Taking It To Passive

Posted on by Jon Moody

We all do it. Buy a new instrument, play it, say it’s the greatest thing, and then start pouring through the Seymour Duncan website, looking to get that little bit “extra” out of your sound. For many bassists (myself included), this usually means installing an active preamp into your bass. But what about those folks that have an active bass but want to make it passive? Yeah, it happens.

There I was. Starting a new job at GHS Strings where I would be recording a number of demos of strings and other content. I didn’t have a bass that was “traditional” sounding enough. Sure, you can argue that every instrument is different, but when you’re a proud Warwick endorsee, you know that the “sound of wood” is very distinct. I ended up getting an old Rockbass Fortress, because other than the shape, the specs on it were pretty much akin to a Fender PJ. Perfect.

One problem; when the bass arrived, the blend knob on the active MEC preamp was completely shot; it wouldn’t budge. Thankfully the seller agreed to a partial discount so I could buy an OEM replacement. But then I thought “Why keep this active? I don’t have to.” There are two very iconic basses out there that have survived for decades in a passive formulation, so why not this bass? The bonus was that it was an excellent excuse to get new Seymour Duncan pickups.

The only issue now was “What pickups should I get?” There are many great options available, and the tonal goals needed to be considered. Do I take the vintage sound all the way and get a set from the Antiquity family of pickups, or try something more modern and forward, like the Quarter Pound P pickup and the Quarter Pound J pickup. Or, maybe even something crazy from the Custom Shop. I know that I’ve been eyeing the Phat Staple pickup.

In the end, I installed the Steve Harris Signature pickup (which, you can read my thoughts about it in this review), and paired it with a Hot Stack in the bridge position.

There are many fine discussions on why active pickups and/or preamps are popular. But at this point, I was more focused on why going back to passive was the option for me. Here’s what I came up with.

Bass Control Cavity• It’s Simple: I’ve talked a lot about understanding the active preamp in your bass, and how it works. But when it comes down to a passive system, simplicity reigns supreme. For a P Bass, you have a volume and tone knob. Period. Most two pickup passive basses are run volume-volume-tone. There is a simplicity in the design that translates to how easy it can be to use.

• That Tone: It’s unmistakable. Much like listening to your favorite album on vinyl and then tossing in the iPod earbuds, there is a characteristic warmth associated with the passive system that active setups usually miss. Many also find that the simpler setup allows the bass to speak more, whereas the active option can put a stranglehold on the sound of your instrument, not allowing it through the electronics.

• Solid Signal: My main gigs are usually musical theatre and church, both of which are places where you are being run through a direct box, and then to your amp (if you have the luxury of getting an amp). Active basses have a wonderfully hot signal that in my situations, usually involves the soundman saying “Can you turn the bass down? I have the fader all the way off and it’s still too hot.” So I’m normally running my actives at 50% volume on the bass. A passive bass has a “weaker” signal when compared to an active bass, but is easier to use in live and studio settings for that exact reason.

• Plays Well With Effects: This is a big one, and in talks with many of my pedal building peers, they all agree. The signal strength of a passive bass is going to play better with a number of effects, allowing more expression and range out of the circuit. That’s not to say you can’t use an active bass (and there are a number of pedals that work wonderfully, regardless of instrument choice), but if you have the chance to A/B active and passive basses with some effects, I think you’ll be surprised at what new sounds the old stomp box has.

While some may think it a bit counterintuitive, taking the bass back to a passive system worked really well. It’s simple to use, sounds great, plays well with effect pedals AND soundmen, and is also a different tonal option to add to my palette. For those folk that enjoy a good passive bass, what’s your favorite reason for sticking with the tried and true formula?

Written on February 23, 2014, by Jon Moody

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  • Nevermorefu

    Passive sounds less sterile.

    • Jon Moody

      I’m not sure I’d make that broad a statement. I have a number of active instruments (all running SD preamps and pickups) and would definitely not call them “sterile” by any means. They have a more clean sheen to them, that is a nice complement to the more “earthiness” that I get out of passive instruments.

  • John

    My bass has a switch for active and passive. Definitely two different sounds. I like them both for different reasons. The active mode has that punch and clarity, and the passive does have that warm sound. This is a single coil 5 string made by a Japanese company called “Bacchus” and it came out of the custom shop. Alder body, maple neck with a rosewood fretboard. Very versatile.

    As musicians, we all can enjoy a wide pallet of tonal possibilities. Since I can’t afford to own “one of everything”, it’s nice to have that versatility.

    Best of tonal happiness to all…


  • John Zimmer

    I have just ordered Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Pickups for my Fender 2008 USA P-bass. I also have a Mexican Fender “Cowpoke” Bass with a P/J setup with electronics similar to a Kubicki 9 volt system that appeared in the 90’s Fender Custom Buitl X-Factor Bass. My question is, if I want to install SD Quarter Pounders in this bass, must I remove all of the Active Electronics or can I just swap out the pick-ups ?? Any help will be greatly appreciated. Thanks for Listening.JZ