For those who have been wanting to install both active EMG pickups along with a piezo system, here’s a basic walkthrough of the procedure. In this case I’m installing the new EMG 57/66 coupled with a Ghost/Resomax bridge system from Graph Tech.
I had been searching for a good set of pickups for my ’07 Gibson Les Paul Classic Custom for some time. I was pretty happy with my neck pickup (an old Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro), but could never find a satisfactory pickup for the all-important bridge position. I was approached by the super-nice Artist Relations manager at EMG, Chrys Johnson, who kindly offered to send me some of the new humbuckers they just released, the 57 bridge and 66 neck models to try out. Of course I was intrigued by the description, and wanted to give these a shot as I’ve also heard much buzz about these new, great pickups.
And I’m floored by the result! These are THE best active pickups I’ve ever heard – clarity & definition even under searing amounts of gain, yet still sensitive to dynamics if you roll off the volume and remain very open sounding. No particular frequencies seem to overpower each other, and soloing on the 66 neck is absolutely flub-free on the lower strings. These are also very versatile, sounding very good for many different styles. And, the brushed finish coupled with the flat poles looks KILLER. An active with passive attributes – very impressed! 😉
Now, if I was going active in this particular guitar, I might as well go whole-hog and also install the great Graph Tech Ghost piezo system that I had been sitting on for a while. This will also give me electro-acoustic capability, and coupled with the Acousti-Phonic preamp, gives excellent pseudo-acoustic tone that I find to be the least ‘plasticy or quacky’ sounding compared to similar offerings from other companies. The Mid/Dark push-pull pot and Quick Switch were also installed for more switching options.
The main criteria for this whole installation is that no permanent or irreversible modifications are to be made to the guitar itself, save for a small hole in one plastic pickup ring, which is cheaply replaced. Ok, enough of my rambling. Let’s get to it.
Our test subject:
The Duncan neck pickup mentioned, and the current bridge pickup is a vintage 1975 Dimarzio Super Distortion.
First, we need to remove the existing Gibson guts, as EMG’s use different value pots – 25k ohm vs. the passive’s usual 500k. Conveniently in this case, they’re all mounted onto a grounding base plate for quick removal. You’re going to need a fairly hot soldering iron, at least 40 watts and preferably a chisel tip (as opposed to the thin pencil tip) for heating through the thicker globs of solder on the backs of the pots holding grounding wires. Pickups are unsoldered first, followed by unsoldering the switch leads and then the bridge ground wire from the neck volume control casing as shown here. (Note: make sure to place a cloth across the finish between the control cavity and the path of the soldering iron – one accidental drip of hot solder off the tip WILL instantly burn a hole into the nitrocellulose finish!)
Have both small phillips and flat head screwdrivers handy, as they will see lots of use throughout this install. Carefully unscrew and remove the existing pickups starting with the bridge pickup.
Remove the retaining nuts and flat washers from the pots using a 1/2″ socket driver, or crescent wrench. Never use pliers to do this job, as it’s way too easy to slip and scratch or gouge the finish, and certainly marrs the nut.
Since we are also changing the output jack to a stereo switching jack, remove the old one using the same 1/2″ socket. You can do this without having to remove the jack plate if you wish.
Voila! You should be able to gently wiggle out the whole assembly together in one piece, for easy storage should you ever wish to restore the guitar back to stock at a later time. Don’t forget the lock washers, which were already removed before the pic was taken. This will leave only the multi-lead from the toggle switch and the bridge ground wire remaining.
Now things get interesting.
First take the switch leads and tape them off out of the way. To keep it simple here, just take out the supplied EMG quick-connect pots and follow the straightforward instructions. You will need an 11mm wrench for the pot nuts. Because we’re also installing an additional board and wiring for the piezo, now’s the time that we need to think ahead a bit about the placement of parts and conservation of space. There’s a couple of options, but first we need to leave one space open for the push-pull volume/Mid/Dark pot. I decided to go with a 2 volume/master tone setup, with the piezo volume pot going where the neck tone control was previously for closer access.
Now install the Ghost Mid/Dark volume pot. This uses a slightly smaller metric nut, 10mm in this case.
Now we remove the old pickups from the mounting rings, as we’re going to reuse these shortly.
On the left is the original Gibson Nashville tunematic bridge (with String-saver saddles), and the new lightweight Resomax bridge on the right. Besides being made from more resonant, milled aluminum, two other great improvements are the addition of 2 small magnets imbedded into the underside of the main body that connect with the steel bridge support posts so that the bridge won’t fall off during string changes. Nice! And more importantly, the inclusion of a slot-headed post for height adjustment that does away with the fumbly thumb wheels that Gibson has used since it’s introduction in 1956. I’ve been harping on about this for years, and as much as I love Gibsons and their sticking to traditional ways in many aspects, sometimes certain things really do need upgrading, and this is one of them. Wake up Gibson, you put slot-head adjustment on cheaper Epiphone tunematics, but not the real deal? Let’s get with the program guys.
Now we need to determine where the piezo wires are going to enter into the guitar, and the closest and least intrusive area is to go through the plastic pickup ring and down through the pickup cavity into the main control cavity area. First, the six piezo saddles wires are neatly collected in a row underneath the bridge and the small exposed section is bundled tight and taped together using black nylon tape, which will help disguise the exposed wires and make them almost invisible at a distance. Screw the ring down with a couple of screws to hold it in place while making the wire entry hole markings.
It must be noted here that Graph Tech stipulates in their instructions the importance of positioning the bridge so that the intonation adjustment screws are facing forward toward the pickup, rather than the usual placement of facing back towards the tailpiece. They say that it’s for the correct contact of the piezo saddles to function properly, but they all appear to be identical aside from the individual radius heights (including the string slots)…so this makes it awkward from a intonation adjustment standpoint and makes no sense to me. But for sake of correctness, I’ll go against my better judgment here and do it regardless.
Hole position is marked…
Now remove the ring and proceed to make a channel hole in the bottom edge where it sits against the body. Preferably hold the workpiece in a small vice as shown, or some way to have a firm grip on it. In this case and for speed, I use a Dremel and a small routing bit, but you can also do this old-school with a round, or ‘Rat-tail’ file, which just takes a matter of minutes instead of seconds with the Dremel. You *can* use a 1/4″ drill bit, but there’s a good chance the bit will skate off-course if you don’t have a steady hand, or may grab and crack the plastic ring if you’re not careful.
Now we have our entrance hole for the piezo wires, and you can clean up the edges with a small file or Xacto blade. Remember that this is the only permanent modification of the whole job, and can easily be replaced back to stock later if necessary.
Now back to the bridge. The six individual piezo wires are now connected to a tiny summing board and taped together to prevent coming apart. This sends the combined signal to a single two-conductor output, which connects to the Acousti-phonic preamp board in the control cavity.
Screw the EMG’s into the corresponding pickup rings, and install the neck pickup first along with the quick-connect lead into the control cavity. For keeping the amount of wires inside the control area to a minimum, I find it best to gently stuff the piezo summing board down into the wiring channel behind the bridge pickup cavity, and just run the one master output lead into the control cavity for connection. At this point shown here, you’re ready to drop in the EMG bridge pickup, which you can see the connector ready. *Be mindful of the piezo wire bundle as you’re inserting the bridge pickup – it’s a tight fit and be careful!
What you end up with will look like this, and is about the neatest, most discreet method of doing this job on a Les Paul. This is only visible from close inspection.
Ugh. Now to attend to this rat’s nest. First thing is hook up the EMG’s following the instructions for a two volume/master tone setup, and also the Ghost setup following the instructions with the EMG master output going into the MAG input on the preamp. There is an additional power feed from the Ghost board that also feeds the EMG’s so that the whole thing can be powered from a single battery instead of two separate units to save space. The switching output jack of the Ghost system was utilized instead of the quick-connect one supplied by EMG, so those needed to be soldered on as well.
Now put in a battery, plug the guitar in, and do a tap test of the two pickups and the piezos, making sure you have a signal going through and that all the pots do what they’re supposed to be doing.
Finding good placement for the quick-connect and Ghost boards is important, and I found that the inside walls of the control cavity are best, with carefully coiling of all protruding wires and fastening them together with zip-ties, making sure to leave enough space for the battery and holder (attached to the inside of the cavity cover) to fit between them all in the middle.
Now flip the guitar over and using the old bridge saddles as a guide, we quickly ‘ballpark’ the intonation, string it up, and finish setting up the guitar.
We now have some sonic bliss and pseudo-acoustic action going on! The look is very clean, with the ‘neck tone’ now being the piezo master volume, and pulling up on it will switch the Mid/Dark setting.
The brushed metal covers of the new EMG’s look SMASHING!
As great as it was sounding on all fronts, I found I was missing the ability to quickly switch between magnetics/both/piezos on the fly, without doing some fast knob twirling involved as the piezo was either always on or off with just the master volume. In keeping with the ‘No permanent mods to the guitar’ by not drilling for another switch to accomplish what I wanted, I decided that on this guitar I really could do without a tone control at all, which I rarely use anyway. The remaining master tone control was removed from it’s position in the bridge tone space, the piezo Vol/Mid/Dark pot moved there, and the 3-way Quick connect switch was installed there instead.
And the final result looks super clean, does exactly what I want it to, and sounds GREAT!