What are active pickups and how do they compare to passive pickups? Is there an advantage to active pickups and if so what is it? These are all good questions and hopefully we will answer them in this brief article.
And so let’s try to answer the first question what are active pickups?
Pickups rely on a physical principle know as electro-magnetic induction. If you want to find out more about how pickups work then you can read our recent article how do electric guitar pickups work?
But to provide a brief intro in essence a pickup consists of a number of magnets wrapped with a copper coil. The presence of the magnets in the pickup essentially magnetises the guitar string. Therefore when the string is plucked the movement of the string through the magnetic field generates an alternating current in the copper coil which is amplified to produce the sound that comes out of your amp speaker.
That is essentially what happens in a passive pickup.
So what are active pickups?
The difference between active and passive pickups is that the active pickup uses a battery powered pre-amp that boosts the signal from the pickup. This means the active pickup has far few coils of copper because of the presence of the pre-amp.
But what is the advantage in having a battery powered pre-amp?
The main issue with passive pickups is that the large coil of copper can transmit a lot of hum and active interference. Some of this hum is mitigated in humbuckers but not all. Passive pickups are also pretty sensitive to feedback when pushed too hard.
The lower number of coils in an active pickup have a lower natural output, before the pre-amp, are less susceptible to background noise and are generally “quieter” in terms of unwanted interference. But the presence of the pre-amp means that the active pickup has a far higher output gain before causing feedback than its passive counterpart.
So what are the main differences between a passive and active pickup?
If you are a guitar player who switches from playing quiet to howling distortion the dynamic range of the passive pickup probably would suit you better, despite the issues with interference and feedback. Passive pickups also tend to lose high frequency sounds and accentuate the lower frequencies which gives them a warmer tonal output.
Active pickups have loads of sonic detail and the fact that the pre-amp provides high output gain means that they have gained a strong following amongst rock and metal guitarists. The big benefit of the high output gain from the active pickup is that it gives a precise sound which allows for clean distinction between notes when soloing at high volume again a key feature appreciated by the guitar shredders out there.
So if you are wondering whether you should go for active or passive pickups the answer is test them out. Play guitars with both active and passive pickups and see which you prefer. Some guitar companies produce the same model with both active and passive pickups so that those who like either pickup type can still buy the same model of guitar. For example Schecter produce a number of guitars in both active and passive pickup versions, the Schecter Banshee 6 Active and Schecter Banshee 6 Passive are a good example of this.
We hope that answers the question what are active pickups, but if not let us know your questions and we will attempt to answer them.