Kirk Hammett: “Maybe the age of active pickups is over”

Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield onstage in 2022: Hammett says he feels active pickups time is past
Kirk Hammett favors PAF-style pickups these days, while James Hetfield remains faithful to active units when it comes to rhythm work (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz / Getty)

Kirk Hammett has said he thinks the age of active pickups may be over, at least when it comes to his own playing. 

The Metallica guitarist made the comments in a recent interview with Guitarist, in which he was asked about his recent shift towards Les Pauls and Gibson’s PAF pickups – a move sparked by his ownership of the storied Greeny Les Paul.

A lot of it, says Hammett, seems to come down to the ageing process and the subsequent effects on the tone.

“Old PAFs are so much more touch-sensitive and I’ve been trying to figure out for the last 10 years whether or not active pickups age well,” comments Hammett. “Because it’s a bunch of circuitry – but your traditional pickups, with [just] coils and magnets and wire, they have a tendency to age. That ageing factor really makes PAF pickups individual.”

The guitarist says he’s observed the ageing effect with newer designs based on the traditional “coils, magnets and wires”, too – proving it’s not simply the result of comparing a ‘59 Burst’s PAFs to a modern active model. 

“I put an old pair of DiMarzio pickups in a KH [Series S-style guitar], maybe it was an LTD,” says Hammett. “And I was amazed at how good it sounded to my amp setup. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe the age of active pickups is over.’”

Kirk Hammett and james Hetfield

Hammett says Hetfield agrees with him on the PAFs superior tone for lead work, but is sticking to his guns when it comes to his rhythm sound (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz / Getty)

Hammett acknowledges the role active pickups have had in his career –commending the combination of higher output and lower noise that powered the band’s early tones. However, he says it was in the ’90s that he started to have his head turned, as he realised the PAF had powered many of his heroes’ tones, including the British guitar greats and the likes of Michael Schenker. 

“You can push a PAF pickup; you can take an amp and fully just gain it out. That PAF will just take it and take it,” observes Hammett. 

“You really can’t do that with a high-output active pickup: you turn up the gain and then you’re lost and it’s noisy. Then the [tonal] distinction’s gone, the harmonic distortion changes, it’s not as touch-sensitive – and you can get away with a lie; it covers up a lot of your mistakes.”

Surprisingly, Hammett notes James Hetfield – who is famed for his active pickup sound – agrees with him, or at least he does when it comes to lead work.

“James is the same way, he has the same opinion,” says Hammett. “He loves PAF pickups and thinks PAFs are great for lead – but, for him, the EMG active pickup sound is great for his rhythm sound and he really, really likes that rhythm sound.”

It is the latest in a line of revelatory statements from the Metallica man, who has taken a brilliantly no-nonsense line with his opinions in recent interviews – and we are here for it. In the same piece, Hammett says he prefers playing the Epiphone Greeny to the Custom Shop version

To read Kirk Hammett's full interview about the original Greeny Les Paul, his opinions on PAFs and his evolving tonal tastes, pick up Guitarist issue 499 over at Magazines Direct.

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Matt Parker

Matt is a staff writer for GuitarWorld.com. Before that he spent 10 years as a freelance music journalist, interviewing artists for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.

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