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Active Guitar Pickups – What Are They?

Active Guitar Pickups – What Are They?

image of Haywire Custom Guitar loaded with EMG active pickups

Haywire Custom Guitar loaded with EMG active pickups

Active guitar pickups enhance your guitars operation and lower the magnetic requirements. When this happens there is no unnecessary pull on the strings to hamper sustain or pull your strings out of tune anymore, YEAYYY!  There are a variety of ways to “Activate” a pickup.  A small “buffer” pre-amp will do the work, but it will also amplify the hum and buzz the pickup produces. Just because any pickup is “active” doesn’t mean you’ll get great results just a strong, clean and quiet signal.  In The Haywire Custom Shop-we like EMG pickups. They are one of our favorites.

Active guitar pickups are reliable, clean, in addition, sound great

Active guitar pickups are reliable, clean, in addition, sound great and utilize an internal pre-amp (inside the pickup). As a result, not only makes the pickup louder, hence reduces the noise and they were made to be active!  In EMG’s the pickups have higher output than traditional passive pickups. The internal pre-amp is the most efficient way to operate an active pickup. All connections are shielded.  The output of the active pickup cable is low Z. This makes it less susceptible to noise. Also, it avoids sloppy loose connections in a guitar and installation is easy. Easy installation. They have also introduced “solder-less” connections for players who want more simplicity. If you feel more comfortable with solder, cut the connectors off.

The output of the active pickup cable is low Z.

If you find that the output level of your EMG pickup is too hot to get clean tones, the best fix is to reduce the distance of the pickup from the strings. The proximity of the pickup to the string has a lot to do with volume. If that doesn’t do it for you, then use the amp and guitar volume controls.

you can snug these pickups high and close right up under the strings

Unlike a traditional passive volume/tone system, the low-impedance EMG system lets you turn down the volume with very little effect on the tone, so you won’t sound muffled when you back off the volume knob. This is much like the Haywire Treble Bleed Option for passive style pickups.  Especially relevant you can snug these pickups high right up under the strings so they’ll hear much more subtle sounds, harmonics  percussive notes other pickups fail to hear.

Active guitar and bass pickups require a battery. The EMG also has the “Select” models which are passive and don’t need one.  The pre-amp in the active pickups styles, located inside the pickup encased in epoxy, and is powered by either one or two 9 volt batteries. The EMG active pickups after-burners, numerous effects and EQ’s are powered by a 9 volt (IEC 6LR61/NEDA 1604A) battery.

Active guitar and bass pickups require a battery.

We recommend normal alkaline batteries (Eveready or Duracell, for example) for best results. These are easy to obtain, inexpensive and the same batteries that you would use in an effects box or wireless unit. Rechargeable batteries in EMG systems are not recommended. Although they are compatible electrically, They be problematic and have some “memory” issues.

Active Guitar Pickups Use Electronics To Improve The Sound of Your Guitar

EMG Active guitar pickups, EMG effects and EQ units can run off a single battery usually with no problems. Because the power drain on EMG products is very low,  you can get long battery life.  Furthermore, unplug when you’re not playing to maximize battery life..  If you have room for multiple batteries in your guitar, you can use two batteries wired in series to power your onboard circuitry for a total of 18 volts.

the power drain on batteries from EMG products is very low

The output level will not increase, but you’ll have more headroom and crisper sounds. This is excellent for percussive/slap bass styles where you can generate large instantaneous power levels across the entire frequency spectrum.

You can also wire two batteries in parallel to provide a regular 9 volt supply but with much longer lifespan between battery changes. Most of EMG’s  products are rated for 27 volts they recommend a maximum of 18 volts.  Any benefits of 27 vs. 18 volts are negligible.

jack included with all models has a switch that disconnects the battery

All EMG pickups and EQ systems are designed for extremely low power drain. The pickup jack included with all models has a switch that disconnects the battery when the guitar is not plugged in. So, unplug when you’re not playing as a good housekeeping measure to maximize battery life.

Each of their pickups requires about 80 microamps (uA), except for the Vintage Series pickups which require 220 uA each. EMG active EQ circuit requirements vary widely but are higher than pickups. NOTE: a standard 9 volt alkaline battery provides 580 milliAmpHours (mAh) of power. That means that it will provide 580 milliAmps for 1 hour or 1 milliamp for 580 hours. There are 1000 uA per mA. You can figure the approximate battery life of any setup by adding up the individual power requirements, then dividing 580,000 by this total. Here’s an example:

1 – EMG-81 = 80 uA

2 – EMG-SV = 220 uA*2 = 440 uA

1 – EXG = 410 uA


Total required = 930 uA

Total life = 580,000 uAh/930 uA = 623 hours

If  your guitar stayed plugged in day and night, the battery would last a month. Under normal playing conditions, you would probably be looking at changing the battery once or twice a year.  Of course, you should always carry a spare battery and not try to drain it! Because EMG pickups are designed operate as Active guitar pickups, they’re not very functional without power.

Always carry a spare battery

When the battery weakens over time, the output level will reduce and sound from your guitar will become more distorted. This is a sign to change the battery now. Below a certain voltage, the onboard active circuitry will stop working.  At  that point, you will hear little or no output from the guitar. Remember:  Unplug your guitar because of the output jack and battery relationship when using active pickups and guitar is not in use. This will prevent premature power loss from the battery.

image of active Haywire Custom Guitar with EMG pickups

Active Haywire Custom Guitar with EMG pickups

About the Author:

Mr. Rick Mariner Owner and Founder and CEO of Haywire Custom Guitars Inc. He is a member of The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (A.S.I.A.) as well as a guitar player. Rick holds a bachelors degree from University of Md. and a Masters degree from George Washington University. Rick developed his exclusive 8 – Point “Gig- Ready” guitar process that allows for Custom Guitars that are “GIG-READY”. With Rick’s many years of development and guitar set-up experience, Haywire Guitar shop “Builds satisfied players… one Haywire guitar at a time”.

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