EMG: The Active Pickup Makers Celebrate 35 Years of Pioneering Tone
The history and impact of EMG and active pickups are explored
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 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!”