Types of Bass Guitar Pickups
Pickups can be split into two categories: passive pickups and active pickups. The difference between passive pickups and active pickups is active ones are battery-powered while passive pickups are not. Each type has its own sound and advantages/disadvantages.
The first pickups to be used in bass guitars were passive. When you listen to classic recordings such as Motown hits with James Jamerson, The Beatles, and Cream, you are hearing passive pickups. Passive pickups tend to have a warm, full, round, dynamic tone. Their fat, punchy tone is their appeal.
Passive pickups do not give you much 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.
Passive pickups use larger magnets and can pick up more noise and interference than active pickups.
Active pickups use a pre-amplifier, or pre-amp. 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.
If the battery dies, many active pickup systems will stop working. You will need to remember to carry spares and put in fresh batteries before those important gigs. Depending on the bass and how much you play, batteries may last from 6 weeks to a year. Always remember to unplug active basses when not in use to avoid draining the battery.
Active pickups have a hotter (louder) output than passive pickups. There is less signal loss on the way to the bass amp.
Active pickups tend to be bright, clear and snappy sounding.
Active pickups use smaller magnets and pickup less external noise and interference. But, some pre-amps can be noisy especially when you boost the treble. You may hear a lot of hiss.
It’s hard to generalize the sonic differences between active and passive pickups. A good active pickup may sound warmer than a poor passive pickup. You will need to hear and experience the difference and try many basses and pickup systems.
If you are buying your first bass, you will probably be fine choosing either passive or active pickups. On cheaper basses, the quality of the electronics is usually not that great anyway. But, you can easily replace them if you like the rest of the bass.