The Passive vs Active Bass Debate – Where’s the Power?

I have never been a big fan of active basses, although I have to admit that the idea behind them does seem pretty cool. The idea is to add a battery-powered active tone circuit so you can boost your signal and control the sound of your bass to a much higher degree. Since the passive vs active bass debate rages on, let’s take a look at the reasons why.

What a passive bass does

For our purposes, a passive bass does what a bass is supposed to do and nothing more. You have your simple circuit provided by your pickups that then deliver your signal to your amp. With a passive bass, in terms of tone controls, you’re limited to only cutting the signal (sound) coming from your bass.

So, on a passive bass, your tone control simply rolls off high frequencies and nothing more. It doesn’t have the ability to boost any frequencies or EQ your sound. That’s left to your amp and your bass pedals.

Passive bass guitars were the standard from the time Fender released the Precision bass until the ’70s when Music Man (Leo Fender’s company) released the StingRay bass.

What an active bass does

An active bass, on the other hand, does have the ability to boost lows, highs, or mids. How, you ask? Well, you basically have a built-in pre-amp powered by the battery for tone shaping and boosting your volume. You can EQ your sound right from your bass. Seems like an awesome setup, right? So, why don’t I like them?

One of the main issues I have with active basses is their sound. I’ve played several of them, and they all seem to sound too clean and smooth for my taste. They sound OK on their own I suppose, but in a band setting they tend to get lost and sound kind of sterile and artificial to my ears. And this is one of the main complaints that you’ll hear from most people who prefer a passive bass over an active bass.

It doesn’t mean that it isn’t right for plenty of other bass players out there, including you. Flea uses them as do tons of metal bassists.

Active bass preamp vs active bass pickups

There are a few ways a bass can be “active.” It can have active pickups, active electronics in the way of a preamp, or both. These days, most active basses use passive pickups with a preamp built in. You can still find active pickups, and some bass players love them, but preamps with passive pickups are a lot more common.

Active pickups, like a preamp, require battery power to operate and produce a stronger signal because of this power. That stronger signal can reduce interference from other electronics and keep your tone level regardless of your volume setting.

Benefits of an active bass

People who swear by active basses love them for a couple of primary reasons. First, they like that they can shape and color their tone right from their bass. It can be helpful if you need to switch sounds quickly between songs right on stage. Obviously, you can do this through pedal settings as well, but sometimes you don’t even want to head back to your pedal board to make a change.

There are also some benefits to having a stronger, powered output in terms of how much interference you get from things like fluorescent lights. And you can use longer cable runs without losing signal as you would with a passive bass.

The active bass sound

Another characteristic that active bass players love is the tone that they get from the active circuit. Some players say they get a brighter, cleaner, snappier sound that’s more even and consistent.

Active basses do actually tend to have more compression than passive basses. This alone can make a big difference in your overall sound.

Because of the qualities you get from active electronics, you find these basses a lot in metal, slap funk, and other more aggressive styles of playing. It just seems to fit those genres better.

Benefits of a passive bass

Well, you don’t have to worry about batteries dying out on you. Since passive basses don’t require power like an active bass, they don’t need batteries. But this is actually a smaller difference…and I’ll cover it more in a minute.

The big difference is the way the bass sends a signal. Because there’s no active preamp, you have a simple signal that’s very responsive to things like how hard you play, the volume you set, and lots of other environmental factors. It just seems like a much more organic instrument. Which leads to that classic sound…

That passive bass sound

For some reason, a passive bass just cuts through a mix better. It’s weird because you would think it should be just the opposite; more power and options should equal more tone. But, it just doesn’t seem to work that way.

A passive bass has a certain sound that no active bass can copy. There’s an organic grittiness, a natural and open tone to a passive bass that just sounds so right. Active basses, to me, sound artificial and sterile in comparison.

The other thing that’s always turned me off active basses is that battery. Just the idea of having a battery or two in my bass seems silly. I, for one, would be constantly worried that the battery would go dead at the worst time or that it would be losing power and affecting the tone, distorting or cutting in and out.

Passive vs active bass debate – The winner

With a passive bass, you don’t have to worry about any of that. Plus there’s just way less stuff to go wrong. Just a simple tone circuit, your amp, and you are good to go. I do realize that they have basses with both passive and active switches, but what’s the point? If I had one of those I would always have it set to passive anyway.

The bottom line is that in the passive vs active bass debate, passive is best. Keep it simple, and play a passive four string, preferably a Fender, and you’re pretty much ready for anything. We’re happy we could solve such a longstanding problem.

If you’d like to add your two cents to the friendly debate, please leave a comment below.

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