A Brief History of High–Output Pickups

For decades, the stock pickup on your guitar was the one you were stuck with.

None of them were really perfect. The Fender–style single coil snapped and sparkled but revealed a 60–cycle hum when run through enough gain. Its predecessor, the Gibson P–90, sounded beefier but suffered the same issue.

Of course, hum was never an issue with the classic PAF Humbucker that Seth Lover designed for Gibson in 1955. While that would prove just fine for guitarists all the way through the ‘60s, the rise of high–gain amps and artists’ desire for dirtier tones would lead to some serious questions about the PAF Humbucker’s true power.

When the music world came to and realized that guitarists didn’t have to live and die by stock pickups, an explosion of innovation ignited the market. After–market pickup companies started designing higher output pickups for the hard rock and metal guitarists who demanded them.

The high–output pickups of the ‘70s and ‘80s would become so popular that they’d start coming standard in manufactured guitars.

Tech–savvy pickup manufacturers like DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and EMG provided guitarists with a wide range of options that would ultimately help shape the tone of metal and hard rock music from the ‘70s onward. These are the lauded high–output pickups that stood the test of time.

1972: DiMarzio Super Distortion

Today, DiMarzio's marketing strategy behind its Super Distortion pickup is simple: “The pickup that started it all.”

With a measurable output standing tall above pickups of the day, the DiMarzio Super Distortion was designed to coax more overdrive out of an amplifier.

DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbucker

Larry DiMarzio’s simple yet major innovation was using a ceramic magnet instead of the period’s more popular AlNiCo 5 and AlNiCo 2 magnets. DiMarzio also used a great number of winds on the coil, sculpting a sound designed to push low–gain amplifiers into earlier breakup.

The result is widely regarded as the industry's first mass–produced replacement pickup, becoming a smash hit among guitarists as early as 1975, when longtime DiMarzio user Ace Frehley's guitar tone on “Rock & Roll All Nite” and Kiss' subsequent “Alive!” record captivated the world of rock.

Soon after, Iron Maiden's Dave Murray would carve out a home in his Fender Stratocaster for the pickup, signaling the onset of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Super Distortion remains in production today, still acting as a gateway for many into the world of replacement pickups.

1977 through 1981: Seymour Duncan JB, Distortion, and Invader.

Around the time Larry DiMarzio's Staten Island pickup company began to take off, a guitarist with a knack for re–winding pickups was making strides of his own.

The year was 1976 and the guitarist was Seymour Duncan, a young luthier who had cut his teeth at Fender's Soundhouse Research & Development division starting seven years prior.

1976 was the same year that Seymour Duncan's first mass–produced humbucking pickup, the JB, was launched. Some say that “JB” refers to Jeff Beck, others say it stands for “Jazz/Blues.” Either way, the AlNiCo 5–based JB represented was designed to push guitar amps into singing overdrive while providing enough versatility to allow for volume knob and picking dynamics.

By the time Seymour Duncan introduced the SH–6 Distortion pickup in 1980, it was becoming clear what guitarists were after. Like the DiMarzio Super Distortion, the SH–6 used a ceramic magnet to balance cutting–edge output levels with a distinctive upper–mid spike, providing guitarists with new levels of clarity and cut while respecting the demand for more aggressive, saturated tones.

Seymour Duncan SH-8b Invader Bridge Pickup

The Duncan Distortion would be followed up almost immediately with the Invader model in 1981. It was armed with oversized pole pieces, overwound coils, and not one, but three ceramic magnets. This made the Invader great for bass frequencies and lower–midrange thump, resulting in a never–before–heard fullness from an electric guitar.

All three models are still produced by Seymour Duncan today, and each boasts a discreet fan club of high–profile players.

Guitarists ranging from Megadeth's Dave Mustaine to Avenged Sevenfold's Zacky Vengance have been spotted with the Duncan JB. The Duncan Distortion's legacy was cemented early on thanks to Randy Rhoades, whose buzzsaw tone was nearly as influential as his formidable chops. The Invader, too, found its way onto signature guitar models such as Schecter's Synyster Gates Avenger.

The company also would go on to introduce 7–string and 8–string models of each pickup to accommodate the demands of guitarists with extended range instruments, keeping each design relevant to this day.

1981: EMG 81 and 85

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south of Seymour Duncan's headquarters, electronics aficionado and musician Rob Turner was hard at work pioneering a pickup design completely unlike anything heard before: the active pickup.

EMG pickups was launched by Turner in 1976 as “Dirtywork Studios,” with the EMG SA single coil pickup and EMG 58 humbucker released shortly thereafter.

The EMG 58 in particular represented a step forward in pickup design, with Turner realizing his initial dream of marrying existing pickup technology with an onboard preamp powered by battery. On top of the tonal benefits, these active pickups were designed to completely eliminate hum, reduce risk of electrical shock, and compensate for long cables, which typically degrade input signals.

EMG pickups were found on Steinberger's headless guitars in the early 1980s and were fiercely marketed toward Los Angeles session players like Steve Lukather, whose custom pickup set remains in production.

But it wouldn't be long before EMG struck gold in the metal community with its flagship models, the EMG 81 and 85, released in 1981. Those pickups were immediately popularized by metal giants such as Zakk Wylde and Metallica's Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield.

EMG's pickups quickly became popular among metal guitarists due to their combination of dynamics and clarity — a necessity as the 1980s and 1990s spawned more extreme styles of metal across the globe.

EMG 85 Humbucking Active Guitar Pickup

What immediately drew metal guitarists to active pickups? The answer, simply, was output. More output from the pickups means that more power hits the input stage of an amplifier.

EMG's active pickups quickly became known for their wide frequency response and low noise levels, designed with weaker magnets than conventional humbuckers that could be boosted significantly by that onboard preamp. Weaker magnets also made for reduced string pull, which, in turn, boosted sustain.

Those active pickups’ wide frequency range would lend itself well to onboard equalization that would appear on more and more metal guitars, with knobs dedicated to bass, midrange, and treble frequencies.

Another interesting innovation that appeared on these pickups were rail–style steel bars replacing pole pieces. This meant that no signal would be lost when strings were bent, since the bar was continuous, not limited in size like the pole–pieces that were previously standard in pickup design.

This rail design would catch on with the likes of Duncan and DiMarzio for their hum–cancelling single coil pickups and humbuckers alike.

A wide range of guitar manufacturers would go on to make the time–tested combo of an EMG 81 and 85 stock on a variety of models, including ESP, Schecter, Epiphone, Ibanez, and Jackson. With those pickups appearing on all sorts models, from entry–level to professional grade, EMG's ubiquity within the world of metal remains unparalleled.

Present Day: A Market Flooded with Options

Fast forward to 2017, and thousands of options exist for guitarists looking to alter their sound by way of replacement pickups.

The industry's biggest icons — DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and EMG — continue to push boundaries on all sides of the spectrum. Duncan's first foray into active electronics — the Blackout series — has proven quite popular among metal guitarists, for instance.

Manufacturers have also capitalized on the the surging popularity of both 7– and 8–string guitars. EMG's 707/808 series is a standard for extended range instruments alongside Seymour Duncan's passive offerings, including not only the aforementioned Distortion and Invader, but also its Black Winter, Sentient, Pegasus, and Nazgûl lines.

Meanwhile, DiMarzio still makes a convincing case for itself as a leading pickup manufacturer, with several custom models tailored to meet the demands of guitarists, such as an Evolution for Steve Vai and a Crunch Lab for Dream Theater's John Petrucci.

This doesn't even scratch the surface of other pickup manufacturers, ranging from England's Bare Knuckle Pickups to Texas’s Rio Grande Pickups. These smaller manufacturers do their part as inheritors of a tradition started by Larry DiMarzio’s design for the Super Distortion: to blend great tone and high–output in a package that captures the imagination of guitarists across the world.

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