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…

The Antiquity II Surfer is a passive pickup made to make your Strat sound clean, clear, and full of quack.

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.

The Synyster Gates Invader: One heavy sounding (and looking) passive pickup.

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.

The Antiquity neck model is a passive pickup designed to look and sound the way they were built in the 50s.

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…

This Framus Diablo Progressive proudly flies the active flag.

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.

Not just for metal, this active Live Wire II set delivers single coil sound without hum.

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.

What kind of pickups would you put in this Schecter?

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. 

What type of pickups do you have in your guitar? Which types of pickups you prefer, and if you were building a guitar from the ground up, what would you choose?

How about in this Tele?

Dave Eichenberger

About Dave Eichenberger

Guitarist Dave Eichenberger composes ambient music using guitar technology and looping, yet still has time to record and perform with international jazzy soul artist Julie Black. Follow him @Zoobiedood on Twitter.
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  • plop

    hehe I built a baritone tele with both a passive and an active (just needed to add a pre amp booster to match levels)

  • Brian Donahower

    I have a 2012 Select Strat that has the typical (3) single coil passive pick-ups. I would like to change these out for a good set of Seymour Duncan’s but am not sure which to choose. I play 70’s, 80’s & 90’s Rock (from Bad Co. to AIC) and my own clean arrangements with some reverb. Suggestions are requested and appreciated, thank you.

  • Ibzepi

    I never played a guitar with actives, sadly. But I think the combination of a basswood guitar with EMG’s give a really nice tone. Never heard Blackouts in hands of a man who can actually play instead of just doing some riffs in drop tunings.

  • John McLaughlin

    I have a Spector bass with EMG-HZs. They’re technically passive, but have an active preamp. I hated the sound of them until recently, although the change in my opinion has a lot to do with the new SWR I recently purchased (sounds fantastic) and I might still change them out in the future (although I want a new bass in the not-so-distant future).

    I’d probably go with actives if I could pick anything. I’m a big fan of tonal variety.

  • Steven G.

    I’m currently building a telecaster with passives in it, mostly because I’m on the worship team at my church. However, I also like to play very heavy music. I have experimented with both and found pros and cons of both for my styles and decided it would be best I have both. So someday when finances agree with it, I’ll build another guitar (Probably a telecaster) with actives in it for my heavier playing style.

  • zetetic elench

    there is a new variable in this mix, wireless links to the amps.
    they have a hi-Z input impedance and can be used to adjust for any gain you need.
    to get the most out of them you’re going to want to provide the best fidelity signal you can.
    they also provide electrical isolation to the artist so hum becomes a rack issue.

  • Gianluca Ivaldi

    I have both – passives (tb-6) and actives (blackouts) in identical guitars. Prefer the passives for cleans, dynamic touch and more standard tunings – they do 80s metal better.

    Actives are perfect for drop C tunings and below and nail that modern metalcore sound to a T. They cannot be surpassed on power and tightness and produce the most insane pinch harmonics.

  • Mick Mills

    As stated the choice between active and passive pickups is subjective to each artist and the outcome they desire from tone and performance. I use both active and passive pickups in certain guitars for specific tones and styles of music. For heavy distortion playing e.g metal,hard rock I have found an amazing response with the use of active pickups to achieve tightness, instant response, power and clarity. But for other styles of music I do prefer the use of passive pickups for a more diversification of tonal range and manipulation.
    Don’t focus on how much money you stand to lose – that will only serve to enhance your ability to judge without actually testing a range if pickups – it’s your tone, and the selection is extensive so enjoy the process and Krank it up!

  • Xraydelta1

    What about when you use a buffer (unity gain pre-amp) with a guitar or
    bass equipped with passive pickups? Does this give you some sort of
    hybrid? Any comments?

  • RYAN ALVIDRES

    I have two guitars that I use: a Les Paul with SD JB/Jazz pickups (my main guitar though the other guitar is my favorite, but I’ll clear up the probable confusion in a bit), and a LTD Snakebyte loaded with EMG’s “Het” Set pickups. I’ll be honest: I’m kind of an elitist asshole when it comes to pickups, preferring passives over actives. The reason why is because the majority of active pickups I’ve heard sound brittle and stale, with EMGs really having what I call the “active pickup fog”. However, the JH Set pickups have a low-end punch and a tonal focus that redefines what an active pickup should sound like, thus being the only actives I will ever use.
    I use my Les Paul for clean notes and chords as well as for hard-hitting chords when driving the amp. I keep it in E. My Snakebyte often gets tuned down to anywhere from Drop C or C Standard as high as E Flat, though I sometimes tune it to E Standard. It handles those lower tunings without losing clarity or definition.