When the electric bass as we know it was first invented by Leo Fender and co, there was no such thing as ‘active and passive’ bass electronics; there was just ‘what was there.’ If you wanted to fine-tune your sound on a single-pickup Precision Bass, you had a passive tone control whose job was to reduce the treble frequencies, and you had whatever tone-shaping your amp offered – what wasn’t terribly much at the time. Now of course it’s a very different story: active circuits have been commonplace since the 70s and the tone-shaping possibilities of amps, processors and pedals are endless.
If you’re new to this stuff, we can think of ‘active’ as having some kind of powered circuit that provides further sonic sculpting to the tone before it leaves the instrument on its journey to the amplifier. A passive circuit doesn’t require extra electricity in order to do its job beyond what’s already coming in through the cable. The bass world tends to differ from the guitar world in that you’ll find a lot more basses that have passive pickups but active tone shaping, whereas if someone has an active guitar it’s generally the pickup itself that is active. There are active bass pickups too though. Here’s a look at what’s what.
Okay, so those very first basses had one pickup, a volume control and a simple low-pass filter tone control. Eventually twin pickup basses came along, and the early pioneers of these instruments did something pretty clever; they realised that basses would benefit from either individual volume pots or a ’blend’ control to vary the ratio between the two pickups, unlike guitar players who benefitted more from more straightforward toggle switches. The tone of a passive bass is usually earthy, organic, full and punchy, which is great for organic styles like blues, jazz, funk, rock and alternative.
Active basses are great for styles like jazz and funk too, just in a different way. An active bass will generally offer more sound-sculpting in the form of separate tone controls for particular frequencies. One of the early successful active basses, the Music Man StingRay, used individual boost/cut controls for the treble and bass frequencies, and players soon realised that if they used these controls to boost each, they’d get a more wide-ranging tone for slap styles; the low notes thumped harder and the high notes jumped out more. Soon, basses with midrange controls arrived – often in the form of concentric pots giving you power over the midrange frequency as well as the amount of boost or cut. This is especially handy for players in genres like jazz who might really need to stand out for a solo, because a lot of crucial ‘listen to me!’ frequencies live in the mids. Active basses are also great for metal players who need the high-end grind and low-end thump to get overdriven, fuzzed-out or just plain distorted tones to work. Active basses also are great for when you’re using a long cable because the signal is given an extra ‘kick’ that overrides the dreaded tone suck that occurs as capacitance builds up with each extra foot of cable length. And they’re usually noticeably quieter than passive basses, especially if you’re using fuzz, distortion or overdrive.
If you’re a fan of the response of passive pickups but you need much more tone-shaping flexibility, an active preamp might be for you. The Steve Bailey Active Preamp comes in versions designed for active and passive pickups, and there are models with two or three-band EQs to suit whatever your particular needs are. Steve’s signature preamps also include a push-pull switch that engages a frequency contour optimized to bring out fretless harmonics as well as mid-range boost.