Other than the DiMarzio Super Distortion introduced in the 1970s to aid lead guitarist Ace Frehley, among others, for an up front lead guitar tone, the EMG 81 active humbucker is the most popular go to rock and roll lead guitarist pickup on the market. I also need to give kudos to Seymour Duncan's Jeff Beck (JB) pickup as a legendary lead guitarist product. These three pickups are out front as the signature pickups of those companies. Among the three, when it comes to sheer output and volume, the EMG 81 wins hands down.
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EMG 81 pickup
Solderless install system including split pot volume and tone
Screws and springs
While there are a lot of great passive humbuckers out there listing for $60-$80 dollars each, and some even less, the EMG 81 may put off a few people being in the $100 dollar range. It's not meant to compete on the exact same price point as many great passive humbuckers which can often be found at a deep discount but it's designed for those who specifically seek its lead guitar sound.
Active electronics, stealth look:
Often copied and perhaps never matched, the EMG 81 is an active humbucker, requiring a 9 volt battery and which may require extra routing in the guitar cavity, and is housed in a plain black plastic housing without pole pieces. This gives it the appearance of a stealth fighter bomber but only the looks are understated. When plugged in this pickup has a tremendously powerful midrange and bass response when clean and has a powerful saturated sound with distortion. The sustain on this pickup is legendary.
No frills, lead guitar:
When playing lead guitar, many a guitarist may find a need to hit a pedal or switch channels in order to make single notes ring out as loud as a full chord. I even have to do this on my passive EMG HZ pickup.
But with the active EMG 81, it's strong 9 volt driven electronics allows it to be heard just as it is without need for a gain switch or pedal. This means while playing a song utilizing rhythm guitar, you can then launch into a lead without having to mess with volume knobs, gain switch, or floor pedal effects. This ease of playing makes the guitarist only have to worry about the song/lead instead of having to "boost" the guitar's signal in order to be heard. There is no wonder this pickup is so popular for many rock and roll lead guitar players from professional rock stars to junior in the basement.
While almost any humbucker on the market is adequate for a good grinding humbucker growl, few can cut through any mix of instruments as well as the EMG 81 with lead guitar lines. This makes this pickup great not only for live situations but for recording purposes. Where passive humbuckers do have some ambient noise which can be bothersome when used with a lot of distortion and/or volume, active pickups (humbuckers and single coils) are as quiet as they come.
When I play a guitar through a Marshall stack, no matter what pickups are in that guitar, it's very loud if I choose to make it that way. It's 100 watts driven through eight 12" inch speakers in two large cabinets. But the EMG 81 has the singular ability among the pickups I have used which also shakes the floor below you.
With a Fender Stratocaster and its single coil pickups, I get a loud shrill tone worthy of breaking glass and with a passive humbucker in a Gibson Les Paul or Jackson superstrat, it rounds out that sound to make it a wall of force coming from the amp which pretty much assaults you with a blunt force attack. But the EMG 81 is like an earthquake when greatly amplified by a Marshall stack or similar high wattage amp. The sound lifts you up from the floor and suddenly the ground you are standing on is not stable. The low end and midrange punch in that pickup is THAT powerful. It's as if the EMG 81 was made for heavy metal and hard rock and even if you are not the type of player who likes that type of thing, put cranking up an EMG 81 through a Marshall stack on your bucket list!
List of users:
Zakk Wylde (solo artist and former Ozzy Osbourne lead guitarist), Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, and many others are noted for their use of this lead guitar friendly pickup. It is recommended that the EMG 81 be used as a bridge pickup and many tag it to be for heavy metal. While the EMG is the best in those situations, it is a good pickup for any music requiring a high gain lead guitar sound. Some users also like the EMG 81 in other positions besides the lead guitar position closest to the bridge.
The EMG 81 makes an excellent match for the EMG 85, 89, and 60 model humbuckers, and can work well with the single coil EMG-SA and HA models.