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While many of its contemporaries have focused on meticulously tinkering with pickup designs of the past, EMG has focused on modern tones for the last 40 years. That emphasis helped EMG lead the active-pickup revolution, most notably with the wildly popular 81, 85, and 60 models that provided players with crisp, hot, detailed tones especially suited to heavy music. But the new 57-B (bridge) and 66-N (neck) pickups turn over a new leaf and essentially attempt to meld vintage PAF humbucker tone with active fidelity.
Old Dog, New Tricks
Both the 57-B and 66-N feature alnico 5 magnets, which tend to provide smoother, stronger midrange than the ceramic magnets in most EMGs. The 66-N still uses ceramic pole pieces, while the 57-B sports steel pieces. Each has an attractive brushed-steel cover with a look that’s simultaneously vintage and modern.
Each pickup comes with an EMG solder-less connection kit—a pair of 25k volume and tone pots, an output jack, 9V battery clip, wiring, mounting hardware, and a small circuit board with slots for snapping components into place. The wiring from the pickup switch can either be soldered onto tiny pads on the board or clamped down with a set of screws. Loading the pair into a Gibson Les Paul Traditional was quick and almost effortless—I’ve never done a pickup installation this easy.
Active and Aggressive
Both the 57-B and 66-N react to picking dynamics and volume-knob changes in an uncannily biting and PAF-like way. They aren’t as smooth and rich as some PAF reproductions, but what you lose in smoothness you get back in dynamics.
Through a ’65 Fender Twin Reverb reissue, jazz chords from the 66-N yielded a robust, extremely clean tone with great detail, sustain, and output. The best PAFs produce Texas-sized tone that’s clear and crisp in spite of relatively low output. The 66-N nails this while smoothing out low end when you roll back the guitar’s volume. It also has high-end crispness and detail that a lot of neck PAFs lose when you cut the output.
Throwing some dirt into the mix with a Boss SD-1 thickened up the tone even more, though at the expense of dynamics. Picking harder didn’t seem to bring out the highs as much, and the mids lost a bit of their liveliness. Still, I was able to coax out some pretty nice Clapton “woman” tones with velvety mids that sang in slow and nuanced lead settings.
The 57-B was a bit more even sounding. The mids and highs had the same presence, and the lows were tighter and snappier than the booming 66-N. Thin Lizzy-inspired riffs and heavy attack showcased honky midrange that softened nicely as I eased up. The highs were smooth as silk, while the lows stayed focused and punchy as I piled on the gain from the SD-1. Clarity was excellent, and complex mids remained uncluttered even with seething distortion from a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. Dynamics suffered a bit from the added gain, and decreased sensitivity and range was even more pronounced with hard-rock and metal tones—though it was still impressive for a PAF-style pickup. The lows were tight—not unlike an EMG 81—and the highs and mids flattened out in a way that complemented driving rhythms.
The melding of vintage character and EMG’s trademark fidelity makes the 57-B and 66-N unique beasts. Though the loss of richness with medium to heavy gain might turn off some headbangers, players looking for a new spin on PAF tones will love the detail and clarity. In the right hands, these EMGs might just become modern classics.