Active vs Passive Pickups: Which Are Right for You?

If you’re looking to change the sound of your guitar, picking the right pickup becomes key. One of the most common questions that guitar players ask is if active or passive pickups are better. Both types have unique features and tonal properties all their own. The guitar’s overall sound can be greatly affected by the pickups that are used.

There are several key differences between active and passive pickups. Active pickups rely on a preamp circuit that operates with the power of a battery. This gives them the advantage of more control over sound and performance. Passive pickups, however, do not need any outside source of power. They are also usually favored for their increased versatility across many genres of music.

In this article, we’ll be discussing active vs passive pickups! Two of the most popular types available today. We’ll discuss the differences between them, plus the advantages and disadvantages. With this information in hand, you’ll be well on your way to finding your guitar tone!

What’s a Pickup?

A pickup for an electric guitar is a device which captures the vibrations created by the strings. Pickups vary in size, shape, configuration and design. Depending on what type of sound they are aiming to produce.

Pickups create an electrical representation of the sound made by the vibrating strings. This is the best way to sum it all up! The converted signal is then sent to the amplifier and out through the speakers. Ultimately allowing audiences to hear a much larger version of the original sound.

Without pickups, an electric guitar would be a very undesirable and quiet instrument. But with the right ones, a guitar can produce a wide range of tones and styles! All from crisp and clean to warm and creamy or even raw and distorted. They have shaped music as we know it!

Further learning: How guitar pickups work.

Passive Humbucker Guitar Pickup

What Are Passive Pickups 

Passive pickups do not use a built-in preamp circuit. Nor do they need any external power source. They quite simply rely on the natural inductance of the pickup’s magnets, coil, and pole pieces. Passives are the most common type found on electric guitars and were the first to hit the stage. They are also still the most popular!

They are renowned for their versatility and ability to create a variety of tones.

Players that prefer a more dynamic sound favor them. They typically react well to the player’s touch and technique. Plus, there are so many designs that you can find exactly what you need! 

The output from a passive pickup is quite low. There is no preamp to boost the signal or even color it. The signal is simply passed through the tone and volume controls and then out to an amplifier. These controls themselves are also only passive filters. They can only roll off certain frequencies, but cannot boost them.

Pros of Passive Pickups

Passive pickups are still the most popular type today, and for good reason. Here are a few of the pros of using them:

  • Versatility – Passive pickups are capable of producing a wide range of tones. From classic to metal and everything in between. 
  • Simplicity and reliability – They are generally less complex than active models. They do not require any external power source or preamp circuit. This makes them easier to maintain and less prone to failure.
  • Warm and smooth tones – Passives are known for their very particular sound. This is appealing to all players. From vintage or traditional sounds to saturated metal.
  • Budget-friendly – They are generally less expensive than active options. Players on a tight budget can get decent models for relatively cheap.

Cons of Passive Pickups

Using passive pickups does come at a cost, however. Some of the cons are:

  • Lower output level: Passive pickups typically produce a lower output level. This complicates driving amplifiers and effects pedals efficiently. This can be especially noticeable when using high-gain amps. But it’s also design specific.
  • Noisier: They are also generally more prone to noise and hum. It’s an issue for players, especially if you use single-coil pickups.
  • Limited tonal control: Passives do not offer as much tonal control as active pickups. But this is very minor, but also worth mentioning. For a metal player, it may mean more. For anyone else, it’s no concern.

Guitars With Passive Pickups

Here are a couple of guitars that come with passive pickups. They sound and feel great!

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Deluxe Stratocaster guitar with passive pickups.

The Fender Stratocaster is an iconic guitar! The single-coil pickups are part of that reason. Theory are passive and bring with them all the feel and dynamics that you could want. Plus the buzz.

Schecter Omen Elite 6 

Schecter Omen Elite 6 guitar with passive pickups.

The Schecter Heretic 6 Pickups are purely passive, but have some amazing punch. They are custom to the Schecter Omen Elite and sound great with tons of versatility!

Not sure what is in your guitar? Click here to learn to identify your pickups!

What Are Active Pickups

Active Guitar Pickup

A preamp circuit is used by active pickups to increase the output level. Consequently, there is also some control over the tone. But because of this, they need a power source to work. This is normally a 9-volt battery, but can also be a rechargeable option.

Active pickups are known for their high output level and clarity! They are often preferred by players who want a more modern and aggressive sound. They are also less noisy and more resistant to hum than passives. This is a major benefit for players who can’t handle the buzz and hum.

There are also many new methods of design when it comes to active offerings. Some are made with PCBs that are stacked in order to create the coil. This is common practice for companies like Fishman. While active pickups are not as popular, they have gained recognition over the last decade.

With new technology in the design, they also have some great tones to offer. Now more players are using them than ever before. Tosin Abasi and even Devin Townsend have been using them as a result! Active pickups also have the advantage of providing more accurate and detailed tonal control.

Some designs all a player to fine-tune the pickups sound using an active EQ. Others are preset with a specific sound at the ready! For players who want to experiment with various tonal shapes and textures, this can be quite helpful.

Pros of Active Pickups

They have some strengths and can boast about certain pros:

  • More Sustain – This is one thing about active pickups that’s overlooked! The potential for more sustain. They don’t require strong magnets like passives. As a result, there is less magnetic pull on the strings. This means they can ring out longer, which adds sustain!
  • High output level – They produce a strong and clear signal. They drive amplifiers and effects pedals efficiently. This makes them well-suited for high-gain and overdrive settings.
  • Lower noise – Active pickups are generally less noisy and more resistant to hum than passives. This is a major benefit for players who are sensitive to this noise. EMG pickups in a Stratocaster can solve noise issues in a hurry!
  • Lower Impedance – Because of the built-in preamp, the output impedance is much lower. This means better signal transfer from the guitar to the amplifier. It also handles longer cables much better as well.

Cons of Active Pickups

But with all things, there are some tradeoffs with active pups. Some of the cons include:

  • Need for external power source: Active pickups require power! Usually a 9-volt battery to even function.
  • Dependence on battery: If the battery runs out of juice or fails, the pup will quit working. This might be a problem in the middle of a performance. Players who use them need to be prepared for this possibility and have a backup plan in place.
  • Design difference: Active and passive pickups are very different in design. This means that if you want to change from one to the other, there are modifications required. Sometimes they can be quite drastic!

Guitars With Active Pickups

There are many great guitars with active pickups. Here are a few to keep an eye on!

ESP LTD EC-1000

ESP LTD EC-1000 Guitar with active pickups

The ESP LTD EC-1000 version with Fishman Fluence active pups is excellent. But the version with the EMG 60 and 81 pickups is more common. It’s a great guitar, pretty versatile with big sounds.

Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster

Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster Guitar with active pickups

The Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster is a premium guitar with some hot active pickups! But it’s pretty smooth and have a good feel to it. It sounds mean and has some great sustain!

Check out our article: 60 guitars with active pickups here!

Active vs Passive Pickups

The primary difference between passive and active pickups is the power requirement. Passive pickups are powered simply by the string’s vibration-induced electrical signal. While, as we covered, active pickups require an additional power source such as a battery.

This adds more versatility to active pickups! Players can shape their sound more readily. But they also don’t have the same warmth as their passive counterparts. The organic feel you get with passives isn’t the same.

They have a tendency to feel a bit stiffer and more linear. While passive pickups have a dynamic that just works better in certain music. They are perfect when touch sensitivity is crucial.

Ultimately, both types have advantages in different scenarios. Each offer great results depending on the player’s preferences and desired outcome.

Cost Comparison

For those on a budget, passive pickups often offer the most bang for your buck. They typically range from around 50 – $120 each. They provide excellent sound quality for their price point. Active pickups, are roughly the same. They become more expensive if you plan on changing from passive to active, however.

This is because the parts and design are more complex. There is more to go along with them. This adds to their cost, which is understandable. If you are simply buying the pups themselves, then you will find them to be somewhat similar in price. But if you’re moving from one technology to the other, the cost is higher with actives.

Here is a table to show some of the prices among popular active and passive options.

Seymour Duncan Duality Humbuckers (Set)Passive$278.00
Fishman Fluence Matt Heafy Humbuckers (Set)Active$279.00
DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbucker (Single)Passive$90.00
EMG 81 Humbucker (Single)Active$99.00

Are Active Pickups Louder?

Yes, most active pickups are louder than passives. They produce a louder sound due to their boosted output level. However, this louder level of output may come at the cost of some clarity.

Some models seem to sound dark and less clear. Others sound tight and articulate, with a wider response. This makes proper selection very important.

Are Humbuckers Active or Passive?

Humbuckers are both passive and active pickups! But there are some large differences! First, with a passive humbucker, the coils are connected together in reverse polarity. This is to cancel the hum and other noise that you normally find in single coils.

With an active pickup, the two coils are not connected together in the same manner. They are used with an operational amplifier. This is a component in the preamp that uses the coils to cancel the noise as well as boost the signal. They are two different ways of doing the same thing, but are very different.

On the outside, they are the same size and appearance. But on the inside, they are different. But one thing is certain, they are both humbuckers!

Which Pickup Is Better?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to picking the ideal pickups for your electric guitar. Your playing style and preferences will determine which pickup is best for you! Both passive and active pickups have distinctive qualities and tones

Neither passive nor active pickups are inherently better than the other. Both types are simply tools that provide players with variety. Passive pups are known for their versatility and ability to produce a wide range of tones.

Active pickups are known for their high output level and clarity. But some do feel quite good, depending on who makes them and what they are designed for.

The ideal pickup will ultimately rely on the music you play and the desired tone. Do you favor a more sensitive and natural feel? You could find passive pickups to be a good decision. Active offerings can be a better choice if you’re a player who prefers a more tight and aggressive sound.

Personally, I use both for different gigs. If it’s going to be aggressive metal, I like active pickups. But for most other music styles, I lean into the passive options quite heavily. So sometimes it’s not about which is better overall. It’s more about what is better for the situation.

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!