A Look At Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups

March 17, 2023
Guitar Shop
active vs passive guitar pickups- feature image for post

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Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups

What Is A Guitar Pickup

Electronic Representation

Pickups to guitarists are what microphones are to singers.

The pickup technology is called a transducer that converts one type of energy to another.

The Pickup/Transducer captures and converts the vibrations of your guitar’s strings into an electrical signal; these converted signals can be sent through to your pedals and amplifiers from your guitar and out through speakers or transferred directly into recording software. (More on this later)

The result of this electronic sonic representation creates an amplified sound more significant than its origin.

Unlike an acoustic, the electric guitar would not make much noise and stay relatively silent without this design.

History Of The Pickup

The first guitar appearance with a “pickup” was attempted unsuccessfully in 1928.

But in 1931/32, a Rickenbacker Electro A-22 or “Frying Pan” lap steel guitar, called because of its circular body and long neck resemblance to the kitchen accessory, was created by George Beauchamp and Adolf Rickenbacker. 

Made from cast aluminum, it sported a “Pickup” that incorporated a pair of horseshoe magnets that arched over the strings and were awarded a patent in 1937. (See image)

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of the First frying pan guitar with pickup attached

Image of the Ro-Pat-In Cast Aluminum Electric Hawaiian “Frying Pan” Guitar w/Pickup -Author Museum of Making Music at English Wikipedia and is licensed under the CC Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Pickup Types & Categories 

There are multiple styles and guitar pickup designs, but they generally come in 2 Types & Categories...


  • Single &
  • Double coil or Humbucker

Called Humbucker because of the way the coils are connected in reverse polarity, cancelling out the hum and other noise you usually find in single coils. (See image)

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a humbucker pickup from a design drawing perspective

Image of Passive Humbucker courtesy of Wikimedia-Author Lukas and is released into the public domain by its author,

The single coil type is slimmer shaped, and the humbucker type is a broader design. It is positioned on your instrument’s body between the Neck and Bridge directly below where you pick or strum the strings (see image) and can also have covers to increase their cosmetic appeal.

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a pickup configuration with double and single coil passive pickups

An HSS Pickup configuration-Image courtesy of Wikimedia and is released into the public domain.


  • Passive &
  • Active 

Are Humbucker Pickups Active Or Passive

Humbuckers are both, but with some differences.

In Passive Humbucker models, the 2 coils are connected; with Active pickup models, the coils are not; also, a component in the preamp cancels the noise and works to boost the signal.

So cosmetically, they are similar in size and appearance, but design-wise, they are very different.

Pickup Configurations

Depending on the type of sound wanted, pickups can be placed in many different configurations on a guitar, usually found with passive models.

A configuration combines pickups using single coils “S” and or Humbuckers “H,” alone or combined.

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a Jackson Electric guitar with a HSS pickup configuration

Jackson X Series Dinky DK3XR Neon Green w/HSS Pickup configuration -Image courtesy of Amazon

A wide range of sonic tones can be attained with varied pickups and switching options.

The Anatomy Of A Passive Pickup

Passive pickups are the most common and popular pickup type on electric guitars. It comprises of a combination of a bobbin, magnets (x6) & a coil of copper wire. (See image)

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a single coil pickup from a design drawing perspective

Image of Single coil courtesy of Wikimedia-Author Lukas and is released into the public domain by its author,

How It Works

String vibrations disrupt the pickups magnetic field read as a current, causing the coil to generate an electrical signal that then travels through your cable to your peddles and amplification, with no need for an external power source, and considered to be the purest form of amplification. (See image)

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a single coil pickup from a design drawing perspective with the magnet field and Coil

The image of a Magnetic field and Pickup coil,  courtesy of Wikimedia -Author Mike Run, is licensed under the CC Attribution-SA 4.0 International.

Output & Tone

Even though the concept is simple electronically (bobbin, magnets & wire,) how the pickups are made create different outputs and tones and becomes a balancing act.

Some processes to consider…

  • Magnet type and strength
  • The type of wire and insulation used
  • How the winding is done
  • The number of wire turns on the bobbin made when the pickup is wrapped – Generally, more winding increases output but loses brightness, with fewer windings decreasing output but improving clearer tones.

Tone Controls

Despite the countless output & tonal options in the passive pickup designs, it is essential to note that guitar tone controls only act as low passive filters and can only roll off or reduce high-end frequencies, for there is no preamp to boost the signal.

High Impedance

Passive pickups give you an output signal with high impedance (high voltage, low current.)

This signal accounts for high-frequency loss and doesn’t allow for long cable runs, also causing the tone to change when the guitar’s volume control is turned down; the quality of your amp is also essential in getting the most out of your passive pickup.

The Anatomy Of An Active Pickup

Active pickups (first developed in 1976 and widely used in the early 80s to the present) operate and are made of similar materials to a very low-output passive pickup but with 3 main differences…

  1. Power requirements
  2. Less winding 
  3. Fewer coils

Active refers to a pickup with a higher output with more consistent, strong, focused, clear and tight tones.

It responds aggressively to high levels of gain and overdrive settings but with less residual hum or noise and has a more modern sound than the passive counterpart offering some great sonic options. (See image)

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a Active pickup EMG 707 with components in the background

EMG 707X 7-String Black Active Guitar Pickup w/ EMG Solderless Wiring Kit-Images courtesy of Amazon

How It Works

Fewer Windings, Number Of Coils & Quiet

Like a traditional passive pickup, it still magnetizes the guitar strings and picks up the vibration through the magnetic pull,  creating an electrical signal induced in the coil.

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of an Active pickup 3 EMG Double and single designs

The EMG SA/81 Active Strat Guitar Pickup Set in Black-Image courtesy of Amazon

But because they do not need as strong of an electrical current to boost the signal, they are wound less and use a smaller number of coils, supplemented and amplified by the preamp and various filters onboard the guitar, operating with the power of a battery.

Active pickups are more resistant to hum, less noisy, and less sensitive to external sounds than passives and anything but weak.

Low Impedance

Because of the built-in preamp, a low-impedance (low-voltage, high-current) signal makes for an aggressive or “hotter” pickup.

Hotter” refers to a signal output being stronger.

This signal offers better transfer from the guitar to the amplifier. Unlike high impedance, it handles longer cables, and the tone does not change when you turn down your guitar’s volume control.


With a less magnetic pull, the strings can ring out longer, resulting in the potential for more sustain.

Tone Versatility

With active pickups, the versatility in shaping your sound is more readily available. The way they interact with your guitar’s electronics, active pickups offer more control over the tone and output.

Can You Put Active Pickups In A Passive Guitar?

Active and passive pickups are very different in design.

The two types of pickups can cost similarly, but if you want to change from one technology to another, modifications are required and can lead to a significant expense.

The cost is in the complexity of the design and parts adding to the price, i.e. adding a battery compartment. (See image)

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of an Active pickup Battery compartment on back of guitar

A Washburn (PXL10EC-U) w/EMG 85/81 Active pickups and Battery compartment on back for 9v power source-Image courtesy of Amazon

This is also how you will know if pickups are Passive or Active.

If your guitar requires a battery, chances are that it has active pickups.

If it doesn’t or will function without a battery, then the pickups would be considered passive.

Batteries Batteries Everywhere

It’s the crosses we must bear as guitarists, dependence on batteries for peddles, accessories and even active pickups.

If your battery runs out of power or is almost on its last energy leg, like your peddle, it will either quit working or leave you with no sound or funny results.

Future Advancements

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of an guitar on a robot

As guitar building and technology evolve, the materials and techniques change and improve, building on the pickup concepts to achieve new levels.

Along with artists seeking more advancements in their signature model instruments like Marty Friedman and his Jackson MF-1.

The Signature MF-1

Marty Friedman wanted a new brand of passive EMG pickups where he would not need to concern himself with batteries but still get the dynamic EMG Active Response Punch and Clarity he was used to playing with…

And they delivered…

“When I heard this pickup, I knew it was ‘the one because it made me want to keep playing and never stop. This is my sound — I’m glad EMG took the time to get it right.”

Marty Friedman


Passive Pickups

  • Natural organic or vintage unprocessed tones
  • Touch-sensitive- Reacting to players’ touch and technique /playing dynamics
  • Easier to maintain and less prone to failure
  • Budget-friendly and are generally less expensive than Active options
  • No need for an external power source (i.e. battery)
  • There are so many designs that you can find exactly what you need!
  • A multitude of different outputs and tonal options to choose from.
  • Versatility
  • Lower volume or limited output
  • Limited tonal control
  • High impedance
  • Less sustain than Active pickups
  • Unwanted feedback
  • They don’t handle high gain as well as Active models
  • They are also generally more prone to noise and hum, mainly if you use single-coils
  • Less studio friendly- more excess noise to work through while mixing a track

Active Pickups

  • More power with higher tone gains & volume output and articulation due to their boosted level
  • Cleaner sounds without a static hum & low noise
  • EQ consistency-Smooth tight lows and clear highs, both in clean or high-gain distortions
  • More sustain from the lower magnetic pull
  • Lower impedance -No loss of highs when long cables are used
  • Balanced tone
  • Better suited for studio recording-less excess noise to work through while mixing the track
  • The need for an additional power source, such as a battery
  • Battery power point is uncertain
  • The sound and tone are not as organic or warm but more sterile and articulate
  • Usually more expensive than passive pickups -founded in the design change
  • If the battery runs out, the instrument is useless or can sound off
  • Pick, and dynamics response is different

How Do You Know Which Pickup To Have?

Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of a blue road sign in two directions

Both types are tools that provide players with variety and give options for what is better for the situation.

Did You Like This Article?

Check out the post on a Guitar string dampener.


Leave your comments in the section below, and if you would like me to review a favourite guitar, or guitar accessory, shout out.

As always, stay the course and keep playing.

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Active vs Passive Guitar Pickups -Image of the G String Guitar Logo

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Starting A Journey At 7 Years Of Age, The Love For The Guitar Only Became Stronger Going Into My Teens. This Leading To An Exciting Time Of Teaching, Performing, And Recording. Join Me Now As We Can Bring The Love Of This Instrument To Other Musicians Globally.

    • I really appreciate this article and history on guitar pickups, others will benefit from your plain language explanations I’m sure.

      I like what you said about the pickups being to electric guitar players what the microphone is for the singer but it seems to me a better analogy would have been auto-tune to singers as the pickup is responsible for for more, like you mention than just amplifying the sound, sort of giving life to it.

      Just at the basest level, is there anything superior about either the passive or active pickup designs?

      Joseph March 17, 2023 8:54 pm Reply
      • Hello Joseph

        First, thank you for coming by the site and leaving your thoughts and feedback.

        Pickups are much more than an accessory and technology for a guitar and have become so much more personalized just because of the player’s and the tool’s development.

        But to answer your question about either the passive or the active being superior to each other, because there are so many different factors involved and are so personal to players, it just comes down to the player and their overall appreciation of what sounds good to their ears.

        The same conversation is in some of the other guitar accessories like string dampeners, and discussion and debates can be held on both fronts of the topic.

        Mostly just pickup a guitar with either set of pickups and run it through a similar amp and peddles and see for yourself what you come up with.

        Feel free to read more of our posts, and do not hesitate to give us more feedback.

        Dino @ gstringuitars

        admin March 17, 2023 10:00 pm Reply
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      April March 17, 2023 9:54 pm Reply
      • Hello April

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        admin March 20, 2023 9:10 pm Reply

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