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

EMG’s rise to prominence also coincided with the advent of MTV and music videos.

“Ned Steinberger’s designs started to become accepted for reasons other than just great tone and playability, although his instruments do sound special,” recalls Kuffner. “And part of that sound is EMG related, no question. With the Steinberger bass, you looked different—and people wanted that look. It was the beginning of that techno-pop movement with guys like Devo, who were one of the first bands we sold Steinbergers to.”

The more Steinberger instruments made their way into the mainstream, the more EMG flourished. “Ned Steinberger and Rob Turner both prospered from their symbiotic relationship,” says Kuffner. Even Eddie Van Halen, who is notoriously picky about tone, was able to conjure up his “brown sound’ using an EMG-equipped Steinberger GL.

Kirk Hammett onstage with a custom ESP sporting an EMG 85 bridge humbucker, a model 60 neck pickup, and graphics from the 1932 horror flick The Mummy. Photo by Jeff Yeager
But this notoriety was only a hint of things to come. EMG would really make its mark through its association with metal giants Metallica. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett was turned on to EMG pickups after hearing Anthrax’s Scott Ian use them. Since then, Hammett has put EMGs in all his guitars. “The sound of heavy metal relies on the sound of EMG pickups,” says Hammett. “Without them, it wouldn’t be heavy and it wouldn’t be metal.” Shortly after, lead singer James Hetfield started using EMGs. “I’ve tried my hardest to find a better pickup. There is none,” says Hetfield. “Not many people know EMG stands for Extra Metal Growl.”

Metallica made EMGs the de facto standard among metal pickups, and now many of the most popular and influential heavy bands, including Killswitch Engage and Bullet For My Valentine, use them. “I’ve had so many of our artists tell me they started using EMGs because Metallica did,” says Scott Ferrara, head of EMG artist relations. “Not just the metal guys, but others like Chad Kroeger and Ryan Peake of Nickelback, as well.”

Given that Turner had studio musicians in mind when he created his active pickups, does he mind that they’re sometimes stereotyped as metal pickups? “The market tends to pigeonhole you,” he says. “It’s like being a rock star, in a way. People want you to play the greatest hits, but you’re thinking, ‘Man, I’ve been playing the greatest hits since I was born.’ To tell you the truth, though, I think it’s cool—and we do promote it pretty heavily. People like that. I also do my special stuff on the side—write my own tune, so to speak— so I still have a lot of fun. I do a lot of custom and acoustic work. In fact, I’m doing work on a banjo right now. We’re doing a project with Traveler Guitar.”

In addition, EMGs are now standard equipment on many high-end lines from Jackson, ESP, Schecter, Peavey, B.C. Rich, Washburn, and Dean.

The EMG factory in Santa Rosa, California.

The Impossible Dream
EMG manufactures its active pickups in-house at its California factory. “Another amazing thing is that Rob has been able to build a vertically integrated factory—with injection molding, a machine shop, coil winding, computer molding, surface-mount technology, and an entire potting station,” says Kuffner, “all from scratch and out of a garage. That’s almost impossible and completely against the odds in the music business. You have to have financing in place and understand human resources. This is all the more astonishing because it’s in California, one of the most expensive states to run a factory.” For up-and-coming pickup makers, Turner offers this bit of advice: “The only thing you can do is persevere. That’s pretty much what it comes down to. EMG grew gradually. From the day I went into business I didn’t really make any money for probably seven or eight years. I started in 1976, and we really didn’t go anywhere until about 1982. It was more of a garage operation before that. Our Steinberger connection really helped, and once Hap Kuffner got sales reps on the road, we actually became a company.

“I don’t have a lot of fun pushing paper around,” Turner continues, “which is something I did for a number of years. I hired a guy for that three years ago and have been highly productive since then. Of course, I probably work harder now than I ever have and I still can’t get everything done!”