Choose the Best Active Pickup for Metal
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Best Active Pickups for Metal – Buyer’s Guide
A central question that concerns many guitarists is that of the pickups. What role do they play in the overall sound, what is their relationship to the amp? Sure, wood and finish affect the sound, but there are many myths and misconceptions about the role of pickups and pickups. Certain names are unmistakably synonymous with a certain sound, such as DiMarzio and E.M.G., for example, but overall the world of guitar pickups can sometimes be divided into two central headings: active and passive.
Facts: Active pickups for an electric guitar to play metal music
The most important area of application for active pickups is and remains high-gain. Not exclusively, but if you look at the equipment of many metal and hardcore bands, you stumble almost exclusively over the name E.M.G. Maybe that’s why: Metal and harder sounding bands are confronted with one central accusation, especially in recent years: Everything sounds somehow the same. The reason for this is complex, and if you want to give the argument a certain justification, you will undoubtedly have to refer to the pickups.
Let’s take a closer look. The principle of active pickups guarantees that not much signal loss takes place, even with cable lengths of over ten meters. The integrated preamp in active pickups is powered by its own battery, which boosts the signal and ensures little resistance. This is where the often absurd accusation comes in that the preamp would kill the playing dynamics. An accusation that got on E.M.G.’s nerves so much that they released the X-series, which, in addition to the usual advantages of active pickups, also improved reactivity. But the fact is – this can not really be confirmed. And the preamp also marks the biggest advantage of active pickups: there is virtually no signal loss.
This is where the accusation of sterility comes in: if you significantly compress the sound before or after the E.Q. unit of your amp while the gain remains up, you get a more lifeless sound when working with active pickups like the E.M.G.’s. This may be intentional: That staccato-like sound is based on the Djent current, for example – hard, compressed output. But that’s not the only reason why active pickups like E.M.G. are used in high-gain and metal. One of the main reasons is how active pickups reproduce bass frequencies: very tidy, very compact, reproducing the entire lower third of the frequency in a 1:3 ratio. In other words: highs, mids, and lows of active pickups are in an even ratio to each other and compared to passive pickups, it gives more space to higher frequencies – this is especially noticeable when you turn down the volume pot on active pickups – highs and mids are then relatively well preserved. For bass-heavy, “boomy” music, bassy or low-end pickups are therefore not a good choice, as they squash the sound quite quickly when distortion is applied. However, for the stage, an active pickup may mean a better presence of treble in the overall sound or “overriding” the other sound sources of the stage.
Another disadvantage, however: chords. Suppose you let several notes sound simultaneously in a chord with an E.M.G. pickup at 12 o’clock gain. In that case, you will have to put up with less differentiated attacks and a muddier overall sound compared to a passive pickup à la Seymour Duncan. However, this is also a characteristic sound, especially in metal – the chord blur’s individual notes. This can be quite intentional to maintain the wall of sound in mid-gain. So let’s summarize:
- lower playing dynamics
- higher output
- clearer sound, even representation of frequencies
- much sustain
- with compression especially susceptible to clinical sound character
- resistant to noise
The integrated preamp also ensures, among other things, that the sound of an active pickup is less dependent on its immediate environment than passive ones. In other words, the difference between mahogany and basswood is more noticeable with a passive pickup than with an active one.
Active pickups – Advantages
The signal that is output to your guitar cable (usually simply called “output”) is stronger with active pickups than with passive ones. In other words, it has a higher electrical voltage.
What does this lead to in practice? Well, the simple rule of thumb “more output = louder!” falls short, even though this is, of course, the defining characteristic – at least if guitar and effects devices are set up exactly as they are when operated via low-output pickup. How guitar amps, effects units & co. interact with this in terms of sound is another matter.
The transmission range in the frequency spectrum is higher, leading to more present highs and a somewhat clearer, richer, less “muffled” sound.
The volume difference between the softest and hardest string strikes is generally less than with passive pickups. This ultimately makes the sound more consistent, punchier, less jumpy, and more assertive.
Sustain, or the sound of the strings vibrating outcomes noticeably more to the fore. In other words: Active pickups have a lower dynamic range.
Better for Metal & High-Gain
Due to the reduced dynamic range between loud and soft, active pickups are generally better suited for hard, punchy styles. In other words, anything that is meant to sound very confident, tone-driven, aggressive, and powerful from the way it is played and the subsequent distortion.
Due to the weaker magnets, active pickups cause less hum, noise, and other interference.
Same sound with all cable lengths
No matter how long your guitar cable is, the sound remains virtually unchanged. So you know what to expect, even if different cables are available for different studio sessions, gigs, and rehearsals. Technically responsible for this is the lower impedance of the signal.
A question of gain – amp or pickup?
The relationship between gain, amp, and pickup is not an easy subject. There are no easy to formulate rules of thumb, although it can be said: Output of the pickup and volume of the amp can be in a certain relationship to each other. If you are dealing with lower output from a pickup, the gain on the amp sometimes needs to be readjusted to preserve the distortion sound. This can result in some amps that don’t compress well at higher volumes losing nuances when played. For example, what guarantees a – comparatively – muddy sound are passive pickups with a weak output, which is compensated by increasing the volume of the power amp and strength gain. Then it often becomes undifferentiated, sometimes even muddy. Amps indeed compress more at higher volumes than at lower ones, but a common procedure, especially in the stage situation, is to take off amps at lower volumes via the P.A., especially if high-gain plays a role in the sound, in order to avoid a too high output stage of the amp. High gain and a high output stage are often problematic for the overall sound of the stage and dilute it,
But can anyone hear in a blind test under identical conditions whether passive Seymour Duncans are being played or active E.M.G.’s? Opinions differ greatly on this. Experience shows: At high gain rather – there the even frequency response of the active P.U.’s comes into play, and the somewhat “musty” character of the passive P.U.’s contrasts that. I also imagine that I can distinguish an EMG81 in crunch mode from a Seymour Duncan, but pure subjectivity.
So let’s leave it at that: How important are the pickups in the overall context of the sound in the end? Amp, cabinet, miking, mix – what role does a pickup play? In terms of the supposed plus or minus of output, actually none. More important is the voicing of the pickup, i.e., its frequency response. And if you don’t like the voicing of the pickup, you can correct it with the E.Q. of the amp. If it is too treble-heavy, you can take the treble out a bit. If there is not enough low end, turn up the bass. This is the crux of the matter, the actual relationship between pickup and amp: Frequency response of the pickup and E.Q. of the amp. And the output? At least in principle, can it be said that active pickups always have a higher output than passive ones? Not at all: especially the S.H. series from Seymour Duncan surpasses many E.M.G.’s in terms of output – see Seymour Duncan SH-6.
So what kind of sound a pickup produces is not so much dependent on whether it’s active or passive, but how its voicing/frequency response turns out – its character, and that comes into play differently in different genres. And what makes up the frequency response, the characteristic? Pickups usually consist of two central components: Magnets and coils. To explain all the science behind the reactivity of pickups would go beyond this article’s scope, but it is not the magnets that are central, but the coils – and how high their electrical resistance is. The following formula should be taken with a grain of salt: higher resistance = warmer sound, but what is clear is that how many windings a coil has and how it is geometrically constructed are also significant factors – as is the resonant frequency brought about by inductance. So let’s summarize: Frequency response is everything, output less so.
Walter Fuller’s first project was the so-called Charlie Christian pickup, which was mounted on the EH-150 Hawaiian guitar in 1935 and a short time later on the ES-150 (now known as the Charlie Christian model). E.H. stands for “Electric Hawaiian” and E.S. for “Electric Spanish.” The ES-150 may well be considered the forerunner of the now-familiar jazz classic, the ES-175. As far as the construction or rather the installation of the Charlie Christian pickup is concerned, this is exactly the type of pickup you wouldn’t want to miss on your favorite guitar: the pickup, which is huge by today’s standards, not only requires the pickup to be milled into the top as we know it from the ES-175 or the L-5, but the pickup is held in place by three screws whose holes are located in the center of the top; moreover, it would never have been possible to mount more than one of these huge pickups on an instrument. In 1946, the so-called P-90 pickup with “dog ears” was mounted on the ES-300; the sound of this pickup is still synonymous with raw, dynamic rock and blues sounds, but it is also popular for jazz guitars.
The P-90 is, just like the Charlie Christian pickup, a pure single-coil pickup, which reacts accordingly sensitive and catches noise, if, e.g., power transformers are near it. However, the construction and sound of the P-90 are completely different from the single-coil pickups typically used on Fender instruments. The P-90 has a relatively low profile but wide coil with 10,000 turns of enameled copper wire no thicker than a hair, 0.063 mm. Two Alnico bar magnets generate the magnetic field required for induction (See right: How does a magnetic pickup work) with equal poles against each other and vertically aligned by means of six height-adjustable iron screws.
The difference in sound from a Fender Stratocaster pickup is due to these very design features: Wide coil, a higher number of turns, and bar magnets (instead of Fender’s usual bar magnets) give the P-90 a powerful yet mellow basic character, while the typical Strat sound has a more clearly defined and rather bright to cutting basic character. After the P-90 was the standard pickup at Gibson for ten years and was used on all Les Paul models, for example, Seth Lover and Walter Fuller developed a hum-free pickup in the mid-fifties, the so-called humbucker, which replaced the P-90 on the more expensive Gibson instruments starting in 1957 and was also used for new guitar designs. This development led to what are arguably the most popular and now the highest priced instruments in guitar history.
Starting in 1957, the Les Paul Standard, as well as the L-5 and Super 400, were equipped with the new humbuckers, and shortly after that, the new developments ES-335, Flying V, and Explorer appeared, also equipped with the new hum-free pickups. This new Gibson pickup revolutionized – after the guitar’s electrification and the invention of the solid-body guitars – now for the third time the modern guitar construction within a few years and is now after 45 years an indispensable tonal benchmark and industry standard at the same time. Gibson used the terms “humbucking pickup” or “humbucker” for the new pickup. In guitarist circles, the pickups were later also referred to as P.A.F.’s. This name came from the fact that the first Gibson humbuckers’ base plate had a small label.
This simply meant “patent pending” and was intended to keep competitors from copying the humbucker design. Gibson engineers spent a lot of time designing the new humbucker to have the “right” sound and a reasonable size. It hardly took up more space than the P-90 pickup, even though the actual humbucker principle is nothing more than an interconnection of two single-coil pickups. The hum-free pickup principle is actually elementary, but – someone has to come up with it first! You take two identical coils and align the magnetic north pole of one coil and the other coil’s magnetic south pole to the top. The first coil’s beginning serves as “hot end,” and the second coil’s beginning as “ground.” The two coil ends are connected, and the humbucker is finished.
Why does this work? Each coil works as an independent single-coil. The signals of the two single coils, which are triggered by the magnetic field change of the vibrating string and thus produce the tone, are added – that’s why a humbucker is usually more powerful in tone than a single-coil. On the other hand, the noise, which both single coils still capture, cancels out because of their antiphase nature. After the revolutionary development of the humbucker in 1957, Gibson continued to experiment with new pickup designs, but with the exception of the types that can be grouped under the heading of mini-humbuckers, no significant designs emerged that could have had a lasting impact on the pickup market.
On the one hand, the term mini-humbucker refers to the pickup that has been used on many Epiphone guitars since 1961 and was first used on a Gibson, namely the Les Paul Deluxe, in 1969. On the other hand, “mini-humbucker” is also an umbrella term for other narrow humbuckers with a similar construction principle. The Johnny Smith pickup, popular among jazz musicians, falls into this category, as do the Firebird pickups or the Nighthawk’s neck pickup. All these mini humbuckers have in common the two small coil bodies under the metal cap. However, the individual types differ in wire gauge, number of windings, and sometimes even in their design features.
Gibson pickups today In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gibson built very few different pickups, and even fewer were available in accessory stores. Meanwhile, the Gibson pickup lineup has expanded to include several signature pickups, a new single-coil, and an exact reproduction of the 1957 humbucker. Nevertheless, the list of Gibson pickups is still very manageable; the following classification shows that a grouping into three basic types is sufficient:
- The classic Gibson humbucker with all its offshoots and variants
- The P-90 family
- The mini-humbucker types
Useful Video: Active vs Passive Pickups
All things being equal:
- Active pickups sound clearer, with more sustain and cleaner
- Passive pickups respond more dynamically and don’t need electricity
- The choice is a matter of taste depending on the music genre and sound