Conversations with EMG Pickup Owner Rob Turner - A RHB Exclusive Interview

This weeks conversation is with Rob Turner, the owner and creator of EMG pickups. EMG and Rock House have enjoyed a business partnership for many years.Rob is one of the most interesting and knowledgeable  people in the business today. He has been into electronics ever since he can remember. He has been true pioneer in the pickup business.

A few quick facts about EMG.

Their first business license came under the name of  Dirty Works Studios.

In 1983 they changed the name to EMG, Inc.

EMG stands for Electro-Magnetic Generator

Rock House Blog: Rob I was reading on your site that you got started making pickups in 1974, is that right?

Rob Turner: Yeah, I actually got started earlier than that. I was interested in pickups and used to mess around with them. I also used to repair and build amplifiers in my earlier years. Even when I was in high school I was building Heath Kits, which most people would not even know about anymore. In fact I read a blog the other day “does anyone know what a Heath Kit is” (laughs).  I don’t know if you know what one is.

RHB: No, I give up. (laughs)

Rob Turner: Years ago you could buy a television or a radio….or even test equipment and you would build it yourself. You would get an illustrated book and a list of  parts and they would send you all the parts. So you would unpack it and you would build this thing literally from the ground up. You could even build a TV. I don’t know if I would attempt building a TV from a Heath Kit though, it would probably be a bit tough.

So I was into electronics I guess.

RHB: So you just started messing around with pickups then?

Rob Turner: I started messing around with pickups early on when I was in a band. I was a drummer. You know I’m not a guitar player in case people want to know. I mess around with them but I’m not a great guitarist by any means….so I’m a drummer by trade. I rehearsed with these guys at a place next to my dads. My dad had a ham radio business and we used to rehearse in the warehouse.

I got into the pickup thing just for fun.

RHB: So you were interested in them because ……

Rob Turner: It was for the guitar and bass players. I would say hey, lets see if we can make that thing sound different. Because it won’t do this and it won’t do that so I said lets play with it and see what we can come up with.

So, I started playing around with pickups and got into it..

RHB: That involved winding your own?

Rob Turner: Yeah, I started with a cheap Sears Craftsman drill and  a cheap ass Craftsman drill press and guiding the wire on my own. I had magnum wire around in the radio shop because we used to rewind coils and stuff. It wasn’t really that hard to start doing it. All you had to do was cut the wire off the bobbin.

RHB: So how did you figure out connecting a battery to it would work.

Rob Turner: My active pickup came about because I was building pickups and when you build picks you make single coil and dual coils. They would hum and buzz and I would say “hey, this is no good” , “this won’t work”, you know? I mean you can’t even hear what your playing. I would build something and then you have to listen to all the hum and buzz. I would tell myself that this just has got to go. This is not going to work.

So that’s when I started applying different method to the pickups. I found out that if I wanted to make it sound the way I want it to sound, if I wanted to get a low impedance output, if I want to make it do all these things I either need a transformer or I need some sort of electronics in order to do that. That’s how I got into it and I just started throwing some stuff at it and I hit a method that worked really well and I ended up making a living doing it.

RHB: So you got the pickup designed were you working on bass pickups too?

Rob Turner: I started out with the guitar.

RHB: Are bass pickups different to deal with?

Rob Turner: Oh yeah, definitely. The bass is different because it has a whole different group of….well it has a whole different output to it than guitar does. People have a tendency to bang on the strings pretty hard so it’s different to deal with.

RHB: What is the difference between the active and passive pickups?

Rob Turner: First of all it depends if you want the features that come with an active pickup. The primary things to be able to do is to play through a wireless system and be able to play through a cable and make them sound the same. Which is something that you don’t get from a passive pickup. If you plug into a wireless you sound different, your guitar sounds totally different than you would if it were plugged into a cable. So because an active pickup has a low impedance output you can drive a cable that’s really long and it drives a wireless the same way that it drives a cable. Passive pickups cannot do that and that’s one of the reasons that we get a lot of guys that play live, because you get that benefit.

The other thing is that you can record direct in the studio. You don’t necessarily need a direct box. If you want to split the signal you will need a direct box but that’s what the direct box becomes is nothing more than a signal splitter.

RHB: What about amplification then?

Rob Turner: All the amplifier cares about is the voltage your putting into it. It doesn’t make any difference at all whether it’s a combo or tube amp. As far as like combo amps the piggy back was made to shake the piece if you know what I mean? In a combo amp the tubes and everything are getting shaken all around. So that’s why the piggy back thing was done. The nice thing about a combo amp is that it’s a nice place to put a reverb. The actives work well with all amps. It like tubes and transistors.

RHB: So the pickup doesn’t care what kind of amp it uses? Will one out perform the other?

Rob Turner: What it all depends on is how the input of the amp is configured. It depends whether you’re going directly into a tube or if you’re going directly into a solid state input. The same things that effect the tone of any guitar will effect whether you use an active or a passive pickup. What’s really interesting is that I find amplifier companies put active pickup inputs on their amplifiers, which I find totally bizarre. There is no reason to have or need one.

RHB: Maybe that would be a good question for Tony Pasko (Rock House GEAR411)

Rob Turner: Yeas it would, because to tell you the truth there are some differences between the output impedance of a passive pick up and the output impedance of a passive pickup. The output impedance of an active pickup is pretty much fixed, where as, the output impedance of a passive pickup goes higher and lower because the output impedance increases with frequency. What we do is take care of that because we know that’s a function of it, so we take care of that inside the (active) pickup. That way we can predict what happens. If you have a guitar that sounds a certain way you want to be able to maintain that regardless of what amp you play it through.

So that’s another reason that we do what we do.

There’s just all kinds of benefits that you don’t foresee that you get out of an active pickup. You can run a long cable, well actually you can run a cable as long as you want. You can run a 100 foot cable and it won’t effect or change the sound. It also doesn’t matter whether it’s a high or low capacitance cable because the output impedance is so low that it doesn’t care about the capacitance.

RHB: I find that absolutely amazing.

Rob Turner: The pickups that we make only draw about 80 micro amps, which is just, oh man, it’s next to nothing.

RHB: Is that why a 9 volt battery will last about a year in the pickup?

Rob Turner: The battery will literally last it’s shelf life. That’s with one pickup so two pickups is 160 micro amps which is still really low. A 9 volt battery is rated at 500 milliamp hours, which means it can deliver up to half of it’s voltage for up to 500 hours. So if you’re drawing 100 micro amps you can literally get 5,000 hours out of a battery.

RHB: That’s a lot of playing time between batteries!

Rob Turner: Yeah. Now some of the other systems that we make, like the Gilmore. It draws like 1.2 milliamps, so it’s battery life is going to be a little less than 500 hours. Which still a lot because of what it does and what’s built into it.

RHB: That’s really not bad considering that the average guitarist plays 1 to 2 hours a day.

Rob Turner: Exactly

RHB: Why should people use EMG pickups over others?

Rob Turner: These are all the things I took into consideration when they were being designed. Like ok, you can’t have the a lot of battery drain, we don’t want the guitar to die on stage. Those are the things that people think will happen. They say my guitar is going to die on stage and I say no it’s not. Plus we’ve been making pickups over 30 years, I think that people have finally figured out the they don’t die on stage.

RHB: I guess if you’re worried about it and you’ve put a few hundred hours into it you can just flip for a $4 battery and take care of that.

RHB: Tell us about the stuff you currently have going on.

Rob Turner: The latest series is the “X” series. They were designed to overcome a compromise that we made early on.

One of the issues with the active pickup was that it needs to operate a tone control. In order to operate a tone control passively you need a certain output impedance in order to make it work the way you want it to. In other words it needed to be reactive so that the tone control actually functions….you have to feed it a certain impedance. That was sort of a compromise that was made early on, to have a passive tone control. It was difficult enough to get people to buy a pickup that needed a battery and then we had to get them to have an active tone control as well. You have to change the controls in the guitar as well but it was much more trouble trying to market an additional active component that you have to put into the guitar.

So I said, hey look, I’m going to move beyond this compromise. At the same time we were looking at the solderless stuff. We wanted to make it easy for people to put these things in their guitars so that they don’t need a soldering iron. Now you can do it with a little screwdriver, hex wrench and a nut driver.

RHB: I was actually excited to see that come out. I have a tele I thought I might want to replace with something like that.

Rob Turner: Wait til you see the tele install man, it’s so easy.

So we decided that we would do this all at once because we needed a standard for the input and output of the active tone control on the “X“ series. We said let’s make a standard for everything that we are doing. The “X” series overcomes the issue of needing a active tone control, so it allows us to lower the output impedance of the pickup and lower the gain of the pre amp. I mean it just allows you to open up the sound and give it more head room.

For single coils it doesn’t make as much difference as it does for dual coils. On dual coils there’s a lot more surface area that the string is reacting with, there’s a lot more coil area. Each pickup derives it’s own benefits…..so that’s what we’re doing right now.

We’re starting with the standard models because that’s what people like and we’re making a new series out of it, that’s what we’re known for, so that’s what we’re doing.

RHB: Does EMG have anything going on for the future?

Rob Turner: Well, I’ve got to follow through an all this stuff first (laughs), actually I do have some stuff I’m working on but I just really can’t say anything about right now.

The way I describe this business of making pickups is by tell telling people that we are basically in the paint brush business. We make different colors and sizes of paint brushes that you can do different stuff with.

One word of advice I would leave for everyone to think about is that if you have a bad sounding guitar and your going to put new pickups in it, then you’re probably going to still have a bad sounding guitar. Go out and buy a good sounding guitar and put new pickups in it.

Thanks to Rob Turner for taking the time to answer some questions about himself and his company. To learn more about EMG pickups visit them at www.emginc.com You will fond a great FAQ section and will also be able to check out the latest series from them. The “X” series.

Readers may also be interested in a review of The X series pick up written by The Rock House GEAR411 guru Tony Pasko here  EMG X Series Pick-ups Review by Tony Pasko

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