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Active pickups are favored by some guitarists for their tone.
Learn how active pickups work and how they are different from passive pickups.
Get help with choosing the best pickups for your playing style.
Guitar tone is a complex phenomenon. Everything affects everything, and guitarists have dealt with this for as long as we can remember. While you’ve no doubt considered using different guitars, effects, and pedals, you might not have thought about using different pickups.
Changing pickups has become a science on its own. From single coil pickups to P90s to humbuckers, there are lots of choices, but there’s another branch of pickup types. For years we have known traditional passive pickups as the standard, but sometime around the 1980s, people were looking for something else. Enter the active pickup.
But what’s the difference between active and passive pickups?
What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Pickups?
Passive pickups are made by wrapping copper wire around a magnet. When a guitar string vibrates, the magnet registers this as a disturbance in the magnetic field. This disturbance gets turned into a small voltage which is then amplified and sent through speakers or your headphones.
So passive pickups on an electric guitar work in a similar way to dynamic microphones. But instead of detecting sound vibrations in the air, passive pickups directly detect electromagnetic disturbances from the guitar strings.
Active pickups are actually very similar to passive pickups. Like passive pickups, active pickups are constructed by wrapping copper wire around a magnet, but there are a few important differences between the two pickup types.
In a passive pickup, there are usually between 7000 or 10 000 turns of copper wire wrapped around a magnet. Active pickups on the other hand use far less copper. This makes the resulting signal very weak compared to a passive pickup.
So it would seem that when it comes to active vs passive pickups, passive pickups have a stronger signal and are therefore better, right? Well, in order to make up for the lack of output, active pickups use a pre-amplifier to boost the signal, so it’s not exactly fair to say they are weaker overall.
Advantages Of Active Pickups
Now that you have a basic understanding of how each type works, let’s look at the pros and cons of active vs passive pickups. We’ll start with the advantages of active pickups.
Because active preamps use less copper, the pre-amp of the pickup is able to amplify a signal that contains little to no background noise. This makes active pickups great for guitar sounds that require a lot of distortion. It also means you are less likely to get interference from light sources, digital devices, or large signal boosts.
(If you want full-blown amp distortion without the ear-shattering volume, you can check out our guide to the 10 best amp-in-a-box pedals available on the market.)
So we already know that pickups are magnetic, and magnets are affected by the vibrations of your metal guitar strings. But this process also works in reverse, meaning your guitar strings are affected by the magnetic force of your pickups.
Therefore the stronger the magnetic field, the more a pickup can pull on the strings, thus decreasing the sustain. But because the magnetic field of an active pickup is weaker, it will exert less force on the strings, thus increasing the overall sustain as strings are free to ring out without interference.
More Even String Response
The preamp featured in active pickups isn’t just a large volume boost. Most pre-amps of good quality active pickups also apply eq and filtering to the signal of every string. This means that unlike a passive pickup, the string response of an active pickup is more even. In other words, the thick low E string sounds as loud as the thin high E string.
Advantages Of Passive Pickups
After reading about the advantages of active pickups, it might seem like active pickups fix the downsides of passive pickups. Yet many guitar players still love the sound of passive pickups. Let’s look into why this is.
Lots Of Dynamic Range
Because of the lack of a preamp, the output of a passive pickup is lower than that of an active pickup, which means the pickup will push your amp less hard. As mentioned before, an active pickup’s pre-amp does more than just boost the pickup’s volume. There’s usually some eq, and also compression.
In short, compression takes down loud peaks, in order to raise the volume of the signal, which in turn reduces the volume difference between soft and loud parts of a signal. A passive pickup captures the raw sound of the strings, without any additional coloring. This gives your amp more dynamic breathing space, which is great for more nuanced playing styles.
One of the reasons guitar players prefer passive pickups over active pickups is that they don’t sound “sterile”. But what does that mean?
A passive pickup is an imperfect device. No passive pickup has an even string response, due to the irregular amount of winds. But these imperfections just click with guitar players. Every single string and therefore every single note has a unique sound to it. This can add extra “mojo” to a track.
Less Of A Hassle
One of the greatest advantages of a passive pickup is that it does not require a battery. Which means one less thing you have to worry about when you’re doing a gig. The odds of losing signal because of a passive pickup are as good as zero. Trust me when I say there’s nothing worse than having to ask for a nine-volt battery in the middle of your set.
Tips For Choosing The Right Pickups
The pickup market is really large, so deciding on what pickup you should get can be a rather daunting task!
One thing that makes selecting a pickup so hard is that pickups react to the player.
Somebody may hit the strings in a different way, or because their guitar is made out of a certain material, the pickups react differently. So this is one reason why the debate surrounding active and passive pickups is so subjective.
Here are a few things you can do to get an idea of what type of pickup your guitar needs.
1. Know What You Want From A Pickup
If you just want to replace your pickups for the sake of replacing them there’s a big chance you won’t ever be satisfied. Let’s assume you are happy with all the gear you have, but you are experiencing a lack of clarity when playing live. You have tried tweaking your amp and pedals, but the problem is still there.
Now you know the problem is coming from your guitar, so logically you need to change your pickups. The next step is to research and visit websites from aftermarket pickup manufacturers. Most of them have a pickup selector where you can fill out a form specifying what kind of music you play, what woods your guitar is made of, and what you want to achieve with the pickup swap.
2. Narrow Down The Tone You Want
Every guitar player can name plenty of other guitarists who have influenced them, so it’s worth checking out what your favorite artists use. There are usually a few forum threads dedicated to the gear of famous guitar players, and in some instances, the famous guitarist in question might have a YouTube channel with even more information. In short, find a tone you like, then find out how they got it.
Equipboard is a very handy website that aims to catalog all the gear used by well-known guitarists and other musicians. Billing itself as “the world’s largest database of artists and the gear they use”, you can easily search for your favorite guitarists or music equipment and go from there.
There are many famous players with their own preferences for particular pickups. Let’s look at some big names and what they like to use.
Steve Lukather was famous for using EMG active pickups from the mid-eighties until 2013. He even had a signature set of pickups that EMG is still selling. They are called the SL20, and they are the same pickups Lukather used on pretty much every Toto record since 1984’s Isolation.
An interview with the Valley Arts crew stated that since Steve was used to hearing his guitar through studio processing, he wanted his guitar to naturally sound like it has gone through studio processing all by itself!
If you want to listen to Lukather using his active pickups you can check out Toto’s Fahrenheit record for some cool tones. In more recent years Lukather has gone back to passive pickups. He now plays custom Musicman pickups, which are medium to high output passive pickups, but Steve still liked the output he got from the EMG. So, he is able to add a 12 dB volume boost by means of an external boost circuit located under a push push volume potentiometer.
Kirk Hammett really needs no introduction. He’s the lead guitarist in Metallica for as long as we can all remember and he has used EMG pickups since the eighties.
For obvious reasons, Hammett’s tone has become synonymous with the metal guitar sound. The thick, slushy guitar sounds all start with Metallica’s use of active pickups, which you can get from the folks at EMG. Check out Metallica’s self-titled “black” album if you want to listen to some roaring metal guitar sounds.
Jason was considered to be one of the most gifted guitar virtuosi in the late eighties. He used passive pickups for the entirety of his short playing career, which sadly only lasted until the mid-nineties due to ALS crippling his hands.
Even though he used passive pickups, his main Carvin DC200 called “bluey” had some clever tricks up its sleeve. The guitar had coil-split switches, which are clever little devices for turning humbuckers into single coils. He could also flip the phase of the two pickups.
It depends on which particular pickups you are comparing. An active pickup is likely to be louder than a low output passive pickup. A high output passive pickup could come close to the volume of an active pickup though.
Can active pickups be used as passive pickups?
No, active pickups are too weak without a functioning pre-amp, so always keep a spare battery in your guitar case, because there’s nothing worse than your battery dying during your guitar solo!
Can a passive pickup be turned into an active one?
Not quite. You can’t mount a pre-amp inside a passive pickup, but you can add active circuitry to your guitar. Eric Clapton has an active mid-boost built into his guitar, and Steve Lukather has a 12 dB boost in his passive pickup equipped guitar.
Can you put active pickups in a passive guitar?
Yes, but you will have to do some modifications. The control cavity of a guitar with passive pickups is usually not designed with the option of adding active circuitry in mind. So, you are likely to have to route out a little bit of extra space to be able to fit the battery in your guitar.
If you are comfortable with woodworking then you can do it yourself, but if you have no experience please take your guitar to someone who does know what they’re doing!
The passive vs active discussion has been going on for a long time in guitar land. There are loads of forum threads and YouTube comments dedicated to this age-old debate. But no matter which side you gravitate towards, keep in mind that if it sounds good, it is good!
Like many things in the music world, it’s all about what works best for you. Even then, no one ever made a perfect album by following all the rules and doing everything that they were supposed to. But it never hurts to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals to help you make informed decisions on your musical journey.