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Tech Talk

Active vs. Passive Pickups: What Are the Differences?

Breaking down the differences between active and passive pickups and how they affect your tone.

If you’re new to electric guitar or bass, you’ll run across all kinds of instrument-related terminology you probably aren’t familiar with. Two terms you’re bound to encounter when researching a purchase are “passive” and “active” electronics. While it might sound highly technical, the basics of passive and active electronics are actually quite easily understood, even without a degree in electrical engineering.

PASSIVE ELECTRONICS

Deluxe Tele

  • The simplest, most common electronics design
  • No onboard amplification circuitry inside the guitar or bass
  • Passive electronics can only subtract elements from a signal

The pickups on passive guitars and basses consist at the most basic level of a magnet wrapped in coils of wire. In the magnetic field produced by this design, a vibrating string produces a weak electrical signal. This weak signal is sent through your instrument cable to your amp, which is where all the signal boosting happens.

ACTIVE ELECTRONICS

Jim Root Tele

  • Active guitars and basses have their own onboard amplification circuitry
  • Can both subtract and add elements to a signal including EQ, filtering, and feedback control
  • Less susceptible to electrical interference than passive electronics
  • Active instruments have their own onboard power source—usually a preamp powered by 9-volt batteries
  • Generally more expensive than passive instruments

Active circuitry is especially popular for bass guitars, making them brighter, clearer and snappier, which is ideal for slap-and-pop playing. Active pickups are also popular on high-performance guitars often used by metal players. Fender currently offers several active guitars and basses, including the Deluxe Active Jazz Bass and Deluxe Active Jazz Bass V, and the Jim Root Stratocaster, Telecaster and Jazzmaster.

It’s important to note that an active instrument will not work at all if its onboard power supply has been exhausted; it will not continue to work in a passive manner.