and passive humbuckers are perfect companions for metal both just have slightly different characteristics in tone and function.

The answer to the question is what sounds best to your ears and your style and produces your perfect sound.

This post is to compare both pickups to give you the facts so you can decide which one is right for you. Let’s get into it…

Active Pickups For Metal

Undoubtedly, active humbucker pickups are the ‘identifiable pickup’ of the heavy guitar genres.

When you see the iconic blacked out rectangle shape in a guitar’s body, it is a subtle hint that the player is looking for an overdriven, high gain and saturated sound for heavy rhythm or lead.

Function

What separates active from passive pickups (and why some metal players prefer them) is that active pickups are notably known for being ‘high output.’

A high output pickup naturally produces more gain than a regular passive pickup as it has an external preamp on board supplying more gain which is powered by a 9V battery.

This allows the pickup to produce an overdriven and saturated tone with less external gain from your amp or distortion pedals. Hence why active pickups are the usual choice for metal players searching for high gain and saturated metal tones.

Meaning players can reach a higher level of saturation without having to crank the amps or pedals distortion allowing the player to get more distortion and bite from the guitar.

High Output

High output pickups produce a ‘hotter’ signal to the amplifier which will push the power tubes (if your amp is a tube amplifier) for more gain, saturation, and bite. Depending on your amp, it will vary to how sensitive your amp is to a pair of active pickups.

Active pickups produce more output as there are more wounds of copper wire surrounding the magnet more copper wounds increase the output, therefore, more gain potential.

A preamp configured within the components powered by a 9V battery in a separate compartment (which will need replacing depending on usage.) provides additional gain for more natural distortion.

Cancel Hum and Noise

Although most humbucker pickups do a great job at canceling noise and unwanted hum from a signal (especially with high gain.)

Active pickup electronics are designed to be virtually silent which is required with a metal tone slapped with a ton of gain being the main culprit of causing hum and feedback issues.

Heavy distortion can exaggerate hum and feedback hence why a noiseless pickup is certainly required for a silent guitar on stage and for ensuring smooth recording sessions.

Defined High Gain Tone

Active pickups arguably sound at their best when slapped with a ton of gain from mid gain crunch to ultra saturated metal tones. Yet, there’s no use having all this gain, if it does not sound ‘defined’ and ‘tight’ which brings us on to the next point.

Active pickups are arguably one of the best pickups when it comes to sifting through gain for the optimal string definition with a tone that is rolling in a ton of distortion.

The problem with ultra-saturated tones of the metal variety is that sometimes the notes and definition can get lost in the swamp of gain resulting in a muddy and loose tone.

Stand Out In a mix

When trying to get a heavy rhythm to stand out in a performance a muddy and loose tone can easily get lost on a band mix when performing live. Having your own sonic space within a mix can help standout especially if you play alongside another guitar player.

Active pickups there function to produce a ‘tight’ and ‘defined’ tone when slapped with a tone of gain allowing each string to be heard individually for a better and more optimal metal tone.

The combination of high output, string definition, and noiseless nature are the main reason why active pickups are so popular for metal.

The active route is the way to go for an ‘all out metal guitar’ for playing heavy distorted tones for dropped tunings, chugging, shredding, and riffage.

Cons of Active Pickups

Sound ‘Sterile’

The main criticism of active pickups is they sound ‘sterile’ and are not versatile in other tones such as ‘clean’ and ‘low gain crunch.’ ‘Sterile’ is a term used to describe a tone that lacks ‘character’ and ‘warmth.’

Although this darker tone sounds great at high gain saturation for a metal rhythm or lead sound. However, I agree when it comes to clean tones active pickups do not sound as dynamic and warm than the clean tone of a passive humbucker.

Keep in mind, if you are after a lush and pristine clean tone for live use or recording, you will not get this with an active pickup.

This is all subjective, as some players may actually prefer the colder and duller sound when it comes to clean tones. For recording, you could also just use a different guitar for recording separate clean parts.

Lack of Versatility

With a good passive pickup installed you can roll down the volume knob on the guitar from a saturated metal tone and transition to a nice warm vintage crunch tone.

Whereas roll down the volume on a guitar with active pickups, you will only end up with the exact same tone just a quieter version.

Therefore, with active pickups, you can not get any other useful tones when playing around with the volume knob compared to a passive pickup lessening the available tones in your guitar’s arsenal.

Overall it means the active route is not the most versatile pickup choice for acquiring good tones for playing other genres of music except metal and rock which is something to definitely keep in mind.

Pros

  • Produces more internal gain than passive
  • Hotter signal
  • Drive the valves in an amp
  • Great string definition when combined with high gain
  • Sound great with high saturation

Cons

  • Criticized for sounding ‘sterile’
  • Need a battery to run
  • Not as versatile in other tones
  • Clean tones not as warm and lack character, dynamics and range

Passive Pickups for Metal

Passive pickups have always been the long staple pickup before modern active pickups were introduced on the metal scene.

Passive do not use any active circuitry or a preamp within the electronics meaning passive are naturally lower in output but have the benefit of offering a different tone and flavor when it comes to dynamics.

Function

As there is no active circuitry within the electronics, passive solely rely on the magnet and wounds of copper around them to provide the signal from the strings through the guitar cable to the amp.

Although a weaker output sent to the amp to a metal player may seem like a disadvantage.

When in actual fact, passive pickups have been to sound more alive and respond differently compared to an active pickup for the drawback of having to use slightly more gain and distortion from an external source.

More Versatile

Passive pickups are known to offer a wider dynamic range as they can produce a variety of frequencies making them more versatile for different styles and genres of music.

They are also sound thick and warm providing great chunky metal tone which can easily be modified to suit your tone based on your ideal sub-genre of metal.

Passive pickups are also great for lower gain crunch tones as well as heavily saturated tones covering the wide variety of metal sounds and playing styles.

Clean Tones

If you desire a guitar that can pull off warm and articulate cleans then the passive route would be the best option compared to active pickups as active clean tones are known to sound sterile and lifeless.

Passive is capable depending on the guitar for producing lush and pristine clean tones adding to the versatility to the guitar.

Keep in mind, however, this is subjective and will come down to personal preference at the end of the day as some players may prefer the active clean tone.

Warmer and Fuller Tone

Passive pickups sound slightly warmer when applied with clean or ultra high distortion. This warmth adds a little more bottom-end to the sound

whereas active pickups are a little more piercing and cut through slightly more than passive in my opinion. Passive also have more character as they cover a wider range of frequencies than active pickups.

You can also manipulate the volume knob with passive pickups to recreate more vintage tones by lowering the volume knob allowing the pickup to ‘clean up’ the tone.

Whereas active pickups sound slightly more modern than traditional passive pickups and cannot recreate a vintage style tone which means passive allow for added tone shaping than active pickups.

Active pickups sound slightly more modern than traditional passive pickups and cannot recreate a vintage style tone which means passive allows for added tone shaping than a pair of active pickups.

9V Battery Not Required

Not having to keep an eye on battery life is also a slight benefit with passive pickups as a sneaky draining battery can negatively affect the pickups tone.

A draining battery will cause the pickup to sound: loose, nasally and lack output and tone, so keeping on top of the battery is something to consider with active pickups.

Also with an active pickup, some players forget to unplug the guitar when not in use which will drain the battery regardless if you are playing or not.

Just remember, always unplug the cable when you feel the need for a Facebook and Instagram break in-between playing sessions.

Cons of Passive Pickups

Lacking in Natural Gain

As mentioned, passive pickups do not include a preamp within the circuitry and housing meaning they do not push the tubes and supply as a hot signal down the guitar cable. Most general and stock passive pickups are lower output than the active pickup route.

However, the counter to this is that many pickup brands have recognized that some metal players like the tone of passive but want a meaner, hotter and ballsier version for slapping with saturated gain for metal.

Many pickup companies have introduced high output passive models tailored for all the heavy gain and metal players out there looking for the sound and flavor of passive with more output. Some of these notable pickups are…

  • Seymore Duncan Blackouts
  • EMG H4
  • Seymore Duncan Invader
  • Dimarzio Super Distortion

Swapping out your medium to low output pickup with a hotter high output pickup with if you want to add some bite and grit to your pickups. Adding high output passive pickups is a great way to retain some of the passive pickup tones with added gain and bite.

Is Gain Required From a Pickup?

Another point is that with the abundance of digital distortion (pedal or amp), boost pedals, EQ units distortion is somewhat available in abundance to the modern guitarist.

Even with passive pickups, any metal guitarist will have all the gain they can possibly need from most amps and pedals.

For this reason, active pickups are somewhat seen as a gimmick with even some players saying they are unnecessary and just a marketing ploy to metal players.

Basically, who needs the pickup supplying the gain with all the cheap distortion available to the modern metal guitarist. This is another point to ponder when deciding between active and passive pickups.

Pros

  • Warmer tone
  • More dynamics
  • Do not need a battery to run
  • Can get high output passive pickups
  • More versatile in tones

Cons

  • Not as bitey as active pickups
  • Do not drive the tubes as much as active
  • Not as much gain potential coming from the pickup
  • Slightly noisier than active pickups

Which is Right For You?

As mentioned, the right pickup for you is the pickup that sounds the best to your ears and represents the tone that you want to play. Both pickups are the best choices for any metal player, the one that you go with is the one that sounds best to you.

Things to look for when trying pickups…

  • How well it bites
  • How well it cleans up
  • The clean tone articulation
  • Articulation of the notes
  • Responsiveness of the notes
  • Sustain
  • Harmonic sustain
  • Bass response
  • Overall Tone

Based on what we have discussed. In my opinion, active pickups could be the best option for guitar players looking for an all-out metal guitar who are not concerned about playing other styles and the lack of versatility from the active route.

Passive pickups are better for players who prefer the warmer tone and require a guitar that is versatile and produce a number of tones for different genres and styles of music.

Thanks For Reading

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