The Difference Between Active vs Passive Pickups

Posted on February 03 2023

If you are familiar with the basic components of an electric guitar, you know that the pickups are the most crucial part affecting how the instrument sounds. If you are unfamiliar with pickups, they are a device that acts as a microphone for a guitar. They're typically made of magnetic material and have wire wrapped around them. When you strum the strings on your guitar, the pickups convert those vibrations into electrical signals and send them to your amplifier to produce sound.

Although that is a simplistic explanation of how pickups work, brands have experimented with different materials and wrapping techniques to achieve different sounds. Multiple variables in pickups affect things like EQ, output, sustain, and intonation. Brands' innovations have led to technological advancements in pickups, leaving us with two categories of pickups: active and passive. Let's dive into what they are, how they differ, and how to determine which type will work for your style.

The Basics

Guitar pickups are divided into two main types: single-coil and double-coil (humbuckers). Pickups are also divided into the two categories of active and passive. Each has fundamental differences, which result in different sounds and vibes. The debate on whether one is better than the other is heated, but you can decide for yourself. Each guitarist has their own preference based on their playing style and preferred genre.

Passive pickups are the older and more common of the two, going back almost a century to the creation of pickups. They have been used by famous guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour and are a favourite of guitar purists that prefer the organic, traditional electric guitar sound heard in classic rock, for example.

Introduced in the late 1900s, Active pickups are more technologically advanced. While they are less common than passive pickups, they are known for their cleaner, more powerful sounds that lack the static hum produced by their passive cousin. Active pickups are geared towards sounds preferred for heavy metal, rock, and for bass guitars, but that is not to say you can't use passive in your setup.

The Main Differences Between Active & Passive Pickups

While they function similarly and are made of similar materials, there are two main differences with active pickups. The first is that they include a preamp powered by a battery. With the addition of a preamp, these pickups don't need as strong of an electrical current to boost the signal, so they are wound less. Essentially, the two main differences are that active pickups require an external power source and their coils are not wound as many times as passive pickups. 

Pros and Cons of Active & Passive Pickups

The debate on which type of pickup is better or should be used with this genre or that genre can spark some pretty intense arguments. However, neither is definitively superior to the other. They each have pros and cons but ultimately boil down to personal preference.

Active Pickups 

The advantages associated with active pickups include:

  • Higher tone gains & volume output
  • More efficient signal transfers
  • Cleaner sounds without a static hum
  • EQ consistency
  • Fewer wires which make for better sustain & more accurate intonation
  • Lower impedance allows for long cable runs

The disadvantages of them include:

  • The need for a battery
  • Battery life is more uncertain
  • The sound isn't as organic or warm
  • More expensive to switch a guitar from passive to active

Passive Pickups 

The advantages of passive pickups include:

  • No need for an external power source
  • More articulate & open-sounding
  • Increased musical expression
  • More versatile tone range
  • Produce a traditional, vintage sound
  • More affordable

The disadvantages of them include:

  • Unwanted hum emitted from static build-up
  • Lower volume output
  • EQ variation
  • Possibility of overwinding the coils
  • Higher impedance that doesn't allow for long cable runs

Sound Difference in Pickup Types

There are various differences between how these pickups are built, the materials used, and the placements of the materials that all affect the sounds produced. Every brand has its own processes and techniques which create its own unique sounds, but whether you use active or passive pickups will be the most significant factor in the sound your guitar makes.

Passive pickup coils are wound more, producing the traditional raw power heard in classic and alternative rock. The magnetic field created by these pickups is more sensitive to surrounding sounds and a player's technique, allowing for greater musical expression. The tones produced have a wider range and brighter sound. 

Active pickups have fewer wounds of coils, so they lack the sensitivity to external sounds, which promotes a cleaner sound that isn't easily distorted and is louder than their passive counterparts. Active pickups are beneficial for a bass's deeper sounds that can get overpowered by other instruments and vocals, giving them an extra volume boost.  

How to Determine the Right Pickup to Use

When determining which guitar pickups are right for you, the question is not which is better, but which is better for you. Whether you use active or passive pickups depends on your personal preference for sound, your skill level, the setting or vibe you are going for, and your budget. 

If your style is more classic, organic, and vintage, similar to the sounds produced by legendary classic rock stars, you should go with passive pickups. Also, passive is the way to go if you are just starting to play or have a lower budget. If you prefer a cleaner, more consistent sound that doesn't pick up background noise or emit a humming noise, then you should go with active pickups. 

Although there is no set music genre for them, the setting does play a part in which type of pickup should be used. For example, an active pickup is better in a recording studio because the sound is cleaner. Heavier genres like metal lean towards active pickups for their power and increased volume output. On the flip side, if a set list includes songs with a variety of sounds, from softer ones to louder ones, a passive pickup is better because they have more range. 

One thing is for sure: there is plenty of room to experiment with different sounds and playing techniques. If you're open to trying a different style pickup than you're used to or just want to nerd-out about all things guitar, Monty's Guitars can help you with any Montyfications you want to make to your axe.

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