The story so far… I’ve brought my 1997 Gibson Les Paul Classic Goldtop out of retirement and have started to upgrade it so that I can use it live with the Phazyluckers. First off, I replaced the existing Klusons with Gotoh Magnum Lock tuners. I’m very happy with these – super stable tuning and an upgrade that certainly makes the guitar a serious proposition for gigs. Secondly, in the first Pimping my ride article, I started playing around with changing pickup rings and knobs to give the guitar a meaner “rock machine” look. Which brings us to this article, the installation of active EMG pickups.
Because I like them. No, they are not very dynamic. Yes, they can be sterile (though whether this is really true depends a lot on amp EQ and playing technique). But they are just great for high gain – authoritative, balanced, good string definition, no mush – and sound perfect in the right context. So, after some indecisive days wondering whether or not to go to the hassle (and expense) of this conversion, I finally decided to install an EMG Zakk Wylde set comprising an EMG 81 pickup for bridge, an EMG 85 for the neck, and wiring kit of long-shaft pots (essential for real Les Paul’s) and solderless connectors. These solderless connectors are great and make for an easy job for those of us not very adept with a soldering iron. If only passive pickup manufacturers would do something similar!
An important point for those considering doing the same modification: get the Zakk Wylde kit. It’s no more expensive than buying the EMG 81/85 combo individually and – more importantly – it comes with the long-shaft pots needed for a Gibson Les Paul. If you just buy the EMG’s separately you will have to fork out for the long-shaft pot kit on top, as EMGs are normally supplied with short-shaft pots, which are no good at all for this application.
Final point before we get on with this walk-through: assuming you are replacing passive pickups you cannot use your existing pots and wiring with the EMGs, you must use the one’s supplied by EMG. This is because they are much lower resistance (25k) compared to the usual 300k to 500k pots used in this type of guitar.
Removing the existing wiring
First job, once the strings are off the guitar and the bridge/tailpiece posts taped up so that they don’t move out of adjustment, is to remove the existing wiring. You will need a soldering iron for this to de-solder the various connections. In my guitar (and the vast majority of production Les Paul’s) the pots are mounted to a plate which sits in the pots cavity. Therefore, one only needs to deal with the following in order to be able to remove the pots and mounting plate as a single unit:
- De-solder the pickup wires from the volume pots
- De-solder the bridge ground wire. De-solder it only, DO NOT try to remove this wire from the guitar. Although it is not needed for the EMG’s, you will need it if you ever swap back to passive pickups.
- De-solder the jack socket wires from the mounting plate
- De-solder the toggle switch wires. Before doing so, it is worth noting which toggle switch wire goes where so that you know how to re-connect these to the EMG wiring. Wiring up the switch to the EMG “patchbay” was the one area where I had a few problems – mainly because I don’t (or rather, didn’t) know how these switches are wired up. Take photos of your existing wiring before you do anything or, better still, sketch out a wiring diagram so that you have a record of what goes where.
EMG pickup installation
Here’s my pictorial walk-through of the replacement of the existing passive pickups with EMG active pickups (81 in the bridge and 85 in the neck). Please excuse the quality of some of the photos, all of which were taken with an iPhone in varying lighting conditions and the iPhone camera is pretty rubbish in low / artificial light.
A brief resume of what this job involves, including some tips:
- Remove various connections as described above
- Remove the volume/tone knobs and undo their retaining nuts and position pointers from the now exposed pot shafts
- Remove the existing jack socket
- Remove the pots mounting plate, with existing pots, caps and wiring intact
- Remove the existing pickups.
- Fit the new EMG pickups to their mounting rings and run the EMG pickup connector wire from the mounting cavity to the pots cavity. Tape the pickup rings in place as, once the wiring is finished, any excess pikcup wire should be coiled up in the pickup cavity and it’s a pain unscrewing/screwing the pickup mounting ring screws.
- Fit the new EMG pots, paying particular attention to identifying which ones are for volume and which are for tone (tip: the volume posts have six connectors, the tones have 4). The EMG pots come with two nuts and two thin washers. I used the washer on the topside and then placed the pointer and retaining nut on top of this. No doubt at the Gibson factory they have a special tool for holding the pointer in position as the retaining nut is tightened. However, I don’t have such a tool and found it was easy for the pointer to rotate as the nut is tightened, resulting in scratches to the guitar finish. Hence the use of the washer between the guitar body and the pointer.
- When fitting the pots pay attention to the position of the nut which is placed on the shaft within the pots cavity. This nut determines how much of the pot shaft protrudes through the top of the guitar and, thanks to the Les Paul having a carved top, you will need to experiment a little to ensure that the position of this nut is correct. When making these adjustments, the idea is to have the top of the pot shaft positioned so that the knob will fit fully on the top and neither hits the body (which means the pot shaft isn’t protruding enough), nor is there a large gap between the skirt of the knob and the pointer (which means that the pot shaft is protruding too much).
- Tip: Tighten the pots before you do any wiring up. Once the pots are in position, tighten up the top retaining nuts. I found that firm hand-tight is plenty tight enough.
- Fit the new EMG-supplied jack socket and tighten up it’s retaining nut. Don’t go mad here – the jack socket plate is only plastic.
- Following the wiring diagram supplied in the EMG kit, install the various cables as per the EMG diagram
Use a length of shrinkwrap or other non-conducting material on the bridge earth wire and tuck the wire out of the way somewhere in the pots cavity.
- Fit the EMG patchbay and connect the two red pickup wires to it.
- Fit the jock socket wires and battery clip to the patchbay.
- Slightly tricky bit now: wire up the switch connectors. On my guitar, black = output, green = ground, red = bridge, white = neck. Yours may be different. Also, although the cable sleeve was earthed to one of the volume pots in the original wiring, I found that this sleeve should not be connected to the EMG patchbay. I just popped a small piece of shrinkwrap over it to stop it shorting out on anything.
- Connect the battery
- Plug the guitar into an amp and tap the face of the pickups with a screwdriver and check that a sound is produced in accordance with the position of the pickup toggle switch. If you get no sound – or a high-pitched whine – you’ve screwed up the wiring somewhere, most likely the wiring of the toggle switch wires to the EMG patchbay.
- That’s it! You’re done!
Guitar sounds great! Loads of output (of course) and this guitar is now much more hard rock than classic rock/blues.
I must say that for someone like me who is pretty useless with a soldering iron, the EMG solderless system is fantastic. The instructions are easy to follow, quality of components appears to be good, and it really was quite an easy job to do. I estimate that the whole thing took a couple of hours in total, and I would be more than happy to do the same work on another guitar.
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