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Thread: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

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    Ultimate Tone Slacker Rex_Rocker's Avatar
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    Default My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    I've had this love hate thing with EMG pickups ever since I first tried them. I recently posted a thread about me being about to ditch them (and going for a Nazgūl or a Custom). I remember when I first tried them, I was very underwhelmed. I ditched a DiMarzio Super Distortion (which, at the time, I loved) in my only guitar to give the pickups all of my favorite bands were using a try. I got myself a Zakk Wylde set, and me, being a huge Killswitch Engage fan, installed the 85 in the bridge and the 81 in the neck because I had read the 85 was the fattest of the two. Not only was the low-end a lot less present in the 85 compared to the Super Distortion, but it wasn't any hotter either, even if the pickup was battery-powered.

    So I decided to give it some time, regardless. Little by little, I got used to it. Then, out of curiosity, decided to try the 81 in the bridge. Even less low-end (and perceivably tamer output)! It made me wonder what was it that people heard in this pickup.

    But then, I tried recording with them. It all made sense then, especially with amp sims emulating Mesa Rectifiers, which, at the time, was my holy grail kinda tone. The lack of low-end translated into lightning-fast tighness. The upper-mid focus meant it was cutting and aggressive, and it sat just in the right spot in the mix. The lack of real high-end depth meant the fizz inherent to many of these 90's scoopy metal amps was contained. It all made sense!

    So more guitars came and went by, and I tried several other EMG models thinking, "I like how the 81 records, I just wished it had a tad more girth, especially in the room." I did so until I came to own this one guitar which sounded really dark and dull, and I though "I need a pickup that's REALLY bright to make it come to life." So I decided to give the Duncan Distortion a try. Up to this day, the Duncan Distortion is one of my favorite pickups. In the room, it made the 81 sound so narrow next to it. The Duncan Distortion just had more width: more high end detail, and more low-end depth, while still having that familiar upper-mid grind to it. It was also hotter, and I thought it sounded more vicious with more attack.

    I've since tried a lot of Duncan and DiMarzios searching for the perfect agressive, cutting, grinding bridge pickup that sounds good in the room, but also records well. The best (for me) I came across were within the JB family: The JB itself, the Duncan Distortion, and my favorite, the Black Winter.

    Anyway, recently, a friend of mine wanted to ditch an EMG 81/85 set, and I had a spare Distortion Mayhem set lying around, so I traded him out of curiosity and nostalgia for the pickups I used to like. First thing I did was swap them in and throw a mic in front of my cab, and bam! All the good things I remember about recording EMG's were there, even now that I'm using real amps, and not amp sims. The mic just loves them, and it brings out all the good things you read and hear about them.

    That leads up to today: Every time I try a passive in the room next to an EMG, I think, "yeah, passives are more my thing." But then I spend some time with EMG's, and I really come to appreciate how well they gel with 90's/early 2000's metal amps (like Rectos and 5150's) and even some more contemporary amps like 5150III's.

    Sorry for the long read. I guess I just needed to vent, LOL. Do any of you guys feel the same? Should I keep trying EMG's until I find *the right one*? I mean, after all, I haven't tried them all. Especially not the most current releases, but I have tried the usual suspects (81, 85, and 60) in both positions, the Het Set, 81X/60X, and 81TW as well as some of their passive offerings like the H1, H3, and H4, but I still keep coming back to the 81 and sometimes the 85 in the bridge position. Should I try the 57/66? Perhaps the Retroactives?

    Thanks for reading.
    Last edited by Rex_Rocker; 03-29-2020 at 02:34 AM.

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    Ultimate Tone Member BeKindRewind's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    That was an interesting read because it sort of mirrors my experiences. Yeah, I've had the same thing go on - back and forth between loving them and not.

    First got a Zakk set back I wanna say maybe 2007 in a Gib SG Standard and they sounded incredible, I loved that juicy hotness, back when my technique was developing, I couldn't believe how much better I felt doing stuff like trills and tapping with them. It narrowed down the big fat EQ path of my SG into something more focused, and it was easy to hear myself in the mix when jamming in the basement at parties with my buds on the weekends. But I did start to miss that tone the 498/490 combo had. Something was just .. missing.. that organic girth. I decided to swap back, and fell back in love with the passive sound. I brought it to a party that weekend and a friend who heard it begged me to borrow the guitar to cut the album his band was working on. He got an incredible tone on that album with the Gibson pickups that I just don't think would've sounded right with the EMG's.

    Then I played a Les Paul standard at the store, which had burstbucker pros, and I instantly fell in love with both the sound of the maple cap, AND the sound of lower output PAF wind pickups. Hardly thinking about it, I went home that day and grabbed my SG and traded it in against the Lester. I loved that heavy bastard. Something about the way maple combined with mahogany just scratches all my tone itches, and of course I had to try all the pickups in this one too. When I look back at the recordings I made with this guitar - we were a metal band playing in D standard - I recorded one song with a Custom Custom and one with the 81/85 set. the CC sounded weak and thin, and the 81 sounded nice and juicy. I was pretty much sold on the EMG sound for years.

    But then you develop your ear for a few years and get into different things, you learn about yourself. I formed a band and we got real serious, rehearsing almost daily and cut an EP with my new guitar, the Jackson RR24. EMG 81. My hero at the time was Alexi Laiho and the 81, at the time was the only pickup I tried that had the razor sharp edge to get my shredding across clean and clear. However I did cut one track on the album with my Stratocaster, my backup guitar which had a single coil shaped "Tone Zone S" bridge pickup. Looking back NOW? I far prefer the tone of that one track with the Strat. It's fat and ugly and imprecise... And that's why it's awesome.

    When we went to record our 2nd EP a couple years later , I was still playing the RR but starting to dislike the EMG sound. What I was finding was that it didn't sound like "me" enough. I sounded like Laiho but that was getting boring. I wanted to finally seek out my own unique tone, something only I had. So two things had to happen. I had to develop my technique into something all my own and I needed to ditch the EMG. I had an Invader laying around and decided to give it a try. It was everything the EMG wasn't and it just sounded PERFECT for the band I was in. When I look back now at the record we did when I had the EMG I can't stand the tone anymore. But the one with the invader? I still love and cherish. I pretty much haven't looked back at EMG's since, but it took years of exploring to figure out that they just aren't for me and now I can say it with authority that I'm done with em'. But ya know what? I still have 2 guitars with em' and they're fun to play a couple times a year, I just probably wouldn't record anything.


    Long story short ? EMG's are really cool but I feel like I can't sound like "me" with them, so passives have won the battle after many years of back and forth. I too am curious though about newer offerings.. X series, 57/66, even the Marty Friedman set, but I think I'm just gonna stick with what I know works for me, good ole SD passives.

    Sent from my SM-G965W using Tapatalk
    Last edited by BeKindRewind; 03-29-2020 at 04:58 AM.

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    Super Toneologist Jack_TriPpEr's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by Rex_Rocker View Post
    I've had this love hate thing with EMG pickups ever since I first tried them. I recently posted a thread about me being about to ditch them (and going for a Nazgūl or a Custom). I remember when I first tried them, I was very underwhelmed. I ditched a DiMarzio Super Distortion (which, at the time, I loved) in my only guitar to give the pickups all of my favorite bands were using a try. I got myself a Zakk Wylde set, and me, being a huge Killswitch Engage fan, installed the 85 in the bridge and the 81 in the neck because I had read the 85 was the fattest of the two. Not only was the low-end a lot less present in the 85 compared to the Super Distortion, but it wasn't any hotter either, even if the pickup was battery-powered.

    So I decided to give it some time, regardless. Little by little, I got used to it. Then, out of curiosity, decided to try the 81 in the bridge. Even less low-end (and perceivably tamer output)! It made me wonder what was it that people heard in this pickup.

    But then, I tried recording with them. It all made sense then, especially with amp sims emulating Mesa Rectifiers, which, at the time, was my holy grail kinda tone. The lack of low-end translated into lightning-fast tighness. The upper-mid focus meant it was cutting and aggressive, and it sat just in the right spot in the mix. The lack of real high-end depth meant the fizz inherent to many of these 90's scoopy metal amps was contained. It all made sense!

    So more guitars came and went by, and I tried several other EMG models thinking, "I like how the 81 records, I just wished it had a tad more girth, especially in the room." I did so until I came to own this one guitar which sounded really dark and dull, and I though "I need a pickup that's REALLY bright to make it come to life." So I decided to give the Duncan Distortion a try. Up to this day, the Duncan Distortion is one of my favorite pickups. In the room, it made the 81 sound so narrow next to it. The Duncan Distortion just had more width: more high end detail, and more low-end depth, while still having that familiar upper-mid grind to it. It was also hotter, and I thought it sounded more vicious with more attack.

    I've since tried a lot of Duncan and DiMarzios searching for the perfect agressive, cutting, grinding bridge pickup that sounds good in the room, but also records well. The best (for me) I came across were within the JB family: The JB itself, the Duncan Distortion, and my favorite, the Black Winter.

    Anyway, recently, a friend of mine wanted to ditch an EMG 81/85 set, and I had a spare Distortion Mayhem set lying around, so I traded him out of curiosity and nostalgia for the pickups I used to like. First thing I did was swap them in and throw a mic in front of my cab, and bam! All the good things I remember about recording EMG's were there, even now that I'm using real amps, and not amp sims. The mic just loves them, and it brings out all the good things you read and hear about them.

    That leads up to today: Every time I try a passive in the room next to an EMG, I think, "yeah, passives are more my thing." But then I spend some time with EMG's, and I really come to appreciate how well they gel with 90's/early 2000's metal amps (like Rectos and 5150's) and even some more contemporary amps like 5150III's.

    Sorry for the long read. I guess I just needed to vent, LOL. Do any of you guys feel the same? Should I keep trying EMG's until I find *the right one*? I mean, after all, I haven't tried them all. Especially not the most current releases, but I have tried the usual suspects (81, 85, and 60) in both positions, the Het Set, 81X/60X, and 81TW as well as some of their passive offerings like the H1, H3, and H4, but I still keep coming back to the 81 and sometimes the 85 in the bridge position. Should I try the 57/66? Perhaps the Retroactives?

    Thanks for reading.
    Why not have one guitar with the EMGs which you would use for recording only, and another guitar with your preferred passive pups that you use for jamming/playing live?
    Quote Originally Posted by GuitarDoc View Post
    Good diagram Shadowfire90, but it isn't what the OP wants.

  4. #4
    Ultimate Tone Slacker Rex_Rocker's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by BeKindRewind View Post
    Long story short ? EMG's are really cool but I feel like I can't sound like "me" with them, so passives have won the battle after many years of back and forth. I too am curious though about newer offerings.. X series, 57/66, even the Marty Friedman set, but I think I'm just gonna stick with what I know works for me, good ole SD passives.

    Sent from my SM-G965W using Tapatalk
    That's the thing for me: I feel like, recorded, I only really sound like >me< through EMG's. Yeah, passives have their own thing going on which is cool, and it's cool to reach out for every once in a while, but I feel like my tone is EMG's, really. Like I said, I go back and forth between the 85 and the 81 (mostly 81, though). I guess what I should really do is keep at least one guitar equipped with EMG's around for whenever the mood strickes.

    BTW, you aren't missing much with the X series. To me, they're not all that different from the standards. Have you tried the standards at 18V? The X series sound exactly like that (more headroom which means slightly more dinamics and very very slightly more lows and highs) with the output knocked down a tad. Nothing more.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jack_TriPpEr View Post
    Why not have one guitar with the EMGs which you would use for recording only, and another guitar with your preferred passive pups that you use for jamming/playing live?
    I actually do! I have three guitars right now one with the 81/60 combo, one with the 85(b)/81(n) combo, and one with the Duncan Distortion/'59 combo. I really want to swap all neck pickups, though, lol. I feel like my thing is more the 85 in the active guitars, and something fatter and hotter in the passive guitar.

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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Really cool thread. I'm not an EMG guy at all, so I don't have the back and forth feeling both of you described, but it's fascinating to hear your thoughts on how your relationship to EMGs has waxed and waned over the years.

  6. #6
    Ultimate Tone Slacker Rex_Rocker's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    I think it's also important to say that two other active pickups I've tried have been the Duncan AHB-1B standard bridge Blackout and the GFS RedActive.

    I didn't like the Blackout. Not that it was bad, but it was too far of a departure for my taste from the 81. It had more headroom, yes, and a nice extended top-end (which was cool, but still not passive-like, IMO), but it also had more of an 85-esque low-mid focus, as well as some very extended low-end, which translated into kinda loose flubby tone with my setup at the time. The output was very close to the 18V-modded Het bridge, which was a bit over-the-top for my taste too.

    The GFS RedActive was very nice. It was kinda like a crummy (in a good way) take on the active sound. Tight and focused but with some dirtiness in the high-end which could be very usable. And it's like 30 bucks.

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    Tone Member Blackie13's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Have you tried the Mick thompson Blackouts?

  8. #8
    Ultimate Tone Slacker Rex_Rocker's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by Blackie13 View Post
    Have you tried the Mick thompson Blackouts?
    Nope. I kinda want to.

    They seem to address what I didn't like about the AHB-1B here:

    Last edited by Rex_Rocker; 03-29-2020 at 02:42 PM.

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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    I'm just getting a JB/59 for one of my 2 guitars that has the 81/85 combo, the other one has the EMG Bone Breakers. I love the sound of them but I guess you need actives and passives in your live I've wasted hundred of hours in forums, Facebook groups and checking all kinds of demos, actives sound like actives, EMG has a very defined signature tone IMO. Other than the retroactive which sound awful IMO, they all have that EMG color. I was going to get the 57/66 because they are definitely more dynamic, then I thought about the 81X, but it doesn't matter how dynamic or less sterile they are, they won't sound like a Nazgul or a JB or a Distortion but that doesn't mean I don't like EMGs. I love Kirk Hammett's and Hetfield's tone, or Slayer's tone, I love EMG's but I happen to crave passives sometimes too.

    In my limited recording experience EMGs sound good, I guess the lack of compression may be a problem I'll have to deal with now that I will have passives.

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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    There's a wider abstract tone issue underlying this, I think.

    For recording, a dry, accurate-but-uncolored tone is often preferable: sort of a guitar equivalent to bassists recording with a direct box. The character of your sound is going to be manipulated & processed down the road, so the main goal is capturing it with maximum consistency/repeatability and a minimum of artifacts/anomalies. Pro session players tend to use tones that are precisely repeatable when needed; the expressiveness all comes from their playing.

    Playing live in a room, what's coming out of the speakers is what you get. There's no post EQ and parts can't be doubletracked for thickness. So we look for a bigger sound that has more individual personality - whether it be rich sweetness or in-your-face aggression - and generally more amp compression. (Perhaps one reason why many guitarists IMO dial up far too much gain at gigs.) We want the extra fullness, punch & sheen which in the studio would've been added later. And we rely entirely on our guitar/amp synergy for the sits-in-the-track dynamic that session engineers achieve using compressors.

    Onstage the wild & slightly unpredictable interactions between a guitar and an amp running hot are part of the thrill. For me at least, that not-entirely-under-control aspect adds a lot to the energy. In the studio, factors that are unexpected and not repeatable slow things down and sometimes wind up being a disadvantage. People have burned expensive studio time attempting to match tones from a previous session, or trying to recreate the elusive magic of a part that was inspired but too flawed to keep. Of course a bit of that is always going to happen in creative art. But when recording, the more consistent and basic you can keep things, the faster the work gets done.
    Last edited by eclecticsynergy; 03-29-2020 at 03:52 PM.
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Woah...




    ...I didn't know that EMG fans could write multi-paragraph responses.
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    I've always had the usual (85/81) in a stock MIJ Jackson just for that reason...HOWEVER, the 57/66 is the best I've come to a happy medium. I placed them in a donor and they are worth every penny! Jackson is hanging in my son's room and he uses it daily...but he askes permission for the "Black", lol!! I am a JB and DMZ SD nut!!!...but the 57/66 has helped in a lot of situations...live and recording.
    With that said, I'm waiting for another "donor" to get back and it has a Full Shred in it and it does the lower tunings better than any of the others...plus I have a Liberator installed and a box full of other "have to have" p/u's so I should be good for awhile.
    I for 1 don't listen to the EMGs are bland BS...if its good enough for the leading classic and current metal players AND my ears don't lie...I could get by with them no problem. I just know me, I'll keep collecting more...come to think of it, there's only 1 more EMG set that I want and that's the Het Set.
    (Keep in mind, metal is distorted bluegrass to me so I try to cover the spectrum) I don't doubt anyone's hate or love, its all in the ears I guess. And to throw another speed bump in the way...I just had a couple months with a custom Tele I had built...GFS pickups and it RIPS!!!! Now if I can figure out the steel, fiddle, and the digeridoo I'll be set!!!

    2 and 3 chords on an acoustic have already said what electrics have been trying to strive to anyways, so its up to you
    Last edited by Jigsisme; 03-29-2020 at 06:37 PM.
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Same feelings over here too. With 18 V they sound much better though. And then when I fryed a set by supplying reverse current to them, all I could find locally for a good price was a mint condition BoneBreaker set. Haven't looked back since then. They have less of what I didn't like in the 81/85, which results in an active set that has proportionally more things to like. I still prefer my passive pickups though, but I totally agree that it is way less PITA to find the guitars place in a mix or band situation with EMGs. Jamming alone? The 81 made my ears bleed...

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    Toneologist freefrog's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    An important difference between an EMG81 and a passive pickup seems to be something that I've just recalled on another thread:

    The EMG81 is designed to sound like a passive humbucker would do... once wired in series with a capacitor.

    Conversely, increasing the capacitance of C1 and C2 input caps in a EMG would make it sound a lot more like a passive pickup.

    Link: https://www.electrosmash.com/emg81

    FWIW. :-)
    Duncan user since the 80's...

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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    I have certainly avoided active pickups for the most part. I have no experience with the EMG 81. With that said, I have friends that love the pre 2000s version of the 81 and claim they sound "way better-more clarity and dynamics". I had a 57/66 set in an E-II Eclipse that i thought sounded decent for certain types of metal however, I never really gelled with the crazy honky midrange. I swapped them out for an Duncan Alpha/Omega set and very happy with that result.

    I find EMG's 81/85's are only good for one thing.....THRASH METAL! I LOVE thrash metal but i want more dynamics and decent clean tones, which these pickups seem to not do well. They can chug for days but otherwise nothing much there IMO.
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by freefrog View Post
    An important difference between an EMG81 and a passive pickup seems to be something that I've just recalled on another thread:

    The EMG81 is designed to sound like a passive humbucker would do... once wired in series with a capacitor.

    Conversely, increasing the capacitance of C1 and C2 input caps in a EMG would make it sound a lot more like a passive pickup.

    Link: https://www.electrosmash.com/emg81

    FWIW. :-)
    And does one go about such a mod? I mean, the whole thing is embedded in some epoxy-like stuff, you can't realy tweak the insides of an EMG, can you?

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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by nexion218 View Post
    And does one go about such a mod? I mean, the whole thing is embedded in some epoxy-like stuff, you can't realy tweak the insides of an EMG, can you?
    Reason why I've used the word "would". :-)

    Now, for anyone who would search the missing link between EMG's and passive PU's, there's another potential solution than destroying an impossible to mod epoxied EMG. This DIY solution is "embedded" in the link that I've provided: it's in the section 5.

    FWIW. :-)
    Duncan user since the 80's...

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    Ultimate Tone Slacker Rex_Rocker's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    I have tried the 18V mod, but I didn't find it made the EMG's radically different. I actually made one of those little 24V packs that run on two 12V batteries. Yes, it adds a little bit of low and high-end and dynamics, but not nearly enough to make EMG's passive-sounding at all. TBH, I kinda like them a 9V a bit better.

  19. #19
    Ultimate Tone Member BeKindRewind's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by Rex_Rocker View Post
    That's the thing for me: I feel like, recorded, I only really sound like >me< through EMG's. Yeah, passives have their own thing going on which is cool, and it's cool to reach out for every once in a while, but I feel like my tone is EMG's, really. Like I said, I go back and forth between the 85 and the 81 (mostly 81, though). I guess what I should really do is keep at least one guitar equipped with EMG's around for whenever the mood strickes.

    BTW, you aren't missing much with the X series. To me, they're not all that different from the standards. Have you tried the standards at 18V? The X series sound exactly like that (more headroom which means slightly more dinamics and very very slightly more lows and highs) with the output knocked down a tad. Nothing more.
    Cool - sounds to me like you've subconciously made your mind up then. EMG's respond to your fingers in a way that works for you, and that's probably never going to change. The best suggestion I can make is that if you have the capitol, keep a couple guitars with passives laying around for situations where you feel like you need them (even if you're bored of your "main" tone for a while). That's basically why I keep my EMG guys around right now - when I'm bored of grinding on my own stuff, and I wanna roleplay as Hetfield for a while or something.

    i've never tried the 18V mod, but I could probably rig it up easily enough in one of my monsters. - From the clips I heard, it didn't really sound different enough to make me wanna do it. Just kinda seems to make them sound less focused and less like EMG's.

  20. #20
    Ultimate Tone Slacker Rex_Rocker's Avatar
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    Default Re: My struggle with EMG pickups... does anyone feel the same?

    Quote Originally Posted by BeKindRewind View Post
    i've never tried the 18V mod, but I could probably rig it up easily enough in one of my monsters. - From the clips I heard, it didn't really sound different enough to make me wanna do it. Just kinda seems to make them sound less focused and less like EMG's.
    Pretty much. Yep.

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