Buyers Guide: Passive Vs Active Pickups

The world of electric guitar is a vast and varied one with hundreds of options available when choosing the components you want on yours. One of the most varied of these are the guitar pickups, with the choice between a humbucking guitar or singlecoil equiped electric guitar being hard enough for some! For many styles of music such as rock and metal, a modern guitar tone is required for heavier riffs and searing solos.  This is where a different choice of guitar pickups come in to play: do you go with passive or active?

To help look at some of the differences between these two types of pickups and explain some of the science behind them, here’s a video from John Roberts over at our Liverpool store:

As John explains, all guitar pickups are made up of magnets which have copper wire wrapped around that in turn has an electrical current flowing through it.  The vibration of the steel strings is “then picked up” by disturbing the magnetic field of the magnet, which is then converted into an electrical signal. The tonal characteristics of a pickup can be changed through using different magnet materials such as alnico or ceramic, as well as the number of and tightness of the windings of the wire around the magnet.  Another way in which the tone can very is whether a pickup is active or passive.

What’s The Difference?

In essence, the majority of pickups for electric guitars use passive pickups, whether they’re singlecoil or humbuckers. These have 100’s of windings of copper wire inside, the number of which can vary the tone. Pickups, with more windings have a higher output and wider frequency range which is suited to more aggressive playing styles, while those with fewer are less powerful and tonally focused which means they’re normally more suited to jazz and blues players.  An active pickup on the other hand also normally has fewer windings, but the signal is boosted with a 9V battery that is also built into the guitar. This creates a higher gain sound wit a very focused and punchy tone.

Who Uses Them?

With the exception of Fleetwood Mac’s Lyndsay Buckingham, active pickup equipped guitars are almost exclusively used by guitarists creating very overdriven guitar tones, such as James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet from Metallica or long time Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde.  The higher output of these pickups further pushes the already overdriven amps into further distortion with an added level of clarity, which is perfect for the style of music these artists play. For players such as Joe Bonamassa or Carlos Santana who use a smoother guitar tone with a wider dynamic range however, passive pickups are the tone of choice.

Where’s The Catch?

Active pickups use a great deal of inbuilt compression which has it’s positives and negatives. What this does is gives you a very similar sound level of attack whether you pick the string hard or soft.  This gives an even and consistent sound that can be pleasing to beginners and regularly performing musicians alike, as well as reducing feedback from undesirable frequencies from the guitar.  The down side is the lack of dynamic ability or changing between loud and soft, which players like Santana and Bonamassa use to great effect in their playing.

The bottom line is that like any variation between guitars, you can only really make the decision on which you prefer if you try it! Both Passive and Active pickups have the positive and negative qualities, which are all subject the individual player’s opinion.  We have a great selection of electric guitars at all 8 of our Rimmers Music stores, and as John has shown in the video our Liverpool store has a particularly extensive range of ESP guitars with each type of pickup.  We also have our Biggest Ever Guitar & Amp Sale taking place both in our stores and online with some great bargains to check out.  As active pickup equipped guitars have become more popular over the years, so has their understanding and acceptance, which is why Focusrite’s new generation of Scarlett recording interfaces have been tailored to better accept guitar signals that use active pickups.

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  • William Lord

    Hi, i am a beginner, and i have an acoustic guitar, can you recommend what would be the best pickup to use , and also the
    best amp i should buy, for the guitar i have. It would be much appreciated. Can you please not complicate matters too much.

    Thank You

    • Christian Redfearn

      Hi William
      The pickups covered in this article are those which come built in to electric guitars. Acoustic guitars can use slightly different pickups that can be attached to the guitar without needing to do any drilling. Some such as this model from EPM go under the strings and slot into the soundhole, in a similar place to where pickups are on an electric guitar. Others such as this model from AKG stick on the bridge of the guitar (where the strings end nearest your picking hand).

      For acoustic guitar amps, we have a whole area which you can find here, with amps ranging from our own Spur AC15C all the way to professional models such as those by AER.
      Hope that helps!

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