Friday, May 2, 2008

Ask Tone Freq: “What’s the difference between active and passive pickups?”

Tone Freq,
I had a friend who recently put EMG 81/85’s into his LP copy and he loves that Zakk-ish tone he gets. I’ve heard a lot of talk about active and passive guitar pickups. What’s the difference between the two? Are there any tone differences?

Rick, Murfreesboro TN

There are basically two different kinds of pick-ups: Passive and Active.

Active pickups have a preamp that requires battery power, whereas passive pickups don't require any additional power to operate. That difference can mean a lot to your guitar's tone and overall output.

Active pickups have preamps that are built into the pickup housing; driving the signal to the amp. This preamp must be powered by a source other than the amp, so active pickups require a separate battery to operate. This allows the pickup to send a higher output signal, producing a more complete, full-range sound than most passive pickup systems and giving players more control of instrument dynamics, projection and tone. Players favoring active pickups are: Zakk Wylde, Tom Morello and Kirk Hammett.

Most guitars come with passive pickups. Passive pickups send a lower output, raw signal to the amp that can only be affected by the volume and tone controls on the instrument itself. Passive pickups tend to lose the extremes of high and low frequencies, but still give a very even, warm and punchy tone. This is because passive pickups tend to push out more midrange frequencies. While passive pickups might give players less dynamic control, their smooth sound is still very unique and desirable. Players favoring this pickup are: Edward Van Halen, Angus Young, Jimmy Page and many others!

I hope my response helps answer your questions. I have used both in the past and enjoy the benefits of both. I tend to get some blistering pinch harmonics using EMG’s but I prefer to use passive Gibson Burstbuckers for some nice vintage sound and articulation for chords. I will say that having active pickups can be a drag at times since you have to really keep a nice FRESH battery handy at all times. I have seen shows come to a complete halt because someone forgot to install a new battery and the guitar just “died” on them. Try the actives and if you don’t like them you could always go back and reinstall the passives. Then you can sell the actives on E-bay!

Good luck!
Aljon “Tone Freq” Go

Aljon Go is considered to be a “pedal junkie” by his peers often asked for advice when building pedal boards. He toured the world with his award winning band Mink and was the artist relations/marketing pro for a musical accessory company. He currently spends his time bringing new and exciting tones to regional acts Jaux King, JonesWorld and Mister Happy. He is also host of the long running “Local Buzz” radio show in Nashville and product specialist for a leading guitar company. Freq’n out? E-mail Aljon: tonefreq(at)gmail(dot)com.


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