Pickups are an essential part of an electric guitar. In fact, when it comes to the way that the instrument sounds, they are the most crucial factor. If you’re unfamiliar with their function, pickups basically act like microphones for your guitar. Typically made of a magnetic material and wrapped in wire, a pickup converts your guitar’s string vibrations into an electrical signal, which is sent to your amplifier to ultimately produce sound.
While that may sound simple enough, pickup brands experiment with different magnetic materials in order to achieve particular tones. Affecting things like their EQ, output and sustain, the magnet’s material isn’t the only variable. That’s because the amount of wire wrapped around the magnet can also make a difference too. Terms such as ‘over-wound’ refer to this; a technique that usually results in more output but a duller top-end.
The two main types of pickups you’ll come across are single-coils and humbuckers. Synonymous with Fender and Gibson guitars respectively, there’s quite a gulf between these pickups when it comes to the way that they sound and their physical design.
Most single-coil pickups rely on six individual magnets (for each string), which are wrapped together. They are known for their bright and jangly tone, truly in their element with clean amps settings. A humbucker, however, utilises two coils that are placed in opposite directions. This not only reduces hum (as its name suggests) but also produces a darker and punchier sound suitable for distortion.
With the basics out of the way, let’s get to the point. What’s the difference between active and passive pickups? Many may already know that actives require a battery in order to work. However, you’ll soon realise that there are in fact many other contrasting features, in terms of how they are made and how they sound.
What are Passive Pickups?
Most electric guitars and basses will typically feature passive pickups. Around since the early ’50s and pioneered by the likes of Fender and Gibson, almost all passive pickups are manufactured using the formula that we explained in the introduction – whereby copper wire is wrapped around either alnico or ceramic magnets.
When passive pickups are placed within the proximity of a guitar’s strings, a magnetic field is created. Therefore, when the strings or strummed of plucked, their vibrations disturb this field to produce an electrical current that passes through the wire.
While this technology hasn’t evolved all that much in over 60 years, like we alluded to, plenty of companies make tweaks to this traditional design by using different types of magnets and wire thicknesses. There are a number of different brands that design and wire their own pickups, including Fender, Bare Knuckle, DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan:
Pros of Passive Pickups
As their name indicates, passive pickups don’t require an external power source in order to work – unlike their active counterparts. So, if you’re fairly conscious about having a reliable rig that is less susceptible to issues, passive pickups take that concern out of the equation.
Apart from the way that they’re operated, passive pickups also possess different tonal qualities. Popular with purists for their organic character, passive pickups are generally more articulate and open-sounding compared to actives, allowing for greater musical expression. They are considered ‘vintage’-like for this reason, and typically have a brighter and more lively vibe.
Cons of Passive Pickups
Passive pickups may be the industry standard, but they have their issues. Although it depends on their quality and type of design, passive pickups can emit unwanted noise from the multiple coils of wire that are involved in their construction. This is due to a build-up of static, a problem that can be exacerbated when using a passive pickup-loaded guitar around electronic devices, like computers.
Like we mentioned at the start of the article, humbuckers were designed to combat this issue. However, even they can be prone to interference when playing with high-gain or at cranked volumes.