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Active Vs. Passive Pickups

Types of Guitar Pickups


When it comes to choosing a certain sound or tone one is looking for, the type of pickup that you use, either active or passive can make a huge difference. You can spend hours looking on the web reading what pickups are better, in the end it all comes down to your personal preference. What sound you like is completely up to you. Therefore, this article is designed to give you insight on the advantages and disadvantages and the different pickups that are available.

Passive Pickups

With the birth of the electric guitar in 1931 by George Beauchamp, the tone and sound differentiation one could get out of a guitar became endless. With the wave of British bands that came out in the 50’s and for years to come, the passive pickup was king. With dominating sounds from Jazz, Rock and Roll, to early metal. Passive pickups consist of a magnet with some form of wire wrapped around it, be copper or even silver. The responsiveness and sound one can get out of a passive pickup varies with the number of winds, type of wire and even the strength of the magnet. Passive pickups also come in two forms; single coil and humbucker. One downside with passive single coil pickups is they hum. Players that have used single coil pickups in Fender Stratocasters or Telecasters have dealt with this for years. They either shield their guitars or opt for stacked single coil pickups. With picking a passive pickup to one’s specifications, the number of windings around the magnet can make a huge difference. When a pickup has many windings around the magnet the sound cuts out the highs, and focuses more on the mids and bass, making for a more muddy sound. While a passive pickup with not that many windings, will produce a very clean and clear voice but a fairly weak signal. So it depends on what you are looking for, more bass, high clean end, or something in between. Experimenting with various ones until you find one you like.

Active Pickups

Passive pickups hit the music scene in the 80’s, for those looking for clean sounds. Since then they have evolved a lot and now are used in all different genres of music. Active pickups must have a battery to operate the pickup as it supplies the power needed. One large advantage with active pickups is the boost in overall power of the pickup. This creates a harder input going into the amp and can create some nice natural distortion. Like passive pickups, active pickups too come in two forms; single coil and humbucker. A main advantage with a single coil active pickup is it doesn’t hum like a passive pickup. One thing that many guitarists find annoying and can take away from their sound is a constant humming. With active pickups too, is being able to control them with an onboard EQ, just imagine the tonal range one could create! You can change your sound completely without changing any knobs on your amplifier. With active pickups producing a large sound they are a lot more sensitive to respond. This can be bad and good for a player. Those looking to add more sustain to their sound will definitely see a difference with active pickups over passive. The downfall is they will pick up all the other minor sounds from you playing. This could require you to modify your playing style a little. With installation of active pickups they also require a spot for a battery, and can be quiet expensive to buy and replace.


When it comes down to deciding what type of pickup to use, one is best off knowing first what kind of sound are looking for. Are you trying to make your own sound that appeals directly to you or are you trying to emulate your favourite musicians sound. If you are looking at getting a comparative sound a good starting place would be to research what type of pickups does such musician use. Then try and find pickups that can get you a similar sound. Experimenting is another good way of finding out what kind of sound you want. Many forums try and debate which is better, active or passive but in the end it is truly up to the user.


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