Active or Passive? Pickups Demystified.

The electronic elements inside of an electric guitar and electric bass are the catalysts to the sound that people for many years have been drawn to. They set the division line when comparing them to acoustic instruments in making whatever they are encased in indeed an electric instrument. It what makes them inherently different and special as well as very moldable in terms of possible sounds. You can definitely purchase extra things like equalizers, effects pedals, and other cool gadgets to enhance or experiment with your sound, but at its core the electric bass currently has two ways to present it’s natural sound. They both have their pros, cons, and legacies and ultimately it’s up to you as a player to choose which one you feel most comfortable with. But exactly what is the difference between the two? Let’s dive a little deeper and find out some characteristics of each.

Passive: What’s All the Buzz About?

Ok, let’s look back to the history of how the first electric bass was created and built. In the 1930’s when it was first created and into the 1950’s with the first mass production of the electric bass, the first pickup designs were in what we know today as passive style. Essentially, these are simple transducers, built by wrapping many coils of copper wire around a permanent magnet, usually made of Alnico or Ceramic.The location of the magnet in proximity to the strings causes the strings to magnetise, and become magnets, too. Because of this, when the strings move, they disturb the magnet field, and cause an electrical current to pass through the copper wire. The main attraction of these types of pickups is their warm, punchy, round tone. It’s these tones that can be heard on classic albums from The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Motown hits, and tons of others. While the lure of classic tone is enough for some, others may want to be able to customize the tone to their liking. In the case of passive pickups this is possible but it is limited much more than active pickups. The nature of the way they work simply offers fewer options when it comes to tone flexibility. On the other hand, we’ll see shortly that some pickup styles require a portable power source to function. This is not the case with passive pickups, as long as the electronics have a good source of power going through them, they will function without the crutch of any outside power source for a very extended time.

Active: Clean and Clear

Active Pickups use a preamplifier or preamp to function. Many times this is onboard of the instrument itself, and allows the player to have a large amount of tone and equalizing flexibility. Active electronics tend to have a hotter gain structure which in turn have the output ability to be louder and clearer without feeding back. One downfall,unfortunately is the preamp has to be powered by an outside power source which in this case is a 9 volt battery. This means that you are relying on the 9 volt and if for any reason the battery dies the onboard electronics will die with it and you’ll have to change the battery to start getting signal again. This in turn means always having a backup battery on you to ensure that you have the ability to play if you are performing live. All in all, it provides a more clearly articulated sound with a lot of tonal flexibility.

Final Notes

In the end, the choice is up to you in finding what you really enjoy. Some people really like the idea of having the flexibility of an active bass to play with. Some people want that classic tone to be rock solid every time. Some bass companies have the best of both worlds. I have a bass that is both active and passive with the flick of a switch. I have the flexibility of both tones and the back up passive pickup side in case the battery dies on me. Overall, its great to experiment with your sound and find out which one you might be most comfortable with.



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