Active Vs. Passive Pickups

A beginner's look to the market of active and passive pickups, their intended range and their hits and misses.

Active Vs. Passive Pickups
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Debating whether or not an electric instrument pickup is better than the other comes down to personal preference. Quality of a pickup however is generally universally accepted as being given to a company with many years of experience.

Seymour Duncan
, DiMarzio, Bill Lawrence, Fender, Gibson, EMG, TV Jones and Lace Sensor are the most well known and respected pickup companies in the market. There is a reason that these companies are famous and it comes down to two things. Personal preference on sound and the quality and consistency of the pickup brand.

Whether you are a serious player or an amateur, finding your own sound is as enjoyable and informative as finding your first guitar. Every pickup has its own flavor and every guitar bonds with a pickup in a different manor. Depending on how many pickups and what electronic controls will be attached to each pickup, you can have a plethora of sounds at your disposal or just one consistent tone. Whatever you are looking for in a sound, there isn't a pickup that won't help you on your way to achieving the sound in your head.

This post will talk about the match up between an active pickup and a passive pickup and what are the benefits and negatives from each. Hopefully I will help you narrow down the sound you are looking for and give you some insight into the market of pickups.

Passive Pickups

A passive pickup is a magnetic pickup directly sending the signal from your string, through the wood, into the pickup and into the amp which creates the most dynamic, organic sound you can produce. Many artists prefer a passive pickup to be able to have a "breathable" sound coupled with using their volume knob enables a multitude of tones without adjusting gain or treble on the amp.

The negative aspect however with a passive pickup is its feedback especially when gain from the amplifier is introduced as well as a magnetic pull on the strings which can cause intonation problems that reduces the sustain of the guitar overall.

A single coil pickup found on Stratocasters and Telecasters generally produce a large amount of feedback and hum which is why the humbucker was invented to increase power over a single coil sound and to dampen noise feedback in the process. Jeff Beck, Dimebag Darrell, Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix are prime examples of passive pickup users.

Active Pickups

An active pickup is powered by a separate battery stored on the guitar enabling higher output and overall balanced frequency. Many artists who are looking for a consistent sound such as in metal music use active pickups to achieve a powerful and consistent tone without compromising quality.

Player's like Kirk Hammett and Kerry King use active electronics which enable them to push their amps near their limits and still retain a tight and focused clarity in their sound. The negatives of this style of pickup is the need to replace the 9v battery when the power supply is fading as well as being sterile in sound by critiques around the pickup community.

An active pickup will generally sound the same no matter if the guitar is of solid body, semi hollow body, string through or with a vibrato bridge but generally speaking, a maple neck and alder body will always produce a higher and more percussive sound than a mahogany guitar.


So why is there a debate over pickups at all? It all boils down to preference as I was saying before. Pickups are just one part of the chain that links your guitar to your amp and eventually the sound coming to your ears. My advice is to try out an active pickup and passive pickup in similar built guitars and to shape your own opinion on the debate. Find out the different makes of each type of pickup through your local music store and build an wall of sound that defines the player and personality that is you.

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    iup788
    Gitaarbanaan wrote: Darrel Abbot.. how many will realise that you mean Dimebag :p
    Everyone who knows who Dimebag is.
    omidmash
    pretty correct overall, you forgot to mention the equalizer on actives and the control you can have on them.
    Fenderexpx50
    Active pickups don't sound the same in all guitars. To say that they sound the same in all body styles is a very amateur statement. Because if you put one in a semi hollow body it'll sound the exact same as one in a Les Paul, right? Even though the bodies are of much different construction. That whole rumor of "they all sound the same in everything" is usually repeated by people who either have no experience with active pickups or people who haven't been playing long enough to be able to pick out the differences. Another note, active pickups are technically low output. They use fewer turns of a larger gauge wire and in turn have a wider frequency response, but again that comes at the expense of output. However, the preamp inside boosts the output way up. Pickups work by the creation of an electrical current through oscillation in the magnetic field by the guitar string. Saying that the wood is not a factor in that sound is crazy. The pickup is going to be affected by the wood. Different woods have different tones. You put any pickup, active or passive, in a basswood body/maple necked guitar and then if you move that same pickup to an all mahogany guitar, you'll hear a difference. The pickup is influenced by the wood of the guitar body and neck. It will impart its own character to the pickup. Why else would there be so many different woods guitar makers use? Why do you think a Strat is more trebly sounding than an SG? Alder is brighter sounding than mahogany. That will transfer to the pickups as well.
    TheThunder
    Just a clarification about how the signal moves with regard to pickups. The string's vibration does not go through the wood to the pickup, because a pickup does not detect sound. It detects variation in the magnetic field through its' windings due to the movement of the metal string through that field. The vibration of the wood make affect the string's movement due to how it resonates, but the pickup is not in anyway directly affected by the wood.
    TheThunder
    Note that nowhere in my comment did I say that wood is not a factor in tone. My statement was in response to the article's "through the wood into the pickup" sentence. That suggests that the pickup somehow senses the vibration of the body and it doesn't. Pickups are not microphones. Pickups detect the vibration of the string and ONLY the vibration of the string. The affect that the wood has is purely in sympathetic vibration transferred to the string. How much affect that is - that's a different discussion.
    Metal_Master_0
    Good bits of info in here, but I've had more problems with feedback on active pickups than passives. You forgot to mention the different wiring schemes you can do with passive pickups such as coil tapping and adjusting the screws in the pickup itself for different tone.
    heath.lane
    I actually did an A/B comparison when I worked in a guitar shop in which I A/B'd identical EMG's (the "classic" 81 and 85 setup) in both a '93 Les Paul Classic '60 model and a pawn shop find (an old Hondo bolt-neck Les Paul copy). The sound was almost 100% identical. With actives, the pickups themselves are entirely "power" or "output", just a fixed single sound (yes, you can use EQ dipswitches/knobs, but we're talking straight sound, apples-to-apples here), and unlike "airy" old school organic passive pickups, the only thing actives care about is the string vibration (because they have no microphonic tendencies compared to passives). If that's a sound you're into, that's great news, because you can get it no matter what guitar you're playing. I just never cared for them myself because it doesn't sound natural, no matter what rig you're playing through.
    Kailashanand
    I feel the same , active sound is just fixed constant signal thats why I asked myself, why Metallica sound is so dead and boring in last 15 years or so....
    slash&roses
    Thanks for the comments I realized after I posted this that I should have corrected my comment on the pickup reading sound from the wood. The wood in a guitar has a major influence on the tonal qualities of your guitar but the pickup solely picks up the string vibration As for Active pickups, they are a high output pickup because they are constantly absorbing a higher boost from the 9v battery. Whether or not they started as a low output doesn't matter because the boost is so absorbing that there is no breathable tone like a passive. You can hear a small change in hollow and solid guitars, but nothing like a passive pickup. I'm not bashing active pickups, everyone has their own flavor, but I believe the reason old metal songs will always sound better compared to new metal songs with active pickups is because of the dynamics that a passive pickup brought to the table. Iron Maiden wouldn't have the great soaring and lively tone they have by using active pickups in my opinion. Look for a few posts next week if you enjoyed my writing style, thanks for reading.
    Sakke
    So he mentions Jeff Beck as a passive user and just mentions two metal guitarists using active pickups? Come on, where's David Gilmour or Steve Lukather? Fenderexpx50, I totally agree with your first post.
    claycastle
    Another way you can look at the difference is this... When you record a singer, you wouldn't typically use an SM57 because it's a dynamic mic(passive). Instead, most would use a condensor mic(active) because of clarity and definition, and just a better signal and sound. I'm not saying that pick-ups are mics, but it's kind of the same theory. The wood of the guitar is what defines the sound of the instrument and the strings, the pick-up is what translates that sound and vibration of the strings to the amp.
    Ryan_Good1
    Fenderexpx50 wrote: TheThunder wrote: Note that nowhere in my comment did I say that wood is not a factor in tone. My statement was in response to the article's "through the wood into the pickup" sentence. That suggests that the pickup somehow senses the vibration of the body and it doesn't. Pickups are not microphones. Pickups detect the vibration of the string and ONLY the vibration of the string. The affect that the wood has is purely in sympathetic vibration transferred to the string. How much affect that is - that's a different discussion. You said "the pickup is not in any way directly affected by the wood." The "in not any way" is what drew my attention. Because it is a factor in tone. When the string is vibrating, the body and neck are too. So the string will pick up that and since the string has that effect, the pickup will transfer that as well. So the wood is having a direct effect on tone by imparting it's flavor on the string, which is then picked up by the pickup itself. It is a sympathetic vibration, a secondary effect on tone, but it is an immediate one. The pickup will in a way sense the vibration of the body through the string.
    Fender, you are right that it is a factor but Thunder is correct that it doesn't DIRECTLY affect the pickup. It indirectly affects it, i.e. It affects it via the strings. To prove this; if you put a pickup on a wooden block and hit the wooden block the pickup wouldn't get any signals. Therefore the wood can't DIRECTLY affect the pickup.
    Kailashanand
    Well I can use just one band and it makes all clear. When I listen guys from Metallica (James& Kirk) jamming in backstage, they often play classic hard rock songs for fun and sound is always the same, the clean sound doesnt have all those harmonies, this organic sound like when listening to Clapton or Hendrix or SRV when you feel the sound. and for example MIck Mars is for me very badass and great guitarist and I love his sound its just beautiful, but he uses passive pups and vintage guitars ,old fenders and Lps from 60 and 70s. 2000`s Metallica sound for me is boring, very sterile. I am not saying they are bad musicians, not at all, I am just talking about sound. I think in early 90`s their sound was much more alive, full and organic, now in period after Death Magnetic is just flat "all sound the same" sound, thats why when they try to play Hendrix or Cream when jamming it sound just awful, maybe is also because of ESp guitars which also look and sound sterile for me. I read somwhere that active pickup do this, make sound sterile without all those rich harmonies characteristic for classic old rock sound which is so tasteful, rich, organic, juicy and just orgasmic. So its just personal taste, I am not sayin EMG pups are bad or something, stick with your taste, what is toxic for me might be nectar for you, but Im "natural sound" guy so I will stick with passive pups.
    stefanos604
    Do magnetic pickups used on acoustic guitars pick up the vibration of the top of the guitar? Having knowledge of physics I know that magnet pickups are designed to work with strings that interact with their magnetic field. I wonder how wood can DIRECTLY affect the magnet pickup even indirectly. I have an unknown model magnetic pickup and also the L.R. Baggs M1. Both, on any place on top of my acoustic guitar (even without strings) detect the wood vibration as well as a piezo and on a simple battery amplifier the knocking on any part of top is very strong. For the 1st I would say might have loose coil windings and that would justify the phenomenon but the 2nd LR?
    mucbucker
    The signal in my opinion is without doubt affected by the tone wood configuration with any pickup and I mean wood to pickup. I have a emg 85 on my home built. Obviously the primary signal comes from string vibe. Everyone knows when they hit the pickup there's a sound. The pickup is vibrating using the string as a reference. The mount does indeed affect tone controlling how the pickup reacts with the strings. Active/pa1 ssive, I see it like carburation vs fuel injection. There was a hiss from natural aspiration and many things affected performance. Turbo and superchargers were added to improve things. Enter fuel injection. Active is just pushing the signal, passive is more like pulling it, hence the active compression and passive aspirated tone. I have had both and think one should if possible.
    SeamanTickles
    Guys. I'll tell you, I had a Douglas shadow. It had an alder body, bolt on maple neck. I put dragonfire screamers in it and it upped the output and mids. Now, I acquired an epiphone les paul. Mahogany body maple top. The dragonfires got pulled from the Douglas and went into the les paul. Through the same amp they sound identical, and they're passive...
    pawnluv
    played with passives for years, just picked up the EMG DG-20's, very impressed. Especially with the eq control available with the two tone knobs on the guitar
    francisco.andre
    I totally disagree with this sentence: "An active pickup will generally sound the same no matter if the guitar is of solid body, semi hollow body, string through or with a vibrato bridge " The guitar itself is a very important part of the equation. If not, put EMG's in a crap guitar. It will not sound good to deserve'em. And don't you think a guitar will sound better just because it has new pickups either passive or active ones. Active pickups reacts the same as passive ones. The kind of guitar, tremolo, wood, etc. interacts even more in active pickups. They are more sensitive.
    mudvain666
    First of all there can be no debate on whether passive are better than Active.Both are made for different reasons. If you notice many pro guitarists use Passive pickups However also look at the rest of the gear used by them to compensate for lower output than active. Amps, EQ, Delays, Mod, Reverb,Filter, Wah etc etc etc . . list goes on. Each effect changes the tone on your guitar. An Active cannot get a clean sound is incorrect. Active pickups can be EQ'd to get a very clean sound if required. Reduce High Gains, increased Mid Range etc. All factors Type of sound you require.Treble Boost or Midrange. I believe that active pickups would have been invented so that it could compensate for the lower output of the passive with an inbuilt preamp so that guitarists could save costs on external preamps perhaps. However there are so many pro guitarist who still use Active. Although I believe Guitar wood is not very important for sound. Does not matter if its Mahagony or Teak Wood if that's possible If playing Electric. Acoustic yes it would make a whole lotta difference again external gadgets can always compensate. If playing electric first decide the sound you wish to have. Twang,Fat etc . . . A $100 costing guitar can get you a good sound if the gear that you are using along with it can compensate for the tone. Choose your external Effects and amps correctly. External effects and amps can get any tone you desire if playing electric. If acoustic always choose the best sounding guitar only after assessment of it. A Martin may not sound good to you personally if thats not the sound you require. The starting point would be to choose a guitarist for his sound and check the gear used and whether you could afford that gear. If you cant look for possible alternatives. Although the most important factor is how you play the guitar. Your style of playing. First assess that and then decide how you want to go about buying the gear. If you think David Gilmour has best of the sounds I could name another 100 guitarist who have had better sounding tones. It's the type of music that Mr Gilmour played made his sound so unique. Because floyd required that sound on his guitar. However Scott Hendersons sound is very different from Mr Gilmour and I wouldn choose one sound over the other. Each sound is equally great. I prefer Mr Henderson for Tribal Tech and not Mr. Gilmour. If 80s thrash had good sound then why is that today no one replicates them. It is not very difficult to replicate them just buy similar gear. But that does not compensate it because it's the change in Music genre that has brought out these new and unique sounds on the guitar. Similar Example would be that I wouldn Prefer Mr Gilmour on Korn but Head and Munky. It's the Unique sound a guitarist has to look for not what others have played. What others have played only helps you to make a better decision but does not compute the sound you are personally looking for. Look for your sound and how unique it is based on the type of music you wish to create. For all you know it could be an SG plugged straight into a Mesa Boogie with 1 Delay pedal and nothing else if thats what you prefer. For those who do not have the opportunity to play on various instruments because of availibility check on Internet for Help and Reviews. Nine Inch Nails has a lot of fuzz in them and they sound spectacular but that guitar sound may not be what I prefer. But I wouldn say that Megadeth Youthanasia Guitar sound would be better on that. I prefer Nine inch nails the way they sound and not any other way. I personally prefer All Analog and not Digital at all. But there are so many who dig Digital processors and do not like Analog Signal paths and can get amazing tones from them. Even better than All Analog. So ultimately its ones personal choice of sound. We cannot debate on the differences but just help in providing reviews for each and every effect out there wrt the instrument used along with it. You may either agree or disagree with what I have said but if what I have said helps you in anyway think about it seriously. External Gadgets play an Important role in music for Electric guitarists.
    phantom_lord586
    slash&roses wrote: Thanks for the comments I realized after I posted this that I should have corrected my comment on the pickup reading sound from the wood. The wood in a guitar has a major influence on the tonal qualities of your guitar but the pickup solely picks up the string vibration As for Active pickups, they are a high output pickup because they are constantly absorbing a higher boost from the 9v battery. Whether or not they started as a low output doesn't matter because the boost is so absorbing that there is no breathable tone like a passive. You can hear a small change in hollow and solid guitars, but nothing like a passive pickup. I'm not bashing active pickups, everyone has their own flavor, but I believe the reason old metal songs will always sound better compared to new metal songs with active pickups is because of the dynamics that a passive pickup brought to the table. Iron Maiden wouldn't have the great soaring and lively tone they have by using active pickups in my opinion. Look for a few posts next week if you enjoyed my writing style, thanks for reading.
    I'm pretty sure Adrian Smith uses active pickups in his Jackson Strats.
    fastlanestoner
    this seems extemporaneous...not a whole lot of insight here, but it skims the surface. The facts are there. I'd love to see a part 2!
    Fenderexpx50
    TheThunder wrote: Note that nowhere in my comment did I say that wood is not a factor in tone. My statement was in response to the article's "through the wood into the pickup" sentence. That suggests that the pickup somehow senses the vibration of the body and it doesn't. Pickups are not microphones. Pickups detect the vibration of the string and ONLY the vibration of the string. The affect that the wood has is purely in sympathetic vibration transferred to the string. How much affect that is - that's a different discussion.
    You said "the pickup is not in any way directly affected by the wood." The "in not any way" is what drew my attention. Because it is a factor in tone. When the string is vibrating, the body and neck are too. So the string will pick up that and since the string has that effect, the pickup will transfer that as well. So the wood is having a direct effect on tone by imparting it's flavor on the string, which is then picked up by the pickup itself. It is a sympathetic vibration, a secondary effect on tone, but it is an immediate one. The pickup will in a way sense the vibration of the body through the string.
    Gert_Boruh
    This is freaking crazy !!! Listen.... 1. Most metal players use actives for a reason.. Actives have more Output/Juice, and they are way better for agressive playing than passives. Actives are very nice as well for clean guitar in metal! 2. If you want crisp organic Jimi Hendrix/Clapton kind of sound, buy yourself a pair of single coil pickups! Indeed, no actives can replicate that sound But hey, they are not meant for that 3. Actives are not "Sterile" if that is what people say They are amplifing and compressing the signal coming from you guitar way more than passives, but you still get very nice warmth, thickness, and clarity from actives when playing harmonies, Lead, fingerpicking, etc.. Because the actives are compressed, the sound and tonal character will be much more even, no matter if you play hard or easy in the strings.. Most unwanted noise and heavy feedback will be cancelled cancelled out as well. 4. Passives are good for anything else but metal.. (in general) 5. Bodywood is very important. And that can not be discussed If you disagree, its because you havent listen carefully enough to different kind of body woods! Cheers!