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EMG X-Series 81X, 85X and SAX Pickup Review

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EMG 81 & 81X Clean
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EMG 81 & 81X Dirty
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EMG 85 & 85X Clean
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EMG 85 & 85X Dirty
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EMG 81/ 85 & 81X/85X Clean
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EMG 81/85 & 81X/85X Dirty
EMG Pickups has been a mainstay in the pickup business since 1983. The EMG (Electro Magnetic Generator) pickup has become synonymous with many high-powered heavy groups and their guitarists. They are known for their excellent active pickup designs, using in essence, an internal micro- preamp to both shape the output and the tonal character. Because of this design, EMG pickups have less need for powerful magnetic fields. This results in less string-pull, yielding more sustain and harmonic overtones.

The New X-Series
The samples I received for review were the 81X, the 85X, and the SAX. The first thing I noticed upon opening the packaging was the new pickup wiring buss. For the last few years, EMGs have had a slide-on connector on the pickup end of the pickup lead. This made it very easy to change between EMG models in the guitar. Now they have taken it a step further. This new pickup buss eliminates the need for any soldering. The rest of the wiring harness attaches to convenient screw terminals on the pickup buss. This makes for a clean, neat, simple way to make pickup and power connections in your guitar. Changing pickups takes no time at all with the new EMG models.

How Do They Sound?
EMG states that the new X-Series pickups have more headroom, and an extended, more open frequency response.

I decided for this review that I would use a guitar that I had lying around which had a set of EMG pickups in it already. It was an old Ibanez Destroyer with an 81 in the bridge and an 85 in the neck position. This way, I could compare in the same guitar, the different tonalities of the pickups. Care was taken to set the pickups at the same heights as well.

81X
The new 81X has indeed been upgraded in the headroom department compared to the old model. It cleaned up better when turned down, and when cranked it presented the full- on screaming harmonic laden tone that the 81 series is so famous for. While it is still great for heavy rock tones, it cuts through better, making faster passages more articulate. Also because of this headroom it invites some players who might have considered EMG pickups to be too over-the-top sounding. The pickup tone was much more organic feeling—much like a good passive pickup.

85X
The 85X has the same organic feel as the 81X. It is a very sensitive warm and clean pickup when played clean. I thought it produced an excellent warm blues tone with just a little bit of overdrive applied. Cranked up, it is another matter. Fort those who like to play the fast legato lines and sweep arpeggios, this is your pickup. The newer improved headroom of this pickup makes it a sure winner. It can hold its own as far as power output goes with the 81-X The older model 85 was a bit bland by comparison; still a great tone, just far less versatility.

SAX
With the SAX I found the same differences as with the previous two, this time applied to the EMG Model SA. The SA pickups are my personal favorite EMG model. I have often used the SA pickups and loved them for what they do well, which is create a powerful Strat-type tone. I have, however, sometimes missed the bluesy, Hendrix-type of tones from my EMG-equipped guitar. This pickup is the difference I was missing. It is much more open and responds to the picking dynamics the way that a good single coil does. It of course, has very little noise. With this model pickup in your guitar with an EMG EXG control you will be in the land of great power-blues music. It works well for country music as well because of the open sparkle to the tone.

Buy if...
you are looking for a versatile, quiet pickup that covers a lot of bases.
Skip if...
you don’t like the idea of active or battery powered pickups.
Rating...
4.5

MSRP 81X and 85X $149.99 SAX $119.99 - EMG Pickups - emginc.com