Pickups are an integral component of every solid-bodied guitar. An underwhelmingly built or installed pickup can ruin a guitar's sound quality, regardless of whether you have a good-quality set of strings or not. There are various types of pickups, classified according to various features. You may have probably already heard of active and passive pickups and wondered what their differences are and, more importantly, which one is better.
Are active guitar pickups or passive guitar pickups better? Technologically speaking, active pickups are more advanced than passive pickups because of the additional preamp that boosts, filters and equalizes the guitar's output. However, some professional guitarists prefer the sound produced through passive pickups because of its “purity”.
In this article, we'll discuss the differences between active and passive pickups, focusing on the pros and cons of each to give you a better idea of which pickup type is best for your electric guitar or bass.
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A Primer On Guitar Pickups
As stated earlier, active pickups come equipped with preamps that filter and boost the signal to enhance the sound of an electric guitar. This is different from passive pickups, which only carry the signals detected without any modifications or additions. Depending on a guitarist's particular musical direction, they may opt for either one.
Nevertheless, in order to understand the differences in-depth, it's convenient to review what a pickup actually is.
Although the idea of an electrified guitar was already espoused as far back as the end of the 19th century, the first electric guitar operated by magnetic pickups didn't arrive until the end of the 1920s. By 1937, George Beauchamp, in collaboration with Adolf Rickenbacker, patented the first guitar pickup.
A standard pickup consists of a set of magnets, which can be made from ceramic, alnico, or neodymium, wound by thousands of turns of conductive copper wire. The circuit that operates under the bobbin comprising one set or row of magnets is commonly called a coil. Pickups may have one coil (single-coil) or two coils (dual-coils or “humbuckers”).
To learn more about ceramic, alnico and neodymium pickups, check out my article Ceramic Guitar Pickups Vs. Alnico Guitar Pickups.
Note that there are also such things as piezoelectric pickups, which rely on the vibrational deformation of piezo crystals to produce audio signals. However, the standard guitar pickups in electric guitars and basses work on electromagnetic principles, notably electromagnetic induction.
The pickup magnetizes the guitar's strings and generates a magnetic field between the steel strings and the magnets, which is disturbed by the strings' vibration. This disturbance in the magnetic field is effectively captured by the coil of conductive wire, which transforms it into an electric (audio) signal via electromagnetic induction.
When the guitar or bass is plugged into an amplifier, the signal travels through the circuit from the guitar to the amp. In turn, the amplifier (as the name implies) is responsible for “amplifying” the signals and producing the audible sound, serving a similar purpose to the hollow soundbox of acoustic and classical guitars.
Guitars usually bear more than one pickup, and they can be found between the bridge and the neck, under the strings. The most common guitar setup includes two pickups, one at the top near the neck and another at the bottom close to the bridge.
For more information on bridge and neck pickups, check out my article When To Use Bridge & Neck Pickups Together.
The number of pickups determines the guitar's tonal range, as the pickups near the bridge produce more treble-heavy sounds, whereas the ones near the neck will render more low-frequency tones. As a side effect, having more pickups installed can impact playability because pickups in the middle make it harder for a player to freely handle, pick, pluck, or strum the strings.
When we speak of a passive pickup, we're basically referring to the magnetic pickup as it was originally conceived, whether single-coil or dual-coil.
When the first electric guitars saw the light of day in the 1930s, all pickups were traditionally passive transducers operated as conduits. The electrical audio signals would flow without any add-on or extra filter. Even to this day, most electric guitars sport passive pickups by default.
In the case of passive pickups, the entire strength of the guitar's output rests on the strength of the magnets, the number of coils employed and the number of wire windings around the magnetic poles. The distance between the pickup and strings also plays a role, though this factor isn't an inherent characteristic of the pickup itself.
For more information on pickup height and its effect on tone, check out my article How Does Guitar Pickup Height Affect Tone?
Again, standard electric guitar and bass pickups are transducers that convert string vibrations to audio signals via electromagnetic induction. Electromagnetic induction is the production of a voltage across an electrical conductor in a changing magnetic field.
So then, the stronger the magnet, the greater the magnetization of the strings and the general magnetic field. This will increase the potential output of the pickup. Similarly, more windings in the coil will enhance the amount of signal produced.
Thirdly, the number of coils also plays a role since more coils will produce more signal. However, dual-coil pickups aren't exactly twice as “loud” as single-coil pickups. Winding the coils in opposite directions acts to eliminate electromagnetic interference at the cost of reduced output, which tends to be noticeable in the higher frequencies.
No power source is required for a passive pickup, hence the name. The process of electromagnetic induction does not require external electricity to work.
So, the low-level, high-impedance “instrument level” audio signals produced by a passive pickup are outputted from the guitar or bass. It must then be amplified to line level via a preamplifier before it's amplified to speaker level by a power amplifier. Note that typical guitar and bass amps have both a preamp and power amp stage for this reason.
Passive pickups are known for the broad range of sound layers that they can capture from the strings' vibration, creating a more “natural” tone. Their low output gives them a wide dynamic range, especially when the gain staging is set up correctly down the signal chain.
They are, conversely, more susceptible to magnetic interference and noise, especially single-coil pickups, which is why humbuckers appeared on the scene later on as an answer to this problem. Furthermore, it should be noted that the need for lots of gain could make the pickups prone to additional noise and even feedback.
Active pickups were invented in 1976 by amp repairman Rob Turner, the founder of EMG, Inc. Since then, they've been massively adopted, particularly by hard rock and metal artists and bands worldwide.
EMG is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Active pickups, in most respects, have the same components present in a passive pickup but with an additional preamp device, which is typically powered by a 9V battery.
These preamps are laid out on printed circuit boards (PCBs). The role of the preamp within an active pickup is not only to amplify the signal but also to filter and EQ the signal, lower its impedance and cancel noise. It also compresses the signal, thereby reducing the dynamic range and maintaining a consistent tone across all output levels.
Basically, with an active pickup, you will get the purest notes from your strings with basically no loss and a greater sustain.
Contrary to passive pickups, active pickups are not completely dependent upon the number of times the wires are wound to the magnetic poles. Rather, most of the power comes from the preamp, which can be thought of as a tiny built-in booster and compressor pedal.
In fact, the wires are wound in a more austere way so as to inhibit electromagnetic interference from affecting the signal. This is, in part, what enables their hum reduction or noise cancellation properties.
There may be some confusion between active pickups and humbuckers, for the latter are also advertised as serving precisely those same purposes. However, even humbuckers are prone to suffer interference, albeit to a much lesser extent than single-coil pickups.
Finally, it's worthy of note that, while most electric guitars have passive pickups installed by the manufacturer, a large portion of bass guitars come equipped with active pickups. Active guitar pickups tend to be installed as aftermarket mods when they are used in guitars.
Active Vs. Passive Pickups
We've outlined some general principles related to pickups in general and the mechanisms involved in each pickup type. Now it's time to showcase the advantages or disadvantages of each, and the reasons to choose one over the other.
Let's start with passive pickups.
Reasons For Choosing Passive Pickups
Even though these may appear to be “outdated” and be deemed the underdog, many guitarists still opt to preserve their passive pickups instead of upgrading to active pickups.
The reasons for preferring passive pickups over active pickups can be summarized as follows:
- Even though the output signal is dimmer, they have a wider dynamic range precisely because they act solely to convert the vibrating string into an audio signal and nothing more. This also means that they have a more “natural” string sound.
- They're more versatile in terms of equalization, albeit the equalization is not processed by the pickup itself but by third-party tools such as amplifiers, digital audio workstations (DAWs), or pedals. Active pickups, while also able to be equalized, are already bound by the default filter settings that the manufacturer decided to place, and thus, you will be already feeding an “EQed” sound to the EQ device or program.
- Passive pickups don't carry any moving parts, meaning that they will not wear out over time.
- Passive pickups do not require power and, therefore, do not need a battery, meaning their performance won't wane over time, and no batteries will require replacing.
- They can be tweaked more easily, to the guitarist's satisfaction, through various mechanisms, such as increasing the number of windings around the magnetic poles.
Reasons For Choosing Active Pickups
Many guitarists, such as Steve Lukather and James Hetfield, love the sound of active pickups, and it's not hard to see why.
Below are some of the most important reasons you might want to upgrade your passive pickup to an active pickup:
- The most obvious reason is the considerable gain in the output signal, as opposed to what you normally get with passive pickups, as the preamp enhances the electric signals generated through the magnets and coils.
- Active pickups deliver a cleaner, more powerful tone with greater sustain. This makes active pickups a favourite for many performers in the metal scene.
- There is virtually no interference, meaning that you won't experience annoying hums or feedback while playing. The reason is that the sound is powered more by the preamp than by the magnets, which are prone to react to other environmental vibrations as well (such as those generated by other electrical devices and appliances). Passive pickups (even humbuckers) are susceptible to electromagnetic interference.
- With active pickups, you save a lot of space and money (as well as time) because you don't need to rely on the use of additional pedals and effects/processes to improve your tone.