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Passive pickups are wire wound around a magnet and don't need an added power source. Their output is relatively low, and the sound you get depends on the winding.

Active pickups require a power source (usually a battery, 9v or something), cost more, and have a less defined tonal signature, usually. They're actually used more on bass guitars because they have a good solid tone. Actives can give higher output as compared to non-actives, and aren't as easily affected by different lengths of amp lead and amp imput characteristics. Magnetic pickups with active circuitry usually have lower inductance winding that gives a flatter frequency response curve.

I have Duncan SH-2 and SH-4 "hotrodded" passive pickups in my SG, but I plan to stick those in my Les Paul and get some EMG 81s, or the 81/85 combo for my SG. I'm very, very happy with the Duncans I have, fwiw.

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