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