I tried to avoid active pickups for the longest time, just didn't want to have to deal with batteries and all the negative views on them. Eventually I just bought one and was pleasantly surprised. They do have a different sound from passive pickups but it's in no way a negative difference. They are very tight sounding, low noise, and have a great crunch to them. They are pretty bright so that's all personal taste, but I like it. Hard to describe the stale sound but it's like they're so tight and clean sounding it's almost unnatural, but in a good way. There's no fizziness or any annoying spiked frequencies to these, just overall a great pickup. On cleans they really excel IMO. I like a very bright, sparkly, chimey clean tone and these just nail it. Perfect example is the clean tone off MetallicA's And Justice For All album. They used EMG 81's in the neck into a Roland JC120 for that album and the EMG 81 is a huge part of that tone. Later they switched to using the EMG 60 in the neck but that album is all 81.
Anyways there’s a 18 volt mod that some people are doing, it increases the headroom. The new X series are designed to be like the 18 volt mod but more dramatic, and only run on a single 9 volt. I tried the mod and wasn’t really impressed. I didn’t notice much of a difference at all. It was slight, the overall tone was quieter and thinner, but nothing you’d ever notice in a band setting or multitracking. I’d prefer to stick with 9 volts to save batteries.
I own 3 along with some of the X series and various other EMG pickups, this one is by far my favorite. Check out my 81x review for a little more in depth comparison.
I tried my first 81 model probably a decade ago in an ESP guitar. At the time it blew my mind. It was super aggressive and super hot. It always cut through and seems to slice through every amp I used with it. It had killer bass response too. Sure the cleans don't sound too hot with it but isn't that what the EMG 60 is for? I really think this pickup only lends itself to heavy metal type players. It's way too overdriven for light rock or anything like that. It's hard to get a sound out of it that's not blistering distortion.
These are active pickups of course and so your EQ will be a bit more responsive. One problem I always had with my 81 was a lack of dynamic response. Rolling down on the volume knob never seems to do too much to clean it up (god forbid when you want a little less DISTORTION) from it. A friend of mine suggested a mod he heard about where you wire another battery in the loop to make it an effective 18 volt pickup. I figured heck why not and gave it a go. The result is a very responsive and dynamic pickup with tons of headroom. It almost turns it into a passive pickup in some ways. It makes the 81 sound more organic and less machinelike if that makes any sense at all.
I don't really recommend this to anyone but hard rock and heavy metal type players. I have tried it for other genres and it's just not fit for it, even with mods. Still, for my prog metal playing it can't be beat. I love it. The clarity is just so much better than passive pickups. notes really pop. It's really a love or hate kind of pickup.
For years, EMG has been an instantly recognized name in heavier genres of music for their high output active pickups. And who doesn’t recognize the ‘blacked out’ look of their matte black covered pickups? Used by top acts such as Metallica, Slayer, Zakk Wylde, and MANY more modern bands, EMG has defined a sound of its own that some love, and others don’t.
The 81 a ceramic magnet humbucker usually found as the bridge pickup in EMG’s recommended sets. As with all EMG pickups, it features a quick connect interfacing of circuitry and pickup, so that pickups can be swapped easily. In an active design, pickups usually have weak magnets, and couple with a preamp (the ‘active’ part of the circuit) to boost and mold the signal. This is why EMG pickups are usually found set very close to the strings. The preamp is also why EMG’s tend to sound a bit more similar in different guitars than your average pickup.
In the bridge, the 81 is a very sharp, compressed, and percussive pickup. It offers a very quick and tight low end, which lends itself well for adding clarity to dropped tunings. The midrange is slightly scooped, and treble response is sharp. Harmonics fly off nearly every position of the fretboard with this pickup. Those looking for a constantly aggressive, tight, and quick sound tend to love the 81, though it quickly comes off as sterile when used in more mellow applications. The hot signal of the EMGs pushes an amplifier hard, so cleans can come off as harsh and even distorted. When using the 81, I like to couple it with the 18V mod, to add a little depth and undo some of the treble peak.
Oddly enough, I also find the 81 to be a GREAT neck pickup. It is much clearer than the usual 85 EMG recommends, and definitely produces a more ‘glassy’ sound. With the quick connect cables, it is easy to try this, and you might be pleasantly surprised!
The EMG 81 is probably one of the company's best known pickups and is highly regarded by the metal community worldwide for its tightness, compression and output. I've tried it in many different guitars by Gibson, ESP, Jackson, Schecter, etc and I've come to the conclusion that it's a great pickup for higher gain metal applications. However, my tastes have changed quite a bit in the last couple of years and that type of high output pickup doesn't really do too much for me anymore tone wise. However I'll try and give as unbiased a review as I can.
First off, I should mention that when I was more into active electronics, I found that EMGs wired for 18 volts (as opposed to 9 volts) sounded thicker, punchier and just BETTER overall. Not that 9 volt operation sounds bad, it's just that I (along with many others) just feel that the 18 volt wiring sounds better.
The clean tones are very interesting to me. I find that they're better in many ways, such as the amount of clarity, the top end sparkle and the built in compression. The resulting tone is one that is a little bit more high fidelity sounding when compared to a passive humbucker, which I find is great for eighties and modern clean sounds. However, if I want to really dig in and get a bluesier and more tube-like character... I don't find that this pickup gets there very well. It just has this "perfect" character that doesn't really allow for things like gutsy blues tones to shine through.
The distorted tones are very high output and killer for nineties rock through to modern metal. The added output and compression that comes from the active circuitry really helps to add a cool dimension to the sound. They retain their clarity at even the highest of gain levels, and are quite articulate as well. That being said, they definitely lack some of the openness of passive humbuckers, and doing things like volume rollback/swells or using fairly low gain levels doesn't sound all that stellar to me, so given my current (more vintage based) musical tastes... this pickup doesn't really work well for me.
All in all I feel that the EMG 81 is a great active pickup for those seeking something that is articulate and has that cool high fidelity character. However, for those wanting a more vintage vibe to their tones... look elsewhere.