…Or at least, that’s the term James Hetfield apparently uses to refer to his favorite brand of pickups: EMG’s. In actuality, EMG stands for “Electro-Magnetic Generator” but honestly, Hetfield is so big and burly that I’m afraid to correct him lest I end up with the edge of a Gibson Explorer embedded in my skull.
"What did YOUAAH just call me?? That's right, I'm talkin' to YOUAAH!"
Last week I gave ya’ll a quick shameless plug of why we here at Bigfoot think Seymour Duncan pickups are pretty much the shiz; this week, I’d like to give you a little taste of some sweet, voltage-y goodness.
More or less...
...By that I mean the voltage-y goodness of EMG active pickups!
Somone’s Gotta Do the Dirty Work
Around the same time Seymour and Cathy Duncan were opening up shop, another California-based gearhead was taking a break from fixing shortwave radios in lieu of what would become groundbreaking experimental work in modding guitar pickups. What was he doing exactly? Why, injecting the WHITE HOT POWER of RAWK into them!
Up until this point, pickups were entirely passive. And often times, noisy. In Rob Turner’s way of looking at things, if he was going to design an awesome sounding pickup, he had to first get the noisy bits that were common to passive pickups under control. As a result, he began experimenting with simple preamp circuitry (powered by 9-volt batteries) in order to keep the pickups noise-free and cleaner.
Adding extra, adjustable power also proved to be advantageous in another way. In the case of passive pickups, it is generally true that more coil winds equals more output. If you wanted them hotter you’d have to add more physical winds, and sometimes your tone would suffer as a result. Adding an adjustable preamp in the circuitry of your pickups allows you to design your tone however you want without having to cram in more winds for output’s sake and leaving you with nothing but hot mud. That’s the edge active has over passive: all the output you want without screwin’ with your tone. (Also, here's a link if you wanna know more about how pickups work!)
The innovations didn’t just stop with the active thing in the late seventies, either. Most EMG pickups are “solderless”, meaning they can in fact be installed without a soldering iron if you’re the tinkerin’ type on a budget. It also allows players who are swap-happy with their pickups to conveniently change different pickups on the EMG menu.
It’s pickups like the following flagship models that have helped define 30 years of really RAWKIN’ music and have even inspired other manufacturers to homage them (i.e. Duncan “Blackouts”):
- 81/85 Signature Combo: most notorious for being the tone-behind-the-curtain of legendary shredder Zakk Wylde, these pickups (both together or seperate) are easily the most popular and well-known gain-crankers in the EMG aresenal. The EMG 81 seems to suit a lot of lead metal players and shredders for its sustain-rich, "blistering" ceramic tone whereas the 85 with its Alnico 5 core boasts growly, "muscular" tone for optimal rock versatility. Apart, these pickups sound fantastic, but together they prove to be a truly devestating pair. You can buy seperate, or get hooked up with the Zakk Wylde signature pair for both of EMGs top flavors.
- EMG 60: Back to cermaic land, we've got the 60, best known for its crystal clear high-end and almost vocal mid-range. Often used in the neck position, this puppy is ideal for soloing and lead lines requiring excellent articulation with still oodles of gain to be had.
- EMG 89: Now we're talking versatility! EMG likes to refer to this bad boy as the perfect "two-in-one" pickup for those of you with more eclectic needs. Utilizing the included coil-split control, you can go from warm, toasty humbucker tones to bright, airy single-coil sounds; all noiseless, all clean, all tasty! This is certainly one of my personal favorites and it recommended for either bridge or neck position.
- Bass Pups: Precision, Jazz, HB, what have you! Last but not least, we come to the good stuff. Whether active or passive, jazz or precision, it's hard for me to find a much better bass pickup other than EMG. They're dependable, noiseless, and deliver a wide-range of tonal possibilites from funk to smooth to honky-tonk to that awesome machine gun turret sound and anywhere in between.
These days you’ll find EMG almost entirely popularized by hard rock and heavy metal players. Maybe you’ve heard of Steve Lukather? Peter Frampton? David Gilmour? And of course, ask pretty much anyone in Metallica (except maybe, I dunno…Lars) and they’ll tell you that there is no other pickup. In fact, many consider Kirk Hammett’s and James Hetfield’s borderline creepy little love-affairs with EMG pickups to be largely instrumental in creating the popular “EMG is the sound of METAL” idiom, which these days seems to define the design.
Now there are those folks who just aren’t that into metal or can’t even stand the stuff; and by proximity…or I guess, lack of proximity… never gave EMG pickups much consideration. Perhaps you are one of them. In that case, thanks for pity-clicking this article! Here. Have a cookie (that’s a computer joke). Though we do love our metal here at Bigfoot and definitely believe EMG’s are fantastic for most metal and hard rock styles, our reasons for stocking them are numerous. Here’s three of them…
1) It Isn’t That EMG’s Are So Limited: In Fact, Almost the Opposite!
This is the part in the article where things become roughly 50% opinion, 40% fact, and 10% the author’s irresistible charisma *wink*. I encourage you to share your opinions in the comments below where I will point and laugh at you if they’re different from mine because we’re guitarists. It’s what we do.
That being said, it is my EXPERT and UNDENIABLE opinion that EMG’s are not and should not be thought of as one genre’s property. EMG pickups are often noticed by the “jugga-jigga-wugga” players for their generous high-end, broad dynamic range, excellent response, and of course, very low noise. But are these characteristics advantageous ONLY to Rammstein and Judas Priest?
Now of course, a pickup’s tone is all a matter of taste. I personally like most EMG’s, though there are some I’m not crazy about. Some people can’t get on board the “active” tone thing at all. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find an EMG brand pickup you don’t enjoy. They don’t just do active stuff. If you’re curious about your passive tone options, I highly recommend checking out EMG HZ series. Some of the best bass tone I’ve ever had has come out of those little gems. Or, it may be worth checking out the EMG X series which are still active, but are described as having more organic tone and blooming response than they’re standard series counterparts.
Whether you prefer the active or passive sound, I do like what Steinberger himself has to say about the pickups themselves:
“They had lots of high end, very low noise, broad dynamics, and were responsive… Responsiveness is way up there on my priority list. When I work on an instrument I don’t think in terms of, ‘This instrument would be good for country music or this would be good for jazz or rock,’ because the way people use instruments is so personal, and a good instrument has a lot of range. I wanted to make an instrument that responds beautifully, and EMG pickups play a part in that whole concept. EMGs have a wide palette, and that’s what I want to give the player. I don’t want to mix the colors for the player—I want him to mix his own colors.”
2) It’s Sometimes Important to Think Forward
In this industry, it’s amazing how much money is spent and how many calories are burned in the effort to make things sound/feel/look as “vintage” as possible. Not to disparage these things at all. I love me some vintage myself! But there is a tendency in many of us to sometimes equate “vintage” with superior; “to look back is to look best.”
What I appreciate about EMG is the innovative spirit behind it all. The practical advantages of active pickups make it possible for guitars to sound just as intense in a giant arena rock concert as they would in the carefully controlled studio. What’s a Van Halen concert without dramatic gain-staging and overdrive? Well, just dramatic grown men, I guess.
Clearly, nothing in this picture implies any over-the-top personality traits whatsoever.
3) Again, The Three C’s: Consistent, Well-Crafted, and Colloquial
Whether you consider yourself a fan of their tones or not, no one in their right mind argues that EMG are inferior pickups. Quality built right here in ‘Merica! They were a household name when MTV still actually had music on it, and they still hold strong today! So if you’re in the neighborhood, drop on by the shop here to ask us about our favorite EMGs and which one might be the best for you to check out. If it’s EMG, we can hook you up.
Stay tuned for next week’s piece, Part Three of the “Holy Pickup Trinity”: DiMarzio. Stay excellent and have a good week!