Many new and even intermediate guitarists end up asking themselves the question, “what’s the difference between active and passive pickups?” It’s a fair question given that pickups play such a huge role when it comes to tone. And since both are so popular, clearly one isn’t better or worse than the other. So what’s the deal?
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about active and passive pickups, from their history and use to how they work and what they sound like. Like most guitar gear, pickup choice comes down to your preferences and what you’re going for. Our goal is to provide you with the best information possible so you can make the best decision about what pickups are right for you.
First, let’s talk about passive pickups. They are the original electric guitar pickups and were the standard for generations. Even now with the advent of active pickups, passive pickups like P-90s and the PAF are still incredibly popular. So let’s see where they came from, how they work, and how they sound.
Passive pickups were the earliest pickups made for electric guitars. They go all the way back to the 1930s when guitarists were trying to find ways to be heard through the big bands of the time. Harry De Armond invented the first magnetic pickup in the 1930s, consisting of a magnet and copper wire. However, George Beauchamp was the first to design the first real electric guitar (though it was a lap steel guitar), the Rickenbacker Electro-A22.
Soon after the invention of the magnetic pickups and Rickenbacker’s introduction of the first electric guitar, magnetic pickups and electric guitars became common. Gibson, Fender, and the other guitar companies began making electric guitars and designing their own pickups, introducing classics like the PAF, P-90, Fender single coils, and more. Those passive pickups would end up defining the sound of the guitar for generations to come.
Though there’s plenty more history that could be covered, it’s time to move onto the pickups themselves and how they actually work.
How They Work
Understanding how pickups work is a blindspot for many guitarists (myself included). Who needs to know how they work? Just plug in and play, right? Well, not quite. Understanding how pickups work is valuable knowledge that can help you better understand why they sound the way they do, as well as make a better decision about what pickups you want. So, let’s take the time to break down the basics of how passive pickups work.
At their core, passive pickups are remarkably simple. They consist of a magnet wrapped in magnetic wire, usually copper, and do not require a battery. But how does that actually make sound? The magnet is strong enough to create a magnetic field around the pick up, as well as magnetize the string itself. When you pick a string, it vibrates and creates a magnetic field above the pickups’ wrapped wire coils. An electrical signal is then induced by the coil, resulting in the electric guitar sound we all know and love.
While it can get a lot more complicated when you start diving into the mechanics of the different passive pickups, that covers the basics of how passive pickups work. Now, let’s move on to what really matters—tone and output.
Tone and Output
The first thing to note is that tone and output can vary greatly depending on the specific pickups used. A Telecaster style single coil and a P-90 will sound very different despite both being passive pickups. Between the various single coil and humbucker options, passive pickups can cover a lot of tonal ground. However, there are still some generalizations that can be made about passive pickups.
Passive pickups generally have a much lower output than active pickups. Players who want overdriven or distorted sounds typically compensate for this by getting that extra output somewhere else, whether it be by driving the amp or turning up some pedals. Many players prefer the lower output though, as they prefer the tone it gives them.
Tonally, passive pickups tend to be less bright and more “natural.” They also have a lot of range nuance thanks to their lower output. They can be more sensitive to subtleties in your playing, allowing you to really bring those aspects out. But again, there are a lot of different passive pickups that can have widely different results.
Pros and Cons
Now, let’s just briefly review the pros and cons of passive pickups before moving on to active pickups:
- No battery required.
- More affordable than active pickups.
- More “natural” sound with less brightness.
- More expressive with a bigger dynamic range.
- More susceptible to electrical interference and feedback.
- More hum (particularly with single coil passive pickups).
- Can only cut or reduce frequencies, not boost them like active pickups.
- Lower output.
Active pickups only date back to the 1970s, but they have carved out their own niche in the guitar space and become incredibly popular. While they are most commonly used for metal and heavier music, they can be used for just about anything. Even David Gilmour has a signature set of EMG active pickups. And while this article is guitar focused, it’s also worth mentioning they are used very commonly in basses for all types of music. So, time to take a deep dive into what active pickups are all about.
Active pickups were invented by Rob Turner of EMG in 1976. As usual in the guitar world, players were resistant to these newfangled pickups that required a battery. Still, they managed to slowly forge their own space in the market.
Headless guitar manufacturer Steinberger saw what potential these pickups had and decided to integrate them into their products. Eventually more and more players heard EMGs in the hands of artists like Peter Frampton and wanted to try them. EMGs and active pickups kept slowly growing in popularity until Metallica changed everything.
Scott Ian of Anthrax turned Kirk Hamnet onto EMGs, who then promptly swapped out all his pickups with EMGs. James Hetfield soon followed suit. With Metallica being one of if not the biggest metal band in the world, it wouldn’t take long for EMGs to skyrocket in popularity and be forever associated with metal music.
How They Work
At a basic level, active pickups function the exact same way passive pickups do. A magnetic magnetizes the strings and creates a magnetic field, and then the wrapped coils pick up those vibrations. However, that signal is much weaker due to active pickups having fewer windings. But then, that weak signal goes through an active electrical circuit powered by a battery that can boost it (as well as shape it via filters and a preamp). Because of this, active pickup guitars can also boost frequencies as well as cut them, unlike passive pickups which can only cut frequencies.
Like passive pickups, it can get a lot more complicated when you start diving into the specific designs of certain pickups. However, that’s enough to understand the basics of how active pickups work. Now, tone and output.
Tone and Output
Active pickups have a much higher output than passive pickups, and it’s one of their defining features. This is due to the battery powered circuit and preamp boosting the signal, making it even stronger than a passive pickup. This makes them a great choice for players who like heavier tones, as the high output can help with high gain tones. They are also more resistant to feedback, making high gain tones much easier to manage, especially at stage volume.
Tonally, active pickups tend to be brighter and more “sterile.” Many players don’t like the way active pickups take the natural, warm, woody sound out of their tone. That said, active pickups benefit from having more direct tone shaping options. Active pickups allow the use of onboard preamps and EQs, giving more control of your guitar’s tone. This is one of the reasons why they have become so popular with bass players; having an onboard EQ to make changes in your tone can be incredibly useful, particularly for bassists who want access to a variety of tones on one instrument.
There are other smaller benefits associated with active pickups as well. For example, they tend to have slightly better sustain and are more articulate. They also help limit the loss of highs when long cables are used due to their low-impedence nature.
Pros and Cons
Here’s a brief list of the pros and cons of active pickups:
- High output.
- Better high gain tones.
- Ability to use onboard preamps and EQs to boost or cut frequencies.
- Slightly more sustain.
- More “sterile” tone.
- Battery required.
- More expensive.
- Not as “organic” or “warm.”
Want to Hear Them in Action?
The ever-great Darrel Braun made an excellent video comparing the sonic characteristics of these two pickups styles—watch it here if you want to dig in further:
Both active and passive pickups have their own place in the history and future of guitar. Though passive pickups are the old timers, they are still the most common pickups used and can be heard on records and stages all over the world. While active pickups are newer to the scene, they have found their own niche and have helped propel heavy music forward.
Each pickup type has its own pros and cons, so it’s important to carefully consider them before making a decision. Which pickup is best for you, as always, depends on your preferences and what you’re using them for. Hopefully this article has educated you on the differences between them and helps you make a more informed decision about what pickups are best for you.