As you start to learn how to play bass guitar at a more advanced level, the sound of your instrument will become more important. During the beginning stages of learning, your technique and tone really define your overall sound. As you get better, however, the type of pickups you have will become more important.
Part of learning how to play bass guitar for your first personalized birthday song is learning about your options where instruments are concerned. One of the most significant options is whether you use active or passive pickups in your instrument. Here are the big differences between the two.
Active and passive are terms that indicate whether a bass guitar as a preamp built into the instrument or not. In an active pickup, a battery powers this preamp, allowing you more control over the sound, but also changing the nature of the sound. Passive pickups have no preamp. At first blush, this may make it seem like active pickups are automatically better, but this isn’t always the case.
The pickups are only one of the many elements that play into the overall sound of your bass. Your amplifier, the wood of which the instrument is made, the strings you use, your own abilities and more all contribute to your overall sound. Where the pickups are concerned, however, active and passive are really about control.
Passive pickups are just what the name implies. They have larger magnets than active pickups and limited options where controlling the sound is concerned. On a passive pickup system, you’ll have a volume knob and a tone knob, in most cases, You can increase or decrease the bass and treble, but that’s about it. You can sometimes change the sound a bit with the volume knob, as well.
Passive pickups are generally quieter than active pickups. They may, however, pick up more ambient electric noise, such as the buzz from electrical circuits.
Passive pickups tend to have a warm sound, less defined at the higher frequencies and but offering a nice, thumpy and punchy low end that’s great for some types of music. If you want a vintage sound, go passive.
Active pickups are all about control. Many of them have a full set of EQ sliders or knobs, allowing you to customize your sound right at the instrument. Bassists who use these can learn to set their EQ to customize the tone for specific songs or solo pieces, expanding the range of their bass’s voice. If you’re going to use an active system, this is part of how to learn to play bass guitar with exactly the tone you want.
Active pickups, however, require a battery and batteries die. You’ll have to keep some on hand. Most systems are 9V, but some are 18V and require two 9V batteries to be installed.
Each of these types of pickups have their own followings and adherents. When you’re just learning how to play bass guitar, keep an open mind here, as you may find that you prefer one bass with active pickups installed and another with passive pickups installed.
It’s important to keep in mind that the quality of the pickups you’re using, and the type, matter a great deal. For instance, passive pickups may pick up more noise, but a humbucker is a passive design that actually cuts the amount of noise by adding another coil to the pickup.
Active pickups tend to have a brighter, crisper sound to them than passive pickups, but that can be changed by working with the EQ. There are really endless possibilities here and you’ll have to take this into account before you buy an instrument or add a different type of pickups to one that you have.
As you learn how to play bass guitar, it’s inevitable that you’re going to want to start customizing your instrument a bit. Changing from passive to active pickups or vice versa is a big part of that. The best way to figure out which works for you is to try them out and see what kind of sound you get out of them. If you happen to be in a band where you need a bright, cutting sound—i.e. metal—active might be the way to go. If you’re in a blues or country band, the warmer sound of passive pickups might be the thing. It’s up to you, and it’s worth experimenting to figure out what works best for your style.