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EMG: The Active Pickup Makers Celebrate 35 Years of Pioneering Tone

EMG: The Active Pickup Makers Celebrate 35 Years of Pioneering Tone
There’s no question that a guitar’s pickups play an essential role in its tone. The wrong pickups on even the most expensive, handbuilt guitar will render it a tonal dog, whereas a cheap guitar outfitted with great pickups can really come to life. While many pickup makers focus on replicating vintage designs, EMG has walked its own path for 35 years. As the first company to introduce active pickups, EMG holds a coveted spot as one of the few innovators in a crowded field.

Once they try active pickups, many guitarists find there’s no turning back. Zakk Wylde recalls, “Before I even started playing with Ozzy, a student of mine came in with a little Fender Mustang loaded with EMG pickups. He played it through my Marshall combo, and I could not believe the volume, clarity, and tone of his guitar. I had my Les Paul Custom with stock PAF pickups and the tone difference was not even close. Ever since that day, EMG has been a huge part of my sound.”

EMG’s SA active single-coils have long been a favorite of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and that went a long way toward putting the company on the map.

The Early Years
The force behind EMG pickups is founder Rob Turner. Having worked for his father troubleshooting shortwave radios, Turner grew up well versed in electronics. But it didn’t take long for him to develop an interest in guitar pickups. “When I was in high school, I started playing around with combining preamps and passive pickups,” he says. “The first one I made was a Strat pickup with external electronics. There were lots of wires inside the guitar and it was messy. I wanted to get everything shielded, so I developed the technology we use now to get rid of all the noise.”

Initially, Turner made his living as a drummer. After his band’s equipment was stolen, he quit playing music professionally and went into the guitar- and amplifier-repair business. But he soon tired of hoisting amplifiers onto his bench. “I decided I should just revisit this pickup thing.”

Before long, Turner had developed a low-impedance pickup with an onboard active preamp that was powered by a 9-volt battery. His design had numerous benefits: Players could run long cables and not experience signal degradation, and 60-cycle hum and interference from lights and were also eliminated— as was the risk of electrical shock.

“Sound is where it was at,” Turner insists, “but at first the pickups I was making were noisy. I thought, ‘I can’t even hear what’s going on.’ That’s when I decided to do something about the noise. Once I got the whole noise issue taken care of it was like, ‘Okay, now I can concentrate on making something that sounds good. At least I can hear what I’m designing.’”

As guitarists began reacting positively to Turner’s pickups, he realized he had a product that could potentially revolutionize the market. In 1976, he and his brother Bill launched a business called Dirtywork Studios. “The first pickup I made under Dirtywork is the same as our current EMG H or HA models,” says Turner. Both are essentially EMG S or SA single-coil pickups inside a humbucker housing. The EMG 58, an active humbucking pickup, soon followed.

While professional musicians applauded Turner’s pickups, he found many players balked at the idea of putting a battery in their guitar, and this became a major obstacle to company growth. “In 1978,” Turner says, “we changed our company name to Overlend, because we were overextended on credit.” However, soon Steinberger Sound—another company with high-tech guitar products—would be the catalyst for change.

The Steinberger Connection
Much like EMG, the people at Steinberger were mavericks in a conservative guitar market. Steinberger produced innovations like the all-graphite headless GL-series guitars and L-series basses, and the TransTrem transposing tremolo system. Company founder Ned Steinberger recalls, “I saw EMG’s ad for low-impedance pickups in a guitar magazine and thought it was a cool idea worth exploring. We had high-impedance pickups from another source, but on the bass end, low-impedance pickups were absolutely preferred by our customers. It gave us a unique, bell-like sound that was very clear and clean. People liked it and we stayed with it.”

In 1981, the EMG SS model (now known as the HB) became standard equipment on Steinberger L-series bass. Active and passive EMGs would also soon be standard equipment on Steinberger guitars. The wide range and responsiveness of EMG pickups played a big part in Steinberger’s choice.

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