Active vs. Passive Guitar Pickups: Which is Best? Detailed Buying Guide

Guitar pickups are fundamental to shaping the sound of your instrument. Among the options available, active and passive pickups are two technologies that compete to offer the best tonal quality. In this detailed buying guide, we’ll explore the difference between active and passive guitar pickups, their history, how they work, their pros and cons, examples of classic guitars that use them, and a final conclusion to help you make the best decision for your musical needs.

Fender Custom '54 Strat Pickup Set

How Do Active and Passive Guitar Pickups Work?

Well, passive pickups consist of a coil of wire wound around a magnet. When the guitar strings vibrate over this magnetic field, they generate an induced electric current in the coil. This signal is sent to the amplifier through the guitar cable. Passive pickups offer a warm, organic sound, often associated with genres such as classic rock, blues and jazz.

Active pickups, in turn, incorporate internal electronic circuitry. These circuits require a power source (usually a 9V battery) to operate. Active circuits amplify the guitar signal before sending it to the amplifier. This results in a stronger signal that is less susceptible to noise and signal loss. Active pickups are known for their clarity and extended frequency response, making them popular in genres such as metal and contemporary music.

Seymour Duncan Blackouts set

Brief History of Guitar Pickups

Let’s start at the beginning, the Passive Pickups: Passive pickups have a long and rich history in the world of electric guitars. They were invented in the 1920s and have since become the standard choice for guitarists of all genres. One of the earliest examples is the “Horseshoe Pickup” developed by George Beauchamp in collaboration with Adolph Rickenbacker. This pickup consisted of a horseshoe-shaped magnetic piece that surrounded the strings of the guitar and generated an electrical signal when the strings vibrated on it. It was used in the first Rickenbacker electric guitars.These pickups work on the principle of electromagnetic induction and do not require an additional power source.

Active pickups, on the other hand, emerged later, in the 1960s. One of the earliest examples is the 1969 “Gibson Les Paul Personal”, which featured an active pickup called the “Super Humbucker”. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that active pickups began to gain significant popularity with the introduction of EMG (Electro-Magnetic Gain) pickups by the EMG company, founded by Rob Turner. These active pickups became popular in genres such as heavy metal due to their ability to deliver a stronger signal and less noise. These pickups incorporate internal electronic circuits that require electrical power (usually through a battery) to operate. Their popularity grew rapidly due to their ability to deliver a stronger signal and less noise.

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Benefits and Cons of Active and Passive Pickups

Just as each pickup came in its time to cover different needs, each one has its particular characteristics, and its pros and cons.

Among the benefits of passive pickups, we can find their ability to produce a warm, organic and natural tone. This tone tends to be softer and less clinical than that of active pickups, making them ideal for musical genres such as blues, jazz and classic rock, where a more vintage, nuanced sound is valued.

In addition, passive pickups are highly sensitive to the dynamics of your playing style. They respond to variations in the intensity of your attacks and playing techniques, allowing you to more effectively control the sound of your guitar through your playing. This dynamic response can lead to richer, more emotional musical expressions.

And unlike active pickups, passive pickups don’t require an additional power source, such as a battery. This means you don’t have to worry about replacing dead batteries in the middle of a performance or recording. Passive pickups are a simpler and more reliable plug-and-play option.

Precisely because they are not powered, passive pickups generally have a lower output compared to active pickups. This means they generate a weaker electrical signal, which can result in a lower volume level in your amp. For some guitarists, this may require an increase in amp gain, which could introduce more background noise.

Passive pickups are more susceptible to electromagnetic interference and external noise, such as hum and buzz. This can be especially problematic in environments with a large number of electrical devices and lights, as well as in high-volume scenarios. Interference can be picked up by passive pickups and amplified through the amplifier.

Also, although passive pickups offer a warm, organic tone, they tend to be less versatile in terms of extreme tonal adjustments. They are not as suitable for musical genres that require extreme distortion or precise control over frequencies. Active pickups tend to have greater EQ capability.

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Active Pickups

Active pickups typically have a stronger output signal compared to passive pickups. This means they generate a stronger signal which can be beneficial in situations where higher gain is required, such as in rock or metal genres, or when using effects pedals that can attenuate the signal.

In addition, active pickups are often less susceptible to noise interference, such as electromagnetic interference (EMI) or radio frequency interference (RFI). This is partly because the stronger output signal from active pickups can more easily overcome noise, resulting in a cleaner tone.

Finally, active pickups tend to offer a more consistent and uniform response across the frequency range. This translates into greater tonal clarity, making them ideal for genres of music where controlled distortion and accurate tone are required. Guitarists looking for a crisp, defined sound often find active pickups to be the perfect choice.

Talking about their cons, active pickups require a power source, usually in the form of a 9V battery. This means you need to keep an eye on battery life and make sure you have spares available to avoid running out during a live performance. In situations where the battery dies, the guitar will stop working.

As another con, active pickups tend to have a flatter and more consistent response compared to passive pickups. While this can be an advantage in high-gain genres where controlled distortion is sought, some guitarists prefer the greater tonal dynamics of passive pickups, which can capture more subtle nuances of playing.

If you’re looking for the warm, vintage tone associated with classical guitars, active pickups may not be your ideal choice. They tend to have a more modern and precise tonal character, which may not be suitable for vintage genres of music or styles that require a more “organic” tone.

The Seymor Duncan JB + Seymour Duncan 59, a classic combination

Classic Pickup Models and Who Used Them

Let’s take a look at some of the classic models of each pickup and in which guitar models they are used.

Passive Pickups

  • Seymour Duncan JB: This is one of the most iconic pickups in the history of electric guitars. The JB model, also known as “Jeff Beck,” has been used in a wide variety of musical genres and guitars. It offers a versatile balance between treble and bass, with a warm, defined sound that makes it suitable for many applications.
  • Fender Custom Shop ’54 Stratocaster Pickup: These passive pickups are known for capturing the classic vintage Stratocaster tone. They offer a crystal clear sound with a hint of “quack” in the middle selector positions, which is distinctive to Stratocaster.
  • Gibson Burstbucker: Burstbucker pickups are emblematic of Gibson Les Paul guitars and offer that classic, warm sound associated with these legendary guitars. They come in several versions, such as the Burstbucker 1, 2 and 3, each with their own tonal characteristics.
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The Gibson PAF (Patent Applied For) is one of the most iconic passive pickups. It is found on many vintage Les Paul guitars and has been used by legendary guitarists such as Jimmy Page and Slash.

EMG 81 & 85 Humbuckers Pickup Set

Active Pickups

  • EMG 81: The EMG 81 model is a classic among active pickups. It is very popular in metal and other high gain genres due to its strong output and ability to maintain clarity even at high gain settings.
  • Seymour Duncan Blackouts: Seymour Duncan Blackouts active pickups are known for their aggressive tone and ability to handle high gain levels. They have been used by musicians in a variety of rock and metal genres.
  • Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker: These active pickups offer a modern, versatile sound with multiple voicing options. They are known for their clarity and responsiveness, making them popular in genres such as progressive metal.

The EMG 81 and 85 pickups are outstanding examples of active pickups. They have been favorites of metal guitarists such as James Hetfield of Metallica and Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society.

Final Thoughts

The choice between active and passive pickups depends largely on your musical style, tonal preferences, needs and of course, your personal taste. If you are looking for a warm, organic sound with less signal power, passive pickups may be ideal. On the other hand, if you want a powerful and clear signal with an extended frequency response, active pickups may be the right choice.

If you still don’t know which one you like best, the best way to make a decision may be to try both types in different musical situations, and see how they affect your sound. It is important to think carefully about which one best suits your playing style, genre and musical taste. And enjoy!

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