My beloved "White" and "Cowgirl"

Who wins?

The eternal struggle between active and passive pickups.

Somewhere in the world right now, someone’s talking about it. In front of the beverage machines in rehearsal rooms, at the tables of the breweries immediately after an evening jam session; into the pages of modern blogs or on the paper of ancient specialized magazines.

“If I mount a set of active pickups will my guitar sound better… or worse?

Passive pickups respect wood, they say. The active ones less. The active pickups sound pretty cold but do not hum. The passive ones, unless they are humbucker or have a noise cancellation circuit (like Kinman), make quite a mess when they should be silent.

It is not so true that the passive pu are so much influenced by the wood that surrounds them. Just some vintage pu, that have a tendency to be more “microphonic” than today’s pu, also take the vibration reflections of the surrounding wood.
The active pu are not so cold. They just have a wider frequency response, resulting in brighter and more defined sound.

The substantial differences that, in my opinion, are worthy of consideration when choosing the type of circuitry for our guitar, are the following:

  • Dynamics (passive pu have slightly higher dynamics)
  • Hum (active pu is quieter)
  • Frequency range (active pu have a wider frequency response due to the active circuitry)
  • Battery (if you go active, you have to route your guitar for the battery housing… are you really sure?)

Let’s say that based on what we want to play, one is more suitable than the other. Of course it would be nice to have a week to decide what kind of circuitry you want, trying it and comparing it to choose the one best suited to your needs, and then buy it.

Unfortunately, this cannot be done.

We do research, we study, we relate to friend guitarists, watching thousands of demos on YouTube; finally we decide and then we go to the shop or to the luthier, still not sure what we will get.

Personally I own a guitar with a pair of EMGs (the classic 81 and 85) and I have to say that if I want to go on stage with the intent to do damage and
tirelessly mess up people’s hair; with those two little monsters, I’m sure to reach my goal without doing a bit of fatigue.

If, however, I want to chisel the air and have the chance to move from extreme violence to the most disturbing softness just using my fingers and the volume knob, I prefer to rely on a Lollar Special T and a SD Quarter Pound rigorously passive and beautifully humming.

So, it’s just a matter of taste and ear.
If we do not want to abandon the tradition, there are some tricks in electric guitar making to partially eliminate the noise from a passive single coil; even without the insertion of a separate circuit. There are also active pu capable of having a dynamic range equal to the passive ones.

Given this, I prefer the passive pickups’ tone. It must be said that, having used far more passive than active pu, I know the latter a little less. Let’s just say that if I could get the custom made guitar of my dreams, I’d choose passive circuitry.

…but the following one would definitely be active.

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