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Passive and Active Bass Guitars Demystified

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Whether you are a slapper, a funkster, a rocker, a metal head, starting out or just like to improvise, the question you may have asked yourself is; “Do I need a bass with Passive or Active Pickups?” or more to the point “What is the difference between Passive and Active Pickups?”

A simple answer to start answering these questions is that Passive is just that. It’s the sound directly from the pickup itself, where the sound produced is determined by factors like the number of windings around the pickup magnet and the quality of the components in the makeup of that pickup. There is no active circuitry powered by a battery as in an Active system that would enable you to tailor your sound with EQ shaping of the bass, mid and high frequencies to cut or boost.

The first pickups to be used in bass guitars were Passive. If you listen to classic recordings such as Motown hits with James Jamerson, The Beatles, and Cream, you are hearing passive pickups. The tone of a passive bass is usually earthy, organic, full and punchy, which is great for organic styles like blues, jazz, funk, rock and alternative. The type of basses from this era is the Fender Precision and Jazz Bass, Rickenbacker 4001 and the iconic Hofner 500/1. The more modern type of basses that have Passive pickups is the Music Man Caprice or the Godin Shifter 4 Bass.

Hofner 500/1

Hofner 500/1

Music Man Caprice

Godin Shifter 4 Bass

Godin Shifter 4 Bass

However, Passive pickups usually have only one control over their tone. Basses have bass and treble controls much like your stereo system. On Passive pickups you can only turn down (cut) these bass and treble frequencies. That means you can only take away treble or bass from the tone of the pickups. That’s not necessarily bad. You just have fewer options for shaping the tone of Passive pickups. Generally, passive pickups use larger magnets and this may or may not, depending on the type of pickup appear to have more noise and interference than active pickups.

Whereas an Active bass has built-in EQ in the pickup, but more so these days’ modern basses have a preamp which is the active electronics part of the bass. The pre-amp is powered by a 9-volt battery (or sometimes 2 – an 18-volt system). The pre-amp allows you to both cut and boost frequencies. This gives you more control over the tone coming out of your bass. How much control you have will depend on the features of the pre-amp. Some pre-amps simply have a bass and treble control while others have mid-range controls and other extras. Some examples of basses with EMG Active pickups is the ESP Guitars LTD Stream 1004 whereas the Spector EURO4 LT has Passive, custom-wound Bartolini pickups with Custom-voiced Darkglass active tone circuit.

ESP Guitars LTD Stream 1004

ESP Guitars LTD Stream 1004

Spector EURO4 LT

Spector EURO4 LT

Active pickups have a hotter (louder) output than passive pickups so there is less signal loss on the way to the bass amp. They may also tend to be brighter than Passive Pickups as they use smaller magnets and pickup less external noise and interference. But, some pre-amps may tend to introduce noise especially when ythe treble is boosted.

One thing you will find is that Passive pickup basses are considered to have more dynamics than active basses, meaning that your playing can affect how the tone comes through in the bass. Playing gently can lead to a softer tone, playing harder will likewise affect the tone. Active basses tend to have a more compressed signal, which will normalize the output no matter how it is played.

Some basses give you the option of selecting both types of the circuit with active/passive switches. These are ideal for bass players who want a variety of tones and dabble in a wide range of styles, particularly studio musicians and those playing in professional cover bands.

We hope this article demystifies the differences between Passive and Active Bass Guitars and if you would like to leave a comment we would love to hear from you.

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