Active vs. Passive Pickups: What’s the Difference?
If you’ve ever looked at an acoustic guitar before and compared it to an electric one, a key difference you’ll have seen is the lack of sound holes in the electric guitar. What they have instead is a magnetic pickup. This takes the vibrations from your guitar strings and morphs it into an electrical signal that comes out of your amp in the form of sound. With both active and passive pickups as an option, have you ever wondered which is which?
What’s the difference between active and passive pickups? Active pickups rely on a battery and can deliver sounds at a greater output, thus providing consistency and power to your guitar sound. Passive pickups have copper wire and a magnet that sense string vibrations. These vibrations translate into currents that get fed out of your amp. With more wires than active pickups, passive pickups are more susceptible to unwanted noise.
Deciding between active or passive pickups can certainly influence your guitar sound, so it’s a choice you’re going to want to make carefully. Thus, you won’t want to miss this article. In it, I’ll dive deep into the active vs passive pickups debate, explaining each type as well as the differences between the two. I’ll even tell you which pickup has more volume, how to choose one, and if it’s possible to mix both.
What Are Active Pickups?
I just gave you a short explanation of the differences between active and passive pickups, but trust me when I say I’m just scratching the surface. Before we contrast the pickup types any further, you should have a clear understanding of both active and passive pickups.
Let’s begin with active pickups, then. Made in the 1980s by a company called EMG, active pickups need electronics like amplifiers as well as a nine-volt battery. The circuitry of the electronics can be basic or more complex depending on your preferences.
A simple electronics system in an active pickup would use one transistor. The more complex circuitry includes active EQ, filters, and even a few operational amps. That said, if you do want to use these op amps, you’ll have to get a low-power variety. Otherwise, you risk tanking your pickup battery life.
Active Pickup Pros
Active pickups don’t make a lot of noise, so they shouldn’t interfere with your guitar sound. Also, you don’t need as many lengthy guitar cables as you would with other systems, maintaining the integrity of your guitar signal.
You tend to get a higher rate of output with an active pickup compared to a passive one. Another perk is that, with no ground wiring, active pickups make for less of a tripping hazard and electrical risk. You can adjust the guitar’s tone much more easily thanks to the EQ and preamp, especially if you play bass.
Active Pickup Cons
Without a doubt, the biggest downside to using an active pickup is that you cannot use do so without a battery or power supply. In some cases, guitar players have complained that you don’t get as great of a dynamic range with an active pickup as you do with a passive one.
Although this is pure opinion, many people in the guitar community have labeled active pickups as boring and even sterile due to fewer variations in tone. Another disadvantage is if you can’t fit the electronics or battery to your guitar rig, you may have to modify your guitar.
What Are Passive Pickups?
Next, I want to talk about passive pickups. These have a more basic design, with just a ceramic or alnico magnet and some wire coiled around it. For that simplicity, more guitar players favor passive pickups over active ones.
Passive pickups came first, founded in the 1950s. Famous brands like Gibson and Fender have popularized passive pickups in the decades since.
The way they work is this: you put the passive pickup near the strings of your guitar. This makes a sort of magnetic field. When you then pluck or strum your guitar, the vibrations from doing so enter the field. This makes an electrical current that travels down the wire wrapped around the passive pickup’s magnet.
Passive Pickup Pros
If you want more freedom with your guitar playing, then a passive pickup is the way to go. You don’t need an external source of power to use one of these pickups. As you know by now, you can’t say the same for active pickups.
Passive pickups tend to deliver what many call a brighter, cheerier vibe with a vintage flavor. The character of these pickups makes them a favorite for guitarists, who like the open sound and articulation of these pickups. The tone is also much beloved.
Passive Pickup Cons
While you’re battery-free with a passive pickup, admittedly, they don’t have the greatest output range. Also, depending on how the wire is wound around the magnet, your output doesn’t always sound the most harmonious.
That’s not the biggest issue with a passive pickup, though. No, that distinction goes to static accumulation. You end up hearing noises from the pickup that take away from your playing. This occurs even more so if you’re around too many computers or electronics. Should you find yourself recording guitar lines then, this static can definitely interfere.
A humbucker can keep this issue at bay…to an extent. If you turn up your amp way high or use high-gain volume, then a humbucker won’t do much to prevent the noise.
What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Pickups?
Active Pickups Rely More on Electronics
Although passive pickups can still deliver a great sound, their design is very simple. As I mentioned in the last section, pickups have two main components: a magnet and a wire. The wire goes around the magnet and that’s about it.
Active pickups, as you know by now, use a lot more tech in addition to the wire coils. They need an external source of power for one. Besides that, these pickups also may also use tone shapers, EQ, active filters, and a preamp.
You Get a More Consistent, Powerful Sound with Active Pickups
The battery that powers an active pickup increases its output. What this means is once you find your guitar tone, you’ll get it more consistently with one of these pickups. The sound also has more power due to that battery.
Without a battery, passive pickups cannot generate as strong of an electrical signal. To overcome this, you’ll need an especially hardy amplifier to increase the volume and projection of your guitar sound.
Passive Pickups Have More Wires, Thus Making Them More Susceptible to Background Noise
As I discussed in the last section, the coiling of the wire around a magnet in a passive pickup can get filled with static. This produces unappealing background sounds. With fewer wire coils compared to a passive pickup, active pickups don’t have this problem nearly as much if at all.
Passive Pickups Deliver a Greater Dynamic Range
If there’s one area where active pickups don’t excel at much, it’s in their dynamic range. They can’t go from quiet to loud playing or vice-versa as efficiently as passive pickups.
Active Pickup Guitars Cost More
Should you find yourself looking for a guitar with an active pickup, prepare to spend more money than you would for one with a passive pickup. This price jump is likely due to the included battery necessary for an active pickup.
Passive Pickups Have More Tonal Expression and Brightness
Guitar players don’t always love the tone of an active pickup, claiming it doesn’t have as much range and comes across as sterile. I said as much before. You get much more brightness and tonal expression with a passive pickup. If you want to go for a subtler tone or a more overtone, you have that freedom. This too expands your range.
Are Active Pickups Louder Than Passive Pickups?
To reiterate, yes, active pickups produce a greater output compared to passive pickups, thus making them louder. Even better is you don’t have as much signal loss as the sound travels from the pickup to the amplifier.
With the pre-amp, you can adjust your frequencies for the active pickup, either increasing or decreasing them. While this does allow for more tone control, how much control you have depends on the type of preamp you chose and its functions.
Once again, should you want to switch your range to one that’s more dynamic, i.e. louder to quieter and vice-versa, don’t use an active pickup. While they do produce a snappy sound, it lacks range compared to a passive pickup.
What Type of Music Should You Use Each Pickup For?
While electric guitars are an instrument most commonly associated with rock music, that’s far from the only genre in which you may play this instrument. From jazz to pop, metal, and country, if you want to delve into these genres, you may wonder which pickup type to select.
As you may recall from earlier in this article, I mentioned how passive pickups are the standard for most musicians. The dynamism and range are two major selling points for this pickup. Thus, in genres like metal, jazz, rock, and others, the passive pickup may be your best bet. Even crunchy garage rock sounds great with a passive pickup if you use that electrical feedback the right way. Also, go for a passive pickup for any genre in which you might switch volumes and tones across a single song.
If you play rock or metal music as well as any genre in which you need a lot of power, then an active pickup makes the most sense. Another consideration you might make for active pickups is the clarity of your music. If you need a clean-sounding guitar and bass tones without any audio feedback, you can get that with an active pickup. In pop music especially, that clean, homogenous sound is best.
No matter which genre of music you play with an active pickup, I do want to come back around to the pickup’s battery. To maintain battery life, you always want to unplug your guitar when you’re done using it. Otherwise, you’ll drain the battery.
A battery that’s well taken care of could last you six to 12 months at a time. If your battery completely dies, then you can’t use your active pickup at all until you recharge it. What’s worse is what happens before the battery dies. Your sound might be negatively influenced, which tells you it’s time for a recharge.
Which Pickup Is Right for You? How to Decide
By now, I’ve explained a lot about both active and passive pickups. You have a good understanding of both pickup types, pros and cons, and the differences. You even know which pickup to use to get a certain sound in various musical genres.
You’re ready to buy a pickup, but how do you pick between an active or passive one?
There is no clear-cut answer. While passive pickups are an industry standard, that doesn’t mean you should disqualify active pickups entirely. Both pickup types have their downsides, that’s for sure. For instance, active pickups have a pricy battery that can die. Passive pickups tend to produce noise. You get more power with active pickups but less range. That comes with a passive pickup.
I can keep going, but I won’t. For each pickup perk, there’s an accompanying downside. Therefore, I recommend you consider these criteria as you choose.
Your Experience Level
If you’re new to the world of basses or guitars, then it’s recommended you start with a passive pickup right off the bat. You won’t spend as much money, and you’re using the one pickup of the two that most musicians choose.
Should you find you don’t like the noise you get from a passive pickup, you might switch to active pickups later.
As I said before, you’ll spend more money on an active pickup than a passive one because of the battery. That’s why I discourage beginners from getting an active pickup first. The price can be a bit much.
Should you find an active pickup is outside of your budget at current, then get a passive pickup.
While active and passive pickups suit a lot of the same genres, there are subtleties to keep in mind. Active pickups will deliver a cleaner, more reliably consistent sound with more power. Passive pickups have more range, shifting from quieter sections of songs to louder ones and then back again with aplomb.
Your Preferred Sound
Active pickups sound really clean since they have fewer coils. This reduces the noise you hear when playing. That cleanness can lean into sterility in the opinion of some guitarists. That said, you can play with the tone as much as you want with pre-amp settings like EQ.
Passive pickups have that range you don’t get with active pickups. You also have more freedom to express yourself with your tone without using a slew of settings. The string vibrations are detected at a much more sensitive rate with a passive pickup than an active one.
Your Studio Expectations
If you plan on recording in the studio, then active pickup suits you best. Not only are these cleaner, but they won’t have that static you get with passive pickups. If you remember, being around electronics like computers can make this wire static issue worse in passive pickups. Since you need computers to record, it’s a no-brainer here.
Can You Mix Passive and Active Pickups in Your Guitar?
What if you don’t want to select between passive and active pickups? Could you use both in the same guitar?
You can, but it’s not easy by any means. You’d have to have experience with soldering wires to make one super pickup. Seymour Duncan wrote a fascinating post on just what you’d have to do.
Beginners should stay away from this type of project, as it’s very complicated. It’s a little simpler to put this project together should you only want to activate a passive pickup over an active one or vice-versa. If you want to try both together at the same time, that’s going to take some work.
You need a volume control for both pickups as well as separate jacks. This allows you to get the pickup signals. With test leads and crocodile clips, it’s possible to adjust your leads and skip a lot of soldering.
That’s not to say you won’t have to solder, because you will. Even Seymour Duncan says that while the project is possible, it’s not necessarily worth it. It’s much better to look for a pickup that gives you the kind of sound you want.
Popular Examples of Passive and Active Pickups
Okay, so it’s not exactly feasible to create your own dual-pickup with both active and passive capabilities. That means you’re left shopping for what you want. If you’re seeking for the best of the best pickups, look no further. We’ve got some active and passive pickups from your favorite names in music equipment and accessories.
Speaking of Seymour Duncan, they’ve got a great selection of both active and passive pickups. Let’s begin with a top active pickup of theirs, the Dino Cazares Retribution with a Dino C Set passive mount. A solid choice from Divine Heresy and Fear Factory’s Dino Cazares, these pickups produce amazing clarity with each string pluck or pull. They also have boosted attack definition and an ideal gain that makes them a favorite among seven and eight-string bass players alike.
For a more traditional passive mount, try the Jeff Loomis Blackouts. Made by musician Jeff Loomis, who has played in groups like Conquering Dystopia and Arch Enemy, this mount has a fantastic tone, less feedback, and amazing dynamics and sustain. Even in conditions that would cause distortion, this pickup has none.
EMG, one of the forefathers of today’s active pickups, of course, sells these in spades. Their 707 remains one of their most popular pickups, and, upon using it, you’ll quickly see why. Made for seven-string guitars, the 707 fits on either the neck or the bridge of the instrument. Ideal for metal, jazz, and every genre in between, you get great balance and improved tone, something you don’t often find with an active pickup.
If you’d rather use a passive pickup, try Bare Knuckle. This UK brand is the home of the Stormy Monday humbucker. With its vintage stylings, this humbucker has asymmetrically wound coils to reduce noise and unwanted frequencies. You get the impressive fullness, warmth, and dynamics you’d come to expect from a passive pickup but without all the sound interruptions. Sounds good to me!
Active pickups rely on a battery to generate loud, clean sound without any noise. Passive pickups, although not as loud, have much more range. They can get bogged down by unwanted noise issues, though.
Both pickup types have their advantages and disadvantages. While passive pickups have become the preferable pick among guitarists, they don’t suit certain music genres as well. Active pickups, with their battery, require more maintenance than the average pickup.
While it’s possible to combine passive and active pickups into one sort of super setup, it’s very hard to do. Thus, it’s more worth your time to shop around for a pickup that gives you the kind of sound you want. Good luck!