Active pickups used to be the only thing that guitarists would use, especially in the metal music genres. Today is a different story.
Although EMGs aren’t necessarily bad, you’ll find fewer people wanting to include the pickups with their playing style.
What makes it even more confusing is that the loudest complainers about EMG pickup quality often send their sounds through multiple noise gates and compressors with passives instead.
The outcome results in a sound that is almost the same as what EMGs once produced.
That means your preference for EMGs or something else is what should drive your guitar setup and playing style.
Are EMGs Bad?
EMG pickups are considered active because they provide more gain and output than their passive counterparts. That makes them thicker, providing more definition and clarity with high gain music genres like heavy metal.
EMG pickups are named after the company that produces them. The organization provides several guitar accessories, including humbuckers, EMG-HZ passives, and the active versions that tend to be called “bad.”
Rob Turner founded EMG Pickups in 1976 in Long Beach, CA. The company was initially called Dirtywork Studios.
The brand’s first pickup released to the market was the same as the 2011 model of the EMG H and HA models. Their first humbucker was released soon after.
Although the company’s name changed a few times over the years, the product has always been called an EMG pickup.
The active version became standard equipment on Steinberger instruments in 1981. Since those guitars were popular in the heavy metal and metal rock genres, EMGs became an influential modern music component.
You can find EMG pickups on Ibanez, Gibson, BC Rich, Dean, and Shecter guitars today – along with many other brands.
Musicians That Have Recorded with EMG Pickups
Although you’ll hear a lot of chatter today about why EMG pickups are bad, history tells us a different story.
Numerous musicians in several genres have used the maligned active pickups to record hit songs and records.
The list of artists who have ever used EMG products is too long to publish, but you can find some notable names that have or continue to use this product.
- Vince Gill
- Judas Priest
- David Gilmour
- Steve Winwood
- Steve Lukather
You can use active EMG pickups for bass guitar or electric models.
It is a fact that you would need to compress the sounds from EMG pickups for some genres because of the tones the active version creates. That’s why you primarily see it used for heavy metal or hard rock.
The design may require some extra creativity to be used for jazz, country, pop, or blues, but that doesn’t mean it is an impossible task!
When you need string clarity, high gain definition, and more power behind the sustain, the thicker EMG pickups deliver the results you want.
Pros and Cons of Using Active EMG Pickups
The active EMG pickups contain a preamp on the product. That makes it a useful tool for musicians who want to run their instrument directly through the primary amp. You’ll need a 9V battery to run the internal mechanism correctly.
When you have the active pickups and preamp working, you’ll receive a compressed sound with darker tones. It produces more output to manage at the stage while delivering a hotter signal.
You can tell when the preamp battery starts running out because the tone from your guitar will degrade rapidly. If you were to hear someone playing at that time, you’d likely think that EMGs are bad!
If you’re thinking about using active EMGs for your guitar, here are the pros and cons you’ll want to review before finalizing your decision.
|List of the Pros of Active EMGs||List of the Cons of Active EMGs|
|– Players achieve for gain and output for metal tones and distorted rock rhythms with active EMGs.|
– It pushes the tubes of the valve amp to deliver crisp notes with powerful definition.
– You don’t need as much external gain with this technology from your pedals or amp to achieve a distorted effect.
– It still offers note definition and clarity with high gain.
– Guitarists can control noise and hum more efficiently to guide the sounds into their composition.
– When the settings are correct, the EMGs are virtually silent.
– It delivers an excellent bass response with the lower end of the frequency spectrum.
|– The sounds coming from active EMGs can be somewhat sterile, especially without the preamp benefits.|
– Saturated or distorted tones might sound great, but it doesn’t work as well for something more classical.
– You don’t get dynamic or warm sounds coming from the guitar in any circumstance.
– The crunch and sludge produced are somewhat average on mid-range guitars.
– You must roll back the volume knob to clean up the sound or make it quieter.
– There isn’t as much versatility available when active EMGs are compared to their passive counterparts.
It is essential to remember that EMG Pickups produce more than actives. You can get humbuckers and passives from this brand, but that information tends to get lost during the discussion of the active pros and cons.
When people say that EMGs are bad, they’re typically referring to the active pickups only.
Debunking the Myths that Surround EMGs
Active pickups aren’t as popular today as they used to be, but it really doesn’t matter what other people think. When you pick up a guitar to play, you need to work with what meets your expectations and style.
If that means you use EMGs, then do so. You might lose a few audiophiles when they see your equipment specs, but they’re not listening to your creative energy anyway if that happens.
When you start researching active EMGs only to evaluate this technology’s advantages and disadvantages, you’ll find a few misconceptions getting discussed as fact on several forums. It’s time to drain the swamp by debunking those myths.
Myth #1: All EMG guitars sound alike.
Since perception is in the ear of the beholder, this myth is the only one that might hold some truth for some critics.
All active pickups provide a specific “flavor” to a guitar’s tone so that it might sound similar to other instruments for people with sensitive hearing at a particular frequency.
It would be better to compare the results to a mother making macaroni and cheese for two kids.
The first child loves the cheese sauce that comes right out of the box. Mom adds a little butter and milk, stirs it up, and that food gets gobbled right up.
The second child looks at that and says, “I don’t want to eat anything artificial.”
Mom makes some pasta from scratch using flour, eggs, and olive oil. After flattening out and tubing the macaroni, she quickly blanches it while creating a cheddar and queso sauce.
Since the color is a little off, a couple of turmeric shakes create the appealing yellow tones.
The second child loves the result and gobbles it right up.
When Mom eats both macaroni and cheese varieties to test the flavors, they both seem the same. We know that they’re different because she made one from scratch, but is it really better?
This myth’s reality is that the people who don’t like EMGs much tend to play terribly on them. It feels artificial, so they want something more natural.
Myth #2: Active EMG pickups lack high gain definition.
You’ll see lots of people complaining online that EMGs sound muddy, dull, stale, or worse. Even a few four-letter words get added to those phrases on some forums!
With guitarists switching to passive pickups in droves, it might seem like there is some truth to this observation.
You’ll find that EMGs continue to have the punchy clarity needed for high gain notes and tones.
Almost all of the most popular heavy metal albums since 2000 have included EMGs, and you can find even more examples if you venture back to 1985.
There’s nothing wrong with passives. EMG even makes them! If you find someone offering criticism in absolutes, you’re listening to personal bias instead of an actual fact.
Myth #3: You can only use active EMGs for high gain sounds.
If you’re successful in a debate covering the first two myths in this guide, the default position that critics use to counter is this third one.
There is a little truth to this observation. Active EMGs don’t have as much flexibility as their passive counterparts.
It’s also not unusual for people to forget that EMG Pickups produce a wide range of options to use for the guitar. When everyone complains, it’s about the 81s or 85s instead of the other items.
Did you know that David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) uses EMG single coils?
We live in a world that prefers absolutes. You can get creative with the active EMGs and not sound terrible. You can also play heavy metal and have the composition come out like sludge if the preamp isn’t working as expected.
Active vs. Passive Pickups on Guitar
Choosing active or passing pickups for your guitar follows a quest that many players have taken on before you. Each option has a specific set of advantages worth considering when you’re ready to take your playing to the next level.
The table below offers a direct comparison of the benefits you can find with each style.
|Features of Using Active EMGs||Features of Using Passive EMGs|
|– You receive a high output with a low end and clear highs.|
– It offers a low magnetic pull that lets you get closer to the strings.
– The pickups generate a slightly better sustain.
– Players can achieve a winder tonal response.
– You have more methods of articulation to add variety to your composition.
– The overall playing experience is relatively quiet.
|– The high impedance often causes players to have their tone change when volume adjustments occur.|
– You don’t need to worry about your preamp battery dying in the middle of a performance.
– It’s a popular choice for all music genres.
– The pickups offer a touch-sensitive result that encourages more picking dynamics.
– The sounds are familiar to the average listener, representing classical techniques and styles.
– You can access an almost unlimited number of tonal options and outputs with this selection.
It should be noted that active pickups typically cost more than passive ones.
Should I Purchase Active EMGs for My Guitar?
The guitar is a personalized instrument. Everyone has a specific style, methodology, and preference in addressing the tone and sound that gets produced.
You won’t find many absolute right or wrong ideas when playing the guitar. If you want to include active EMGs with your style, you’ll be in some excellent company!
It is entirely possible to get clear tones, note variety, and sound variation when using active EMGs on almost any guitar.
Although the benefits are better on the high-end instruments, you shouldn’t be afraid to do some experimentation with this technology.
Some people prefer active pickups. Others prefer passive ones.
It’s okay to disagree!
If you’re trying to decide between an active or a passive pickup, that’s a different decision.
Since EMG makes both, why not try each one out to see what you like better?