Active vs Passive Pickups for Djent: What Sounds Better?

Many Djent devotees and priests of Prog have intensely debated the question, “Active Vs Passive Pickups”. Which one is the key to tonal savagery?

While active pickups will grant you more output and more sustain, it’s passive pickups that will give you more dynamic tones (and more tone options on the market). Also, with many iconic Djent and Prog payers using high output passives, you will be closer to the tone you desire.

Time to adorn an 8-string baritone guitar and discuss the nuances of Djent. 

Do active pickups sound good for Djent?

To fully answer this question first, we must understand what active pickups are and what their role is.

What are active pickups?

Active pickups are simply a pickup system that employs a powered preamp (battery-powered, for the most part). When they were first designed in 1976, their original goal was to hit the front end of an amp hard, giving more gain and more sustain.

Given the style of amps at the time (single channel Marshalls and Oranges) this was a brilliant idea! 

But these days we have high-gain amps and amp modelers, so do active pickups still have a role to play? Particularly with the glorious rise of Djent and modern Prog. 

Pros of active pickups:

  • You can push the preamp of your amp harder and further: Great for more traditional amps. Allowing you to say yes more often to the question, “Does it Djent?”.  
  • Elevates your cheap guitars: If you love metal tones, an EMG pickup can make a $500 guitar sound like a $1000 guitar. (But it can also make a $2000 guitar sound like that same $1000 guitar)
  • Use less gain on your amp: Less preamp gain is needed, thus less amp compression so you have less noise and hiss. A hot yet more ‘open’ tone.
  • More sustain on cleaner sounds: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd is not the example you think of when mentioning active pickups but his EMG-driven tone is a great example of how much sustain you can juice out of active pickups without needing a crushing amount of gain.
  • Many active pickups come in an extended range: Most companies that produce active pickups (EMG, Fishman, Seymour Duncan) are starkly aware that courageous Djent-o-nauts dream of a 7th and 8th strings… perhaps even a 9th string of tectonic doom! Even then, EMG has your back with the 909.

Cons of active pickups:

  • Compressed sound out of the gate: As with any preamp designed to boost your signal, there will be a certain amount of compression involved. This is the issue with a preamp being part of your direct guitar tone, you can never fully escape it.
  • Fewer dynamics from your touch: The onboard preamp will lift your softest moments, keeping a more constant volume. This unfortunately sands out your picking hand dynamics.
  • Batteries: You will need to constantly keep fresh 9-volt batteries on hand as without them your guitar becomes as useful as a pile of wire and wood. 
  • Woodwork: Many guitars will need routing for the battery packs, requiring you to permanently hack wood from your beloved guitar. 

Though, as a brilliant side note, Fishman Pickups have found ways around the traditional issues of active pickups. They have done so with remarkable ingenuity.

Fishman Fluence pickups allow you to:

  • Switch between active and passive modes.
  • USB rechargeable battery packs that simply replace your already existing cavity covers. 
  • Minimal to no, invasive work on your guitar.

If active pickups pique your interest, then the Fishman Fluence series is a must.

To answer the question; “Do active pickups Djent?!”

Quality active pickups like Fishman Fluence, EMG, and Blackouts will do the job gloriously… with a few caveats. 

Are passive pickups better for Djent?

As always, ‘better’ is a subjective term. Although there are some very stark Pros to be had with passive pickups, not just in general but also for Prog/Metal/Djent.

Pros of passive pickups:

  • Better Dynamics: From crystal clean to world-shattering filth, modern passive pickups will grant you much more nuance and tone that can be more sonically shaped for the job at hand.
  • More options for pickup replacements: More aftermarket options for finding the perfect voice that suits your desires. Passives out weight the active pickups market by multitudes of 10.
  • Bigger range of outputs: Djent is not simply a linear race to the most distorted. You may find that your sound is at its best when a touch cleaner than expected, some moderate output pickups could lend your tone a great open presence.
  • EQ-able sound: Due to not having a preamp your sound will be far more malleable, and thus can better fit into a mix. Both live and during recording.

Cons of Passive Pickups:

  • Lower output: The lower output can force you to rely on your amp or a pedal to reach your nasty nirvana of tone. This could also mean you need to run your amps gain at a hotter setting, thus having more noise. 

That’s kind of it…

You will slightly hear the nuances of your instrument a little more with passive pickups, so if your guitar is not really up to the task, a set of active pickups will make those characteristics less noticeable. 

This, however, comes at the cost of sanding away the unique tones of your axe.

Companies like Lundgren even offer passive 8 and 9-string pickups that are famously used by Meshuggah. So extended range is not an issue.

What kind of pickups do famous Djent players use?

There has been a big shift towards the Fishman Fluence system by players like Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders), Stephen Carpenter (Deftones), Will Adler (Lamb of God), and many more worshipers of high-gain glory.

This makes it seem as though active pickups are on the rise once again.

However, Djent as its own genre aside from metal is surprisingly less gain-ridden than one might think. It requires a great low-mid hump in the EQ with solid tight bass that is quick to respond and a tamed, sweet high end. 

Yes! It needs to have sizeable gainy girth, but clarity and preciousness are key.

The necessary outputs are well within the reach of any ‘high output’ passive pickup.

Periphery use Bare Knuckles Ragnaroks, Dimarzio Titans, and Seymour Duncan Alpha and Omegas.

Tesseract uses Bare Knuckle Black Hawks.

Meshuggah (the godfathers of this whole genre) use Lundgren Passives, and there is no demon in hell that can match the aggression of Fredrik and Mårten’s tones.

It seems that time and time again, passives reign supreme in the higher end of the djentscape.

Main differences between active and passive pickups?

In terms of technology, actives differ mainly in the fact that they have a powered preamp to boost your signal. That is the only real qualifier for an active pickup.

This will affect your experience by allowing you to push more amps into the high-gain territory. Including more vintage amps like a Marshall JCM 800. 

Active pickups, by their very nature, will more often than not be voiced for modern high-gain applications, unfortunately, this is the case to a fault. 

This comes at a cost to dynamics, EQ control, and convenience (batteries and routing installation). 

Which one should you get?

The first question you should ask yourself when questioning if either passive or active pickups are for you is; What is it that you need?

If you are a Djent-atsic adventurer that demands dramatic dynamics, desires good touch response, and runs the tonal gamut from clean to girth ridden gain (and also have a modern amp/pedal that can facilitate those tones), then you should try out high gain passive pickups like;

  • Dimarzio: Titan or D Activator
  • Seymour Duncan: Pegasus
  • Bare Knuckle: Aftermath or Polymath

Without question, these pickups will grant you the aggression and well-pronounced midrange that you need to carve out a tight, yet unique Metal/Djent/Prog tone. All whilst not burdening you with the downsides of active pickups.

That being said, if you have a more vintage or traditional style amp (or an amp that just won’t Djent) and you want to push the tubes into the glorious hellfire of brutality. Active pickups may be just the ticket, try out;

  • Fishman: Fluence series (head and shoulders above the rest)
  • Seymour Duncan: Black Outs
  • EMG: 81’s

Don’t feel the need to stay fixed on these options though, many of the high output pickups from these companies (Dimarzio, Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckle, Fishmen) will serve you brilliantly. The secret is not ‘which is the highest output’ but rather ‘which has the right voicing for me’. Explore them and listen for the EQ, not just the gain.

You might find that you love the tone of active pickups through a modern amp with the preamp gain dialed down. This gives you a rounder and hard-hitting tone driven by the pickups and the power amp.

Your tone might even be held within pedals like the Precision Drive, made by Horizon Devices, allowing you to use more moderate output pickups.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I would strongly suggest passives for Djent and Prog. Unless your guitar comes with actives.

You will have more tonal options and less hassle from batteries and charging.

Last, but truly not least, you will be closer to the tone that many of your favorite artists have inspired you to find.