Ya know what I find interesting? The changing state of metal guitar tones and pickup choices. When you think back to the tones that shaped metal, you’ll encounter an ever widening scope of sonic flavours. Tony Iommi tended to play early Sabbath riffs on the neck pickup while focusing his power chord attack on the higher frets of the low E string. Richie Blackmore used single coils to focus his attack into prototypical neoclassic metal fire. Randy Rhoads forged his tone with Gibson or Seymour Duncan pickups through a distortion pedal and Marshall head. Then Metallica came along and drove their scooped-mid attack with active EMG humbuckers. And for a while, that became ‘the metal sound.’ So why are passive pickups making a comeback?
The Golden Age of EMG
This EMG-driven tone has endured for so long for a very good reason: it still sounds great. It’s a lot of fun to play, and there’s a certain feel, a sort of sizzling, sort of steamrollering vibe thrown in which is perfect for metal. Hell, an EMG-loaded guitar through an Ibanez Tube Screamer into a high-gain amp like an EVH 5150III pretty much defines the last decade of metal. So don’t get me wrong – I’m certainly not suggesting you ditch your EMGs.
But I’ve noticed a rise in passive pickups for metal lately. After a multi-decade run of the EMG 81 being the predominant metal pickup, a few other models seem to be rising through the metal maelstrom and putting in a particularly strong showing. There are a few in particular that seem to be quite popular on the guitar forums right now.
All about the mids!
In the wake of the massive popularity of crushing EMG-powered tones, players have been slowly converting to mid-focused, dynamic passive pickups. A number of modern alternative acts like Muse, John 5, Lamb of God and Deftones have been defecting to the passive side, seeking an alternative tonal palette.
DiMarzio have always been pretty good at nailing high-output passive pickups, including their borderline-iconic Super Distortion. Another good example is the Crunch Lab, which has become one of the go-to pickups for progressive rock & metal. It’s a warm-but-not-dull-sounding set which has great midrange richness, focused bass and powerful attack, but a slightly human, earthy element as well. It doesn’t hurt that they were designed for Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, who requires a pickup that can cover a lot of ground.
A few Seymour Duncan sets seem to be getting a fairly good shake right now too: djent and extreme metal players seem to really be digging the Duncan Distortion and the Invader (Neck/Bridge), while the 80s-vibed Full Shred is finding new fans as a progressive rock pickup.
The Djent Movement
Is djent a genre? The term originated as an onomatopoeic description of the sound of an extended-range guitar chugging a palm-muted chord. What started as a funny word became a musical movement in itself, embodying the rhymth-centric, mind-boggling compositions of a new wave of creative musicians.
This demanding form of music required a superior dynamic response. One that could handle the most crystalline of cleans and the most devastating of distorted tones, while retaining the utmost clarity. While active pickups make appearances every now and then, it’s passive pickups that bear the bulk of the djent workload.
UK manufacturer Bare Knuckle seem to have captured the imagination of the djent crowd, especially with the Aftermath and Black Hawk humbuckers. These pickups are designed to provide the transparency and output of an active with the character and dynamic control of a passive pickup. DiMarzio have also proved extremely popular, with their notoriously hot magnets being tamed with clarity and a couple of extra strings in mind.
So why? What is it about passive pickups that has won a few players back from active models – or at least prompted them to get a second guitar with passives while still enjoying their actives? Well from personal experience I would guess that it comes down to detail. Traditional metal actives are great for power and aggression, but they’re not typically known for their subtlety. Passives generally capture more dynamic range and more string detail, plus it’s easier to get a wider range of sounds from careful use of the guitar’s volume knob in conjunction with your amp’s input section. So I think that as metal swings into a more nuanced, ‘widdly-widdly’ single-note-riff era again after a long period of crushing power chords and overt rhythmic rather than melodic or harmonic focus, we’ll be seeing a lot more love for passive pickups as well as for the kinds of hardware, tonewoods and construction methods that show them in their best light.