Check out the February issue of MMR magazine with a feature Upfront Q&A with EMG's owner /founder Rob Turner.
2011 marks the 35th anniversary of EMG Pickups, one of the premier names in the field and, for many, the name in active pickup design.
EMG (stands for “Electro-Magnetic Generator”) pickups have been standard equipment on certain models available from guitar suppliers such as Gibson, Jackson, BC Rich, and Ibanez, and are also popular aftermarket pickups. The higher output provided by active pickups has made EMG a favorite amongst numerous high-profile hard rock and heavy metal artists and the company has enjoyed relationships with the likes of Zakk Wylde, Metallica, and Slayer, among many others. MMR recently spoke with EMG founder Rob Turner about the organization’s history – from operating out of his family’s garage to now employing over 100 in a 30,000 sq. ft., high-tech facility – as well as current projects and thoughts on the future…
MMR: Going way back, how did the company name transition first form ‘Dirtywork Studios’ to ‘Overlend’ and then to the current, longstanding moniker?
Rob Turner: “The Dirtywork Studios” was the name for my amp building and repair business. I named it that because I was always cleaning up after poorly made and designed amplifiers (laughs). When I decided I would get started into pickup design, it just naturally followed that I would call the pickups “Dirty Works.” The switch to Overlend was kind of strange. I needed to get rid of the Dirty Works Name, and wanted something that sounded more business like. It was also then that the “EMG Series Pickups” EMG [Electro-Magnetic Generator] came about. Eventually we got rid of the corporate names and became just EMG.
MMR: How many folks were initially on staff and how many are currently employed at EMG?
RT: I started the company in the back of my parents’ garage in Long Beach, California. It was actually my Dad’s radio shop in my earlier years. He was the importer for Yaesu, a Japanese ham radio maker and the garage was his shop before I took it over. I later moved up to Sonoma County where I had visited as a working musician and my brother was still living there. I wanted to get out of the L.A. area, my brother needed a job, so…
The two of us ran the show until 1978 when we hired our first employees. Now in 2010 we have well over 100 employees in our tiny village, and most of those folks have been here for many years.
MMR: Can you describe the current facilities, compared to earlier “home bases” for EMG?
RT: Well, as we talked about, the first facility was literally the garage, then a bedroom, then an outbuilding in the backyard, then back to another garage, then to one of those metal buildings with six units, then to Coffey Lane [Santa Rosa, Calif.], which was 10,000 sq. ft., then to Aviation [Blvd., Santa Rosa. Current location] with 30,000 sq. ft. I think the outbuilding was my favorite…
MMR: What were some of the key partnerships – artists or guitar makers – that were defining moments for EMG?
RT: We’ve had several key partnerships. I can remember when a simple payment from Michael Dolan guitars (a local repairman/luthier) paid our rent, and that was certainly key. I have to mention Frank Garlock, (DownBeat Magazine ad salesman) who, at my first NAMM show in 1976, introduced me to the industry. He was like meeting your grandfather: he knew everybody, had all the right intentions, and was just a beauty of a guy. Otherwise I would have to mention Ned Steinberger, who in turn introduced us to Hap Kuffner, who has been with us since 1982.
We learned the “art of the deal” when we designed a line of pickups for the Fender “Elite” Series back in 1982. Fender had us design and build a bunch of prototypes for a studio tour (LA, NYC and Nashville) to see if they wanted to incorporate EMGs. Things went really well on the tour, then I think they decided to try to buy EMG rather than have us build the pickups. Well… we went to Fullerton, had a meeting and they offered us practically nothing for EMG. It was then that I figured out we were better off in charge of our own destiny.
The artists who really helped us throughout the years would have to be, Peter Frampton, Steve Lukather, David Gilmour, the Metallica guys, and Zakk Wylde. There are many more, and more to come, but those are the guys who stand out in my mind.
MMR: Backtracking a bit, can you talk about your own personal history in gear design and the industry?
RT: I started designing pickups when I was a teenager – probably 15 or 16 – but it wasn’t until I got tired of hoisting amplifiers up onto a bench that I figured I would re-introduce myself back to pickup design. That was in 1975, I was 21 years old. I got my first business license in 1976 as DirtyWork Studios. I started out making pickups for my local amp repair customers and for a local shop in Long Beach “World of Strings.” I got lots of feedback, made a lot of good and bad decisions, but ended up on my feet.
The Pickup “industry” as a replacement product is due primarily to Larry DiMarzio. I’m sure others might make the claim, but I think Larry was really the first to understand the value both artistically and financially the “pickup business.” I was on a totally different track than DiMarzio, I had made up my mind early [as a teen] that the “Active Pickup” was what I wanted to do, so I think Larry made it easier for all of us. The music industry is the best. It’s almost entirely family run, there’s no pretension, just a bunch of honest working folks.
MMR: EMG pickups resonate particularly strongly with hard rock and metal guitarists. Was that something you aimed for? What are your thoughts on the company’s relationship with those types of players and with the metal/rock community, overall?
RT: We never meant for EMG’s to be the “Heavy Metal” pickup of choice. When I originally designed the pickup the features were meant most for Studio recording and live performance. The basic fundamentals of the EMG design have features that passive pickups simply don’t have. Low-Noise for one, frequency response different than guitarists were used to, and a host of other features simply make for a well-conceived product. The fact that Heavy Metal players like them is a real plus. And I think the statistic that most of the music played on guitar these days is heavy metal pretty much seals our fate. I didn’t set out to make a Heavy Metal Pickup, it just worked out that way. After all, it’s amazing that with as many tattoos and crazy looks these guys, mostly, have they’ve turned out to be the nicest bunch of folks I’ve ever met.
MMR: Of course the ACS and other acoustic systems from EMG appeal to non-metal artists. In what other was is EMG attempting to broaden its appeal and reach – or are you, even?
RT: It used to be that most of our endorsers were studio guys, then we were found out by the heavy metal scene. I spend most of my time designing for particular instruments these days. Someone brings me a unique instrument and wants it to sound as natural electrified as it does acoustically. This is the kind of work I love. Banjo has become my latest experiment. I’m working on a whole new series of pickups for acoustic instruments, even though we might not get any credibility for them.
From a business point of view, our company looks as though we wear black, have tattoos, and pierced body parts, but in fact it’s tough to sell a product to acoustic players when you have the current customer base we have. I think the rest of the customers [non-metal] wonders why we even bother appealing to them.
MMR: Any new products or initiatives on the horizon that you’d like to share?
RT: We have some new things for the 2011 NAMM Show. We’ll be showing new easily installed systems for the Fender Product line, that we don’t already make: Tele, J-Bass and P-bass. We have some new things for our metal customers, but keep an eye out for the Banjo Pickup.
MMR: Any parting shots?
RT: It’s been a real pleasure being in the “Music Business.” The best part about being in the MI side is that I get to be a musician and not have to worry about being on a bus with a bunch of guys for months at a time, worry about clean laundry, or passing out on stage during a live show. Life is Good.