The difference, what each one does, and which one is best for you
Today we have many different choices when it comes to guitars, basses, or amps. Different brands make different gear that sounds and feel very different from each other.
When choosing a bass guitar you should consider the brand, wood, hardware, and so on. But one of the most important things in electric guitar or bass are pickups, because they are the main source of the sound.
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The tone of your instrument heavily depends on pickups. So, you need to choose the best quality pickups, but another important thing to consider is the type of pickups. There are many different types of pickups but the two main types are active and passive pickups.
In this post, I will explain the differences and benefits of both pickups and also recommend which one is good for you and your bass guitar.
What are passive pickups
Passive bass pickups are the most popular type of pickups. It’s been used since the creation of the electric guitar and most guitars or basses you see use them. Every beginner or intermediate instrument is equipped with it.
The reason they are called passive is that they don’t require any external source to function, they just pick up the vibration from the strings and transform it into a sound. Then it comes out from the amp.
There are different types of passive pickups, but two are the most popular:
- Magnetic – The most popular passive pickups. They use a magnet to capture the vibration and transform it into sound.
- Piezo – This type of bass pickup is mostly used in acoustic bass guitars. Some electric basses use it as an extra pickup. Instead of a magnet, Piezo uses pressure to create a sound.
Passive pickup styles
Also, there are different styles of passive pickups, especially in guitars. There are single coils, humbuckers, P90, and more. Bass guitar pickups are not as diverse. The most popular styles are P style and J style pickups.
P style pickups are named after the Fender Precision bass which is a two-piece pickup where each one has two poles, totalling to four poles for four strings.
On the other hand, J or Jazz pickups have four double poles so each string gets two poles. Many basses have both pickups and it gives you greater tonal versatility.
What are active pickups
On the other hand, active pickups are a different type of pickup that requires an additional power source to function which is powered by a 9V battery. These basses and guitars have space at the back to insert the battery.
Although active pickups can produce sound without a battery, it loses power. The newer the battery is the better and more powerful sound you get. Also, they are hotter than passive pickups, meaning they produce a louder sound.
There are no big options in active pickups. Different brands manufacture slightly different pickups but in a nutshell, they are the same.
Which one sounds better
The main question is which one sounds better – active or passive? There is no easy answer to that question because everything depends on what you want and the genre of music you play is very important when choosing the pickup type.
It’s not about the quality of the sound, the main difference between passive and active bass pickups is the characteristics due to the differences in manufacturing which is the thing you should pay attention to when you choose pickups for your bass.
Passive pickups benefits
First of all, let’s talk about passive pickups because they are more popular. There are countless different passive pickups you can find on the market which differ by price, quality, tone, and more.
The best thing about passive pickups is that they are very dynamic and diverse due to different types of passive pickups in which the sound varies greatly. Also, dynamics allow you to control the sound more.
These pickups respond differently to clean and overdriven sound, while volume can be a source of change in the sound.
So, when you play with your fingers or pick, it will respond differently. You have more control of your sound and tone, which is always a great thing to have.
Also, passive pickups don’t require a battery, it always will sound great.
Active pickups benefits
Active pickups are louder but not as dynamic as passive pickups and provide a pretty even and consistent sound. So, finger or pick-playing style might not have that much difference, while relying on a battery might not be a good option.
Active pickups are great for heavy music because they are louder and have more power. Overdriven tones are amazing with active pickups while cleans are very crisp.
Although active pickups are less dynamic, if you play mostly metal then active pickups are a great option.
Cleans also sound great. But have in mind that you sacrifice dynamics when using active pickups.
Which pickups you should use
Deciding which one to use or which one is the best for you depends on many things as I’ve discussed.
Of course, the best option is to have two bass guitars with active and passive pickups which means you have an option to choose and use different styles in different situations.
But what if you have to choose only one? That may be challenging.
First, you have to decide what you want. Do you want to have versatility, dynamics? Then passive pickups are for you. But if you want power, loudness, and in your face sound, active pickups are the best for that purpose.
Another important thing is what music style you play. For hard rock, pop, and blues-y type of setups, passive pickups are the best in my opinion because they are very versatile and diverse.
But if you play heavier music, you might decide to choose active pickups, although there are some amazing passive pickups made for metal and heavy music.
But the best way to choose one for you is to play them yourself. There are thousands of reviews and videos on YouTube but it’s hard to choose that way.
Just go to your local store and play a couple of active and passive bass guitars. Try with different amps too. You will hear and feel how they respond to your playing and how they sound in real life.
Although I have used many active bass guitars, my favourite are passive pickups. I love the dynamic versatility which allows me to play any style with it. I do love the crispness and power of active pickups but I love the dynamics, feel, and overall sound of passive pickups. Also, I love passive bass guitar for recording.
But the taste is subjective. You should try it yourself and decide which one is the best for you.
Choosing an instrument like the bass guitar is a very important and challenging task and pickups play a significant role. That’s the sound of the instrument. Depending on your personal preferences, the music genre you play, you may want to get one or the other.
When you understand how they work, what benefits they have, it’s easier to choose. But don’t choose a type of pickup until you play it.
For more on this topic, check out Yamaha’s take on it.