Active vs. Passive Pickups: Which Way Should You Go?

January 23, 2019 6 min read

Active vs. Passive Pickups: Which Way Should You Go?


Both types have devoted users, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

All electric guitars have pickups, and all pickups are made from the same general components. These would be a magnet (or magnets), a coil, a bobbin and some kind of base or cover. In most cases, the magnets are individual pole pieces designed one per string, but there are pickups that are designed with a single blade magnet for all of the strings. The magnet is wrapped in fine wire as many as 7,000 times, creating the ‘coil’ which is held in place by the ‘bobbin’ which functions like the bobbin on a sewing machine, holding the coil of fine wire together, allowing it to do its job.  

Regardless of the magnetic configuration, the pickup is designed to literally ‘pick-up’ or capture the vibrations of each of the guitar’s individual strings and then convert the vibration to an electrical signal. This signal is sent to your amplifier producing a sound that is universally recognized as that of an electric guitar. While tonewoods and hardware each have an affect on the tone of your instrument, there is nothing that determines the sound of your guitar more than the pickups you use.

The story of the pickup is long and quite technical. I’ll spare you any more technical details, but if you’re interested in that, Premier Guitar has published an extremely informative serieson the subject. Over the past 70-odd years, several types of pickups have emerged including P90's, single coil, humbucker, and active pickups. In the past decades an often heated debate has lingered on over which type of pickup is the best. In this article we’ll concentrate not so much on which type of pickup is best, but rather on each pickup’s distinct properties and what you can get from each type of pickup.

Passive Pickups: P90, Single Coil, Humbuckers

G&L Doheny Demo

The original electromagnetic pickup described above was what is known as a passive pickup. Passive pickups are so named because they do not use any type of power source or ‘preamp’ to generate a signal. Passive pickups, like single coil and humbuckers consist of simple circuits that work when the vibration of the string disturbs the magnetic field created by the proximity of the magnets to the strings, and then transfers this vibration to the coil which converts it into electrical current, ultimately sending it to your amplifier.

Passive pickups are the most common in use today and can be found on the majority of guitars most notably in G&L, Fender, Gibson, Reverend, Ibanez, Hamer, and Teye just to name a few that we carry at Adirondack Guitar. Passive pickups are generally recognized as the most expressive and dynamic type of pickups available today, allowing players to create a range of tones and sounds that are suited to all musical styles. Passive pickups really accentuate the instrument’s natural sound, which means that they capture and amplify the sound generated by the tonewood, finish and hardware in a way that is extremely expressive.

Though they are known for their expressive tone and impressive dynamic range, passive pickups do have some issues that have led guitar makers to move in new directions. The main issue with passive pickups is the way they are so often prone to transmitting unwanted hum and background noise. This is the result of the thousands of tightly wound wire coils picking up signals and interference from the environment. Humbucker pickups (as their name indicates) were developed to cancel out environmental interference but these still had other issues that pickups designers sought to solve, and did so by developing active pickups.

Active Pickups: EMG, Seymour Duncan, Fishman Active

ESP/LTD EC-1000 Demo

Active pickups are pickups that use a powered circuit or preamp to generate a signal. Active pickups still use magnets and coils, but the circuit is a powered or ‘active’ one. The result is higher output from fewer coils, resulting in higher gain, more distortion, and less background interference. The power source is usually a 9V battery which is housed in a special compartment usually on the back of the guitar. Today, active pickups have become the norm for most guitar manufacturers associated with metal guitar scene, like Schecter and ESP/LTD, and this is why you will often see a 9V battery compartment listed on the spec lists of many of these guitars.

The benefits of active pickups are readily apparent the first moment you use them. Their output is noticeably higher giving them greater power and more sustain than passive pickups. When you also take into account the ability of active pickups to EQ the guitar’s tone beyond a simple tone control, you end up with one seriously impressive pickup. Active pickups make your guitar’s tone less dependent on expensive tone woods and higher quality construction, allowing players with less expensive guitars to instantly upgrade their sound. This is why the addition of active pickups has become one of the most popular upgrades players make on their guitars.

While there are many advantages to a powered circuit, including increased gain, better sustain and less hum and interference, there are also drawbacks to using active pickups. First and foremost, active pickups tend to cancel the advantages of resonant tonewoods. The tone that active pickups produce is less dependent on the rest of the guitar and more dependent on the electronics which means that it is less dynamic than what you can get from passive pickups. The dynamic effects that today’s music demands must therefore be achieved using pedals and amp effects rather than the palette of sounds available from the guitar itself.

Making Your Choice

Choosing between active and passive pickups should be based primarily on what you are trying to achieve musically. The general rule of thumb is that active pickups deliver a crushing heavy metal rhythm tone with a scorching hot lead tone. However, if you like your guitar to whisper at times, active pickups may not have the dynamic range you are looking for. Passive pickups have much more dynamic range than active pickups, but often suffer from hum and unwanted noise which can be troublesome at high volume. Passive pickups also capture the authentic tone of the guitar’s construction in a way that active pickups can’t, meaning that you hear the whole guitar and not just the electronics when you use them. Here are some examples of guitars with each type of pickups available at Adirondack Guitar and

Examples of Guitars With Active and Passive Pickups Available From Adirondack Guitar

Schecter Hellraiser C-1

The key to the Left Handed Schecter Hellraiser C-1‘s powerful tone is its electronics. Featuring two EMG active humbucker pickups, an EMG 81TW in the bridge position and an EMG 89 in the neck position, the Hellraiser C-1 offers a crushing rhythm tone and a blistering lead tone. The 81TW in the bridge position can also be split using a push/pull volume knob, allowing you to tone it down to a single coil sound, and the 3-way pickup selector switch allows you to blend pickup voicings, giving this metal monster a surprising amount of versatility.


Schecter Hellraiser C-1 Demo

Read more about this guitar at the Adirondack Guitar website:Schecter Left Handed Hellraiser C-1 FR Electric Guitar- #1831

ESP/LTD EC 1000 

Featuring hot and active EMG 60 and EMG 81 pickups, the EC-1000 delivers a tone that is aggressive and full of punch. Wired with two volume knobs, a single tone, and a toggle switch pickup selector, the LTD EC-1000 allows you to control your tone and volume while switching between and blending pickup voicings, allowing you to dial between overdrive and clean tones with ease.

Read More at the Adirondack Guitar Website:ESP/LTD Right Handed EC-1000 Electric Guitar Silver Sunburst

Passive Pickups:

G&L Doheny  

The key to the G&L Doheny’s revolutionary sound is the addition of Leo Fender’s wide-bobbin MFD™ single coil pickups in the bridge and neck positions with the PTB (passive treble and bass) tone circuit that allows you to control the tone of the guitar as desired. Wrapped with traditional Formvar wire, the MFD™ jazz pickups offer a less twangy tone than previous versions of the surf guitar, giving the Doheny the output and sonic range perfect for today’s music scene.

Read more about the G&L  Doheny at the Adirondack Guitar Website:G&L Left Handed Doheny Off Set Electric Guitar- Surf Green

Hamer Monaco

2017 marked the re-emergence of the Hamer brand with the re-release of six of Hamer’s best selling and most iconic models. This Hamer Monaco MONF-CS is probably the most exciting of all. An archtop single cutaway with a light but resonant Mahogany body and a figured maple veneer, the Monaco MONF-CS features an incredibly vibrant cherry sunburst gloss finish that is sure to turn heads at every gig and an outrageous hard rock tone that will have people shaking their heads in disbelief! Equipped with two beautifully voiced Hamer Humbucker pickups, the Hamer Monaco MONF-CS offers a variety of hard rock and heavy metal tones that clean up nicely at low volume.

Read more about this guitar at the Adirondack Guitar website:Hamer Monaco MONF-CS Single Cut Electric Guitar

Watch this demo from Hamer:

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