When you think about pickup companies that built their reputation around giving players classic tones with contemporary sensibility, Lindy Fralin, Fender and Dunlop quickly come to mind. You don’t usually think EMG. Instead, that particular company is better known for focusing their products on the much more modern sounds of the last forty years with an emphasis on crisp, hot, detailed tones especially suited for heavy music. This has not only helped EMG solidify themselves as one of the more dominant PU manufacturers today, but has made the brand synonymous with several players and genres – simply do a quick search on their wildly popular 81 and 85 combination and you’ll get a sense of their typical loyal fanbase. And with that said, it came as a slight surprise when the company announced a couple of brand new pickups – the 57 Bridge and the 66 Neck – which are essentially trying to recreate the vintage PAF humbucker, albeit with an active system onboard. Today, we’re going to be checking out what this new combination can bring to the table. Let’s get started.
First off, both the 57 and 66 feature alnico 5 magnets which mean these pickups should offer a smoother, stronger midrange than the ceramic magnets used in most EMGs. The pole pieces on the 66 are still ceramic although the 57 comes equipped with steel pieces instead. Both come in a brushed chrome casing which retain EMG’s classic look with a bit of a vintage flair. Each also comes with an EMG solder-less kit consisting of a pair of 25k volume and tone pots, a 9V battery clip, wiring, mounting hardware, a small circuit board with slots for snapping components into place and of course an output jack. If you are particularly well versed in soldering, you can always solder the wiring from the pickup switch onto the tummy pads on the board if you don’t simply want to clamp them down with the included set of screws. Loading the set onto any humbucker compatible guitar should be a piece of cake. Seriously – you probably won’t find a set of pickups that install as easily as these!
One of the first things you’ll notice about this pickup combination is just how well it reacts to picking dynamics as well as the sensitivity of the volume knob, specifically in its eerily biting and PAF-like response. Sure, the 57 and 66 aren’t as ubiquitously smooth as some other PAF reproductions but what you lose in smoothness you get back in its excellent dynamics.
I decided to install the set on a Fender Pawnshop Telecaster HH and play it through a ’65 Fender Twin Reverb Reissue just to see just how much vintage and how much modern comprised its sound. I played a couple of riffs on the blues scale which quickly yielded a robust and extremely clean sound with tons of detail, sustain and output – most likely thanks to the active system. Some of the best PAFs out there will give you a huge, warm tone that’s clear and crisp despite their low signal output, a signature sound of this pickup variety. The 66 in particular nails this almost exactly while smoothing out the low end when you roll back the guitar’s volume. And better still, it also has that high-end crispness and detail that a lot of neck PAFs lose when you cut the output.
Throwing in some distortion into the mix beefed up the tone on the 66 even more, though the dynamics did take a small hit. Even then, I was able to churn out some very nice vintage Clapton “woman” tones (think Cream-era) with extremely smooth mids that rolled in slow and subtly under lead settings.
In comparison, the 57 is a much more leveled, even-sounding pickup. The mids and highs were just as present although the lows were tighter and sharper than the thick and booming 66. Some ‘70s rock inspired riffs and heavy attack showcased a twangy midrange that softened nicely as you eased up. The highs were smooth while the lows stayed focused and punchy as I piled on the gain. Clarity was excellent and complex mids remained clean and uncluttered even under heavy distortion. Dynamics suffered a bit from the added gain, and decreased sensitivity and range was even more pronounced with hard-rock and metal tones—though it was still impressive for a PAF-style pickup. The lows were tight—not unlike an EMG 81—and the highs and mids flattened out in a way that complemented driving rhythms.
All in all, the mix of vintage inspired sound and EMG’s uncanny knowledge of modern active pickups makes the 57 Bridge and 66 Neck a very unique set of pups. Although this combo’s slight loss of fidelity and dynamics when played under medium to heavy gain might be a drawback for some of EMG’s typical fanbase, guitarists looking for a whole new refresh on what a modern PAF tone can be will absolutely love the detail and clarity. Under the right players, the 66 and 57 can certainly carve themselves out a place on top of EMG’s pickup pedestal along with the 85 and 81.