A few weeks ago, I found a discussion about electric guitars and if they need batteries. While most of the answers were right, there were still things missing. Here I’ll try to go through all of the cases you might encounter.
So, do electric guitars need batteries? It depends on the type of pickups your guitar has. There are three most used types of pickups. Active, passive and piezo pickups. Active pickups and piezo-electric pickups will require batteries, while passive will have no need for additional voltage source. In most cases, for regular and low-end guitars, there will be no need for batteries.
Originally, electric guitars had no need for additional voltage sources of any kind. Through the years of guitar playing and different needs and music styles, people developed a variation of existing pickups and all kinds of different modifications. This gave birth to a need for additional voltage sources for the pickups.
Electric Guitar Active Vs Passive Pickups
But what are the active pickups? What’s the difference between active and passive ones? Let me clear it out for you.
While the passive pickups will create its own electric potential and have no need for external energy source, the active pickups are built differently. The main difference is that the active ones are built around an electronic circuit. The active pickups will have an active circuit that will be able to boost and modify the signal.
The active pickups will, normally, have a higher output. Because of this specific electronic circuit that is in an active pickup, you will need an external voltage source. This is where the battery comes in. If your guitar has already built-in active pickups, you will have an additional cavity on the guitar’s body that will allow you to easily replace the battery.
If you are thinking about going from passive to active pickups, you may want to think about that extra slot for a 9V battery where it will be easily accessible.
The main drawback of the active pickups is that if your battery runs out, your guitar will be unplayable. Although the 9V battery can last for a few years and can be easily attained.
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When they were first introduced on an electric guitar, almost a hundred years ago, there was only one pickup on a guitar. When we talk about electric guitar today, we still have the pickups only modernized and in different numbers.
The passive pickup is a transducer. A transducer is a device that can convert one form of energy into another. In this particular case, the pickup will “sense” the vibrations in the magnetic field, caused by the strings, and convert it into an electric signal that will further be amplified and played through a speaker or an amplifier.
The construction of pickups is rather simple. We have a permanent magnet, which is usually alnico (an iron alloy) or ferrite. Around that permanent magnet is several thousand turns of extremely thin copper wire. The magnet itself will create a magnetic field that is focused on the magnetic pole pieces.
These pieces can be seen on a standard Fender Stratocaster pickups. This permanent magnet in the pickups will magnetize the strings that we use to play the guitar. So when the string is plucked, it’s own magnetic field will move creating the current in the coils of our pickup. Via the cable, the small current or a signal will be sent to an amp or a speaker where it will be amplified allowing us to hear the sound from an electric guitar.
Both single-coil and humbucker pickups will work this way, the only difference is that the humbuckers will usually have two coils that are wound in the opposite direction to avoid that famous single’s hum.
The main disadvantage of passive pickups is lower output. That means that the sound that comes out of the amplifier will be lower and less powerful. The second thing is concerning single-coil pickups and that is the hum or noise.
Because of the way that they are wound, there will always be a hum at a higher volume or if more drive is used. Of course, there are noiseless pickups, but some people don’t think that they have the true single-coil sound.
The third type worth mentioning is piezo-electric pickups. These pickups are a bit different from both active and passive ones. Piezoelectricity is the type of electricity that occurs in solid-state materials like crystals and ceramics.
It is the electric charge that accumulates in response to mechanical stress. These piezo pickups also have a preamp built-in as the active ones. And the same the active pickups will require a battery.
The reason we will only mention these pickups is that they are as not as usual in electric guitars. They are mostly used for acoustic ones and for other instruments and while you might find an electric guitar with an extra piezo pickup, they are not as used as the first two types.
What Is Better? Active Or Passive Pickups?
The main difference and probably something that might help you choose is the music genre. On one hand, we have passive pickups that are a bit warmer, more dynamic and with lower output, and on the other hand, we have active ones which are with higher output, without hums and noise, and thicker sounding.
The passive ones will naturally be used for music genres like rock and roll, blues, soul, funk, and the active ones will usually be used for metal, rock, and other heavier types of music. But it is not impossible to see them in opposite roles.
So saying that one type is better than the other is wrong. They are different sounding with different personalities and colors, so feel free to experiment with both types and find the one that you like the most.
The other thing we should mention is that you can get single-coil pickups in both active and passive versions and the same goes for humbuckers. It is more often than active pickups will be humbuckers but you can get really high-end single-coil pickups in the active version.
Some guitar players like David Gilmour from Pink Floyd use active single-coil pickups because of the clearer tone.
If you are interested to know more about pickup difference, you can check out my post Do Electric Guitar Pickups Really Make A Difference?
Guitar Preamps – What it is? What Does it Do?
The other option that is not related to pickups that might require batteries for your electric guitar is using a guitar pre-amp. Now, for me, this was always an interesting combination and something that is quite innovative and useful.
But what is a pre-amp? A preamplifier is an electronic amplifier that is used to convert weak signals into a signal that is strong enough to be further used and modified. Without the preamp, the signal from the active pickups would be too low and unusable.
If you take a look at Eric Clapton’s signature Fender Stratocaster, you will notice that he has an extra slot in the tremolo cavity for the battery. Now the pickups he uses on his guitar are three Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups they are single coils and what is more important for this discussion, they are passive. Yet, without a battery, the guitar won’t work.
Why is the battery needed if the pickups are passive? The reason for this is because the guitar has a mid-boost circuit board underneath the pickguard. This mid-boost circuit is a pre-amp that amplifies tones in the mid-range with a simple turn of the tone potentiometer.
The boost you can get is between 0 and 25 dB! One of the main reasons this is so interesting, at least for me, is that you can get a heavier tone with a bit of distortion without using any pedals. Because of the wiring, there will be no need for extra switches or knobs on your guitar.
The tone potentiometer will work as a regular one, with the main difference that the previous 1-10 range will now be 1-5 and from 5-10 will be where mid-boost kicks in. Now, because this pre-amp uses an electronic circuit board to work, you will need an extra power source. Or the battery we mentioned. Even though the guitar has passive pickups, because of the wiring and mid-boost, it won’t work if the battery runs out.
Using mid-boost will allow you to create both single-coil and humbucker sound along with everything in between. This is useful if you want to have a variety of tones without having to change the guitar. You can get the recognizable single-coil tone without using the boost, and you can get heavier humbucking sound when you turn on the boost.
It is worth mentioning that the famous Ibanez Tube Screamer has a 30 dB boost. So with this, you’ll get a pretty great boost inside of your guitar.
Both Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy use this type of mid-boost. David Gilmour has his own EMG based guitar with a similar idea. The pickups he uses are his own EMG DG20 and he has EXG circuit which will act as an amplifier expanding bass and treble while reducing mid-range tones.
Besides this circuit, there is an SPC presence control which will boost mids allowing your single-coil pickups to sound more like humbuckers. Every option mentioned here will require a battery to work. The current generated in pickups won’t be enough and you will have to have that 9V battery.
While these types of batteries won’t require often change, you will still need to have an accessible place where you will store them. Most of the guitars mentioned here have a system where you can replace batteries in no time.
So does the electric guitar need batteries? Well, the answer is both yes and no. Guitar without any additional circuits and with passive pickups will never require batteries. But if you add any other kind of pre-amp like mid boost or if you have active pickups, your guitar will need a voltage source which is that 9V battery.
Like always, there is no answer to which one is better. It is the preference and what someone likes. The batteries themselves won’t need to be changed that often. One battery can last a few years, depending on how much you play.
All the guitars that have battery also have stereo output jack which will break the circuit when your guitar is not plugged. So you will only use the battery when you play the guitar.
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Last update on 2021-10-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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