Bass guitar

Passive vs Active Pickups for Your Bass Guitar

Lyrics by Lasha Chankseliani

The difference, what each does and which is best for you

Today we have many different choices when it comes to guitars, basses or amps. Different brands make different gear that sounds and feels very different from each other.

When choosing a bass guitar, you need to consider the brand, wood, material, etc. But one of the most important things in electric guitar or bass are the pickups because they are the main source of the sound.

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The tone of your instrument is highly dependent on the pickups. So, you need to choose the best quality mics, but another important thing to consider is the type of mics. There are many different types of pickups, but the two main types are active and passive pickups.

In this article, I’ll explain the differences and benefits of the two pickups and also recommend which one is right for you and your bass guitar.

What are Passive Pickups

Passive bass pickups are the most popular type of pickups. It has been used since the inception of the electric guitar and most guitars or basses you see use them. Each beginner or intermediate instrument is equipped with it.

The reason they are called passive is that they don’t require any external source to operate, they simply pick up the vibration of the strings and turn it into sound. Then it comes out of the amp.

There are different types of passive pickups, but two are the most popular:

  • Magnetic – The most popular passive pickups. They use a magnet to pick up the vibration and turn it into sound.
  • Piezo – This type of bass pickup is mainly used in acoustic bass guitars. Some electric basses use it as an additional pickup. Instead of a magnet, Piezo uses pressure to create sound.

Passive Pickup Styles

Additionally, there are various styles of passive pickups, especially in guitars. There are single coils, humbuckers, P90s, etc. Bass guitar pickups aren’t as diverse. The most popular styles are P-style and J-style pickups.

P-style pickups are named after the Fender Precision bass which is a two-piece pickup where each has two poles, totaling four poles for four strings.

On the other hand, J or Jazz pickups have four double poles, so each string has two poles. Many basses have both pickups and this gives you greater tonal versatility.

What are Active Pickups

On the other hand, active mics are a different type of mic that requires an additional power source to operate, powered by a 9V battery. These basses and guitars have a space in the back to insert the drums.

Although active pickups can produce sound without a battery, they lose power. The newer the battery, the better the sound and the more powerful you get. Plus, they’re hotter than passive pickups, which means they produce a louder sound.

There are no great options in active pickups. Different brands make slightly different pickups, but in a nutshell, they’re the same.

The most popular brand for active pickups is EMG, but Seymour Duncan and other famous brands also make them.

Which one sounds better

The main question is which sounds better – active or passive? There is no easy answer to this question as it all depends on what you want and the kind of music you play is very important when choosing the type of mic.

It’s not about the sound quality, the main difference between passive and active bass pickups is in the characteristics due to manufacturing differences, something you should pay attention to when choosing pickups for your bass.

Advantages of Passive Pickups

First, let’s talk about passive pickups as they are more popular. There are countless different passive pickups you can find in the market that differ in price, quality, tone, etc.

The best thing about passive pickups is that they are very dynamic and diverse due to the different types of passive pickups in which the sound varies greatly. Plus, dynamics give you more control over the sound.

These pickups react differently to clean and overdriven sounds, while volume can be a source of change in the sound.

So when you play with your fingers or choose, it will react differently. You have more control over your sound and tone, which is always a good thing to have.

Plus, passive pickups don’t require a battery, so they’ll still sound great.

Benefits of Active Pickups

Active pickups are louder but not as dynamic as passive pickups and provide a fairly even and consistent sound. So finger or pick playing style might not make much difference, while relying on drums might not be a good option.

Active pickups are great for heavy music because they are louder and have more power. Overdrive tones are amazing with active pickups while cleans are very crisp.

Although active pickups are less dynamic, if you play mostly metal, active pickups are a great option.

Cleans also sound great. But keep in mind that you sacrifice dynamics when using active pickups.

What mics should you use

Deciding which one to use or which one is best for you depends on a lot of things as I have discussed.

Of course, the best option is to have two bass guitars with active and passive pickups, which means you have the flexibility to choose and use different styles in different situations.

But what if you only have to choose one? It can be difficult.

First, you need to decide what you want. Do you want to have versatility, dynamics? Then passive pickups are for you. But if you want power, volume, and sound in your face, active pickups are best for that purpose.

Another important thing is the style of music you play. For hard rock, pop and blues type setups, passive pickups are the best in my opinion as they are very versatile and diverse.

But if you play heavier music, you may decide to go with active pickups, although there are some amazing passive pickups designed for metal and heavy music.

But the best way to choose one for you is to play them yourself. There are thousands of reviews and videos on YouTube, but it’s hard to choose this way.

Just go to your local store and play some active and passive bass guitars. Also experiment with different amps. You’ll hear and feel how they react to your game and how they sound in real life.

Although I’ve used many active bass guitars, my favorites are the passive pickups. I love the dynamic versatility that allows me to play any style with it. I like the sharpness and power of active pickups, but I like the dynamics, feel, and overall sound of passive pickups. Also, I like the passive bass guitar for recording.

But taste is subjective. You should try it yourself and decide which one suits you best.

Conclusion

Choosing an instrument like bass guitar is a very important and difficult task and pickups play an important role. It is the sound of the instrument. Depending on your personal preference, the genre of music you play, you might want to get one or the other.

When you understand how they work, what their benefits are, it’s easier to choose. But don’t choose a pickup type until you’ve played it.

For more on this topic, check out Yamaha’s take on this.