When it comes to choosing your first (or next!) bass guitar, one of the decisions you’ll need to make is whether you want to purchase an active bass, or a passive bass.
The truth is, there are important differences between the two. By knowing the differences between the both of them, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each, you’ll be able to make a better decision regarding which is better for you.
Therefore, in this article we’ll look at both the pros and cons of passive vs active bass guitars, and look at some situations where you might favor one over the other.
What Is The Difference Between An Active And A Passive Bass?
Before going any further, it’s important to understand the differences between the two.
To put things simply, an active bass has an onboard preamp that is (typically) powered by 1 or 2 9-volt batteries. This means that you’re granted the ability to make changes to the signal straight from your bass guitar, before it reaches your amplifier or the next piece of equipment in your signal chain (such as a pedal.)
On passive basses, you can only take away certain frequencies. On active basses, you can boost certain frequencies (i.e bass, mid-range, treble) without taking anything else away.
In essence, this allows you more control to shape your tone directly from your bass, without having to make any changes of these changes on your amplifier, a separate pre-amp, or pedals.
You can typically tell whether or not you’re using an active or a passive bass by looking for a place to store a battery. Most commonly, this will be on the backside of the bass. If you find a place to put a 9v battery, your bass is active. If you don’t, it’s probably passive.
When shopping for a bass online, it is not always obvious whether or not a bass is passive or active. While active basses will usually have the word ‘active’ in the title, this isn’t always the case. Likewise, it may not explicitly state when basses are passive. For the most part though, you can typically assume a bass is passive if it’s not listed anywhere on the page.
The Advantages Of Active Basses
Although the ability to boost frequencies is probably the biggest benefit that active basses have over passive basses, there are a number of other benefits as well which are important to keep in mind!
1. Active Basses Are Less Noisy
Because of the additional power provided by the 9 volt battery, active basses tend to be a bit less noisy than passive basses.
For this reason, many studio musicians now prefer active basses for recording as noise becomes less of an issue.
This isn’t to say that passive basses are inherently noisy, but it’s something to keep in mind.
2. Stronger Signal
Again, because of the additional power, active basses maintain a stronger overall signal.
This becomes more noticeable as the distance between your bass and the amplifier increases – either through a longer cable, the addition of pedals, etc.
It is recommended to purchase as short of a cable as possible for your bass – but this becomes especially important when using a passive bass due to the weaker signal.
Important note: This stronger signal can also cause issues with some pedals. Some pedals simply don’t work as well with active basses.
3. Active Basses Can Cut Through The Mix Better
Due to the ability to boost frequencies on the fly, active basses make it easier to cut through the mix, especially in a live setting where you may not want to stop and adjust other equipment.
This isn’t something I would put a lot of weight on when making a decision, simply because you should be able to make any necessary adjustments before playing. However, in a live gig, this can prove useful – especially if you will play multiple genres during one set.
4. You Don’t Have To Mess With Other Equipment As Frequently
It is possible to achieve essentially the same sounds with a passive bass, by making changes on your amp or a separate pre-amp pedal.
But, let’s be honest with ourselves. Being able to simply reach down and make the adjustment directly on your bass is incredibly convenient.
I feel no shame in admitting that I can be quite lazy. The easier it is to make an adjustment to my sound, the more likely I am to actually experiment or fine-tune things. The same holds true for many other musicians.
Some people find active basses funner to play simply because they can do more without having to put in a lot of effort. Nothing wrong with that!
The Benefits Of Passive Basses
Although active basses certainly have their advantages, they certainly have their drawbacks as well. Let’s look at some of the reasons you might want to purchase a passive bass instead.
1. You Don’t Need To Purchase Or Replace Batteries
Purchasing batteries is an additional cost (and inconvenience) that passive basses don’t have to deal with.
The batteries on an active bass can last anywhere from a few months to a few years depending on how frequently you play. Still, there is a peace of mind with passive basses, knowing that this is something you won’t ever have to think about.
2. Those Batteries Can Die During A Gig
To make matters worse, batteries can die at one of the most inconvenient times – during a live performance.
And unfortunately, it’s not always obvious that it’s the battery that’s causing the problem. Many bassists have spent time diagnosing their amp, their cables, or other pieces of their gear without realizing that it was the battery inside of their bass causing the issues.
Note that many active bass guitars allow you to switch to playing the bass passively should you want to, which can save you in this situation. Of course, it will sound different when you switch if you were previously taking advantage of the pre-amp to boost frequencies.
3. You Can Leave Your Bass Plugged In As Long As You Like
Batteries are drained whenever the bass is plugged in, regardless of whether you’re playing it or not.
This means that with active basses, you need to be conscious of leaving the bass plugged in when you stop playing. If you leave for any significant period of time, it will drain your battery.
Unplugging and re-plugging the cable back in is a minor inconvenience, but it can be an inconvenience all the same.
4. Older, Classic Songs Used Passive Basses
There were no active basses until the early 1970’s, which means that anything recorded before that was recorded using a passive bass. Even then, it wasn’t until the Music Man StingRay bass was released in 1976 that active basses started to rise in popularity.
If you’re a purist or want to perfectly recreate classic tones, some people would argue that passive basses are the way that the bass is meant to sound.
5. The Beauty Of Simplicity
Sometimes, having fewer options is better.
Passive basses give you less to work with, but that means you can become more in-tune to your instrument, and better judge exactly how to dial in a specific sound.
You may not have as many sounds to work with directly from your instrument, but it will naturally be easier to find the specific sound you’re looking for, quickly and intuitively.
Should you want to make any drastic adjustments, you will always be able to do so through your bass’ amplifier or a dedicated pre-amp pedal.
Benefits of active – less noisy, more control over sound, can cut through the mix better, stronger output can help your signal stay stronger, especially with long cables / configurations (pedals etc.)
Benefits of passive – no battery, don’t have to worry about keeping bass plugged in (battery will drain if bass is plugged in) will never fail you during a gig, simple, it was used on a lot of classic old music
Here Are A Few Active Basses We Recommend
Because most basses you’ll find online are passive, I wanted to recommend a few active basses that we particularly enjoy here at Musical Sanctuary. We’ll cover a few different price points to cater to all budgets.
1. Cheapest Recommendation: Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4
- Iconic StingRay bass in Black finish with Black Pickguard
- Basswood Body with Maple neck and Fretboard
- Equipped with a Sterling by music Man designed Ceramic pickup and 2-band Active preamp: volume, Treble, bass
- All Sterling by Music Man instruments receive final set-up and inspection in the USA
2. Mid-Tier Recommendation: Squier Contemporary Active Jazz Bass
- Dual Squier SQR ceramic humbucking pickups produce high fidelity tone great for any style
- Active 9-volt preamp with controls for Volume, Blend, Tone and Bass/Treble Boost
- Modern “C”-shaped neck profile with 12”-radius fingerboard
- Maple fingerboard with 20 frets
- Black chrome hardware
3. Pricey Recommendation: Fender Deluxe Active Precision Bass
- Includes deluxe Gig Bag
- Pj pickup configuration; split-coil precision bass middle pickup, vintage noiseless jazz bass bridge pickup
- Three-band EQ with Treble, mid and bass boost/cut; Active/passive switch
- 4-Saddle HI Mass Bridge for increased attack and sustain
- 4-Bolt asymmetrical neck plate
I hope this article has shed some light on the differences between active basses and passive basses.
Ultimately, the choice will come down to personal preference. After weighting the pros and cons of each, there really is no best answer. Either choice is perfectly suitable for just about anyone. Whether you’re a complete beginner, a gigging musician, someone that records professionally in a studio or even just a hobbyist, you really can’t go wrong with either choice.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comment form below.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy your new bass!