You may have heard the term active pickups and passive pickups, particularly if you're looking at upgrading pickups in your guitar or buying a new guitar entirely. But what is the difference between active vs passive pickups?
What do those terms even mean?
It sounds technical and confusing, but the difference between the two pickups is simple, which is why we'll start with a simple definition of both.
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Active VS Passive Pickups: Simple Definition of Both
- Passive pickups: Made to amplify sound entirely by their magnetic pull, without an external source of power
- Active pickups: Made to amplify sound with a magnetic pull that's supplemented by a preamp circuit requiring its own source of power (usually a 9V battery)
Understanding Active Pickups
I'll start with active pickups because passive pickups are fairly straightforward.
Active pickups work the same way passive pickups do, though they usually have less winding and a smaller number of coils. Through the magnet, they pick up the vibration of the strings which are then amplified by the active circuit - the preamp - onboard the guitar.
This creates a signal with the following characteristics:
- Low impedance
- More aggressive or "hotter"
- Extremely low noise
Lows are tight and highs are clear, which gives you a more sterile, articulate sound that's less "organic" than what you get with passive pickups.
Active pickups also tend to respond really well to high levels of distortion and gain, with low noise, tight percussive rhythms, and some added sustain, even on higher notes near the top of the fretboard.
They're far more modern-sounding than their passive counterparts.
Understanding Passive Pickups
Passive pickups, as you might have guessed by now, do not use a source of external power. Rather, they rely on a stronger magnetic pull that picks up the string vibrations from an electromagnetic field created above the pickup's coil. While active pickups use the preamp circuit to boost their signal, the passive pickup creates a stronger magnetic field which does not need boosted.
Without the preamp, passive pickups are naturally louder than active pickups.
It sounds complex, but it's really just a magnet doing what a magnet does best, which is then helped by the copper wiring inducing an electrical signal in the coil, thus becoming the sound we hear from our amplifier.
This process is also simpler than the active pickup, given the omission of the preamp circuit and filter.
It's just the magnet, the wires, and the coils, which is considered by many to be a more pure and honest form of amplification.
Regardless of preference, there are plenty of pros and cons to note for both active and passive pickups.
We'll list the major ones in the next section.
Pros and Cons of Active Pickups
- Very low noise
- Smooth tone with tight lows and clear highs
- Usually some extra sustain
- Lower magnetic pull
- Balanced tone
- Articulate sounding
- Response to picking dynamics is dramatically different than passive pickups (can be hard to get used to)
- Tone is often described as less "organic" than what you get with passive pickups
- Usually more expensive than passive pickups
- Battery is a small inconvenience
Pros and Cons of Passive Pickups
- Very touch sensitive and responsive to right-hand picking dynamics
- More familiar sound and response (as opposed to active pickups)
- Often described as more natural, organic, or vintage sounding
- No battery needed
- Generally more affordable
- Tons of tone variations available
- High impedance isn't ideal
- Prone to noise issues (especially single coils)
- They don't handle high gain as well as active pickups
- Less sustain than active pickups
- Unwanted feedback can be a problem with more powerful magnets
There is a lot of debate when it comes to active vs passive pickups.
Those that prefer one over the other tend to be fiercely committed and opposed to the alternative. However, there are also a ton of guitar players who don't really even know the difference (a group I was included in not too long ago).
And I would argue that it's important to know the difference and decide which type of player you are and which type of pickup is better suited for your playing style. For me, active pickups tend to be a better fit, just because I like the tighter rhythm sounds with lower noise, and I tend to work more with high amounts of gain.
At the same time, players that play a more vintage style with emphasis on picking dynamics would want to go with passive pickups.
It just depends on the style you like to play.
If you have questions about active and passive pickups, drop them in the comments section below and I'll do my best to help out.