The 4 Best Active Pickups – Guitar & Bass Pickup Reviews 2023

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The discussions whether active pickups are better than passive ones and vice versa have been around for a while. The truth is that each of these offers a very different performance that is more suitable for certain genres of music and playing styles. In simple terms, active pickups use a dedicated preamp to push more deliver a more powerful sound.

Because of this, they require a power source to keep the preamp going. Although they are more powerful, active pickups are less expressive and articulate than the passive pickups. With that said, active pickups excel in genres such as metal where a robust tone is a must.

There’s a whole fully saturated market for active pickups, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are capable of delivering a good enough performance. Today, we are going to take a look at 4 of the best active pickups, which have been around for a while. The main criteria we used when choosing which models to include here is a proven track record. There are several names that come to mind right away.

EMG 85

Over the years EMG has become a synonym for active pickups, especially for electric guitars. One of the models that earned them this reputation is the EMG 85. Along with an EMG 81, this pickup is what you will most often find both on stock or customized guitars. There is a good reason for this. EMG 85 gives you that beefy tone especially in the lower part of the frequency range.

It adds substance to lows and mids, while it retains pretty clear trebles. The core of the EMG 85 is a set of two Alnico coils that are setup in a way that gives you the voicing we just described. EMG 85s are usually installed in the bridge position, and deliver great rhythm tones both for metal and more refined genres of music such as blues.

These days EMG pickups, including the EMG 85, come with quick connect prewired cable kits and buckets. This means no soldering is required during the installation of these pickups. All you have to do is plug the cables in their dedicated spots and you are good to go. If you want active pickups but aren’t really sure what to get, EMG 85/81 combo is a proven choice.

EMG 81 vs EMG 85 vs EMG 60 - Bridge Position

EMG 81

EMG 81 is the other part of the equation that starts with EMG 85. These two pickups are the golden standard of active humbuckers at the moment. EMG 81 brings that clinical accuracy that 85 lacks. This pickup is most often placed at the neck position and gives you more defined tone that isn’t too obscured and full of power like the EMG 85. It’s full of sustain. Sure, other active pickups offer great sustain, but nowhere near as EMG 81. This is one of the attributes that made it so popular and widespread.

This pickup also comes with a kit that allows you to install it on your guitar without having to solder a single thing. The whole thing can be dropped into a guitar in no time given that you can find room for the battery. Not only are EMG’s still one of the best active pickups you can get, but they are also the easiest to install by far.

EMG 81 Vs 85 In The Bridge Position : Can You Tell The Differences?

Seymour Duncan AHB-1 Blackout

If EMG is the Ying, then Seymour Duncan is the Yang of active pickup world. They are somewhat of a counter-balance to the EMG in terms of tone. Seymour Duncan AHB-1 Blackout is one Seymour Duncan’s best selling active pickup models. These offer a performance that is not something you would expect from an active pickup.

Instead of just piling a bunch of additional power to the organic tone of the guitar like most active pickups do, Seymour Duncan AHB-1 Blackouts actually retain the natural tonal signature of the guitar and amplify it in a rather discreet way. In other words, you won’t get that typical obscure tone. What you will get is a very defined tone that has a rich mid-range with lots of headroom. This makes Seymour Duncan AHB-1 very expressive by a lot of standards.

ibanez RGR08 - seymour duncan blackout AHB1 - Peavey 6505

Seymour Duncan Basslines AJB-5

Active pickups are not limited to electric guitars. Bass guitars can greatly benefit from a decent set of active pickups. One model that is currently very popular is the Seymour Duncan Basslines AJB-5 series. These active bass pickups bring one of the thickest tones and are not impaired by noise or hum. The bridge pickup packs a mean punch in the low end, with lots of saturation while the neck pickups bring that clarity that is necessary when you need high definition.

What makes these pickups so great is the way they tackle the low B strings. We are talking about a thick string that isn’t easy to handle, even for a passive set. Things get exponentially harder when you add a powered pickup that has the tendency to amplify everything, good or bad. Seymour Duncan Basslines AJB-5 are one of the few active pickups that get the job done without sacrificing performance. Both the neck and bridge pickup handle the B string with an elegance that is rarely found elsewhere. These are definitely among the best active bass pickups you can purchase.

What to Look for When Buying the Best Active Pickups

Active pickups are definitely a tool that is best used with certain genres of music. They come in all kinds of shapes and flavors. With that said, the ones we listed here are the golden standard at the moment. All of these are proven pickups that have been tested countless times by a wide range of musicians who play different genres of music.

One of the key factors we went for – apart from durability, reliability, and value for money of course – is that the sonic groove of this puppies is well under control. Some manufacturers tend to just crank everything up to 11 because the power overload appeals to newbies, but doesn’t actually sound good at all in a band environment. We made sure that such items are discarded and that only articulate, yet powerful devices are included in the mix.

The EMG 85/81 (see full specs) has such a huge following that manufacturers started including them in their mid range guitars a long time ago. Seymour Duncan Blackouts (see full specs) offer a great alternative that doesn’t try to replicate what the EMG offers, but rather gives you a completely different tone. Which one you will go for largely depends on your personal taste and requirements. The fact of the matter is that each of these will qualify as the best active pickups on the market and will get you the best possible performance currently available. Good luck!

Written and Reviewed By

  • Micah Johnson started playing music in high school, when he taught himself the bass to join his friend’s band. He added guitar and drums during his twenties playing in local clubs, and along the way, he picked up unique, hands-on experience from hand drums to studio mixers. On Song Simian, he aims to share this knowledge from 20+ years playing and recording music. When not in gearhead mode, he enjoys photography and travel.

  • Marko is the senior editor and writer on Ultimate Guitar, the No. 1 guitar spot on the web, since early 2013. His work was also featured on a variety of other notable gear spots such as Guitar Fella, Consordini, and, of course, Song Simian. His musical journey began at a very young age, and he finally opted to pick up an instrument in his early teenage years. A fan of King Crimson. A travel enthusiast.

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