Best EMG Guitar Pickups: Which EMGs Should You Get?


EMG make a huge range of pickups with active and passive technology in humbucker, P90 and single coil variants. Although having plenty of choice can be a great thing, it does make it difficult to choose the best pickup for your guitar. In this article, I’ll go through all the pickups in the EMG range, their tones, features and prices, so you can decide which one is right for you.

At a Glance

The most popular EMG pickups are active humbuckers with the EMG 81/ 85 combination being the best choice for modern metal. For more vintage style tones, EMG also make an active-retro series, in addition to single coil and P90 pickups which are best for lighter music styles such as pop, jazz and country.

  • Best EMGs for Modern Metal: EMG 81 and EMG 85
  • Best Active Pickups for Versatility: EMG 89
  • Best Active Humbuckers for Classic Rock: EMG 57 and EMG 60
  • Best Single Coils for Classic Rock: EMG SA
  • Best for Surf and Country: EMG Maverick Single Coils

This is just a snap shot at the range, and my top picks for each category. This article will take an in-depth look at the full EMG range of active and passive humbuckers, single coils and P90 pickups, so at the end of it, you’ll know exactly which ones to go for.

Deciding on the Type

Before we even look at the EMG range, you need to think about some things first:

  • Do you want active or passive pickups?
  • Are you looking for humbuckers, single coils or P90s?

You may already be clear on your answers, but if you’re not and you want a bit of help, then check out my ultimate guide to pickup types to take you through the pros and cons of each.

This article is split into following pickup types that EMG offer: active humbuckers, passive humbuckers, single coils, and P90s. So it’s worth being clear on the type you’re after to make your search a lot easier!

There are also some other more specific things you need to consider once you’ve decided on the type of pickup you want. The pickup tone varies quite significantly within each category, and you may find an active humbucker which sounds very heavy and aggressive, and another that sounds more balanced or has a lower output.

A big part of this is to do with the magnet material. EMG use two types of magnet: alnico and ceramic. There are also two main types of alnico, II and V. Here’s a quick guide to how they sound.

  • Alnico: these are made from aluminium, nickel and cobalt (hence the name al-ni-co). They sound warm and smooth, and are often described as “musical” which refers to their clear tone with good note separation. Alnico II magnets sound warmer, whilst alnico V magnets have a higher output with more bass and treble.
  • Ceramic: these have a very high output with more treble that alnico pickups, giving them a brighter and crisper tone.

Many pickups in the same model series may come with ceramic or alnico magnet variants, so it’s good to be clear on which end of the tonal spectrum you want to lean towards.

Now that we’ve been through the basics, I’ll go through the EMG ranges within each pickup type and identify the differences between the different models.

Active Humbuckers

Active humbucker type pickups are typically the kind of pickup most people associated with the brand EMG. That’s why it will come as no surprise that their range is absolutely huge, and can be confusing to navigate. The first thing to address, is the different numbers. There are 11 main EMG active humbucker types:

  • 57
  • 58
  • 60
  • 66
  • 81
  • 85
  • 89
  • Fat 55
  • Hot 70
  • Super 77
  • H

Each pickup produces a different tone, and most are designed to go in either the bridge or neck position. Some work great in both positions and have a more balanced tone, and even the pickups which are traditionally considered neck or bridge pickups, can work in the alterative position if you want to experiment.

As well as the different names, you can also get different variants of each pickup. For example, you can get an EMG 81, or an EMG 81X, or even an EMG 81TWX. Some models only have the standard number, and others may have several variants. Here’s what they mean.

  • A = alnico magnets
  • TW = dual-mode (humbucker and single coil tones using coil splitting)
  • X = X-series pre-amp which provides better clarity (these versions are more expensive)
  • R = reversed single coil positioning

It’s worth noting that not every alnico magnet pickup will have the “A” at the end of it. For example, the EMG 57 has alnico pickups. Also, whilst the “TW” indicates a coil-split function in some models, there are also some coil split pickups which don’t have a “TW” at the end, such as the EMG 89.

In the next sections, I’ll take a more in-depth look at each pickup type and split them into categories according to which position they traditionally work best in. There’s a section for the bridge and neck positions, and a section for pickups which work equally well in either position.

Bridge Position

The three active EMG humbuckers that are most associated with the bridge position are the EMG 57, EMG 81 and EMG 89. Here’s a brief description of each:

  • EMG 57: this is considered an “original” EMG pickup which is versatile and has a medium output. It uses Alnico V magnets and steel pole pieces and has plenty of headroom and definition. It has a cased design with visible magnets and comes in gold, red, chrome and black. This pickup works best for those looking for a classic and less aggressive tone. The only variant is the 57TW which has a coil split function.
  • EMG 81: this is a very high output pickup which is associated mostly with heavy metal. It uses ceramic magnets which deliver a powerful and more crisp sound compared to the EMG 57, making it more geared towards lead players. It has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome. There are three more variants available: 81X, 81TW, 81TWX. It has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome.
  • EMG 89: this pickup has a warm and rich tone and has a coil split function. It is less punchy and bright compared to the EMG 81, and although most commonly associated with the bridge position, it can work well in the neck position as well. There are 3 more variants: 89R, 89X, 89XR.

Here are some images which link to Amazon of each pickup.

EMG 57

EMG 81

EMG 89

Neck Position

The active humbuckers most associated with the neck position are the: EMG 60, EMG 66 and EMG 85. Here’s a description of each:

  • EMG 60: this pickup has alnico magnets and produces a rich tone with a lot of sustain. Depending on whether you go for the ceramic or alnico pickups, you can achieve a crisper, high output tone, or a richer, warmer tone respectively. It has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome. It has three variants: 60A, 60AX and 60X.
  • EMG 66: this pickup has alnico V magnets and ceramic pole pieces to produce clarity, whilst still sounding warm and smooth with a good dynamic range. This pickup sounds a twangier and thinner than the EMG 60. It has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome. The only variant is the 60TW which has a coil split function.
  • EMG 85: the EMG 85 is one of the most popular neck pickup options, commonly paired with the EMG 81. It has a warm and full tone with a higher output than the EMG 66 and EMG 60, making it a popular choice for metal players. It uses alnico V magnets and has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome. The only variant is the 85X.

Here are some images which link to Amazon of each pickup.

EMG 60

EMG 66

EMG 85

Both Positions

The remaining pickups in the EMG active humbucker range have a slightly more balanced tone, which lends well to both the bridge and neck position. Here’s a brief outline of their features and tone:

  • EMG 58: this uses alnico magnets and steel bars and has a similar tone to a P90, meaning it’s not quite as warm as some other humbuckers on the list, giving it a balanced tone suitable for the neck or bridge position. The only variant is the 58X. It has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome.
  • Fat 55: this is one of the “retro active humbuckers” and comes in either black or zebra open coil designs. This pickup sounds more passive and has a lower output compared to others on the list, giving it a rounded vintage tone. The pickups comes a bridge and neck pair.
  • Hot 70: this is one of the “retro active humbuckers” and comes in either black or zebra open coil designs. It sounds more passive and has a lower output than most EMGs but have a very good dynamic range. The pickups comes a bridge and neck pair. The ceramic pickup in the bridge makes it sound a bit hotter and crisper than the Fat 55 alnico bridge pickup.
  • Super 77: this is one of the “retro active humbuckers” and comes in either black or zebra open coil designs. It is the “hottest” sounding of the three “retro active” pickups (the others being the Hot 70 and Fat 55), with the crispest tone and highest output.
  • H: There are two variants: HA and HAX. The HA and HAX use alnico pickups and have a warmer and more balanced tone compared to the higher output EMG H. It has a fully cased design which comes in black, white, ivory, red, gold and chrome.

Here are some images that link to Amazon to show the different types.

Retro (Fat 55, Super 77, Hot 70)

EMG 58

EMG H

Common Comparisons

Now we’ve been through the basics, I also wanted to take a look at some comparisons between some of the most popular pickups.

EMG 81 vs EMG 85

Although the EMG 81 is most often used in the bridge position, and the EMG 85 in the neck position, you can also use both pickups in the alternative positions.

The EMG 81 sounds a bit tamer than the EMG 85. The 81 sounds slightly tighter and brighter, whilst the 85 sounds fuller, warmer and open sounding. The heavier and more rounded sound of the EMG 85 makes it well suited to the neck position, whilst the tight and crisp EMG 85 suits the bridge position for metal.

There’s not a huge amount of difference between these two though, which is why a lot of players have a hard time selecting the best one. Here is a video comparing the two pickups in the bridge position. You can also check out their channel whilst you’re there as well for more EMG pickup comparisons.

EMG 81 vs EMG 57

The EMG 57 has a more versatile and passive tone than the EMG 81. The EMG 81 has a higher output and a tighter low-end than the 57. Typically the 57 sounds better when using clean tones, whilst the 81 excels with heavy distortion making it a popular choice for metal.

Here is another video comparing the tones of the two pickups.

EMG 60 vs EMG 85

The EMG 60 and 85 are often used in the neck position. The EMG 85 has more low-end than the EMG 60, giving the 85 a warmer tone compared to the 60 which sounds more crisp and chimey tone. The EMG 85 is often used for heavy metal, whilst the EMG 60 is considered better for cleaner tones.

Here is a video comparison of the two pickups.

EMG 60 vs EMG 66

The EMG 66 sounds thinner and twangy compared to the EMG 60 which sounds a bit rounder. The EMG 60 has more low end giving it a fuller tone compared to the 66 which sounds more scooped. The 66 also sounds a bit more passive compared to the 60.

Here is a video comparing the two pickups in the neck position.

Best Pairings

Before we move onto the passive EMG humbucker selection, I wanted to talk about some of the popular combinations and their tones. With each combination listed, the first pickup is in the bridge position, and the second is in the neck position.

  • EMG 57/ 66: this is a more passive sounding combination with a versatile tone. The 57 in the bridge produces a balanced yet biting tone, whilst the 66 in the neck position sounds warm and smooth. This is a popular combination for cleaner tones.
  • EMG 81/ 85: this combination is commonly used in metal. The 85 in the neck position sounds warm with plenty of low end, whilst the 81 in the bridge position sounds tight and crisp, making it perfect for distortion.
  • EMG 81/ 60: this combination is considered quite versatile due to the tight sounding 81 in the bridge, which is perfect for heavy distortion, and the 60 in the neck position which sounds warm and full, with more of a vintage tone which works very well for clean tones.

If you’re looking for the most passive and vintage combination, go with an EMG 57/66 configuration, whereas if you’re playing primarily with heavy distortion and need a tight low-end for metal, the EMG 81/85 is a more popular choice. The EMG 81/60 combination aims to provide a happy medium.

Passive Humbuckers

If you’re looking for a classic passive humbucker tone, then EMG have you covered.

There are four main pickup types in the range: H1, H2, H3 and H4. Each of them come in two variants, one which uses ceramic magnets and the other which uses alnico magnets. You can identify the alnico versions by the “A” in the name e.g. H1A has alnico pickups, and H1 has ceramic pickups. The alnico pickups have a lower output and warmer tone compared to the ceramic pickups which sound more crisp.

They come in the following main colours: black, chrome, gold, black chrome, brushed black chrome, brush chrome, and brushed gold. The H1 and H2 models have exposed pole pieces, whilst the H3 and H4 models have full cased designs.

Here are some images which link to Amazon to show the difference.

EMG H1

EMG H4

With all these pickups, you can get neck and bridge variations. Here’s the difference between each pickup.

  • H1: bright and punchy.
  • H2: bright and punchy.
  • H3: open and scooped, quieter than the H1 and H2.
  • H4: tight bass response, boosted mids and treble, quieter than the H1 and H2.

Personally I find it very difficult to hear the difference between these pickups, especially the H1 and H2, but you can listen to this video to hear some of the subtle differences.

Single Coils (Active and Passive)

EMG also make a variety of active and passive single coil pickups.

Active Single Coils

  • Crossroads: vintage tone with active technology to reduce the hum. Produces Strat type tones that you associate with Hendrix and Clapton.
  • FT: designed for Telecasters to produce a twangy and punchy tone without any hum.
  • Maverick: designed for Strat surf tones.
  • S: balanced tone with high output.
  • SA: rounded tone with high output.
  • SL: beefy tone with a high output.
Active Single CoilMagnetsPositionVariants
CrossroadsAlnicoAnyCrossroads 7
FTAlnico/ CeramicNeckFTC, FTCX, FTX
MaverickAlnicoAnyMaverick 7
RTAlnico/ CeramicBridgeRTC, RTCX, RTX
SCeramic/ AlnicoAnyS7, SX, SV
SAAlnicoAnySAV, SAVX, SAX
SLVAlnicoAnySLV, SLVX
Active Single Coil EMG Range

Here’s what the variants mean:

  • C = ceramic magnets
  • 7 = for 7 string guitars
  • X = X-series pre-amp which provides better clarity (these versions are more expensive)
  • V = Alnico V magnets

Passive Single Coils

EMG also make 4 main single coil passive pickups which have designs for different positions:

  • S1 (alnico)
  • S2 (alnico)
  • S3 (alnico)
  • S4 (ceramic)

They have a stacked design to reduce noise and the S3 and S4 have a solid cover cap to further reduce any noise. The S1 has a boosted mid-range whilst the S2 has a more balanced tone. The S3 has a very similar tone to the S1, the difference being the solid cover cap. The S4 delivers the thickest tone with more low and mid-range.

Here are some images to show some of the different single coil types (all link to Amazon).

EMG S1

EMG FT and RT (T-Set)

EMG Maverick Set

P90 Pickups

EMG make 6 P90 pickups which are designed to suit either the neck or bridge position, although you can experiment and try them in different positions.

Neck P90s

  • P60: active pickup, uses ceramic magnets and has a high output and crisp tone.
  • P60A: active pickup, uses alnico V magnets and has quite a crisp and chimey tone. Also works well in the bridge position.
  • P92HZ: alnico magnets give this pickup a rounded and balanced tone which sounds warmer with a lower output than the P60.

Bridge P90s

  • P81: active pickup, uses ceramic magnets and has a tight low end and crisp tone.
  • P85: active pickup, uses alnico V magnets and has a warm rounded tone and high output, also works well in the neck position.
  • P91HZ: passive pickup uses ceramic magnets and produces a balanced tone.

Most of these pickups come in different colour options so here are a couple of examples (all images link to Amazon).

EMG P60 (black)

EMG P81 (ivory)

Which EMG Pickup Should You Get?

This brings us to the ultimate question, which EMG pickups are best for you? Of course, this is a difficult question to answer, but here are the main conclusions I’ve drawn from comparing the full EMG range about which pickups sound the best for different music styles.

  • EMG 81/ 85 best modern metal active humbucker for the bridge position/ neck position.
  • EMG 89: most versatile active humbucker due to the coil split.
  • EMG 57/60: best for a range of music styles in the neck position due to the balanced tone for the bridge/ neck position.

Of course, these are only active humbucker pickups, and I’ve chosen these because I think they best suit what most players are trying to achieve when searching for the right EMG pickup.

Here is a link to each pickup on Amazon so you can check the current prices:

Frequently Asked Questions

To round off the article, let’s address some of the most popular EMG related questions.

Can you use EMG pickups without a battery?

Active EMG pickups require a battery or you will not get any signal. However, EMG also make a range of passive pickups which do not require a battery.

Do EMG pickups go bad?

EMG pickups will deteriorate over time, just like any other pickups will. Active EMG pickups degrade faster than passive pickups, however one benefit of EMG actives, is there very long battery life and cycle recharge limit, meaning they should last many years before they need replacing, even when used every day.

Do EMG make passive pickups?

EMG make a range of passive pickups in humbucker, single coil and P90 varieties. Although EMG are best known for their active pickup range, their passive pickups are becoming increasingly popular and offer great tones at a lower output compared to the active versions.

How do you install EMG pickups?

EMG pickups are very easy to install using their solderless design. This means you can install them at home. The kit includes all the components you will need, and installation instructions.

What are EMG pickups good for?

EMG pickups are best known for metal due to their high output and aggressive tone. However, EMG pickups also work for a variety of other music styles ranging from country to surf to rock and roll. EMG make a large range of active and passive pickups to suit different genres of music.

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Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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