The EMG H1A : my number 1 choice humbucker
In the following, I will set out what I found after comparing some of the most popular humbuckers around. These pickups included the DiMarzio Air Norton, the Seymour Duncan JB SH-4, the Gibson Burstbucker No.2. Before I start, I just want to make it absolutely clear that I have no axe to grind, I have no malice aforethought, I don't have a chip on my shoulder, I am not trying to get even with anyone so on and so forth. I am just setting out what my honest opinion is on these pickups I have used and tested recently. Well, one man's meat is another man's poison anyway.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the guitar would, at some stage, have tempered with or attempted to temper with the pickups on his or her guitar. That is only natural, we are all curious and there is always a nagging feeling at the back of our heads : am I getting the best sound? Is there a better sound somewhere out there? We all want a guitar sound that soars up to the heavens, stands out from everything else on stage, gives you all that all-conquering power and inspires that gut-wrenching feeling. If that is not what you are looking for, you should think about stop reading right here. But let us the goal posts first :-
This following is the anatomy of a typical humbucker pickup. And this is how it works. When guitar strings vibrate, physical energy is generated. The pickup is the device through which the energy of vibrating stings are converted into AC (alternating current) electric pulses. When these pulses are fed into a guitar amp they are magnified thousands of times and the loudspeakers transform them into sound waves. A pickup is simply a magnet with insulated copper wire wrapped around it several thousand times. This winding is an electrical coil, hence the "single coil". The more wire, the louder the output. The humbucking pickup is simply two single coil pickups wired together. The humbucking pickup was first invented by Mr. Seth Lover (what a name!!) in 1955. The two single coils in a humbucker is wired in series ( so that the current flows through the first one then the other) but out of phase with each other. This created two opposite currents flowing in different directions thus can canceling the hum found in many single coil pickups. Most pickup magnets are made from Alnico (an alloy of aluminum), or nickel or cobalt or ceramic. Different types of magnets will produce a different sound. The stronger the magnet, the more treble the pickup will sound.
Passive or active? That is usually the first question one would ask. I remember in the late70's and early 80's the active pickup was really in vogue and EMG was one of the first pickup manufacturers to manufacture active pickups. Indeed, all the Steinberger L Series were fitted with a EMG 85 active humbucker and two active EMG single coils. I own five L Series Steinbergers and have first hand experience with the active EMG pickups. The big thing about the active pick-ups when they first came out was that they were quiet as the deep blue sea yet powerful as a mustang at the same time. The high output of these pickups was one of their selling points. But all the active pickups on my Steinbergers have been replaced with passive pick-ups. Let me tell you why.
Yes, the active pickups give you a very high output indeed. But do we need all that output ? All that means is you turn down the gain or drive of your overdrive pedal. But a good passive pickup can give you just as much punch with a lower output. You simply dial up the gain or overdrive level to get a good sound. Of course I am not talking about an under-powdered pick-up. I am talking about a passive pickup with a good punch. As to the noiseless aspect of the active pickups, you get that more or less on every single passive pickups from any reputable manufacturer these days. The definite down side of active pickups is they are battery-powered and batteries run out. The battery is normally on when you plug the jack into your guitar. If you forget to unplug it, the consumption of battery power continues. And I can tell you this, the battery will not run out when you are practicing at home. You can put your house on it that the battery will run out at most inconvenient moment : on stage. One Saturday night , my Blues club was packed to the hilt and everyone in the band was in the mood and looking forward to enjoying a great show. When I plugged in my guitar, something was wrong, the sound coming from the guitar was weak and intermittent. I started checking all my effects, the connecting cables, the power supply but could not find anything wrong. I just could not work out what was wrong until someone from the audience asked me to check the battery in my Steinberger. And that was the culprit indeed. Using an active pickup gives me an extra worry that I do not need. And I have yet to hear from anyone what I can get from an active pick-up that I cannot get from a passive pickup (except the extra output of course).
Before coming to the actual performance of the pickups, I should say a word or two about the guitar. No two guitars in this world are the same. Believe it or not, even Steinbergers are not the same albeit they are made of synthetic materials and all come from a mould. Apart from the difference inherent in each guitar, we need to distinguish two main types of guitars : the Gibson style or non-Gibson style guitars. I have been a Gibson Les Paul player for a long long time before switching to Steinbergers and I had a '58 Les Paul Reissue and a '59 Les Paul Reissue. Although I now longer play them, I must say the Reissue Les Pauls are really something special. They have a sound that is so sweet that nothing in this world can come close. Through a combination of the best choice of wood, a longer and deeper neck joint, a shorter scale length, special '57 pickups, these guitars deliver a sound that nothing comes close. Generally speaking. Gibson types of guitars tend to have more bassy sound than a Start style guitar. The newer guitars made by Ibanez and Musicman tend to have a brighter sound. This will be an important thing to bear in mind when it comes to choosing your pickup.
Let's start with the price. I have compared prices on the internet from the various suppliers. Competition is fierce these days and there is not much disparity between the price for these pickups. There are discounts offered here and there, but these are the average prices :-
Now let's set up the gist of what the respective manufacturers say of their product :-
So how do they perform? The way I measure how they perform is to divide the sound of each pickup into to three aspects : Bass, Mid and Treble. Each pickup is given a total of 9 points. So if a particular pick up has something like this as a rating :-
It means the pickup in question has no bass, a minimum amount of mid and a lot of treble. The overall tone of this pickup will be predominantly treble. I should also mention that the guitar I used to try out the pickups are my Steinberger L Series and the Steinberger Flying V. The signals from the pickups are fed into a Marshall JMP-1 connected to a mixing desk. This is how each of the pickups performed :-
All four pickups have very good output. So power is not going to be a problem. The real issue is tone. To my ear, the Gibson Burstbucker and the DiMazio Air Norton quite simi liar. The Gibson Burstbuster, however, seems to have more "character" in it, if you know what I mean. It kind of sounds more "alive". But both of them have a very marked emphasis and the treble.They certainly have bite but sound a bit thin to my ear and liking. At least that is how they sound on my Steinbergers. Having said that, however, I have every confidence that they will sound good on a guitar which is bottom heavy like the Les Paul. The high treble end will compensate the dark tone from a Les Paul. So if you have a guitar which is predominantly made from rosewood with a maple top, I think either of these pickups will sound good. I also think either of these two pickups will sound good in a 335 type guitar. But one thing you have to bear in mind : the price. The price of the Burstbucker is nearly twice that of the DiMarzio.
The most surprising of the four pickups is the the Seymour Duncan JB SH-4. On my Steinberger, the tone is stinging bright and thin as paper; it hurts me ear to listen to it too long. The treble end just cuts through like a razor, there is no bass, no mid and only treble. If I turn the tone full on, it sounded almost like a small transistor radio. I think this pickup is good only for Metal Metal. I am sure the high end will cut through even if you play your guitar through a great deal of distortion. But that is not the sound I am looking for, and I don't play Metal Metal.
The best of them all is, surpassingly, the EMG H1A. Compared to the rest of the pickups, the H1A had a great meaty sound, and it has a lot of bottom. It sounds chunky and with a lot of sustain and there is a lot of body to its sound. This is ideal for my kind of music, and I should think for classic Rock music as well. The tone of the EMG pickup is just right, it has enough high in end but at the same time there is enough bass and mid in it that gives you a meaty and crunchy sound. EMG has really got it right with their H1A passive pickup. Putting an H1A on the bridge of my Steinberger gives me a sound reminiscent of my 1959 Les Paul Reissue, powerful but not over-powering, just the right blend of bass, mid and high. Who would have thought, of all people, EMG well-known for making clinical-sounding pickups will come up with something so warm like the H1A.
In this his day and age, the problem is not finding pickups, the problem is we are spoiled for choice. There are so many manufacturers around and so many models on the market it is sometimes hard to know just where to start. Hopefully what is said here will be of some help to anyone trying to find their right pickup in this jungle of a market.
For me, the Steinberger with the EMG H1A gives the best guitar and the best sound in the world.