Active vs passive pickups: What’s the difference?

A Charvel San Dimas super strat and a Jackson King V electric guitar on a purple background
(Image credit: Charvel/Jackson)

Pickups are the most important factor in the sound of an electric guitar. Other things will affect it as well, but the pickups help shape the fundamental tone and will react to how you play. Since 1931 and the invention of the electric guitar pickup, designs have changed, but the fundamental idea has remained the same. Active pickups came about in the mid-late ’70s, thanks to EMG, and changed the game. 

Active pickups offer a higher output and lower noise floor and have proved themselves incredibly popular with players of heavier music. The sound of metal from the ’80s onwards wouldn’t be the same without active pickups – particularly EMGs. So, what are the differences between active and passive pickups? Is one better than the other? Read on to find out!

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Richard Blenkinsop

After spending a decade in music retail, I’m now a freelance writer for Guitar World, MusicRadar, Guitar Player and Reverb, specialising in electric and acoustic guitars, bass, and almost anything else you can make a tune with. When my head’s not buried in the best of modern and vintage gear, I run a small company helping musicians with songwriting, production and performance, and I play bass in an alt-rock band.