What Is A Passive Pickup On An Acoustic Guitar?

acoustic guitar | Sandy Music Lab

When you play guitar, there is a lot of accompanying gear that you need to learn about, too, so that you can make the best decisions about what works for you and what you want to use in your setup to get the best results. Pickups are part of the accompanying gear category. While there are a couple of different kinds of pickups, today, we will focus on passive pickups for acoustic guitars.

A passive pickup is a device that helps amplify the sound of your guitar. These pickups don’t require any electronics (such as a battery pack) to help them alter the sound they pick up from your guitar before sending it to the amplification system. They work similarly to a microphone.

This article will discuss what amplification does for your acoustic guitar, what passive pickup is on an acoustic guitar, and the variations of passive pickups. We will also list some passive pickups we think are good choices to use if you want to add a pickup to your kit. Now let’s get into it!

If you want to find out what my recommended guitar gear is, then here is what I recommend on Amazon:

What Is A Passive Guitar Pickup?

A passive guitar pickup is a type of magnetic pickup that does not require an external power source or battery to operate. Passive pickups use a simple design consisting of one or more magnets wrapped in a coil of wire, which creates a magnetic field that detects the vibrations of the guitar strings and converts them into an electrical signal.

Passive pickups have a relatively low output and a more natural, organic tone than active pickups, which require an external power source and use preamp circuits to boost the signal. Passive pickups are widely used in a variety of musical genres and are known for their simplicity, reliability, and versatility. Some popular examples of passive pickups include the Gibson PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucker and the Fender Stratocaster single-coil pickup.

Acoustic guitars are loved for the intimacy they can bring to a performance of a song; however, if you want to play to a crowd of more than a few people, being heard can get tricky. Whether you need to compete with the other instruments in a band, play over the chatter in a restaurant, or reach the very back of a concert hall, an acoustic guitar may need some help in the sound department (Relevant article: how to make an acoustic guitar louder).

This is where amplification comes in. In the simplest of terms, an amplification system is a number of devices that help increase the volume of the sound produced by your acoustic guitar. It usually consists of a guitar pickup and either a preamp and amp or just an amp.

The pickup detects the vibrations created throughout the guitar body when you play a chord, converts it into an electrical signal, and sends it out through a cable. This signal then either travels to a preamp or directly to an amp, where it is strengthened (or amplified) and sent out through speakers, where it is converted back to a sound signal so that we can hear what is being played by the guitarist.

However, the sound can never reach the speakers without a pickup on the guitar, so today, we’re going to discuss what pickups are, passive pickups in particular.

What Is Passive Pickup When Using an Acoustic Guitar?

To be able to amplify a guitar’s sound signal, the signal first needs to be converted to an electrical signal so that it can be sent to a preamp or amp, which is where the amplification occurs. This will require either a microphone or a pickup. Of the two, pickups are the most reliable, both in terms of sound quality and hindering interference from external sources.

They are also usually the more convenient option, as they don’t stop you from moving around when performing and isolate your instrument’s sounds from the other instruments around you.

If your guitar doesn’t already have a pickup built in, choosing an after-market pickup for your guitar can seem daunting. Firstly, there are two main categories you can choose from; active pickups and passive pickups. And once you’ve decided on active or passive, there are several other subcategories to choose from. Luckily, we’re here to make the process a lot easier for you.

A passive pickup is a type of pickup that does not need to be connected to a power source (like a battery) to convert your guitar’s sound signal to an electric one. It simply picks up the vibrations created when you play your guitar and converts them to an electric signal. These are the simplest kinds of pickups and are therefore favored by many guitarists.

However, the tone of the “sound” coming out of a passive pickup can vary significantly from system to system depending on the input impedance of what you are plugging it into (i.e., the preamp or amp). 

Since they don’t have any electronics, they can’t have a preamp built in to help regulate the issues that may arise and keep the sound consistent. Active pickups, by contrast, then obviously do have electronics in them to power a preamp.

Variations of Passive Pickups

Under the category of passive pickups, there are several other subcategories that pickups fall into, which we will discuss briefly in this section.

Magnetic pickups typically mount across the soundhole of a guitar and detect the vibrations created by your guitar’s strings by using magnetic fields. They only work with steel string guitars, as nylon strings aren’t magnetic. These are most popular with players who need to play at louder volumes, as they are the most resistant to feedback.

They create big and warm tones that work well for many playing styles, though they do sometimes sound “electric.”

Piezo pickups can be affixed to the body of the guitar, the bridge, or under the saddle (which are then known as under saddle transducers). These are usually the smallest kind of pickups and work by transforming the vibrations that move throughout the body of the guitar into electrical signals. Under saddle, transducers are also the most commonly used pickups in factory-installed systems.

Piezo pickups produce a good balance of resistance to feedback and a pleasant acoustic tone, though they do sometimes create an undesirable sound when driven hard. However, this hasn’t stopped them from becoming the most popular kind of pickup, both on factory installs and after-market systems.

Soundboard transducers can either be installed on the inside of a guitar on the soundboard (hence the name) or on the top of the guitar under the bridge. They work by sensing the motion of the guitar’s top (or the vibration of the top) as you play and converting it into an electric signal. When playing at a loud volume, these pickups are more prone to feedback than magnetic and piezo pickups, but overall they create an enjoyable sound.

Some people have described the tone of these pickups as “woody,” which is likely due to the placement of the transducers, especially those placed inside the guitar’s body.

Best Passive Pickups for Your Acoustic Guitar

Now that we’ve discussed what amplification does for your acoustic guitar and what a passive pickup is when using an acoustic guitar, we can go over a few passive pickups that we think are the best for acoustic guitar accompaniment.

K&K Pure Mini Acoustic Guitar Pickup

The K&K pure mini is a transducer-only passive pickup system that features three transducers and a ¼ inch (0.64 cm) endpin jack. This pickup needs to be installed on the inside of your guitar and will require the most modification to your guitar of all of the pickups on this list. The transducers are affixed to the back of the bridge, and a hole is cut out of the bottom of your guitar for the endpin jack to stick out of.

This pickup transmits a noteworthy amount of the soundboard since it isn’t as close to the strings as under-saddle pickups are. Each individual transducer is made to pick up a specific string pair, but they also “listen” to adjacent areas around them. This means that it puts out a really well-balanced and warm-sounding full-range signal and reproduces the string sounds without making them sound percussive, thin, or harsh.

It is not the cheapest of all pickups, but it is made well and from high-quality materials and sits inside your guitar, so it is more protected than other pickups, and thus it will last you a long time. However, if you don’t have the budget to buy this pickup and have it installed by a luthier, you might want to consider one of the other pickups on our list.

KNA NG-1 Piezo Pickup for Nylon String Guitar

If you own a nylon-stringed guitar, this might be the pickup for you. Made expressly for nylon string guitars, the NG-1 piezo pickup will naturally reproduce the sound of a nylon guitar; however, it will do well on a steel-string guitar as well. This pickup installs directly onto the tie block of your guitar’s bridge and doesn’t require any modifications to be made to your guitar. It’s essentially a plug-and-play pickup system.

This sensor is encased in a lightweight wooden exterior and makes the pickup a small and discreet one. It is easily installed and can be detached or remain installed when you aren’t using it. Using the tension of your guitar’s strings, this piezo-type pickup can easily pick up and reproduce their sound through an amp or preamp system. It comes with a detachable 8-foot (2.44 m) long ⅛ inch to ¼ inch (0.32 to 0.64 cm) cable and is relatively decently priced.

KNA AP-1 Portable Piezo Pickup for Guitar

The KNA AP-1 is an easy and effective solution for anyone looking to amplify an acoustic instrument, like a guitar. It mounts to the surface of your guitar and doesn’t require you to modify the exterior or interior of your guitar in any way. It can adhere to the guitar body at any place, but somewhere close to the bridge will likely give you the best results. It is a small and lightweight device that uses a piezo system to pick up your guitar’s sound.

This pickup reproduces the sound of your acoustic instrument naturally and without altering the sound. It comes with enough non-abrasive adhesive putty to be applied multiple times if need be, but it can be left on your guitar when it’s in storage or transit. The putty is strong and will hold the pickup in place if you decide to leave it on your guitar when it’s not in use. It also comes with a detachable 8-foot (2.44 m) long ⅛ inch (0.32 cm) to ¼ (0.32 to 0.64 cm) cable.

This is one of the most inexpensive pickups on this list, but it doesn’t lack in quality, so if you’re on a tight budget, this might be the pickup for you.

Seymour Duncan Woody SA-3SC Single-Coil Guitar Pickup

The Seymour Duncan Woody SA-3SC is the first magnetic pickup on our list! This pickup is designed to mount into the soundhole of your guitar. It will fit easily into most acoustic guitar soundholes with an impressive diameter range of 3.85 inches (9.78 cm) to 4.10 inches (10.4 cm). It is easy to install and doesn’t require any instrument modification. It has a single magnetic coil on the inside, which allows it to pick up string sound when you play.

This pickup offers a reasonable response that amplifies your sound without detracting from it or creating a hum while also allowing it to blend seamlessly with other instruments and vocals. It is perfect for strumming and even for fingerstyle playing and also comes in two different color options (black and walnut), so you can choose the one that best suits your guitar.

It is moderately priced to be affordable for most musicians. However, it does not have a detachable cable, so if you aren’t using an amplifier, you’ll either have to remove the pickup or find a way to secure the cable away so it doesn’t dangle down the front of your guitar.

Donner Sound Seeker Humbucker Magnetic Passive Soundhole Pickup

The Sound Seeker is another soundhole magnetic pickup and can be installed without making any alterations to your guitar. This passive pickup uses a humbucking system to pick up sound, which means that the coils inside the pickup are stacked. This is done to ensure better string-to-string balance and acoustic clarity while also having the benefit of reducing noise. This double coil system reproduces your sound clearly and naturally.

It can be used on both 6-string and 12-string acoustic guitar models and features 12 adjustable coil heads so you can get exactly the tone you want. It also has volume control and tone control knobs, so you can really tinker with your sound until you like it. It has a soundhole diameter range of 3.8 inches (9.65 cm) to 3.94 inches (10 cm).

It comes with all of the tools necessary to install it onto your guitar and has a cable that can be directly connected to your amp or preamp system. However, this cable is not detachable, so it might get in the way when you are playing unplugged.

Donner DSS-6 Passive Mahogany Soundhole Pickup

The Donner DSS-6 is also a magnetic humbucking pickup. This pickup uses magnetic fields to pick up string vibrations and transmit them to the amp or preamp system it is plugged into. This means that the sound it picks up is not affected by the external environment and is transmitted with virtually no extra noise. The coils are housed in a solid mahogany exterior, which transmits vibrations stably, creating clear and balanced tones.

This pickup is suitable for virtually any acoustic six-string guitar, featuring a soundhole diameter range of 3.8 inches (9.65 cm) to 3.94 inches (10 cm), and can be quickly and easily installed without making any moderations to the body of your guitar. However, it is not suitable for the Taylor’ baby’ guitar series or the Martin’ little’ guitars.

It features volume and tone control knobs and comes with a detachable cable, meaning that there won’t be any cables dangling around when you aren’t playing your guitar through an amp or preamp. It also comes with some accessories included in the package and is very well priced.

Amumu SP60 Humbucker Magnetic Passive Soundhole Pickup

This brings us to the last pickup on our list; the Amumu SP60. It is a humbucking pickup with a ceramic magnet and double coils and features six adjustable pole pieces so that you can adjust the balance and tone best for your playing and performing style. It also has a volume adjusting control so that you can adjust the output volume to your liking.

It has the largest range for soundhole diameter, starting from 3.54 inches (9 cm) all the way through to 4.33 inches (10.1 cm), and is suitable for steel-string acoustic guitars of many sizes. It produces a natural and warm sound that has a wide dynamic range, and the double coil feature helps to reduce noise from external factors.

It is a reasonably priced pickup and comes with installation tools and accessories included. It is not necessary to modify your guitar to install this pickup. However, the manufacturers do suggest that you run the cable through the inside of your guitar, meaning you’ll need to drill a hole in the bottom of the guitar to get the jack out.

Conclusion: What Is A Passive Guitar Pickup On An Acoustic Guitar?

There are many factors that go into creating a well-rounded guitar setup, and pickups and amplification are just a few. We hope that this article helped you better understand what role amplification and passive pickups play in your guitar setup and that perhaps we were able to help you find a pickup that will fit nicely into your setup. Nonetheless, we hope you enjoyed reading this article!

If you want to find out what my recommended guitar gear is, then here is what I recommend on Amazon:

What Is A Passive Guitar Pickup On An Acoustic Guitar Related FAQs

What is the difference between passive and active acoustic guitar pickups?

The main difference between passive and active acoustic guitar pickups is that active pickups require an external power source (usually a battery) to operate, while passive pickups do not. Active pickups use preamp circuits to boost the signal and provide a higher output level, while passive pickups have a lower output and a more natural, organic tone.

What are the benefits of passive pickups?

The benefits of passive pickups include a more natural, organic tone, simplicity, reliability, and versatility. Passive pickups are also typically less expensive than active pickups and do not require an external power source.

How do you tell if your pickups are active or passive?

One way to tell if your pickups are active or passive is to check if there is a battery compartment or other external power source attached to the guitar. If there is no external power source, then the pickups are likely passive.

Can you replace passive pickups with active?

Yes, it is possible to replace passive pickups with active pickups, but it may require additional modifications to the guitar, such as installing a battery compartment and wiring the pickups differently.

How long do passive pickups last?

Passive pickups can last for many years with proper care and maintenance. There is no specific lifespan for passive pickups, but they may need to be replaced if they become damaged or worn over time.

Are Seymour Duncan pickups active or passive?

Seymour Duncan pickups are available in both active and passive versions, depending on the specific model and application.

What are the two types of guitar pickups?

The two main types of guitar pickups are single-coil and humbucker pickups. Single-coil pickups have a bright, clear tone and a thinner sound, while humbucker pickups have a thicker, warmer tone and reduce unwanted noise and hum.

What are the different types of acoustic guitar pickups?

The different types of acoustic guitar pickups include piezo pickups, microphone pickups, magnetic pickups, and combination pickups. Piezo pickups are the most common type and are typically mounted under the bridge saddle.

Do passive pickups go bad?

Passive pickups can become damaged or worn over time, which can affect their tone and performance. However, with proper care and maintenance, passive pickups can last for many years.

Are active pickups louder than passive?

Active pickups have a higher output level than passive pickups, which can make them sound louder and more powerful. However, the actual volume of the guitar depends on many factors, including the amplifier and the player’s technique.

Are noiseless pickups passive?

Noiseless pickups can be either active or passive, depending on the specific design and application.

Do passive pickups use batteries?

Passive pickups do not require an external power source or battery to operate. They rely solely on the magnetic field created by the magnets and coil of wire to detect the vibrations of the guitar strings and produce an electrical signal.

Are bare knuckle pickups active or passive?

Bare Knuckle pickups are available in both active and passive versions, depending on the specific model and application.

Are active pickups quieter than passive?

Active pickups are designed to reduce noise and unwanted hum, which can make them quieter than passive pickups. However, the actual noise level depends on many factors, including the guitar, the amplifier, and the player’s technique.

What makes some pickups better?

The quality and performance of guitar pickups depend on many factors, including the materials used, the design and construction, and the specific application. Better pickups may offer a higher output level, a more natural and organic tone, reduced noise and hum, and greater versatility and flexibility.

What guitarists use active pickups?

Many guitarists use active pickups, including metal and hard rock players who want a powerful, high-gain sound with minimal noise and hum. Some popular guitarists who use active pickups include Kirk Hammett (Metallica), James Hetfield (Metallica), Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society), and Dave Mustaine (Megadeth).

Do I need special amp for active pickups?

You do not necessarily need a special amp for active pickups, but you may need to adjust the settings on your amplifier to get the best sound. Active pickups have a higher output level than passive pickups and may require less gain on the amplifier to achieve the desired sound.

It is also important to use a high-quality cable and to keep the battery in the active pickups charged to ensure optimal performance.

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David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others.
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