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What is the difference between active and passive bass pickups?

The choice between active and passive bass pickups has sparked a perpetual debate among bass players. 

However, the decision between the two isn't a matter of one being inherently better than the other; rather, it's a matter of personal choice and musical context.

This article aims to unravel the complexities, debunk some myths, and highlight the fact that selecting between active and passive pickups isn't about tonal superiority but about embracing individual preferences, playing styles, musical genres, and practical considerations in the pursuit of your perfect bass tone.

What are Passive Bass Pickups?

Passive pickups, also known as just ‘pickups’, are the original type of bass pickup that was created in the 1930s.  They’re what the vast majority of basses are equipped with, and for the most part, have produced the bass tones that we are used to hearing in popular music. 

Passive bass pickups work through a relatively simple process:

When you pluck the strings, they vibrate back and forth on the magnetic field that’s created by the magnets inside the pickup. 

The movement of the metal strings through the magnetic field induces a small electrical current in the pickup's coil of wire.

The current is the signal that is sent to your amp through your cable and ultimately produces the sound you hear.

Since it doesn’t receive any amplification from an outside source, the circuit is referred to as passive. 

What do passive pickups sound like?

Passive pickups are often associated with a warm, vintage tone, making them ideal for genres like jazz, blues, and classic rock. 

But this is not all passive pickups can do.

It’s very important to understand that passive pickups vary greatly in design, meaning their tone can be warm and vintagey, or super hi-fi and clinical. 

The tone of a passive pickup, and any pickup for that matter, is entirely dependent on the design goals of the manufacturer and position on the body of the bass rather than on the fact that it’s passive. 

Are passive pickups right for you?

Here are some reasons why a passive pickup may be the right choice for your tonal objectives. 

  • You want an accurate replica of the electronics that came in vintage basses 
  • You value simplicity and would rather have fewer tonal options to choose from
  • You found a pickup that you love how it sounds and it happens to be passive

Photo of a Jazz Bass® with EMGs Rip Tide Robert Trujillo model of bass pickups

(photo: EMG's Artists Series Robert Trujillo's Rip Tide bass pickups installed on a 4 string Fender Jazz Bass®)

The Lowdown on Active Pickups

This is a common question for many players who are just getting into making modifications to their instrument.  

There must be something about the particular word ‘active’, as the word just sounds better to some folks.  

First off, let’s define what an active pickup is. 

In the world of bass (and guitar for that matter), an active pickup is one that relies on an internal battery-powered pre-amplifier inside the pickup to send the electrical signal to an amplifier.

Using an internal preamplifier has the effect of increasing the amount of output from your bass, decreasing noise, and minimizing the high-end loss of your bass signal due to long cable lengths. 

Does this mean that active pickups are better? 

Not necessarily.

The truth is active pickups are neither better nor worse.  

Active pickups simply sound and react differently than passive pickups. 

Also, keep in mind that active pickups do not all sound the same. 

There’s a huge variation in active pickup design. So you’ll be able to find some that are bright and punchy, with a mid-forward character, and some even come very close to what we usually refer to as vintage sounding. 

Do active bass pickups sound sterile?

Many players who dislike active bass pickups proclaim that they sound sterile. 

By nature, they’re neither sterile, nor warm, nor punchy, nor growly. 

As mentioned in the above section, it depends on the design goal of the pickup manufacturer for that specific model and how the pickup interacts with the rest of the signal chain. 

Having said that, some bass players consider active pickups to sound sterile. Some consider vintage wound pickups to sound brittle and anemic. Some consider high-output pickups to sound overly compressed and muffled. 

These tone appreciations could all be correct if seen within the context of their signal chain, musical context, and personal preference of the player who uses them. It is, to a large degree, in the eye of the beholder, and the prejudices they carry.

Recently, I tossed a set of active EMG pickups in a P bass. 

They sounded great and not ‘sterile’ at all. 

They had a bit of a scooped tone, strong lows, and crisp, but not brittle, highs - highs that made the bass sound very clear and defined.

Check out the video here

What is an active bass?

The term active bass can be used by manufacturers for an instrument that contains EITHER active pickups or active electronics.  

Active electronics refers to the use of an onboard preamp in a bass. A preamp is a battery-powered circuit that is installed in the bass’s pickup cavity. 

In a similar fashion to active pickups, it’s designed to drive the pickup's original signal across long cable runs and usually features additional tone-shaping capabilities such as EQ or some other type of filter.

A  manufacturer will label a bass ‘active’ in any of these three situations:

  • Bass has active pickups, passive electronics
  • Bass has active pickups, active electronics
  • Bass has passive pickups, active electronics  

It can be a little confusing, but to simplify, if the bass uses a battery, then it will be referred to as active. 

Are active pickups right for you?

Here are some reasons why an active pickup may be the right choice for your tonal objectives. 

  • You use long cable runs and want to keep your signal intact. 
  • Low noise operation is necessary for where you play. 
  • You’re OK with having a 9-volt battery in your bass. 
  • You love the sound of that particular pickup. 

Some options for you to consider

Now that you know the difference between active and passive pickups, here are some options for you to consider. 

Kloppman and Fralin have detailed replicas of great-sounding pickups of the 50s, 60s, and 70s for both P and J Basses. 

Nordstrand has a wide variety of designs that range from vintage voiced to totally modern, and they’re all passive. For example, the NJ4SV is a hum-cancelling J Bass pickup that sounds almost indistinguishable from a single coil. And they also have the Blade pickup in a variety of shapes that have a modern sound. 

EMG is the biggest brand (and in some ways, the ‘only show in town’) when it comes to active pickups. EMG’s “X” line of pickups offers an extended range, lower lows, and higher highs, than traditionally voiced pickups. And they also have the JV, which is a vintage voiced J Bass pickup. 

Bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of both boutique and larger brand names in the pickup replacement world offer passive pickups.  These brands could design either active or passive products, but most feel that they have plenty of flexibility in creating new, wonderful sounding pickups using passive designs.

In conclusion

Countless legendary records have been recorded with both active and passive bass pickups. 

For example, Carol Kaye, who’s one of the most recorded bassists in history, used both. Admittedly, she’s most associated with a 1960s P-bass, however, she has shared that she used a variety of active basses later on in her career.

And when it comes to playing live, you’ll find bass players on the largest stages using both active and passive pickups. 

After helping thousands of bass players find their perfect tone, we recommend that you choose your pickups based on their tonal characteristics. For the most part, all the other aspects, such as using a battery, or not, can be managed fairly easily.