Cage Match: Active vs. Passive Pickups
Pickups come in two basic flavors. One is active, and the second is passive. If your guitar requires a battery, chances are that it has active pickups. If it doesn’t, or will function without a battery, then the pickups would be considered passive. From what I have seen, guitarists generally prefer one or the other – but it goes well beyond that. Guitarists who like passive pickups proudly hate active pickups and vice versa. This article will attempt to explain the love (and the hate) for each type of pickup as well as provide some situations where one pickup is actually preferred over the other.
In this corner, the Passives…
Passive pickups were the first ones made, and the ones that are still the most popular. If you’re a fan of any kind of traditional music, from early electric jazz or blues, through early rock & roll, the British Invasion and almost all classic rock and early metal, then these are the pickups you are most familiar with. They come standard in an overwhelming majority of current guitars and all of the classics from Les Pauls to Strats and Teles. These pickups consist of a bobbin, some copper (or maybe silver) wire, a magnet and sometimes a cover. Very simple electronically, the materials used can have a huge impact on the tone. Wire & insulation type, number of turns on the bobbin, magnet type and strength all can tailor the response of the pickup to whatever the player wants to hear. Here you will find huge variations, which account for the number of Seymour Duncan passive pickup choices. Just altering these materials can take a guitar from bright and cutting to thick and crushing. Passive pickups are used for all types of music, from jazz to metal. This is why they continue to be the most popular choice of pickups for the widest range of players.
Passive pickups have a few downsides, though. Single coil pickups hum. Strat and Tele players have put up with this for years, and can deal with the hum by shielding their guitar, using stacked or rail variations, or just dealing with the hum. Tone controls are limited to essentially low pass filters, which roll off high end.
Increasing the number of winds on a passive pickup can increase the output, but as more turns of wire are wound around the bobbin, you lose brightness while you gain lows and mids. Too many turns and you have a very powerful, very muddy sounding pickup. Passive pickup lovers know there is a balance between power and tonal equilibrium, and everyone likes a different recipe of materials used.
On the other hand, passive pickups that don’t have many turns have a clean and clear voice, but sometimes don’t have enough power to hit the front of the amp enough for some players. These players will usually use a clean boost or light overdrive between the guitar and amp.
The number of passives offered by Seymour Duncan is staggering, and finding your own voice with passives requires a little research on the stock offerings, and if what you want can’t be found there, there is always the 21-day return policy to switch them out. Of course, there is the Custom Shop if you need something built to your specs.
In that corner, the Actives…
There are a lot of benefits to an active system, one of which is simply more power. More power going to the amp hits the input hard and causes some pretty nice distortion of the first gain stages. You don’t have the trade off of more power=darker sound that passives do. You can have a clean and clear single coil sized pickup that is anything but weak, and get this: It won’t hum. Yes, one of the huge benefits of an active system is the absence of any kind of electrical noise. You can have active EQ on the guitar as well. Imagine being able to boost or cut highs, mids, and lows. This alone allows you to vary your sound from your guitar a lot more (rather than the amp), and can completely change your sound with a few knob turns in a way that fancy switching schemes of passive pickups can’t ever dream of.
Active pickups have been around for decades, but really started to gain popularity in the 80s for those clean and clear 80s guitar sounds. Even some classic rock players who once used passives switched to actives simply because of noise rejection. Nowadays, the metal crowd has embraced the active pickups and use them to provide maximum, consistent crunch and tighter lower end for their distorted amps.
As stated above, active pickups require a battery for operation, however. The batteries are usually activated by plugging your guitar in, and everyone who has ever owned active pickups has accidentally left the guitar plugged in overnight. Dead batteries at the worst provide no sound, but almost dead batteries can do some funny things to your sound, like make you check all our cables, your tubes, your speakers and your hearing until you realize the problem is the battery. Active pickups are a little less dynamic than passives, and if your style relies on dynamics and touch-sensitivity, it’s shocking to try a guitar with actives – it simply reacts differently. If you’re replacing passives in your guitar with actives, remember to find an easily accessible place for the battery.
While I like passive pickups in my guitars, I recognize that actives serve a purpose for many players too. One doesn’t sound better or worse, but that hasn’t stopped online forums from endlessly debating which one is ‘better.’ It is a big expense and commitment to switch from one to the other (all electronics from the pots to the jack have to be changed too), so do some research first. If you have a guitar with passives, try to play a similar guitar with actives to hear and feel for yourself what you will gain (or lose) from switching to actives. There are no rules, so have fun.