There is a bit of confusion in some bass circles regarding active and passive pickups. By in large, the vast majority of pickups in basses are passive. Probably over 95% of basses have passive pickups.
*Above: A (reportedly) '90s era Ibanez PJ Bass - Active or Passive Pickups?
Active vs Passive Bass Pickups:
Let’s get a few things out of the way:
- Whether a bass has active or passive pickups is no indication of quality
- Basses with batteries do not necessarily have active active pickups
- Preamps do not require active pickups* (EMG exception noted below)
- Not all EMG pickups are active
The heart of the confusion seems to lie in a misunderstanding about batteries in basses. A battery in a bass does make the bass active, but doesn’t imply that the bass has active pickups. A battery can mean that the bass has active pickups OR active electronics (specifically, a preamp which requires power).
Preamps and Pickups
Most preamps are designed to work with passive pickups, since the majority of aftermarket high end pickups are passive. Some preamps can work with both active and passive pickups, and some preamps which are intended to work with passive pickups can be modified to work with active pickups. EMG preamps are intended to work with active pickups, and we recommend mating EMG pickups with EMG preamps.
Are active or passive pickups better?
The answer to this question is similar to asking about favorite flavors of ice cream. Seriously, it is truly a matter of taste. We can say, however, that there are wide variety of excellent passive pickups. EMG is presently the predominant pickup maker in the bass market for active pickups.
How do you know if your bass has active or passive pickups?
- Often the builder/manufacturer will include some documentation with the bass.
- Other times, the specs will be listed on the manufacturer’s website*.
- If the answer is not found in one of the two sources above, taking a look in the electronics cavity will usually answer the question. Active pickups will have a wire that leads directly to a battery. This should be fairly obvious. The presence of a red wire (often associated with a lead into a battery) is not a good indication indication that the pickups are active as many pickup manufacturers use a red wire for coil splitting or the lead wire (or even the ground). The presence of a '3rd' wire leaving the pickups may also not be an indication of a battery. Take note of where the wires connect.
*Note - on some rare occasions with some of the larger bass brands, we have seen mis-labeling of pickups as active on website specifications.
Taking a further look at our Ibanez PJ Bass:
- We have a battery, so we will most likely have either an active preamp or active pickups, or both.
- By the location of the wiring channels, we can ascertain the location of the wires coming from the bridge pickups, neck pickups and the battery compartment.
- There are only 2 wires coming from each pickup wiring channel.
- We do not have any wires from the bridge or neck pickups connecting to the battery wires.
- While there is a red wire coming from the bridge pickup cavity, it does not lead to a battery wire.
While there even more clues, we have seen enough -> This bass has an active preamp, but passive pickups.
Still wondering? Drop us a line with a photo of your electronics cavity, clearly showing the pickup leads and their connections.