Video: Active vs. Passive Basses—How to Choose to the Right Bass for You

When you're in the market for a bass guitar, one of the first considerations you'll have to make is whether you'd like a passive or active bass—that is, simply, a bass with unpowered pickups or a bass with powered pickups.

Now, there are many, many of models in both classifications, each carrying its own unique tonal accents and peculiarities, so once you've decided on which system you'd like there's still plenty left to figure out. But pickups are where you should start, and today, that's what we're here to talk about.

In the video above, Reverb's resident bassist Jake Hawrylak delves into the differences between active and passive basses. He breaks down some of the general differences that separate the models and points out a few things to look (and listen) for when you're shopping for what's best for you. And just to reiterate Jake's disclaimer—we're not playing favorites in the passive vs. active debate, but rather giving information about each option to help you make your best decision.

Passive Bass Guitars
Warm, Mellow, Simple

First up, Jake is checking out passive basses, as passive pickups were the first and only type of electric bass pickups commercially available until the late '60s.

What Jake highlights as one of his favorite things about passive basses—especially P-Basses—is their simplicity. Players usually get a very simple control layout—as little as one knob for volume, one knob for tone, and maybe another for switching between pickups, depending on what kind of model you have.

Sonically, passive pickups are often warm and mellow-sounding. It's also important to remember that unlike active pickups, passive pickups don't benefit from the extra signal boost given to active basses by a preamp. That means you have be conscious of things like your pedal chain, the length of your cable—anything that lengthens the path between your bass and your amp, which can lead to the dreaded tone suck.

Popular Passive Basses
Active Bass Guitars
Clear, Loud, Modern

As music started getting louder and louder throughout the '60s and into the '70s, bassists started to require more power to cut through the mix. This led to the invention of the active bass pickup system, which features an internal powered preamp that gives players more versatile EQ options.

"Now, another great benefit with the active system is that with the addition of this preamp, we get a lot more clarity and we get a noticeable volume boost," Jake explains. He continues on to say that active basses are more likely to react to the nuances of your playing, which makes them a favorite among players in genres of music that feature a lot of harmonics, slapping, or tapping.

On the flip side, there are two major things that players switching to an active system need to keep in mind. First and foremost, your bass guitar's preamp requires battery power, so always remember to keep extra 9-volt batteries on you. The battery drains anytime your guitar is plugged in, so make sure never to get stuck without backups. The bass Jake is playing above takes two, but varies by model, so make sure you check.

Secondly, as previously mentioned, active pickups tend to be louder and more powerful than passive pickups. For this reason, it's important to be aware of how hard you're pushing your amp. For example, Jake is playing through a vintage Ampeg B-15N Portaflex, so he's using the Battalion DI to cut off about 10dB so that the amp can handle the signal.

Popular Active Basses
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