Active v. Passive Pickups
Shortly after I began playing guitar in my early teens, I decided I wanted a guitar with EMG active pickups. Why? Metallica, that’s why.
As a fervent fan of the band, I thought their heavy, distorted tone—which still perfectly articulated every note Kirk or James played, was the pinnacle of guitar sound. I didn’t really know what “active” meant, and I certainly didn’t get how it worked, but man did I like it.
Now, with a wee bit more guitar knowledge under my belt, I can appreciate not just the tonal differences of active pickups, but the actual differences underlying them.
Passive pickups are the more common of the two types. Most guitars use passive pickups. They were the first iteration of pickup created and they don’t require an additional battery to operate. Passive pickups also afford a more traditional guitar tone.
Active pickups, while less common, have an important place in the guitar world. They produce a tighter sound with the help of a battery powered preamp. You’ll find active pickups on guitars geared towards heavy metal, as well as on a lot of basses. Surely that’s not all they’re good for, but that’s how it’s panned out due to a few specific attributes they encompass.
How Do They Work?
At their core, both active and passive pickups work the same way — via electromagnetic induction. Pickups consist of magnets in the center, which are either bars or pole pieces (the metallic circles beneath the strings that are evident on many pickups are pole piece magnets). Coils of fine wire (usually made from copper) are then wrapped around the entire form/shape of the pickup, which is called the bobbin.
When you plug your guitar in, electricity runs through the wire coil, and the pickup generates a magnetic field. That magnetic field extends up through the strings, causing them to partially magnetize as well. When the partially magnetized strings vibrate, they create electrical current which is captured by the pickups and transmitted back through the guitar’s circuitry, into the amp. The amp then does its job to project the sound and adjust the tonal quality of the signal.
For a passive pickup, that’s all there is to it. For active pickups, it’s the foundation, but there’s a slight bit more involved.
The Main Differences between Active and Passive Pickups
The major difference with an active pickup is that it includes a preamp powered by a battery, which boosts the signal. Knowing this, active pickups are constructed differently. Because they have a preamp to boost the signal, active pickups are wound less times, creating a weaker electrical current. Thus, active pickups themselves (before the preamp) are not as “hot” as passives. As you may guess, this also affects the tonal character of the sound that the pickup receives.
So, then, the main differences between passive and active pickups boils down to:
(a) How many times the coils are wound, which affects the character and
strength of the signal produced by the strings;
(b) Active pickups have a battery powered preamp which acts like an amplifier, before the signal goes to the actual amplifier.
To be completely clear, different pickups, both passive and active, are made of different materials of various qualities and sizes. How they’re built, the magnet material, the size of the magnets and their positioning, all factor into the pickup’s sound. But differences “(a)” and “(b)” which were just highlighted are referring to just what changes between passive and active.
Okay, but do they Sound Different?
Now that science class is over, what does all that mean for your sound?
Passive pickups, because they are wound more, naturally have a more powerful, raw sound. The strings’ vibrations, in reaction to the stronger coils, create tones that have a dynamic, vibrant quality, which gets increasingly erratic with distortion, effects, and volume.
While more winds are great up to a point, over-winding can cause weak treble response and subdued dynamics. It’s also a challenge with passives to maintain perfectly audible, articulate playing at high volumes with overdrive and effects.
Active pickups start out with fewer winds, so they’re not as sensitive to sounds and signals that aren’t coming from the strings. They pick up the essence of the strings’ tonal vibration, without pickup up additional buzz, hum, or overpowering variations in sound. Then, that relatively clean, subdued electrical signal is increased and shaped with the battery powered preamp. This enables you to have a very clean, bright signal, which doesn’t get easily distorted, allowing you to add lots of overdrive and effects. The active pickup signal will last over long cable lengths and varying the volume won’t change the tonal character of the signal.
While this can be great, some people are not as keen on the less natural, overly perfected tone of active pickups. While it’s excellent for heavy music, it doesn’t suite all genres or players as well. However, it is particularly useful on basses that need a boost when their low-end sound might otherwise get lost in the mix. Additionally, some players just don’t want to have to deal with changing a battery or having it run out at the wrong time.
Can I Have Some Examples of Active Pickups?
Hands down the most famous brand of active pickups is EMG. These guys have been at it since the ’70s. They’ve stocked famous brands from Ibanez, to ESP, and even a few Fenders, like the Jim Root Signature Jazzmaster. They also sell stand-alone pickups that you can throw into whatever guitar you want. Aside from Metallica, guitarists in Slipknot, Slayer, Megadeth, Lamb of God, Every Time I die, and countless more, play or have played EMG active pickups.
Similarly, Seymour Duncan has a few powerful active pickup offerings like the Jeff Loomis Blackouts, geared towards the heavier musical styles. Jeff Loomis uses those pickups in his death metal bands Arch Enemy and Conquering Dystopia.
Are There Any Other Types of Pickups Besides Active or Passive?
Recently, new innovations in pickup design have combined the best of both worlds. I can’t get into the tech of this (literally, I cannot), but it’s like having passively voiced pickups with an active preamp and electronics that make sure it all sounds great. The entirety of the hum is removed and there are two distinct voicings—both passive and active, in one pickup.
Fishman Fluence pickups have become quite popular using this method. Unearth’s Ken Susi’s LTD Signature model is stocked with those bad boys. Lamb of God’s Will Adler also has a signature set of Fishman Fluences. In addition, Seymour Duncan is in on this new tech with their Duality pickup.
While there is a bit of consideration necessary when it comes to active vs. passive pickups, like many aspects of playing guitar, the decision comes down to you. How you play, what style you enjoy, how versatile you want to be, all become a part of choosing active or passive pickups.
But if you can swing it, have a guitar with each! That way, you’ll never be disappointed!