When you are playing electric guitar, you need to connect it to an amp. Ever wonder why some players achieve great tone, while others are very poor of it? The answer lies between knowing active pickups vs passive, so you project the perfect tone for the music that you want to play.
There has been a lot of articles explaining the types of pickups and there are several forums that have discussed these. Yet, it’s still a problem for a lot of guitarists, especially those who are still new. Hence, this article has been made in order to give a straightforward and detailed explanation about this matter.
What are Pickups?
Let’s begin by getting to know about pickups and why are they important. Pickups are said to be the heart of electric guitars, and bass guitars, too. It’s a device that captures the vibrations of the strings and converts them into electricity. This is the reason you can hear the sounds from your amp.
In general, pickups can be a piece of metal or plastic placed on the body of the guitar underneath the strings. It’s made of magnet and wound copper wire. When you strum the strings, it disturbs the magnet, thereby, affecting the current that runs through the copper wire. The current then flows to the amplifier makes you hear the sound.
What is Passive Pickup?
The pickup that was described in the previous section is passive pickup. Basically, it has two components — the magnet and the wound copper wire. It picks up the vibration and with the current that runs through the cable, it’ll feed your amplifier to make a sound.
This type of pickup has a weaker electric signal, therefore, it’s very important that you have a high gain amplifier. Using the controls of your amplifier, you can achieve better projection of the tone you want to achieve.
Passive pickups offer a high dynamic range with the guitar’s volume. You can achieve warm and mellow tone at lower volume; powerful tone as you increase the volume of your guitar. However, one drawback of passive pickups is they are prone to interference. This means it can be caught in a feedback loop at high volume and gain.
What is Active Pickup?
What differentiates active from the passive pickup is that it’s powered by a 9V battery. They rely on the power source, so they can capture the vibrations of the strings which will then be sent to the amp.
Active pickups have fewer windings, so they start off with lower output. However, because it has a preamp onboard, it always appears that active pickup is louder than a passive pickup. The advantage of active pickups starting with lower input is that they aren’t that sensitive to hum, noise, and other interference. So, you can achieve a more consistent tone with active pickups than with passive.
Which Pickup is Better?
Neither of the pickups is better than the other. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. However, if you don’t want to spend too much on a pickup, passive pickups are better for you. If you are still exploring what music you want to play, take advantage of the versatility of passive pickups.
One caveat though, with passive pickup, you should have a great amp. The sound that you’ll get depends on the capacity of your amp. You must have an amp with high gain in order to compensate for the lower output of pickup – getting that punchy tone you want.
When you are playing metal, active pickups are more favored because of their high output. You can only achieve tight and punchy tone if you use active pickups paired with a low gain amp.
Pros and Cons of Active Pickups
Depending on what kind of music you want to achieve, you can use active pickups. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of this type of pickup.
- Less prone to feedback, so, you can achieve a cleaner sound
- Great for metal music with high-gain distortions
- Has more sustain than passive pickups
- Guitars with stock active pickups are more expensive
- Pickup is useless if the battery runs out
- Less dynamic range
Pros and Cons of Passive Pickups
Aside from the quick comparison above, here’s more detailed information on the advantages and disadvantages of passive pickups.
- More sensitive to string vibrations
- Picks up more subtle tones — offers a wider tonal range
- Basses and guitars with passive pickups are cheaper
- Prone to interference, noise, and hums
- Commonly has feedback issues
- Overwinding produces dark, muddy tone
Installing Active Pickups on Passive Guitar
You’ve decided to change your passive pickups to active, can do it?
First, ask yourself, where will the battery go? You can either use a router or carve a cavity. However, if you don’t want to make a mess with the aesthetics of your guitar, try if it fits the tremolo cavity or other existing cavities in your guitar. If you have enough room, then, it’s okay to replace your passive pickups.
Installing Passive Pickups on Active Guitar
On the other hand, if you want the versatility of passive pickups, and you decided to replace your active pickup, it could be a bit challenging. You might need to do some rewiring including the pots and jack.
What you can do is have both passive and active pickups on your guitar. While it’s technically possible, it’s not that easy. One must have solid electronics knowledge to make both pickups work together, or at least to make them work according to your preferences.
The concept of pickups is very easy. More so, identifying between the two types of pickups is also a breeze. What’s difficult is to choose active pickups vs passive. Which one is suitable for you?
If you know what kind of music you want to play and the kind of tone you want to achieve, then, it’s not a big deal. Metal music should go with active pickups, while passive is a versatile pickup that can be used in a wide variety of music styles. Lastly, pairing your electric guitar (or bass) with a good amp will help you achieve the perfect tone that you always wanted.
Hi music fan! I am Jeff. Hope that you enjoy some stuff I shared here in my personal blog.
About myself, Currently I am in charging as Artist Manager/Music Supervisor at 72 Music Management. I did managed album to Grammy Award in 2017 with 7 Nominations from 2014-2020 and had the opportunities to work with : A.J. Croce, Blind Boys of Alabama, Bobby Rush, Dom Flemons, Dustbowl Revival, Sarah Grace
Governor of the Memphis Chapter of The Recording Academy is one of a award that I am lucky to achieved.