I think you will agree when I say that EMG pickups cause lots of debate and discussion amongst guitar players, mainly on the plentiful guitar forums and YouTube.
The foundation of the debate is “What are EMG pickups good for besides metal? Can they play other genres such as rock, blues, and jazz? Or are they just ‘one-trick ponies?’
In this post, I will give you my opinion to what genres are best for active EMG pickups, helping you decide whether they are the right choice for your ideal sound and playing.
So, to offer you my short answer, it would go like this…
The Quick Answer
EMG pickups are best for heavy genres such as metal and hard rock. The reason is EMG ‘active’ pickups provide more output and gain than passive pickups. They are also thick and offer great string clarity and definition at high gain, hence, why they are notably popular with metal guitar players.
But what about EMG pickups with softer genres such as rock, blues, and jazz? We will get to that later.
But first, let’s refresh ourselves with the pros and cons of active EMG pickups and what makes them popular with metal players.
Pros of Active EMG pickups
- Produce more output and gain for distorted rock and metal tones
- Will push the tubes of a valve amp
- Need less external gain from amp and pedals for distortion
- Clarity and note definition at high gain
- Cancel hum and noise effectively
- Virtually silent
- Good bass response and bottom-end for thick heavy tones
For these reasons above, EMG pickups have cemented themselves as the mainstream choice with metal and heavy rock players since they were introduced in the 1980s.
Some of the most iconic metal albums recorded from the past 20 years were likely recorded with guitars loaded with active EMGs.
But like every pickup, they do have their cons…
Cons of Active EMG Pickups
- Sound sterile
- People claim they are only good for distorted and saturated tones
- Do not offer warm and dynamic clean tones
- Average crunch tones
- They don’t ‘clean up’ upon rolling the volume knob back for crunch tones.
- Only offer a quieter volume when you roll back the volume knob instead of ‘cleaning up’ like passive pickups
- Not the most versatile pickup compared to passive pickups
Other Things To Know
- Contain an active ‘pre-amp’ housed in the pickup
- Need a 9V battery to run the internal ‘preamp’ through a battery cavity
- Compressed sound
- Slightly dark tone
- Produce more output and a hotter signal to the amp
- A 9V battery low on juice will make your guitar sound terrible
So we know that EMGs are the pickup for the metal and heavy rock players? But what about other genres? Let’s get into it…
Are EMG Pickups Good for Rock?
Although most popular with metal guitar players, EMG can certainly be a good choice for rock and hard rock genres.
EMGs can do well in the rock category as they are designed for distorted guitar tones ideal for dirty rock rhythm and mid-gain solos for a sweet rock lead tone.
EMG pickups also have a flat frequency response and are excellent at taming feedback and hum.
You won’t need as much gain as a typical metal player, but most active EMG pickups are great for rock. However, it all comes down to taste and personal preference.
In addition, these pickups do a good job of keeping a signal chain loaded with gain and noisy pedals virtually silent, which is useful when playing live to keep the one stage hum and buzz inaudible.
Best EMG Pickups for Rock
First, I have to mention that the best EMG pickups for rock guitar are the ones that sound best to your ears and suit your ideal tone.
First, you will have to decide what camp you are. Active or Passive EMG pickups each have their differences in tone and have their pros and cons.
Best EMG Active Pickups for Rock
Each of these pickups is a ‘hot-rodded’ high output open-coil humbuckers voiced as a classic-sounding pickup of the 70s ideal for mid and heavy rock tones but with more balls and output.
They clean up nicely for clean and crunch tones but also have the extra gain and responsiveness when you load them up with distortion, and also retaining clarity whilst being virtually silent.
They are essentially hot-rodded humbuckers with more balls and grit and with a wider spectrum of frequencies.
The classic EMG 81/85 is also another choice, although they do not offer as much when it comes to clean and crunch tones. However, they do excel at high gain metal sounds and hard rock tones.
Best EMG Passive Pickups for Rock
Some good choices passive EMG pickups for playing rock would be the EMG H1, H2, H3, etc. passive pickups, which are super versatile in sounds and produce some great classic tones that are a nod the 60s and 70s.
They are are not super high output monster like the 81/85 active choices.
Another thing to note is that passive pickups do a better job at ‘cleaning the tone’.
When rolling back the volume knob for classic rock crunch and clean tones, EMG pickups can certainly be suited for rock guitar players as they can produce a great dirty tone with clarity and can be versatile enough for rock guitar players.
Guitar, amp, and pedal choice will also come into play but also how you EQ your amp will play a large part in your overall tone.
Pickup choice hinges on personal preference and is highly dependent on the player’s tastes and tones you want to create.
Are EMG Pickups Good or Blues?
This is an interesting question. Although it is slightly subjective on what counts as a good pickup for blues.
To answer this question, I would say active EMG humbucker pickups are versatile enough for playing blues, although Seymore Duncan passive pickups have been historically preferred over the years.
That’s not to say that EMG pickups can not do blues altogether, as you will find many examples of guitar players on YouTube playing with good blues tones with active EMGs installed…..
Great EMG Blues Tone…(Watch Video Below!)
Likewise, EMG pickups are a popular choice for lead orientated Stratocaster players in the single-coil form of course.
Famously, David Gilmore uses Active EMG pickups in his Stratocasters for more presence, clarity and less twang for his soulful and powerful lead tones.
EMG Blues Lead Tones
Where EMGs excel at are lead tones, as they have a lot of presence, crispness, and clarity.
Therefore, you can dial in a good blues lead tone depending on your amp and how good you are at EQ.
Keep in mind, however, that if you want the full palette of blues tones, such as rich cleans and warm crunch, and the ability to ‘clean up’ the tone using the volume knob, adding more flexibility and feel.
EMG pickups may not offer the full spectrum of potential blues tones that passive humbuckers or single coils can offer. They do lack some tonal traits that some players would want available from their guitar.
For example, EMG active pickups do not offer lush spanking cleans or great warm crunch tones and sound stale in this department in my personal opinion, hence, why passive humbuckers and single-coils are usually preferred by the majority of blues guitarists.
Are Emg Pickups Good for Jazz?
Typically, the answer to this question is no!
There are a few good reasons why jazz players do not usually choose EMG pickups for playing any type of jazz guitar.
The reason is active EMG pickups are not the best for warm, clean, and dynamic tones, which is a guitar tone most jazz players would typically desire.
The usual complaint with EMG pickups is they sound ‘sterile’ and ‘stale’ compared to passive humbuckers. But what does the term a ‘sterile’ guitar sound mean?
It essentially means a clean sound that lacks a wide frequency spectrum with warmth and character.
Jazz players love bassy, lush, and dark mellow tones, which is what a regular passive humbucker can usually deliver—obviously, guitar, amplifier, and EQ choice will also come into play.
Why EMG Pickups are not Suited for Jazz
Guitar tone is subjective and comes down to choice, but, typically, EMG pickups are not common for playing jazz, as jazz players love warm, clean, and dynamic tones, which is something active EMG pickups do not deliver.
EMG pickups are high output and excel when loaded with distortion for a focused, boosted presence and keeping hum and buzz to nothing.
For metal and hard rock, EMG pickups are a great choice usually found installed in the ‘Superstrat’ heavy metal guitars.
You will never find an active EMG pickup in a large hollow body guitar, although jazz players have experimented with different pickup combinations in the past.
Active EMGs simply do not offer a thick, warm clean tone with dynamics and a wide frequency spectrum compared to passive humbuckers.
Are EMG pickups active or passive?
EMG is a pickup brand that sells both active and passive pickups for your guitar, depending on the players choice. EMG is most famous for their active pickups being the iconic 81/85 but do offer a selection of passive pickups
Do EMG active pickups work without batteries?
The pickups will work and pickup the signal. However, the signal will be weak as the battery powers the active pre-amp housed in the chassis. The pickup will not be active and have much less gain and output than usual.
Thanks for Reading
Before you go… are you unsure what humbucker type is best for playing metal?
Then you need to read my post ‘Active vs Passive Pickups for Metal.’ This guide will give you the pros and cons to both active and passive pickups when it comes to playing in the heavy genres.