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EMG-DG20 SA PICKUPS VS. VINTAGE STYLE SINGLE COIL PICKUPS - Here are comparisons of the David Gilmour EMG-DG20 pickup set vs vintage style Seymour Duncan SSL-5 bridge pickup and Fender Custom Shop '69 neck pickup. David switched from vintage style single coil passive pickups to EMG-SA noiseless active pickups in 1985 to help reduce the RF noise and interference from the lighting rigs when he played live. They were fitted in all of his 1983 and 1984 vintage series reissue Stratocasters that he used heavily from 1985-1994. A candy apple red '57 reissue Stratocaster fitted with EMGs became his favorite stage guitar and was used as his primary guitar for the 1994 Pink Floyd tour. It was considered the heart of the Pulse era Gilmour tones. Around 2005 David changed back to using his old Black Strat with vintage style single coil pickups as his primary guitar. A good article about David's red strat can be found on the website, HERE.

First, a few words about the Seymour Duncan SSL-5 and Fender Custom Shop '69 pickups I am comparing these to. They were both in David's Black Strat. The SSL-5 has more winds than a typical single coil pickup, something not exactly considered 'vintage'. Typically these overwound pickups are called "hot" pickups because they have a higher signal output than standard wound single coils. The higher output brings out more sensitivity in playing, pinch harmonics, et cetera, but they also have a more compressed sound than standard pickups because of the higher output. They are perfect for the bridge position in a Strat. Lower output pickups are fine in that position, but they may not sound as dynamic as higher output pickups when using distortions, especially high gain distortion like the Big Muff. The CS '69 is a lower output, vintage style pickup. It has fatter lows and nice and bright highs, which are perfect for the neck position clean and overdrive tones.

Gilmour's '57 reissue red strat with EMG-SA pickups and SPC/EXG controls and the EMG DG20 pre assembled pearl pickguard woth the same pickups and controls

The DG20 set from EMG includes three SA pickups with Alnico magnets, wired with an EXG guitar expander circuit, and an SPC presence control circuit. Strangely, it comes mounted on a pearloid pick guard, even though Gilmour's EMG Strat pick guards are always white. These are active pickups, meaning they are powered internally by a 9V battery, rather than passive like vintage style pickups which are powered by the low level line signal. The active circuit means there is no need for the pickup circuit to be grounded like a passive pickup. The lack of a ground and the low impedance of the pickups reduces the RF interferance noise common with passive pickups. In other words, they are practically silent. Active pickups also minimizing signal loss while driving the signal through long cable runs to the amp.

EMG SAs are very much identified as Gilmour pickups, although SA pickups have actually been around since the late 1970s. Many consider these the holy grail for the Pink Floyd / Pulse era guitar tones because of the unique sound of the SPC tone circuit included with the DG20 set, but do they really sound that different than single coils? You be the judge. The following sound clips both use the exact same effects and amp setup. Only the pickups on the Strats were changed.

Sorrow Solo and pinch harmonics – SSL-5 bridge pickup. Sovtek Civil War Big Muff > Tube Driver > TC Delay > Boss CE-2 Chorus > Reeves Custom 50

Sorrow Solo and pinch harmonics – EMG SA bridge pickup, SPC control on full. Sovtek Civil War Big Muff > Tube Driver > TC Delay > Boss CE-2 Chorus > Reeves Custom 50

Sorrow Intro – SSL-5 bridge pickup. Cornish P-2 > Boss MZ-2 > Tube Driver > TC Delay > Boss CE-2 Chorus > Reeves Custom 50

Sorrow Intro – EMG SA bridge pickup, SPC control on full. Cornish P-2 > Boss MZ-2 > Tube Driver > TC Delay > Boss CE-2 Chorus > Reeves Custom 50

Shine on You Crazy Diamond intro clean intro – Fender CS69 neck pickup. Boss CS-2 Compressor > Boss CE-2 Chorus > TC Delay > Reeves Custom 50

Shine on You Crazy Diamond intro clean intro – EMG SA neck pickup. Boss CS-2 Compressor > Boss CE-2 Chorus > TC Delay > Reeves Custom 50

Same, with SPC control on 10

As you can hear from these clips, there is very little difference in the sound between the regular passive single coil pickups and the active EMG pickups with the SPC off. The EMGs sound practically the same using clean tones, and when using distortion, cranking the SPC control up allows the EMG to sound nearly the same as a high output passive pickup. That does not mean there is no difference. There is a slight mid range boost with the EMGs and they have a much wider range of possible tones than a regular Strat. Plus they are practically noiseless compared to passive pickups, and have less signal loss with long guitar cables.

GILMOUR'S RED V57 REISSUE RED STRAT - In 1984 David went to the Fender warehouse and picked out several new Strats from their vintage reissue series (reportedly 5 or 6). All were later modified to have the tremolo arms shortened so David could hold them in his palm while playing, and EMG-SA noiseless pickups with SPC/EXG controls installed. One of those was a candy apple red (CAR) '57 reissue Strat. Its first major appearance being used on stage by Gilmour was the Live 8 benefit concert in 1985 with Bryan Ferry's band. The Red Strat would go on to become one of his favorite guitars to perform with live from 1986-1990, and his main guitar for the 1994 Pink Floyd world tour. In the studio he used it on Signs of Life and Learning to Fly for Pink Floyd's The Division Bell album , and for his 2006 solo album On An Island.

David needed a spare for the 1994 tour and his backline tech, Phil Taylor, ended up finding a nearly identical one. Mick Ralphs of Bad Company was the backup guitarist for David Gilmour's 1984 touring band. When they were performing in New York in May 1984, David and Mick both went to Mannys music store to look at guitars. Mick found a candy apple red Strat he liked, almost the same as David's red '57 reissue. Mick bought it, but David wished he had seen it first. Years later in 1993 Phil Taylor was in Chandler's (Chandler Guitars in the U.K.) looking at guitars for Gilmour. He spotted a similar red Strat for sale, which turned out to be the same one owned by Mick, so he bought it as a backup for the 1994 tour.

EMG SA pickup cavities, Gilmour EMG SA pickup cavities, Gilmour

Shown above (L to R) - pickup cavities in a Fender American Vintage Reissue 57 Strat before and after routing to allow the EMG pickup height to be set very low

David had his red '57 reissue EMG Strat modified to get it as close to the sound of his regular passive single coil Strats as possible. This primarily involved routing the pickup cavities deeper to allow the EMG pickup heights to be reduced farther into the pickup cavity, allowing the pickup height to be set lower than what was possible in the stock 57 reissue Fender body. Presumably his spare red EMG Strat was also given the same modification. Fryer Guitars did this and a few other mods to the Red Strat in early 1988 when Pink Floyd was on tour in Australia. The depth of the reissue cavities was 5/8", but David had them routed 3-4mm deeper. Each of David's pickups appears to be set less than 3mm (1/8") above the pickguard. Considering the vintage white pickguard on David's red Strat is only a 1-ply 0.060" thickness, they are set very low indeed. David's string gauge at this time was .010, .012, .016, .028, .038, .048.

Phil (Phil Taylor, David's gear tech) told me that David particularly liked to set the EMG pickups as low as possible in the pickguard which gave him a more Strat-like tone from the powerful output fatter sounding EMG pickups. In other words, setting them low ‘thinned up’ the EMG sound somewhat and gave more of an approximation to the original style Strat pickup sound that David favoured - Greg Freyer / Freyer Guitars

Shown above - Note the thin 1-ply pick guard and how low Gilmour's EMG pickups are set. The pickup cavities were routed deeper so his EMG pickup height could be set lower than what was possible in the Stock 57 reissue Stratocaster.

Shown above - David had a blue triangle added over the #8 on the volume knob, preumabley to make it easier to see on stage. David almost alwasy had the volume set on 10 for solos, so thei may have been his rhythm setting.

EMG-DG20 CONTROLS AND SOUND - The first thing I must point out is that the SPC and EXG knobs are in reverse position in some DG-20 sets, so you should determine which is which on your set. I have a newer set with solderless plugs that has the SPC in the middle and EXG farthest from the volume knob. I also have an older set that has those reversed, like the arrangement in Gilmour's red Strats. The SPC (Strat Prescence Control) control is the one that us Gilmour tone freaks rave about. It is a presence control that boosts the mids, or rather the low mids. It does sort of what a humbucker does. It sharpens the tone while keeping the "thickness" intact and smooth, but boosts certain mid range frequencies so the guitar really stands out in a mix. It is very similar to the old Craig Anderton Frequency Booster circuit and the Eric Clapton Mid Boost control. It is perfect for use with Big Muff pedals, which have a scooped mid range and tend to get lost in a mix.

The EXG (Expanded Guitar) cuts the mids and boosts the bass and treble, or scoops the tone. Turn both knobs to 1 and they are disabled and you only hear the straight pickup tone, which is very good by itself without any EXG and SPC EQ'ing. In the bridge position it does not sound exactly like a vintage style single coil pickup, or a hotter pickup like the SSL-5. The EMG pick attack has a somewhat compressed feel to it compared to passive pickups, and the bloom that occurs with sustained notes does not have the same vintage character. The EMG pickup height can be set much lower than passive pickups to compensate for these differences, but the change is minimal.

I don't care much for the EXG control for any Gilmour tones so I usually keep it at 0. I use it to thicken up my clean tones for non-Gilmour sounds, but anything higher than 5 does not sound good in my rig. Based on concert videos Gilmour does not use it much either. I like keeping the SPC control off for clean tones, but for distortion I raise it between 5 and 10. The boosted output and mids make my vintage Big Muffs sound very articulate. It is also easy to get very distinct harmonics and feedback with the SPC cranked up. I usually have the volume set from 7-10.

Box 2008 EMG SA PickupsEMG guts EMG guts

Three sets of EMG SA pickups, each with a slightly different circuit layout and solderless plugs. Note that the SPC and EXG knobs are in reverse position on some DG20 sets

EMG SA pickups take some getting used to, so give them some time. It took me a long time to warm up to them and learn their strengths. They sound excellent for clean tones using the neck position, although I think vintage style passive pickups like the CS' 69 sound just as good. For Delicate Sound of Thunder/ Pulse era Pink Floyd tones, especially with a Tube Driver or Bozss CS-2 compressor, the SA neck pickup definitely hits the mark. The SA pickup in the bridge position produces very distinct warm mids and a bright tone when using fuzz-distortions like the Big Muff or Boss HM-2. EMG's really help get that Boss HM-2/Mesa Boogie Mark III tone from the Delicate Sound of Thunder and the Tube Driver into a Big Muff tone from the Pulse era, but passive single coils sound better to me for 1970's Fuzz Face and Colorsound Power Boost tones. The SA's are great when you want that P90 humbucker type tone from a Strat and excellent for clean and overdrive tones as heard in the live versions of Shine On You Crazy Diamond from Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse.

DISTORTION - Here are two clips of a distortion tone using EMG-DG20's, showing the difference with the SPC and EXG controls. Fender Deluxe strat with EMG-DG20 pickups -> Boss CS-2 compressor -> BK Butler Tube Driver -> Big Muff -> Boss GE-7 Equalizer set for mids boost ->TC Nova delay -> Boss CE-2 chorus -> Fender 65 Twin Reverb amp.


Demo of SPC control on and off with a Big Muff using bridge pickup.

COMPARISON CLIPS - EMG SA Strat with SPC control compared to a Seymour Duncan SSL-5 vintage style passive bridge pickup for comparison.

Demo of SPC control on 10 with a Big Muff using EMG SA bridge pickup

Same as above but with SPC off

spkrSeymour Duncan SSL-5 bridge pickup


spkrEXG control on 10. SPC on 0. Muff distortion on bridge pickup.

spkrEXG control on 2. SPC on 0. Muff distortion on bridge pickup.

Here is the same pedal board setup, but with a Seymour Duncan SSL-5 passive bridge pickup for comparison.

spkrSeymour Duncan SSL-5 bridge pickup. Muff distortion.

CLEAN - Here are examples of a clean tone through the EMG pickups. Fender Deluxe strat with EMG-SA neck pickup -> Boss CS-2 compressor -> TC Nova delay -> Fender 65 Twin RI amp.

spkrEXG control on 10. SPC on 0. Clean neck pickup tone.

spkrEXG control on 2. SPC on 0. Clean neck pickup tone.

Here is the same setup, but with Fender Custom Shop '69 passive neck pickup for comparison.

spkrFender Custom Shop '69 neck pickup.

EXG SETTINGS - Here is some clean tone noodling with the EXG control in different positions, mostly with the neck pickup. I think the SA pickups are the best out there for clean bluesy Strat tones, and the EXG can fatten up the neck pickup sound nicely by scooping the tone. Fender Deluxe strat with EMG-SA neck pickup -> Boss CS-2 compressor -> TC Nova delay -> Fender 65 Twin RI amp.

spkrClean tones with different EXG settings.

ON THE TURNING AWAY IMPROV - Here are the EMG-DG-20 pickups in all their glory, playing along to a backing track of Pink Floyd's On the Turning Away solo.

spkrBoss CS-2 Compressor > Red Army Overdrive (same as a Civil War Big Muff) > B.K. Butler Tube Driver > Boss GE-7 EQ > Boss CE-2 Chorus (70% in mix using a Barge VB Jr. loop mixer) > TC Electonic Nova Delay > cranked Fender TWin Reverb



These settings may not apply to your gear because your amplifier, effects, and your gear settings may sound different than David's Pulse rig, but if you have a similar rig to David's they should work. I use David's volume knob setting as a basis for where 10 would be on his red strat, as there are several solos that I know the volume is set on 10. David also has a blue arrow indicator over the #8 on his volume knob. Since most of his solos are on 10, I assume this mark was added for his rhythm volume.

Based on the Pulse DVD and On An Island Gdansk concert it would appear David's EMG-DG 20 solo settings typically are:

Vol : Always on 10
EXG : Always on 1 to 1.5
SPC : Around 1 for clean solos, and around 5 for distortion.



Here are David's settings from the first Coming Back to Life solo on the Pulse DVD, pictured below. I use David's volume knob setting as a basis for where 10 would be on his red strat. During the show, and in the intro solo to this song in particular, you can see David check to see if his volume is all the way up. Based on that, and the fact that it is mostly seen in this same position during solos, I think his volume is always on 10 for solos.

Vol : 10
EXG : 1
SPC : 1

The second and third solos look to be the same, pictured below, but the SPC is now on 4.5 (based on the direction TONE reads and the gap between 10 and 0 on the SPC knob). Just before the second solo you can see David check the knob position on the SPC.

Vol : 10
EXG : 1
SPC : 4.5


For Shine On You Crazy Diamond it is harder to see the settings for the intro on the Pulse DVD, pictured below, but if you look close at the two camera angles on a big screen you can see the light glint off the knobs and reveal the tone position. The SPC is either on 1 or 6.5. I can't see which direction TONE reads to know for sure, but listening I think this is 1. For the vocal section of the song the EXG is set at 1. I assume it is always set at 1 since the position never seems to change in any song. Volume is 10.

David also used the EMG strat for this song during the On An Island tour. The settings can be seen at various in the Live in Gdansk performance, pictured below (thanks to Rafal Zychal for the pix).

Vol : 10
EXG : 1-2
SPC : 1-2


The Pulse DVD settings for Sorrow vary during the song. The intro is show below. Gilmour has the SPC around 10 for this song.

The fills and both guitar solos have the settings shown below.

The Sorrow outro solo settings from different points in the solo are shown below. After the first few notes David increases the SPC control from around 1 all the way to 10. This helps with the feedback needed for the intro.


Comfortably Numb first solo settings from the Pulse DVD are shown below.

Vol : 10
EXG : 1
SPC : 1

For the second CN solo, shown below, the EXG is 1, and the SPC is around 4.5.

Vol : 10
EXG : 1
SPC : 4.5 to 5 (position based on gap bewteen 1 and 10 on knob)



The photo above is one of the only photos I have found, other than Pulse screen captures, where you can see David's settings on the red strat. The settings look identical to the CN second solo settings. This is from Phil Taylor's excellent book, The Black Strat. This photo appears to be from the Division Bell tour, or possibly the Pulse DVD concert.


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