When I bought my first bass guitar I had no idea it was an ‘active’ bass until one day it started to sound a bit weird. I thought the amp might be broken so I started looking online for a solution. After a few hours of searching, I found the cause of the problem. Because my bass was active, this meant it had a battery in the back, I had no idea! The battery was running out of juice and so that was why the bass had started to sound weird.
But at the time this got me thinking. Why are there two different types of electric bass guitar, active and passive, and why would you choose one over the other? Is active always the better option?
In terms of sound quality, a passive bass is a safer bet, you can always add pedals to your setup if you are worried about adding more bite or altering the tone. If you are unsure you can get an active bass with a switch that allows you to switch to passive if you want. This means you get the best of both worlds and you don’t have to worry about your battery dying on stage!
If that answer isn’t enough and you want to know why there are two types of bass then in this detailed article I will try and get to the bottom of this and help you decide whether an active or passive bass is the right choice for you.
What is the difference between active and passive bass guitars?
So before we figure out which one to choose, I had better explain the difference between the two.
Both passive and active bass guitars are electric. These clever devices known as ‘pickups’ sit just beneath the strings. I won’t go into the technical details of how pickups work in this article. But they use a series of magnets and coiled wires to turn the vibration of the strings into a signal that can be sent to an amplifier.
The difference between the two comes in the form of power.
In a passive bass, the signal is picked up by the pickups and is not boosted in any way before reaching your amplifier. The only controls you will find on a passive bass are a volume knob and a ‘tone’ knob. The tone knob works by adding some resistance to the current and therefore changing the tone of the sound. But that is it. Passive bass guitars are very simple in this regard.
As already mentioned, the active bass uses pickups in the same way as the passive but it is after that where things change. The signal then enters a ‘pre-amplifier’. An electrical device that boosts the signal within the guitar body itself.
In order to have any effect on the signal, this pre-amplifier must be powered using electricity. Now you don’t really want to be plugging your bass guitar into the mains power so this power is usually provided by a 9-volt battery that fits into the body of the bass guitar.
This allows the manufacturer to build lots of other controls into the body of the bass itself (you can pick out active basses on the store shelf as they will typically have more knobs and switches). These knobs can be turned to shape the sound altering the amount of treble or mid-tones for example.
Why are there two types?
The passive bass came along first and so the active bass was invented to overcome some of its (supposed) limitations. To give more freedom to the bassist to shape the tone from the actual guitar itself without having to change amp or pedal settings every time.
The amplified signal in an active bass also produces a more responsive sound. This means less variation in volume between harder plucked notes and very lightly plucked or even tapped notes harmonics. This may or may not be a good thing in your eyes. We will come onto that when I talk in more detail about which type of bass to choose in different situations.
Active or passive bass for a beginner?
My answer to this question is to always try and test a few bass guitars before picking one. As a beginner, you want something you like the sound of. That will also depend on other things such as what amp you have for example. So test lots of bass guitars and test lots of amps too.
I would recommend a passive bass for a beginner, it will allow you to be able to hear the true tone of what you are playing without too much shaping of the sound.
You then have the freedom to add pedals or change your amp to modify the sound, or even record it and modify it in your software afterward. Then if you ever want to just play a very warm clean sound you have that option too, which you might not have with an active bass.
There are bass guitars available that have a switch so you can change between active and passive. So maybe this is worth considering. You then have the best of both worlds and can experiment with all the different sound options you have.
In the next two sections, I will explain what to consider if you are playing live or recording with the bass. This is worth thinking about when you start out, are you mainly going to be playing live in a band or are you wanting to record music in your home studio?
Active or passive bass for playing live?
One of the main downsides of an active bass is that it requires additional power from one or sometimes two 9 volt batteries.
No active bass I have come across contains an indicator to tell you how much power you have left so there is a chance it could just stop working in the middle of a gig or even worse, the middle of a song!
When this happens, the bass will start to crackle and fade, the last thing you want whilst playing live.
In my experience, this leads to an underlying sense of paranoia leading me to replace batteries probably far more often than needed.
You can get rechargeable batteries. But bear in mind these don’t last as long and the lifespan reduces slightly with every charge.
If you play in a band that plays loud and you want a clean but punchy bass sound then an active may be a good option for you. Active bass can sound awesome live.
Active basses are also preferred by some musicians who like to be able to shape the tone between or even during songs on the guitar itself. However, if you choose a passive bass and are worried about volume variations and not being able to quickly adjust your tone. You can purchase an EQ pedal so you can quickly alter the tone on stage if required.
If you play in a band that has softer songs or you like the idea of more variation between softer and harder notes then the warmer tones of a passive bass may be a better fit.
Active or passive bass for recording?
As with anything in the recording studio, it depends on your taste and the final product you are aiming for.
Much of the world’s most famous music (everything pre-60s when the active bass was invented) has been recorded on a passive bass. And a lot of stuff since, because many people still prefer the tone of a passive bass.
One downside that sometimes gets talked about is unwanted noise produced by a passive bass which can get picked up in recordings.
It is less that and more the fact that because active basses are louder and so they drown out any unwanted noises.
These unwanted noises come from electric signals from longer lengths of cable or large pedalboards.
If the thought of noise interference getting onto your recordings makes you nervous maybe go for an active bass to be certain.
As someone that has owned and recorded with a passive bass, I have never had any issues.
If you want a nice variation between softer and harder notes on your track, or maybe a more vintage vibe. A passive bass may be the better choice. I much prefer the warm, cleaner tones of a passive bass for recording, most of the time.
A downside of cheaper active basses is because they are powered by a battery, the components around the battery are often not of the highest quality.
You are simply not going to get a high-quality pre-amp built into a bass guitar and you may be better getting a passive bass and investing in a decent amplifier, pre-amp or other recording equipment to get a better sound.
I also find active bass recordings produce more volume spikes which can be more annoying to mix than passive bass tracks.
Active or passive bass for metal?
Metal bass players tend to favor an active bass because of the extra bite I mentioned above. But as I have also mentioned if you do go for a passive bass you can add pedals or change amplifiers to give you the metal tone you are after.
For live metal, I would probably look at active bass guitars but in the studio don’t rule out a passive. Even if they have misleading names like the Fender Jazz.
So you’ve probably gathered from the article that I am a fan of the passive bass. I just love the warm and natural tone you get when compared to an active bass.
I know that I can add an EQ or other pedals to my signal chain to change the sound if I want so having a passive bass has never limited me in that respect. I also don’t have to worry about batteries!
But as with all musical equipment sound is a personal preference and I would recommend testing a few different bass guitars through the same amp and see which one you like the sound of best.
And if you are indecisive. Just get a bass which can switch between active and passive, then you will have both!