Zakk Wylde Explains Why He Prefers Active Over Passive Pickups

Guitar legend Zakk Wylde looked back on the first time he ever saw and heard active pickups on a guitar and why he prefers them over the usual passive stuff.

Being one of the most influential lead guitar players who came out of the 1980s, Zakk is almost synonymous with active pickups. You pretty much can’t imagine him playing a guitar without EMG 81 and 85 humbuckers in it. The clear and high-output signal pushes any amp he’s playing through and, combined with his specific style of playing, sums up in a very recognizable sound we all know today.

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But, believe it or not, there was a time when Zakk didn’t know that such a thing as an active pickup existed. Speaking to Premier Guitar for their Rig Rundown segment, the Ozzy Osbourne axeman said that his first contact with active pickups was from one of his guitar students. He recalled (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“With EMGs, when I started playing them, one of my guitar students at the time… This was before Ozz, so I never had anyone try and sell me on ’em — he had a Fender Jaguar, a thin-body guitar.”

“And I said, ‘Wow, what are those pickups?’ ‘They’re called EMGs, you’ve gotta put a battery in them.’ I was like, ‘Battery?’ I had PAFs; I had no idea in mine.”

Since Zakk joined Ozzy when he was about 20 years old, this was around the time when he was pretty much a kid. He was a talented one, but he still didn’t have that many years of musicianship behind him to be familiar with all the stuff that was around. And active pickups sure weren’t all that widespread back then.

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“That’s what that amp was supposed to sound like!”

As Wylde further added, he plugged into his Marshall amp and played a G chord. And that’s when he fell in love.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what that amp was supposed to sound like,'” Zakk recalled. “I could hear all the highs, lows, mids. And the clarity — I could hear everything. Whereas on my guitar, what you hear was all muffled and just sounded like there was a film over it.”

Now, it’s pretty tricky to discuss whether active or passive pickups are better. This comes down to nothing but personal preferences. But as far as Zakk’s preferences go, he simply found active pickups to be the best choice for what he was trying to get.

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“When you think about it, the pickup is your microphone,” he argued when explaining his choices. “When you’re singing out of a $12,000 Telefunken mic in the studio, you can hear the clarity of that thing, compared to a little mic you buy for $100. For me, that’s why I’ve always used EMGs.”

“There’s no right or wrong”

Of course, on the other hand, he’s absolutely aware that other types of pickups have their use. It’s not like he’s a die-hard proponent of everyone using EMGs (tho one might get that impression sometimes). Zakk added:

“If you want to get [Robin] Trower sounds or Hendrix, you need single-coil pickups. There’s no right or wrong, but if you have something you like, that’s what you use.”

With this in mind, there’s no such thing as the “best” or “favorite” guitar for Zakk. All of the stuff in his collection has EMGs and it all works in such a way to give him that present “in-your-face” kind of guitar tone that we know him for.

“There’s not a favorite guitar,” he added. “I don’t have [one] where, if I don’t have this guitar, I can’t play. I should be able to put any guitar in my hand, and it should sound slammin’.”

Another guitar legend from the Ozzy Osbourne camp, Randy Rhoads, had a somewhat similar approach. While he didn’t use active pickups, Rhoads kept his tour guitar collection fairly simple. Zakk said:

“With Randy, it was always so funny. Those iconic shots of him sittin’ backstage at the LA Sports Arena, and you’ve got the black Jackson, the white Concorde, he’s got the Polka Dot V, and his Les Paul. That’s four guitars that he’s bringing out on the road, man! God forbid something happens to one of them!”

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Photo: MorganaPhotolive (Black Label Society (26643606944))

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.