BY JOE CHARUPAKORN
There’s no question that a guitar’s pick- ups 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.”
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
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.
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 Trans Trem 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.”
PREMIER GUITAR SEPTEMBER 2010 137
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.