Active and Passive in the Same Guitar – Can It Be Done?

It’s a question we get asked a heck of a lot here at SD, and a question that appears all over the internet – how should I wire up a mixture of active and passive pickups in the  same guitar? The answer, either from us or elsewhere on the internet, is always either “It’s very complicated,” “It’s not recommended”, or occasionally “It’s very complicated and not recommended.” But usually that’s the end of the discussion – going into exactly how complicated it is, or why it’s not recommended, doesn’t happen very much.

I decided I wanted to do some thorough research into all this. Surely there is something we can do if we absolutely, positively have to have a mixture of active and passive pickups in the same guitar?

I won’t keep you in suspense: yes, there are a few things you can do if this is what you need. There’s no magic bullet, but if you’re really determined then there will be some way of getting what you want, even if it’s a bit inconvenient. Read on and see what your options are.

Before I start with this, a warning: this article is not for wiring beginners. If you’re even thinking about doing this I would hope you are already very experienced with wiring in guitars, with both active and passive pickups. If we stop along the way to explain every concept, I’ll be writing until 2015. I’m going to assume a good degree of understanding in my writing here.

The Setup

As my test bed for these experiments, I decided to use a Strat. This one has the “swimming pool” rout, meaning lots of space under the pickguard. The bolt-on neck means it’s easy to change things without burning a set of strings each time – you can just pop the neck off and replace the entire pickguard at any point.

The pickups I used were an AHB-1 Blackout model in the bridge, and the SH-2 Jazz Model in the neck. These are two pickups that have well-known sounds and aren’t weird in any way – so I’d know what sounds to expect, and it would be easy to spot if things sounded wrong. I got a two-humbucker pickguard in a snazzy copper crackle effect from and I was ready to go.

Why is it even difficult at all?

I think this question needs to be answered before we start scratching our heads over wiring. Why can’t we just treat the active pickup and the passive pickup the same, and wire the guitar as if it was just a regular two-humbucker guitar?

So I tried it. I wired the two humbuckers as normal, through a master volume control and a three-way switch. And now I know what we’re up against. The first two issues that immediately appear are:

Pot Values

Active pickups are used with 25K pots. Passive humbuckers use 500K pots (or maybe 250k but that’s much less common). First, I tried using a 500K pot as the master volume. This worked fine when the volume was on full. And switching to the passive pickup and rolling off the volume worked fine too. But switching to the active pickup, the master volume acted like a switch. The signal was either on or off. So that was no good. And when I tried a 25K pot, the neck pickup sounded horrendous – a completely unusable muddy mess. So it became obvious at this point that I would need to give each pickup its own volume control.

Mixed Sound

Active and Passive Pickups in One Guitar

Putting the pickup selector in the middle position – to activate both pickups – just plain didn’t work. The signal from the active pickup completely overwhelmed the signal from the passive pickup. In practice it sounded exactly the same as if I just had the active pickup enabled. If I listened very carefully while switching from the active position to the middle position, I could hear a very, very slight change in the tone – but not a useful one.

In the following clip, the first demo is with just the passive neck pickup active, then the demo starting at about 0:24 is both pickups directly mixed, and finally the demo from about 0:45 onwards is the active bridge pickup alone.

Separate Volume Controls

Once I added separate volume controls for each pickup, I had created a solution that might actually solve your problem right here, depending on your needs:

If you only want to have one pickup active at a time, then you have no worries. As you can hear in the clip above, when I switched the three-way switch to either the passive or the active pickup alone, the sound that came out of the amp was fine, and the appropriate volume controls worked correctly. If you never plan to actually mix the signal from the two pickups, you can simply wire a two-way switch to select the pickups, with a separate volume control of the correct value for each, and you’re good to go.

The big difficulties appear when you want to try and activate both pickups simultaneously. I had suspected that this would be the case. At this point I knew that a lot of experimentation was going to be necessary, so I came up with a rather unusual wiring scheme.

Separate Outputs

I decided to wire each pickup through its own volume control, and then on to its own jack. Essentially, this meant that I could simply bring the signals from the two pickups outside of the guitar, and then combine them in different ways using crocodile clips and test leads without having to re-solder connections constantly.

To do this, I used the third control location on the Strat pickguard for the stereo jack that would be connected to the Blackout (the reason for the stereo jack is of course to connect the battery when a plug is inserted), and the regular jack plate on the Strat for the output from the passive Jazz humbucker. I’d created two separate circuits in the same guitar (although of course the grounds were common).

To keep some functionality in the three-way selector, I wired it as a “killswitch selector.” One side of the blade was used for each jack, and it simply shorted the jack’s hot contact to ground when the switch was in the position where that pickup would be deactivated.

Active and Passive Pickups in One Guitar

It wasn’t the most conventional wiring setup I’d ever done, but it got me where I needed to be:

Active and Passive Pickups in One Guitar


Now I was ready for some brainstorming. I needed to find some way to have the neck pickup sound at around the same volume as the active one when the signals were combined. Despite them both sounding loud enough when selected individually, the neck pickup vanished when they were combined.

I know that active pickups are low-impedance, and passive pickups are high-impedance. Unfortunately, however, I don’t really know what that means. So I decided trial-and-error was going to be my best tactic.

Boosting the Passive Pickup

The first thing I decided to try was to take the passive signal, run it through a clean boost pre-amp (ie a tube overdrive pedal), recombine it with the active signal, and then take that to the amp.

Active and Passive Pickups in One Guitar

This failed. Although I could just about start to hear the neck pickup, I had the pedal running at full gain and full volume, and the pickup was still barely audible. So just making the signal louder wasn’t going to work.

Buffering the Passive Pickup

The next thing I decided to try was running the passive pickup into a buffer before combining its signal with the active pickup. I did this by using a buffered pedal in bypass mode.

This was somewhat more successful, although there was a completely unexpected, totally bizarre sound effect.

I noticed a kind of “auto-wah” effect as I was playing. At first I thought I was imagining it, but when I added a little gain, it was definitely there. Here’s a sound sample so you can hear it for yourself. The first demo is the passive neck pickup alone, the second is the active bridge pickup alone, and the third is the pickups mixed with the neck pickup buffered.

Now, if you decided that sound was acceptable, then this might be a good solution for you. You could perhaps find somewhere in the guitar to put a little powered buffer, and then connect it to the passive parts of the circuit. This would allow you to treat the guitar like a normal active guitar.

For me though, that sound was not acceptable. However, it really feels like this should work. Sadly I only had one buffered pedal to try this with, but I intend to try it with more pedals in future, so watch this space for an update if I get it working.

Separate Signal Chain

Of course, having two outputs on one guitar is a lot like having two guitars. With completely separate signals coming from the active and passive circuitry, you can do anything you like with each one. Of course, one thing you could do is simply plug each pickup into a different amplifier. Using the blade switch as a “selective killswitch”, as I had done, would mean that each amplifier would just go silent when the respective active or passive circuits weren’t used. So I gave this a try.

Perhaps somewhat obviously, this worked perfectly. With each of the two amplifiers having no idea what the other was doing, the sound was great. It also meant that I could tweak the EQ on each amp separately to do each pickup justice.

Lugging two amps around isn’t particularly convenient, though. What else could I try?

Well, seeing as we’re in the 21st century, I think it’s fair to include some options that don’t involve a traditional amp-and-cab setup. Digital modelling has come an incredibly long way in the last decade or so and many players – particularly those whose minds are open to non-traditional guitar technology like active pickups – are using it in their rig.

I have a little practice tool at home – a Boss eBand JS-10. It has two inputs and some very usable amp models. What would happen if I plugged each of my guitar’s outputs into one of the inputs on the front of this unit and then set both inputs to use the same patch?

I don’t really know much about how modelers work so this diagram may leave a little to be desired:

The answer is: it works perfectly.

I also tried the same setup with the two inputs on a Line6 POD HD500. Again, it worked perfectly.

At this point I think I have found the best result without routing out half the guitar to add ridiculously complex electronics. It actually makes for some rather interesting possibilities – I can add chorus to one pickup but not the other, or I can set some distortion on the Blackout while keeping the Jazz clean. This allows an unprecedented degree of control over how clean or distorted the sound is, as you can see in this video:

I should note here that although I soldered and taped the red and white wires from the Jazz pickup, there’d be nothing to stop you adding coil splits or series/parallel wiring to the passive pickup for even more versatility.

If I was going to go ahead with this, I would consider having to have two cables coming from separate parts of the guitar to be a bit of a problem. There are options here, but none of them are completely perfect.

Firstly, you could decide to run a stereo cable from the guitar with the two signals on the two channels. This would involve a single jack on the guitar – a stereo jack. The problem with this is that active pickups already use a stereo jack as a switch for the battery. This would no longer be available, so you could either leave the battery permanently connected (thus needing to replace it all the time), or you could put a switch on the guitar somewhere to disconnect the battery – maybe a push/pull pot that you pull out when you’re not playing. The problem with this of course is that you might forget to do so, and leave the battery connected, running it flat. Perhaps you could wire an LED in to the switch as well?

Another option occurred to me when I saw that my phone headset has a plug that looks like the one pictured to the left. There are four separate conductors there, which means that the socket must have four connectors too. So, if I was to use a three-conductor (ie stereo) version of the plug, it would connect two of the connectors in the socket together in the same way that a mono jack plug will connect two connectors in a stereo socket. Perfect! Oh wait – there’s no 1/4″ version of this plug or socket.

I do think that this might still be a viable solution – with a suitable washer, you could use a four-conductor 1/8″ socket inside the guitar and then plug in a stereo 1/8″ jack. This would switch on the battery and bring a stereo signal out of the guitar. Then you would simply split the signals out at the end of the cable and run them through your twin signal chains.

Another way you might tackle this is to do some serious woodwork and put a double jack plate on the guitar, like the one pictured on the right. This would let you use a stereo jack for the active circuit and a mono jack for the passive. You would then plug in a Y cable to these two jacks, which would combine them immediately into a stereo cable which you could split out in the normal way. Having both plugs in the same place would simplify where your cable needed to go.

A short cable like this would convert the two guitar outputs into a single stereo feed.


As you can see, it can be done. If you only want one pickup enabled at a time then it isn’t even particularly difficult to do. A Les Paul-style guitar could easily be wired up to have a tone and a volume control for each pickup as normal.

But if you’re looking to get two pickups (or even more) of different types working together, then it’s a lot of work. And I can’t actually in good conscience say that all the work will definitely be worth it. Maybe the best neck pickup to go with the Blackouts bridge really is the Blackouts neck. Of course, there are lots of passives – you might be looking to try a passive P-90, for example. I’d love to hear from people who have experimented with some of the ideas in this article and found some cool active/passive combos.

I have two conclusions from this set of experiments. The first one is a side point. I’d never tried Blackouts before because I don’t play much metal. But when I put one through some serious distortion I saw what all the fuss was about. I mean, it destroys. It makes me want to build a guitar for metal and learn some crushing riffs, just to be able to whip out that sound at will.

But the more important conclusion, of course, is about mixing active and passive pickups. It can be done. However, I think you need to be aware of the amount of work involved – and it’s really very likely that an all-active or all-passive setup is available that will fulfill your needs.

So I can see why “It’s very complicated and not recommended” is a common answer. I think a more honest answer to the question in future might be “It’s very complicated, and I don’t have time to explain it all right now.” Or maybe just a link back to this article!

After all that – are you still planning on mixing actives and passives in the same guitar? Which pickups do you think would make a good set?

Join the Conversation


  1. My suggestion is: using a Blackouts Modular Preamp for the passive pickup. Of course, that would make it active, but it’s the less complicated way if you REALLY need to do it. And of course, it wouldn’t involve much soldering.

    1. The problem with that is that the BMP makes pretty much any pickup sound almost exactly like a Blackout. It would work, yes, but the neck woudn’t sound like a Jazz at all any more.

  2. Wow man. Awesome. I wish i could sit back and do stuff like that and get paid for it xD

      1. I love the article and hope to some day build wha I want especially since I have it figured out. I may draw a diagram and post it. You need a buffer for each volume as all I’ve found are mono units using a TL072 or some similar op amp. The CAE CB1 is 1″ square. I suppose you could wire up a MOSFET instead but that’s too complicated for me.

  3. this is really interesting! but is reaaaaally complicated, too much! This is a great article to someone who digs a lot in guitar electronics; but as I said, is complicated! I was wondering about diferences between pasive and active pickups and a blend of those in the sae guitar, and I recieved both answers today! great articles, keep it up!

    1. I’m glad you like it. Yes, it’s a complicated subject, but there’s no way around that. Doing something like this is definitely not for the faint of heart – you need to be very comfortable and experienced with guitar wiring. You could always show the article to a tech…

    2. Not really you just have to double the wiring and use a bypass switch. If you want an OBEL loop, there are plenty of simple diagrams on the internet. CAE sound makes a stacked 25k – 500k pot so you can keep the same volume knob and just use a bypass switch. If you have more than one volume then you need a second CB1 or whatever as I have not been able to find a stereo buffer.
      Doesn’t SD make a buffer?

  4. You can buy a trs jack which includes a dpdt switch as well, the switch is thrown by inserting a cable. Commonly known as a ‘switching jack’..

    1. Sounds perfect – have you got a link? I spent ages looking for one, but could only find a TRS jack that would open a connection on insertion, not close one.

    2. Right it’s just a stereo Jack. The cutoff to any active circuit needs to cut the battery there to avoid pops whilst using switching. It is interesting the way you could use both at the same time through a Modeler.
      I would just require a bypass switch and an OBEL for the active circuit. That has been done before. All you want that active circuit to do is lower the impedance.
      There is companies that make pots with all sorts of effects. It just replaces one tone knob on a Fender. I personally just want an active circuit to play my effects the same regardless of the volume

  5. Interesting article. I was curious about one of my guitars, it’s a Godin Velocity and here’s an excerpt from Godin’s website:
    “Powered by 2 Godin GS-1 single coil pickups as well as the beefy tone and high output of the SH-5 Duncan Custom humbucker by Seymour Duncan for serious crunch and an aggressive bite. The new Velocity is also the first of the Godin Electric models to feature the Godin High-Definition Revoicer. The H.D.R. revoices and augments the frequency range of each pickup and allows the player to go from passive to active pickups with the simple push of a button.”
    When I look at this text, I’m thinking that it combines the pickups in either all active or all passive mode. There is only one volume and tone control. I don’t know how the Godin circuit is setup, but they seem to be able to combine 2 actives pickups pretty well. There are some Youtube pages demonstration this feature.
    I don’t have much experience with many guitars, so this may be common. If you have a chance to try guitar it may be interesting to compare with your test results.

    1. This one sounds a little bit like perhaps it switches *all* the pickups from active to passive at the same time.

      1. That is the way it has to be and I wouldn’t bother without an onboard effects loop which is easy to wire up.

  6. Great article…nice to see someone dig into this “mystery”.
    The heart of the problem is the fact that you have two very different impedance pickups, and putting them in parallel (together) is where the problem starts. And also add in that you have two very different value pots…it’s the same as putting a 25k resistor in parallel with a 500k. You wind up with a total load of 24k that both pickups see. Electrically, it’s the same as when you used just a 25k pot for both pickups.
    Maybe another answer is to use an audio transformer after the volume control for the passive. When you plug an instrument into a passive DI box (so you can go direct to the PA), that’s the same thing that’s going on…you’re taking a high impedance input and converting it to low impedance (and going from unbalanced to balanced, but that doesn’t matter here).
    An audio transformer suitable for this application could easily fit in the body of a guitar. I think that might be the magic bullet you’re looking for. Hammond Mfg makes several. You’re probably looking for something with at least a 100k input impedance, and 1k or so out.
    If that proved out, a buffer amp built around a single IC (similar to the guts of an active pickup) is something that could be developed and that SD could probably sell a few of.
    Greetings from Austin, Tx
    Ken Carver

  7. I had a Jackson DK2M about 2 or 3 years ago and it came (used) with an EMG 81 or 85 in the bridge and the stock passive single coils (Duncan Designed). I don’t remember there being any bizarre wiring, but it worked perfectly. I’m starting to wonder if it was actually a passive EMG passed off as an 81 or 85. The guitar sounded fantastic though!

    1. Sorry DK2, not DK2M. There’s probably pictures of it on the forum somewhere, or on JCF.

  8. A guitar teacher had a Strat with two EMG SSA’s and an EMG 81. The neck SSA died. He had a passive single coil sized humbucker and wanted to use it. I built a small non-inverting buffer for it, and put the passive coil with the buffer into the guitar. It worked perfectly with the EMG’s.

  9. if only we could get a simpler solution to combine both active and passive pups together.. but then, it was a great effort SD! 🙂

  10. FINALLY someone that explains this with all the professional approach you would expect!GREAT article man,seriously! But I need your help now to kill a doubt that come to my mind when I said to a friend of mine (which is quite prepared in electric guitar wiring) “I want to make a passive-active guitar”.
    Well this guitar of mine is loaded with EMGs (please don’t hate me :D) and as I have a screamin demon (terrific pickup,I love it to death) without a place to stay,I just wanted to pair it with my emg 81,which slays in bridge position.
    My guitar’s a schecter,so volume+volume+tone knob…one for the emg,one for the sd,and tone for the sd too. Looks great on the paper!
    BUT there’s the friggin doubt “no buddy,you can’t do such a thing…switching the active and the passive that way is NO GOOD. When you run an active guitar,you are working with a full active circuit…if you pur a passive,you switch from an all active to an hybrid active-passive one…it’s like you play your active no problem,then start using the passive would be like removing the battery from an active circuit,and selecting the active again would be like putting the battery back,with all the noise you produce (of course while the amp is turned on) and great damage to the amp!”
    Did you find the same issues in the process?Cheers man!!

    1. No you have a bypass switch and leave the active circuit on until you unplug the mono plug from a stereo Jack which cuts the power to any active electronics you have or you will get a nasty pop. Carvin already makes guitars like this just no OBEL loop and they use push pull and loose knobs going from one mode to the other.

  11. So would an EMG-PA2 PreAmp wired to the SD-Jazz pup make it sound like an EMG ?
    – or is it only the BMP that is “voiced” to make ANY connected pup sound like a BlackOut pup ?
    Which pup-PreAmps are “un-voiced”/”clean-boost” ?

    1. Unfortunately, EMG products are designed for their pickups, and I think mostly can not be combined with other devices on the issue of impedance

  12. I have a a EMG 85 (could be a SD AHB-1) in the bridge and a passive humbucker in the neck, with self-made split-coil, the master volume is the 25k for the EMG, and the second knob is the volume for the passive, a 500k pot. Also this pot is push/pull, it controls the power to EMG (i have troubles with the long panel jack, it doesn`t stereo, left buy another one…), and controls the single/HB mode too, with a 3-way switch… Sounds great, zero noise with the active one, the combination of the pickups doesnt give a interesting sound… but everything works fine. I only have two cavities for knobs, so i had to omitte the tone control, just for that…

  13. Just making two wirings, (active and passive separately), and put them together in the switch selector, is the solution… No double output jacks or weird inventions… The easy way (and try to disconnect the wire that grouding through bridge and strings…)

    1. Gotta have double output jacks both stereo too. One has a y that goes in and out of your effects. The other is mono and goes to your amp. The reason it has to be stereo is to cut the power to your rig without pops.

  14. They do make a stacked 25k 500k pot at CAE. The main reason to even have an active circuit with a unity gain buffer is to have an OBEL loop to make your effects work the same no matter how you have your volume set which is good for delay circuits and things like that. You might want to have passive available at the same time. Well it’s obvious you have to havea stacked volume pot but can’t you use the same tone pot for both active and passive and use a bypass switch. BTW with two volume knobs you will probably need two buffers so that you can mix possibly two humbuckers. The way I understand it is that a unity gain buffer is a preamp with an output of 1 that cleans up the signal but shouldn’t have much gain at all. A TL072 op amp like they use in mike preamps an phonograph preamps should work. THX for the insight.

    1. Active and passive in the same guitar with a bypass switch. I dunno about modeling or putting iPODs into guitars yet. Maybe 2015.

  15. Thank you, I like the sound of passive a lot but I want to be able to switch from melodic to thrash in an instant. As soon as I get another guitar I’m going to use my epiphone as a guinea pig, do you know how I could start learning how to wire?

  16. The pickups were wired out of phase…. 0_o Not sure if that was intentional, but they definitely were.

  17. Hi, I’m also thinking about doing this. If we have the two output signals from the guitar – you said you’ve tried boosting the passive signal and then mix the two and plug them to the amp. What about just turning down the active signal instead, and then setting the gain of the amp higher? Would that not work? Thanks.

  18. tis a nice jazz sound but lets hear you pump up the gain and crush the volume, nuff this elevator stuff. LETS ROCK THIS JOINT!!!

  19. Did you look into using the active volume pot and then put a resistor on the other side of the switch from the neck pickup to make the total be 500k when selected heading to the volume? (475k) just curious…

  20. I picked up my guitar and ran it straight in with a non-active Dimarzio then followed it up with a EMG 81 for comparison. There’s not enough difference at all to ‘balance’ the levels at all imo. Add to the fact that both were in the bridge position for this comparison and the non -active will get even louder in the NECK. Just use a switch/resistor combo to change it all…just sayin…

  21. You just need a buffer on the passive pickup. A transistor, a FET or an op-amp, and a couple of resistors is all. That will allow the passive pickup to work with the 25K pots and with the active in parallel. But you should pay attention to the wiring of the guitar in order to design the buffer properly.

    1. Ehm can you explain this to me, please, I would honor you like some half-god. I knew about the resistors though. or send me a wiring for 1 humbucker, 1 singlecoil and 1 active singlecoil, 1 volume pot (with coil split for HB) and 1 tone pot. where do I put what now??

  22. All you need to do is jump the bridge to middle position on the active with a 10k resistor to ground so it halves the output of the active when it’s switched into both pickups mode. Then add individual volume controls.
    To suggest a modeling amp as a solution is just asinine

  23. How about a bridge pickup that is passively loud when the battery is off and then, overdrive on steroids loud, when the battery is turned on? Is something like that possible?

  24. Great article, as one said before me (:
    I have a question though: how would you connect a bridge passive with two active singles at middle and neck position?
    Thanks a lot.

    1. According to the article, without building a complex buffer inside of the guitar, you have to decide if you want separate outputs (they can share a switch, but need different pots). You can go into 2 inputs of a modeler, use 2 amps, or just go all passive or active. In other words, it ain’t easy, or fun.

  25. Hello everyone, I have a Telecaster that I have named the Hellacaster or Cochise. I have a ’59 model SH-1 in the neck, and a EMG-81 in the bridge. I just had this installation done at the Guitar Center in Rancho Cucamonga. Now this particular Tele has two independent volume & 2 independent tone controls. When I have the selector switch in the middle position & the neck volume up and the bridge volume down I get NO sound. When I reverse the 2, I get the same. Now when they are in their respective positions I can hear them just fine. So basically what I am saying is if I have the selector switch in the middle and I turn one of the volumes down I can’t hear the remaining one, which is still supposed to be emitting a sound, correct? Can someone please help me with any helpful info. I’d really like to get in touch with the above guy Richard Irons. Thanks Mickaël Holladay.

  26. Right now i am trying to combine a synyster gates trembucker (bridge) a hot stack strat singlecoil (middle) and an active blackouts singlecoil (neck). i heard you could just use resistors either between the phase of the passive pickup, or inbetween the phase of both passive pickups and the ground. this would result in a perfect result without having to change any potmeters, BUT you will loose a bit of your volume or tonality, so it’s a constant battle between what you want to achieve. since i’m too lazy for this shit, i’m just going to switch the places of the active and passive singlecoil on the 5way switch so I can switch to clean very easily and not having a volume loss when switching from the bridge to the neck pickup. if this does not work, i will have to order the invader singlecoil from your custom shop, so please, crap, WORK!

  27. ….Facepalm
    SERIES wiring. Run the passive’s hot >> 250-500k volume >> Active’s ground
    Active’s hot >> 10-50k volume >> output
    Do note you MUST isolate the active’s volume pot from common ground.

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