by Scott Zimmerman

This article is about active and passive bass guitars. You can view our article on short and long scale bass guitars here, as well as our comparison of 4 and 5 string bass guitars here.

If you are thinking about getting started playing the bass, or you are a bass player wondering how active and passive basses are different, here is a list of eleven differences that will give you a better idea of how each of these instruments works and how they might suit your playing.

What is the difference between active and passive bass guitars? The biggest difference between active and passive bass guitars is the increased signal output of an active bass along with the ability to boost or cut frequencies. These differences allow a player to adjust the tone of the bass guitar.

Let’s dive in more to take an in depth look at the differences between active and passive bass guitars.

#1 Signal Output

The type of signal output of a passive bass and an active bass is the main difference between these two types of basses. The output on a passive bass is exactly how it sounds. The passive bass does not produce any extra output than what the pickups generate through their normal process. The output can be attenuated, i.e. reduced, by the control of the volume and tone knobs; however, the output cannot be increased.

On the other hand, active basses either use a powered preamp or powered pickups, which by way of the additional power supply, can increase the output from the bass. Let’s see what difference this makes in terms of overall dynamics.

#2 Dynamics

In musical terms, dynamics refers to volume; however, it more specifically relates to volume changes produced when the player activates the strings by plucking or picking a string. With string instruments, dynamics can be increased or decreased though different types of attack on the string, e.g. plucking softly versus plucky the string hard.

Passive basses respond more to the different articulations of the fingers; therefore, many bass players feel that passive basses offer more dynamic possibilities. Conversely, due to the signal boost of the active basses, which produces a more consistent compressed sound, many players feel that there is less of a dynamic spectrum.

#3 Power Supply

Active basses need their own power supply to drive the preamp or active pickups. Generally, this is produced from a nine volt battery; however, in some cases, the active bass will use eighteen volts which requires two nine volt batteries. The batteries are usually located in a cavity on the back of the bass near the electronics. Alternatively, a passive bass does not use any additional power; whereas, the signal output of the passive pickups can only be increased by the bass amplifier.

#4 Signal Strength

Due to the onboard power supply, an active bass will have a stronger output signal. This is important if your cable length is over thirty feet long. Passive basses will experience a signal drop off at these cable lengths, which will affect the quality and consistency of your sound. However, active basses will not experience this issue, because the additional power from the preamp or active pickup maintains a consistent signal strength from instrument to amp.

#5 Tone Shaping

The ability to shape your tone with a passive bass is limited to your playing style, the volume and tone knobs (which only cut signal), and of course your amp. However, with an active bass you have the ability to do more tone shaping using the bass guitar controls, similar to the E.Q. of your amplifier. Active basses can come with two-way, three-way, and even four-way E.Q. systems to shape your tone. You can also approximate the sound of a passive bass by adjusting the E.Q. settings.

#6 Maintenance

This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between a passive and active bass. A passive bass requires only routine maintenance such as cleaning and string changing. However, an active bass will require changing the battery periodically. Unfortunately, when a battery fails, it is all or nothing.

You will have a distorted sound or a “popping” in and out of the sound. Having said this, if you are playing mostly in the studio or at home, it is not a problem. When the battery fails, you have time to remove the old battery and insert a new one. But, for live performance, it can be another matter and it is important to think this through. You can always change the battery before a gig for maximum security, although that can be expensive, or you can have a backup bass.

Some active basses have easy access to the battery compartment and some require taking out small screws to remove the access plate. Furthermore, some active basses have a switch that you can change the bass to passive mode, which would be helpful in an emergency gigging situation. Lastly, while the bass is plugged in, it will use and drain the battery. Keep this in mind when you are not playing and you will save money on batteries.

#7 Effects Pedal Performance

Although active basses with their higher output signal will not harm your effects pedals, you may experience different sounds from them, especially with overdrive or distortion pedals. If that is the case, try lowering the output volume of your bass. Also, if you are using a multi-effects processor, you can lower the input volume, if you are  experiencing undesirable sounds.

#8 Active Preamps and Active Pickups

There is a distinction to be made between basses with active preamps and basses with active pickups. Their function is the same, which is to boost the output volume and to offer sound shaping possibilities through active E.Q.; however, there are some practical differences between the two systems. Anything that is active, whether it be a preamp or a pickup will need to have its own power supply separate from the amplifier. As we mentioned earlier, this can create issues if the power supply fails, especially during a performance.

An active bass that uses a preamp in conjunction with passive pickups can be used in a passive mode by flicking a switch if the power supply fails on the preamp. However, if the bass uses active pickups, it can not be used in a passive mode if there is a power issue. Of course, there are other reasons, such as tone preference, that will determine which of these two types of active systems you choose. Let your ear guide you in this regard.

#9 Amp Performance

Higher end bass amps may have an active and a passive input. The active input attenuates, i.e. reduces the input signal by about ten decibels, therefore, preventing the amp from distorting. Some amps may have a pad button that also will do the same thing. For lower end amps or amps with only one input, you may need to adjust the output level on the bass to eliminate an overdriven sound coming out of your bass amp. 

#10 Aesthetics

An active bass will have an extra cavity or two on the back of the bass to provide for the power supply and extra electronics. There may also be a few more knobs of the front of the body. This really isn’t a big deal unless you are going for a true vintage bass look. In that case, a passive bass will fit that requirement better.

#11 Final Thoughts

In a perfect world, you would have all the basses and types of basses that you desire, and a bass tech to keep them in good working order. However, if you are just starting out and have to choose, here are some things to consider. If you are primarily gigging and want a no-hassle bass, try starting with a passive bass and a good amp. If you are doing more studio work or home recording, an active bass will offer you many more tone options for your recordings. 

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.