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

“They had lots of high end, very low noise, broad dynamics, and were responsive,” says Steinberger. “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.”

Having their pickups included as standard equipment on Steinberger instruments was the first turning point for EMG. “Steinberger really helped legitimize what we were doing,” Turner says. “It was a tremendous push for us.” The Steinberger connection also proved to be fortuitous for another reason—Hap Kuffner.

Enter the Mandolin Brothers
At the time, Kuffner was co-owner (with business partner Stanley Jay) of NYC’s famed Mandolin Brothers vintage instrument shop, and he first crossed paths with Steinberger at the 1979 NAMM show when Steinberger was doing a demonstration at the La Bella Strings booth.

“I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about fretted instruments,” says Kuffner, “but when I saw that bass I thought it was an anachronism. It belonged to another space and time. About six months later, Ned came into Mandolin Brothers with another project he was working on—some kind of zither-type instrument—and I said, ‘You’re Ned Steinberger. Where’s your bass?’ We decided to get together again. Ned taught me not only about the ergonomics of the instrument and why he used aerospace plastic, but he also explained the EMG system to me. Forget vintage—think forward. That’s what Ned did to me. He brought me into that mindset—stop thinking in that vintage style and think about where the instrument is going. I started working with Ned in 1980, and Stanley Jay and I bought into Steinberger Sound and told him we’d help with selling and administration.” Soon Kuffner also went to work for EMG and devised a marketing strategy. “The replacement market at that time was mainly for guys who wanted to get a better sound on their vintage guitar or to make their new guitar sound more vintage,” Kuffner remembers. “The sound Rob Turner was hearing from a pickup was different from what other people heard. Also, guitarists weren’t just playing 250-seat clubs anymore—they were playing 35,000-seat amphitheatres. EMG’s active pickups allowed a guitar to sound as good in the nosebleed section as it does up front. However, EMGs were not welcomed into the family too quickly. The quote at the time was, ‘Batteries belong in flashlights, not in guitars.’ Because of that, EMG had a very hard time in the beginning.”

Aware of the importance of industry trade shows, Kuffner decided to exhibit EMG at the 1983 Musikmesse, an enormous annual tradeshow in Germany. “EMG’s first success was in the European marketplace,” says Kuffner. “In the 1970s and 1980s, Europeans were a lot more accepting of anything new coming out of America having to do with guitars, electronically speaking. Even now, if you’re an American company and you’re just starting up in a garage and it’s guitar, bass, or amplifier related, you’re going to find Europeans more interested in becoming the importers.”

As part of his strategy, Kuffner set up independent rep networks in the United States and ran an aggressive ad campaign. The marketing campaign was a huge success and the company prospered. In 1983, Turner officially changed the company’s name to EMG, which stands for Electro- Magnetic Generator. Unlike other giants in the pickup industry, Turner intentionally chose not to put his own name on his pickups.

“When I was a kid in a rock band, we went to a store in Long Beach and bought a mic called the Turner Microphone, believe it or not. It turned out to be a piece of crap. When I started designing pickups, I remembered that incident. I thought, ‘I don’t want to put ‘Turner’ on this.’”

Although EMGs are now strongly associated with metal players, Turner says this was not his original intent. “We were actually after Los Angeles studio guitarists. We had a lot of help from John Carruthers, who had a repair shop in LA. We supplied him with pickups, and he’d say, ‘This needs to be different,’ and ‘Can you guys do this?’ Not only did he help us develop our ideas, he also got our stuff into artist’s hands.”

Jeff Babicz, who now works as chief product development manager at Babicz Guitars, previously worked as a technician and plant manager at Steinberger. Here he holds Eddie Van Halen’s EMG-stocked Steinberger. “I built this guitar per Eddie’s request, and this is the only one in existence with the red-and-white pinstriping [which was painted by Jim O’Conner] on the cover plate. Eddie had at least four other EMG-equipped stock Steinberger TransTrems, but they were all black.” Photo by Jeff Babicz

EMG Players
The first prominent EMG artist was session-kingpin Steve Lukather. “I was there from the beginning in the late ’70s,” says Lukather, “and I was always a big supporter. EMGs are on all my Music Man guitars—and those are my main guitars. I can’t say how much it means to me to be a part of the EMG team.” Lukather’s signature Ernie Ball Music Man Luke model features the EMG SL-20 set (an EMG 85 humbucker and two EMG custom SLV single-coils) as stock equipment.

Lukather, along with Peter Frampton, another EMG proponent, also played a role in getting EMGs into David Gilmour’s hands. Soon after, EMG offered the DG20 David Gilmour signature prewired pickup-and-pickguard set containing standard SA pickups with a volume control, EXG Guitar Expander, and SPC mid boost.
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