Kirk Hammett on moving to PAFs after years using active EMGs: “You could say I had it backwards”

Passive PAF pickups have more “clarity” and can be pushed harder, the Metallica guitarist says.

Kirk Hammett has waxed lyrical on his choice of pickups over the years, noting that he travelled “backwards” as he started with active EMGs and later grew to love the sound of passive PAFs.

In a new interview with Guitarist Magazine, the Metallica shredder dives deep on his penchant for PAFs, and how it grew in the ’90s after wielding active EMGs for so many years. “What I love about PAF pickups is the clarity of it: clarity of note, clarity in a succession of notes… the [nature of the] harmonic distortion protects sensitivity,” he says. “And you can’t really get away with a lot. You have to play well and you have to play with clarity, you have to hit every note. “Something like legato, it’s easier with active pickups, not so much with PAFs. But when you do legato [licks] with PAFs, it sounds so much better to me.”

He continues: “I still like that EMG active-pickup wall of sound and it works for our older material. But there was a shift in me 15 or 20 years ago where I realised that PAF pickups, and stock pickups in general… I think you can push them way more than you can push EMGs.
“You could almost say I had it backwards. I should have started with just a regular pickup, pushing that and going, ‘Okay, EMGs are the next level.’ But no, I was, like, next-level first and then went to the more subtle thing – and I’ve discovered that the more subtle thing works for me.”

Hammett adds that his co-guitarist James Hetfield views PAFs in a similar light. “[He’s] the same way, he has the same opinion,” he says. “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.”

More recently, Kirk Hammett and ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons joined forces with actor Johnny Depp to perform a cover of Jeff Beck’s Isolation at a tribute concert. Depp, who was a close friend and collaborator of Beck, handled the vocals, while Hammett and Gibbons offered up their respective signature guitar styles.


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