Are Active Pickups Right For You?
Talk of guitar pickups have come up in various music recording forums quite a bit so I figured I’d go ahead and review a few pickups that I’ve used for years on a few of my guitars.
In this article, I’ll discuss my experience with the EMG 81 active pickup for electric guitars. It’s mostly popular with metal guitar players.
My Initial Thoughts When I Was Eighteen
Back in 1998, I bought a Jackson Kelly Marty Friedman Signature Series guitar. It came with a Seymour Duncan pickup.
I remember taking the guitar to band practice. I must admit that I was totally clueless at this time. I had been playing guitar 2 years and was in a nothing but metal phase which ran its course and now I seldom listen to it. I wanted no mids and tons of gain.
To illustrate how ridiculous and ignorant I was back then, I was using a full stack. No college freshman should ever use a full stack. EVER!!!
Basically, I’d give myself a good ass kicking if I could go back. I had my trusty Rivera Knucklehead (which I had no business with at that time) that I still love to this day.
The Duncan pickup had this harshness to it that hurt my ears when using the same settings as I had previously used on a cheap Ibanez Iceman with EMG 81s.
The tone was much different. I guess you could call it grainy, but that really isn’t the right word. The tone with the Duncan had this gravely sound to it that my EMGs did not have.
At the time I didn’t like the tone at all. I also noticed that the Duncans had a lot more noise. I had less attack and it seemed like I had to work harder to get the mean palm mutes out of my guitar.
Part of that was the fact that my Iceman was a bolt on neck (which generally has a lot more low end when palm muting with high gain). The Jackson Kelly was a neck through design. I put an EMG 81 in my Jackson Kelly the next day.
You see, somewhere in there I started to evolve from my metal only phase. I started listening to a lot of 80s hard rock such as Van Halen, Skid Row, Guns N Roses, etc. I really got into the tones of those bands.
I heard this magic on these albums in the tone. The EMG 81s just could not give me that tone. No matter what I tried (and I got pretty crazy with my tone) I could never just hit an A chord and like the way that it rang out on an EMG 81.
So I picked up a Fender Strat Plus Deluxe USA. It came with the lace sensor pickups. I tried the single coil thing for a while but quickly switched to one of the Duncan JB Jr pickups that fit in the single coil slot. I truly love the sound of this pickup. When I hit a chord and let it ring I can hear all this texture and gravel (that I like). It sounds alive.
My Current Thoughts Of The EMG 81
Fast forward to late 2005. I’ve recorded and mixed close to 700 songs. I’ve seen just about every guitar under the sun. If nothing else, I’ve seen a nice variety of guitars and pickups and had to spend late nights dealing with them in mixes.
I will say that I’ve kept my EMG 81 in my Jackson Kelly all this time. However, I will also say that I’ve bought a number of other pro guitars that I like using much more.
So here’s my modern take on the EMG 81. In this situation, we are talking about using similar amplifiers. In my opinion, the amplifier makes a much bigger difference than the guitar or the pickup. If you don’t believe me, plug into a Fender Twin and tell me how mean your guitar sounds. (I’m serious, you may like it).
The EMG 81 is a great pickup for music that requires maximum chunk in the palm mutes with a high gain, scooped mids type of tone. Even when you palm mute an E on the 7th fret of an A string, you will get this great attack.
However, the pickup sounds a little sterile to me. It’s missing some character that I wish it had. It had very low noise and tons of output. I don’t really care about the output of the pickup because most amps have plenty of gain to spare anyway.
The EMG 81 did have more sustain than most pickups which can be great. You can get similar sustain with various tricks on other pickups, but the EMG comes with quite a bit already. I thought that the EMG 81 sounded a little too creamy when soloing up high on the neck. It was missing this aggressive cut to it. So in some ways the EMG 81 is very aggressive and in other ways it’s not aggressive.
Personally, I don’t hear the sound of the EMG pickup on too many recordings. You can hear it on some of the old Zakk Wylde stuff like No Rest For The Wicked and No More Tears. While his tone is cool, there is something about it that doesn’t sound as good to me as the tone on the first Van Halen record or Guns N Roses Appetite For Destruction.
Not that you would ever catch me playing AC/DC now, but I could never get the Back In Black tone with any EMG guitar. I had to be using a passive pickup guitar.
You may notice that both the Van Halen tone and Guns N Roses tone do not have powerful palm muting. You can get powerful palm mutes out of a passive pickup guitar, it just so happens that the tone on these two records didn’t go for this.
You may also want to listen to Megadeth’s Countdown To Extinction. That tone may be a little too bitey for me, but it’s a tone that requires a passive pickup. You can not get that tone with an EMG. At least, I never could. Ironically, this tone does not have powerful palm mutes, either.
Also keep in mind that EMG 81s require a battery. The battery lasts a long time and this is part of the problem. Since they last a while, you may forget to keep a spare with you. When these things lose battery power, it’s not pretty. It’s been a total drag for me at a few shows. This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s a small strike against the EMG in my opinion.
To some up my ramblings here, I’m not going to tell anyone what pickup to buy. However, I will say that I only recommend EMGs for metal music that requires a ton of palm muting. I don’t think chords ring out the same with EMG pickups.
You may have to work harder to get the tone you want with a passive pickup guitar, but when you do, I think you can get a tone that exceeds the EMGs for just about any style of music. I don’t care at all about pickup noise or output level so EMG doesn’t get any points for that. Lastly, these differences are not exactly subtle, but they are not overwhelming.
As a guitar player, I was putting EQ pedals before the amp and in the effects loop. I was using compressors here and sonic maximizers there. I did a lot of work on my tone and I think I ended up with a heavier tone with the passive pickups. But when I wasn’t going for a heavy tone, I feel a good Dimarzio would almost always beat out an EMG 81.
One last thing. The type of wood, construction, and features that your guitar utilizes will make a huge difference in the way that it responds to different pickups.
I do not have that science pinned down, so you are on your own. On a dull guitar, the last thing you want is an EMG 81. Then again, on an aggressive guitar, you may find a Duncan to make this problem worse. Good luck!!