If you’re curious about EMG pickups vs humbuckers, how they differ, and which might be better for you, this is the post for you!
What Are Humbuckers?
The invention of the guitar pickup changed the guitar game forever. But the earliest magnetic pickups were essentially single-coils. They were, more or less, the same way as they are today. It’s the standard stuff that you see on Stratocasters.
However, this design came with a flaw. A single-coil pickup essentially works as an antenna. It picks up electromagnetic interference. This results in unwanted noise which manifests as hum and buzz. Hum comes from power frequency currents and buzzing is due to various other sources. No matter how you shield it and change its design, a single-coil pickup will always have this issue.
The solution was to create a pickup with two coils. We also know double-coil pickups as humbuckers. These are two wire coils that are connected out of phase. In short, this design cancels out the noise. Or at least most of it.
Ray Butts had his first design and Gibson’s Seth Lover followed with the legendary P.A.F. concept. The latter one is way more common and you see it on almost all humbucker guitars today.
The tone of humbuckers is much different. There’s significantly less attack and there’s far less brightness in it. A lot of guitar players in the 1950s and the 1960s didn’t like it. However, it found its use in various genres, especially hard rock and heavy metal.
What Are EMG Pickups?
EMG is a pickup brand. The company started its work sometime in the mid-1970s with Rob Turner as the founder. This is one of the earliest businesses to start exploring the active pickup design.
To those not familiar with the concept, active pickups require additional power. This means that they need a power source, most commonly a 9-volt battery, in order to work. They usually have a more aggressive tone and a much hotter output.
For the most part, EMG makes active humbuckers. However, there are some passive pickups as well. Interestingly enough, they also have active single-coil sets. There’s even a signature David Gilmour Stratocaster set.
EMG Pickups Vs Humbuckers
At this point, you get the main difference here. If you have this particular question in mind, know that the question itself is flawed. EMG is a pickup brand. Humbuckers are one of two basic types of pickups.
EMG also predominantly manufacturers active humbuckers. So it would be kind of like asking about the difference between Fender and a solid-body guitar, right?
Regardless, I’ll focus on clearing things up as much as I can. What people associate EMG with is the active pickup concept. In reality, it’s just one of many brands that have such pickups. But it’s easily the most popular one.
Active or Passive: Which Is Better?
As I already mentioned, EMG manufactures humbuckers and predominantly active ones. And they’re the best-known ones for this particular pickup type. So what you’re probably wondering about is whether active or passive humbuckers are better.
Before I get into any further details, there’s no such thing as better or worse here. When it comes to guitars, there rarely ever is. It all mostly comes down to personal preferences and what works better for you.
Passive humbuckers are the most common type. They’re what you find on most guitars that are equipped with humbuckers. And this is the original old-school design with just some minor modifications to it.
Above all, they require no additional power in order for them to work. You just plug your guitar into an amplifier and you’re ready to rock. They are pretty much a combination of magnets and wire wrapped around them. Their magnetic field also magnetizes the strings. When the string vibrates, the pickup detects the vibration in the magnetic field and then translates it to an electrical signal.
Passive pickups don’t boost the tone. Sure, there are some with a higher output than others. But it’s not due to any component boosting the signal. There’s some electrical signal within the pickup when you plug your guitar into an amp. But it’s pretty weak.
The resulting tone of passive humbuckers is mellower and more controlled. I would call it creamy in some way, in contrast to the bright and crispy tone of single-coils. They usually allow some dynamic response, especially if they’re lower output. Of course, this is pronounced if you’re playing through a tube-driven amp or pedal.
I should also point out that the tone of passive humbuckers changes as you tweak the volume knob. It’s not a downside, it’s just their specific trait.
Active pickups require an additional power source. This is, in almost all cases, a 9-volt battery. And this also requires a specialized battery compartment on your guitar. Without this battery, you’d get no signal out of your guitar.
EMG active humbuckers come with a ceramic magnet. The tone is sharper than that of passive humbuckers. But, most importantly, you have a significant boost to the output.
In its essence, active pickups have the same passive design that I talked about in the previous section. The only noticeable difference here is that they come with fewer wire windings.
The initial signal is much weaker than with regular humbuckers. However, the powered circuitry boosts the signal. In the end, you get lower impedance and stronger output.
The resulting tone comes with pronounced high-ends compared to regular humbuckers. Additionally, it also has much tighter bottom-ends, so it’s not so creamy. There’s also more sustain in your resulting tone. What’s more, you can use much longer cables without changing your tone. This is due to the substantially lower impedance.
All of these features make them more articulate and consistent. You can lower the volume on your guitar and your tone won’t change.
How Do They Compare
A passive humbucker will have more dynamic response. Additionally, guitarists tend to call them more organic and natural. They are objectively more diverse since you can change their character with onboard controls.
On the other hand, active humbuckers can help you sound much heavier. Those high-gain modern metal tones all mostly come from active humbuckers. It’s that in-your-face kind of tone with more sustain and more compression.
There are practical differences as well. For instance, active pickups require more room in the electronics cavity. Their accompanying electronics are more complex and require a battery.
In my experience, passive humbuckers give you more tonal diversity and dynamic response. Additionally, they work incredibly well with tube-driven amps. Even low-output ones can help you dial in heavy high-gain tones.
EMG Pickups Vs Humbuckers: Conclusion
I hope this article has helped you evaluate which pickup is better for you!
And if you want to read more about pickups on this blog, check out the Seymour Duncan JB vs Distortion Pickups post!
Lastly, feel free to comment below if you have questions about this or another guitar-related topic!