Guitarists who want to improve their sound often look for new and better pickups.
EMG pickups are a popular brand of active guitar pickups that have long been known for their superior sound quality.
The most popular EMG pickups are active pickups, meaning that they require a battery to power them and produce their signature tone.
In fact, the David Gilmour DG20 pickups are some of the bestselling pickups from EMG, and are designed to recreate the iconic tone of the legendary Pink Floyd guitarist.
But the brand also produces the EMG-HZ passive pickups series. These passive pickups are great quality, and provide a wider range of tones than active pickups do.
Many guitarists opt for a combination of EMG active and passive pickups, as this gives them the best of both worlds.
For example, they can use an EMG-81 active pickup in the bridge position and an EMG-85 in the neck position for a great dual humbucker sound.
The EMG pickups have become legendary among guitarists and have been used by some of the most famous guitarists in the world.
What are EMG pickups?
EMG Pickups are one of the most popular pickups used by professional guitarists around the world.
In fact, this brand is best known for its active pickups. EMG developed active pickups in the 80s and they’re still becoming more and more popular.
EMG Pickups feature a unique design that utilizes alnico magnets and active circuitry to provide players with a wide range of tonal options.
Most passive pickups have a lot more wire coils than the products made by EMG.
This means that their natural output is very low, which makes them sound much quieter and almost noiseless.
Most active pickups, on the other hand, need a built-in preamp to boost their signal to a level where it can be used.
The EMG active pickups are powered by a 9-Volt battery, allowing for higher output and enhanced clarity.
EMG pickups are found on a wide range of guitars, from classic Fender Strats and Teles to modern metal shredders.
They are renowned for their clarity, dynamic range and expressive tone.
Also, many guitarists prefer the EMG pickups over ones by brands like Fender because the EMGs don’t buzz and hum nearly as much.
Since most active pickups don’t have as many wraps of wire around each of the magnets, the magnetic pull on the guitar strings is weaker.
Even though this sounds like a bad thing, it actually makes it easier for the strings to vibrate, which leads to better sustain.
Some people also say that guitars with active pickups will have better intonation for the same reason.
When selecting a pickup combination for an electric guitar, EMG Pickups offer a plethora of options.
Both single-coil and humbucker pickups are available in a variety of styles, from the warm and punchy vintage classic FAT55 (PAF) to the focused and tight modern metal sound.
EMG also offers active pickups for both positions (bridge & neck), allowing you to customize your setup even further.
Are all EMG pickups active?
Most people are familiar with the active EMG pickups.
However, no, not every EMG pickup is active.
EMG is well known for their active pickups, but the brand also manufactures passive pickups like the EMG-HZ series.
The EMG-HZ series is their passive pickup line, which does not require a battery to power them.
The HZ pickups are available in humbucker and single-coil configurations, allowing you to get the same great EMG tone without the need for a battery.
These include SRO-OC1’s and SC Sets.
There is a special X series which is designed for a more traditional and passive sound.
P90 pickups are also available in both active and passive varieties, allowing you to get the classic P90 tone without the need for a battery.
Checking for a battery compartment is the quickest way to determine if a pickup is active or passive.
What does EMG stand for pickups?
EMG stands for Electro-Magnetic generator. EMG Pickups are one of the most popular pickups used by professional guitarists around the world.
EMG is now the official name for this brand that makes pickups and associated hardware.
What makes EMG pickups special?
Basically, EMG pickups provide more output and gain. They’re also known for better string clarity and a tighter response.
The active circuitry in EMG pickups helps to reduce noise and interference, making them great for heavy metal and other genres like hard rock.
The pickups themselves are made from high-quality components, including ceramic and/or alnico magnets.
This helps to provide a wide range of tones and makes them perfect for a variety of styles.
Generally, these pickups are high-quality and although they’re pricier than many other brands, they provide better sound quality and performance.
Overall, EMG pickups provide players with more versatility and clarity than traditional passive pickups.
They are also known for their long-lasting durability and reliability, making them a great choice for gigging musicians who need to rely on their equipment.
EMG pickup magnets: Alnico vs ceramic
Alnico and ceramic are the two types of magnets found in EMG pickups.
Ceramic pickups have a very high output and more treble than alnico pickups, which makes them sound brighter and clearer. This makes them great for metal, hard rock, and punk genres.
So the ceramic pickup provides high output and a crisp tone.
Alnico stands for al-aluminum, ni-nickel, and co-cobalt. These are the materials used to make them.
Guitarists describe them as providing a clear tone and they’re more musical.
Alnico II magnets have a warmer sound, while alnico V magnets have more bass and treble and a higher output.
The Alnico pickups are great for blues, jazz, and classic rock. They provide warmer tones and a low output.
What are EMG pickups best for?
Many guitarists around the world use EMG pickups. But, EMG pickups are commonly used for heavy musical genres like hard rock and heavy metal.
The reason why EMG pickups are so popular for these genres is because they offer a wide range of tones, from crisp and clear cleans to aggressive and powerful distortion.
Compared to passive pickups, the EMG active pickups offer more output and gain which is what rockers and metalheads need to get the sound they are looking for.
EMG pickups are also known for their clarity, dynamic range and expressive tone, making them great for solos.
The pickups are also known for excellent clarity and definition, especially at high gain and their thickness and punch really delivers the sound professional guitar players want.
History of EMG pickups
Rob Turner established the business in 1976 in Long Beach, California.
It was previously known as Dirtywork Studios, and the EMG H and EMG HA variants of its initial pickup are still produced today.
Soon after, the EMG 58 active humbucking pickup appeared. For a short while, the name Overlend was used until EMG became the permanent name.
EMG pickups were equipped on Steinberger guitars and basses in 1981 and that’s when they became popular.
The Steinberger guitars gained fame amongst metal and rock musicians due to their light weight and the EMG pickups that provided more output and gain than traditional guitars.
Since then, EMG has released various pickups for electric and acoustic guitars as well as basses.
What are the different options and how do they differ in sound?
EMG offers different pickup lines for electric guitars, all of which offer something unique.
Each pickup makes a different sound, and most are made to be installed either on the bridge or the neck position.
Some pickups sound good in both positions and have a more balanced tone.
Even pickups that are usually for the neck or bridge can work in the other position if you want to try something new.
There are 11 types of active humbuckers available. These are:
- Fat 55
- Hot 70
- Super 77
Here’s a quick summary of the most popular EMG pickups:
The EMG 81 is an active humbucker that features a ceramic magnet and is ideal for aggressive styles like metal, hardcore, and punk.
It has higher output levels compared to other pickups and delivers a tight low end with punchy mids.
The dark grey humbucker form-factor and silver embossed EMG logo of the EMG 81 make it easy to identify.
The EMG 85 is an active humbucker that uses a combination of alnico and ceramic magnets for a brighter sound.
It’s a great choice for rock, funk, and blues music.
The EMG 60 is an active single-coil pickup that incorporates a split design which allows it to be used in humbucking configurations.
It provides a bright, articulate tone with plenty of attack and clarity.
The EMG 89 is an active humbucker with a slightly different design, which features two coils that are offset relative to each other.
The pickup has a smoother, warmer tone and sounds great for jazz and clean tones.
The EMG SA single-coil pickup features an alnico magnet and is great for all styles of music. It offers warm and punchy tones, with a smooth top end and lots of mids.
The EMG SJ single-coil pickup is the brighter cousin to the SA, utilizing a ceramic magnet to deliver clearer highs and tighter lows.
This makes it great for funk, country, or rockabilly players.
The EMG HZ line of pickups are the passive counterparts to their active cousins. They still offer all of the same great tones, but without requiring a battery for power.
No matter what style of music you play or sound you’re looking for, EMG Pickups have something that will suit your needs.
Best EMG pickups & combinations
In this section, I’m sharing the best and most popular EMG pickup combinations and why musicians and guitar manufacturers like to use them.
The EMG 57, EMG 81, and EMG 89 are the three EMG humbuckers most often used in the bridge position.
The EMG 60, EMG 66, and EMG 85 are the active humbuckers which are often used in the neck position.
It all comes down to personal preference of course, but here are some combinations that sound great:
EMG 81/85: most popular combo for metal and hard rock
One of the most popular metal and hard rock bridge and pickup combos is the EMG 81/85 set.
This pickup configuration was popularized by Zakk Wylde.
The EMG 81 is typically used in the bridge position as a lead pickup and combined with EMG’s 85 in the neck position as a rhythm pickup.
The 81 is considered a ‘lead pickup’ because it contains a rail magnet. This means it has a high output as well as smoother control compared to other brands.
The rail magnet is a special component which provides a smoother sound during string bends because there’s a rail running through the pickup.
Usually, an electric guitar pickup has polepieces instead or rails (check out Seymour Duncan).
With a polepiece, the strings lose signal strength when a string bends in a direction away from this polepiece. So, the rail in the humbucker designed by EMG solves this problem.
The 81 has a more aggressive sound while the 85 adds brightness and clarity to the tone.
These pickups are known for their unique sound.
Their active setup gives metal players an added boost of signal power, and their smooth control at higher levels is better than most standard pickup models.
This means you’ll have better control over the high gain and less feedback when you turn it up to 11.
With its high output, focused mids, consistent tone, tight attack and distinct clarity even under heavy distortion, the EMG 81 is a classic favorite among heavy metal guitar players.
These pickups are so popular that well-known guitar makers like ESP, Schecter, Dean, Epiphone, B.C. Rich, Jackson, and Paul Reed Smith put them in some of their models by default.
EMG 81/60: excellent for distorted sound
The EC-1000 electric guitar is known as one of the best guitars for heavier musical genres like metal and hard rock.
The 81/60 pickup combination is the EC-1000 dream combo for heavy metal guitarists.
The EMG81/60 combination is the classic combination of an active humbucker and a single-coil pickup.
It’s great for distorted sound, but also versatile enough to handle clean tones. With this pickup combo you can play hard riffs (think Metallica).
The 81 is an aggressive-sounding pickup with a rail magnet, and the 60 has a warmer tone and a ceramic magnet.
Together they create a great sound which is articulate and powerful when needed.
With these pickups, you get the best of both worlds—a violent cutting tone with plenty of distortion, and at lower volumes or with crunchier distortions, gorgeous string clarity and separation.
This combination of pickups can be found on guitars from ESP, Schecter, Ibanez, G&L and PRS.
The EC-1000 is a heavy metal machine, and its EMG 81/60 combination is the perfect partner for it.
It allows you to get powerful leads with clarity and articulation, while still having plenty of crunch when you want it.
This makes it a great choice for players who need their guitar to cover different styles of music.
EMG 57/60: excellent combo for classic rock
If you’re looking for a classic rock sound, then the EMG 57/60 combination is perfect. It offers warm and punchy tones with plenty of clarity and attack.
The 57 is a classic-sounding active humbucker, while the 60 adds articulation to your sound with its active single-coil.
The 57 has Alnico V magnets so you get powerful PAF-type tone, a defined sound that delivers punch.
The 57/60 combination is one of the most popular pickup combinations and has been used by many famous guitarists such as Slash, Mark Knopfler, and Joe Perry.
This pickup set offers a subtle, warm tone yet it’s still powerful enough for rocking out!
EMG 57/66: best for vintage sound
This 57/66 pickup configuration offers a passive and classic vintage sound.
The 57 is an Alnico-powered humbucker that produces a thick and warm sound, while the 66 has ceramic magnets for brighter tones.
This combo is known for squishy compression and tight low-end rolloff. It’s excellent for lead playing but can also handle rhythm parts.
The 57/66 makes the perfect choice for players who are looking for classic vintage tones.
EMG 81/89: all-round versatile pickup for all genres
The EMG 89 is a versatile pickup that works well with a variety of musical styles.
It’s an active humbucker, so you’ll get plenty of power, and its dual-coil offset design helps give it a smoother, warmer tone.
This makes it great for everything from blues and jazz to rock and metal. It also eliminates 60-cycle hum, so you don’t have to worry about unwanted noise when playing live.
One of the reasons players love the EMG 89 is that this single-coil pickup gives a classic Stratocaster sound.
So, if you’re into Strats, adding an EMG 89 provides an airy, chimey, yet bright sound.
Combine the 89 with the EMG 81 which is one of the most popular pickups of all time, and you have a combination that will let you play any genre with ease.
This is an excellent all-round pickup for any guitarist who needs versatility. The 81/89 will give you the perfect mix of power and clarity.
How do EMG pickups differ from other popular brands
EMG pickups are usually compared to the ones by brands like Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio.
The main difference between EMG pickups and other brands like Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio is the wiring.
EMG uses a proprietary preamp system which amplifies the pickup’s output, making it louder than standard passive pickups.
Although Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio and other manufacture active pickups, their range isn’t as extensive as EMGs.
EMG is the go-to brand for active pickups whereas Seymour Duncan, Fender and DiMarzio make better passive pickups.
There’s an advantage to having EMGs active humbuckers: itallows for a wider range of tonal possibilities including clearer highs and stronger lows, as well as more output.
Also, EMG pickups produce a very clean and consistent tone due to their low impedance which is great for lead playing that requires clarity.
Passive pickups usually have a more organic feel and sound than active pickups do, as well as a wider range of tonal possibilities.
EMG uses two types of magnets in their pickups: alnico & ceramic.
Overall EMG pickups are better for heavier genres like metal and rock, where clarity and aggression are needed in the signal.
Now let’s compare EMG with some of the other most popular pickups manufacturers!
EMG vs Seymour Duncan
Compared to EMG pickups, which sound more contemporary, Seymour Duncan pickups offer a more vintage tone.
While EMG specializes primarily in active pickups and produces fewer passive alternatives, Seymour Duncan produces a wide variety of passive pickups and a small selection of active pickups.
Another difference between the two companies is in their pickup construction.
EMG uses preamps with ceramic magnets, while Seymour Duncan pickups use Alnico and sometimes Ceramic magnets.
The main difference between Seymour Duncan and EMG is the sound.
While EMG pickups offer a modern, aggressive tone that is perfect for metal and hard rock, Seymour Duncan pickups offer a warmer vintage tone that is better suited for jazz, blues and classic rock.
EMG vs DiMarzio
DiMarzio is known for its well-built solid pickups. While EMG focuses primarily on active pickups, DiMarzio offers a wide variety of both passive and active pickups.
If you’re looking for extra grit, DiMarzio pickups are the better choice. DiMarzio pickups use Alnico magnets and often feature dual coil designs.
For sound, DiMarzio tends to have a more vintage tone compared to EMG’s modern sound.
The Super Distortion line of pickups from DiMarzio is without a doubt their most popular.
As their name implies, these pickups heat the guitar’s signal, producing a lot of warm breakups and extremely aggressive tones if used with something like a tube amplifier.
The DiMarzio pickups are preferred by many rock n’ roll and metal musicians over EMG’s, due to their more vintage and classic sounding tone.
EMG vs Fishman
Fishman is another popular pickup company that produces both active and passive pickups.
Fishman pickups use Alnico magnets for their tones and are designed to produce an organic sound.
Compared to EMG pickups, Fishman Fluence pickups typically provide a bit of a crisper, clearer tone.
Compared to Fluence pickups, EMG pickups provide a somewhat warmer tone with more bass but less treble and mid-range.
This makes EMG pickups excellent for rhythm guitar and Fishman Fluence pickups excellent for lead playing.
Fishman pickups are known to be noise-free so they’re an excellent choice if you use high-gain amps.
Bands and guitarists who use EMG pickups
You might ask ‘who uses EMG pickups?’
Most hard rock and metal artists like to equip their guitars with EMG active pickups.
Here’s a list of some of the world’s most famous musicians who use or used these pickups:
- David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
- Judas Priest
- Zakk Wylde
- Vince Gill
- Kyle Sokol
In conclusion, EMG pickups are best suited for hard rock and metal genres. They offer a modern sound with lots of clarity, aggression and punch.
The brand is most famous for their active pickups, which feature ceramic magnets and help reduce noise. They also offer a few lines of passive pickups as well.
Many of the world’s best guitarists like to use a combination of EMG pickups like the 81/85 because of the sound they provide.
When looking for pickups to help you achieve an aggressive sound, EMG pickups are definitely worth checking out.
I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.
Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:Subscribe