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Upgrading EMG pickups to 18 volts – one of my favorite mods!

I’ve long hosted this information at my website, but I figured putting it here might help more people find it. I get emails from people occasionally who found it, did it, and just have to tell me how great it made their bass sound. So here it is!

Getting More “Oomph” from Your EMGs
The simple $.79 mod that may save you from buying new pickups

I find it interesting that EMG’s have seemingly fallen out of favor with most modern bassists. I’ve been using them for more than 10 years, and with the exception of my killer Hoyt fretless 6 (which has a Lane Poor and piezos) all of my basses have had them. And I’m very happy about that, and have no plans to change them.
The fact is, most people have grown tired of that signature EMG sound, which has become somewhat eclipsed by newer, boutique pickups (which, don’t get me wrong, rock) — and EMGs have become somewhat passe’ to many modern bassists on that ever elusive search for the perfect tone.

So I was thinking — if everyone else has moved on, am I just down with the old sound, too stubborn to change? Has the “in” sound moved on, leaving me hopelessly clinging to the “modern/active” tone of the past? Am I simply “out of touch” with the essential tone for the modern bassist?

Pauses for effect…
Nah. I realized that all of my EMG-outfitted basses of the recent past have had one major improvement, which — for me — has made all the difference in the world. The amazing thing is that those selfsame EMG pickups you already have (and are considering replacing) may have that tone you’re looking for, lurking in the dark recesses of some forward-thinking design. And you can coax it out with a little effort, some basic soldering, and a little bit of pocket change.

The smart folks at EMG had the thoughtfulness to make their pickups able to handle voltages from 9v to 27v, reportedly to make them phantom-powerable (another intriguing thought, but the subject of another digression.) Some enterprising folks discovered that adding a second battery (thereby powering the pickups at 18 volts rather than the stock 9) makes an enormous difference in the voicing, sound quality, and headroom that EMGs can provide. That “choked” or “signature EMG” tone is no more. Clarity and “oomph” is yours for the taking. This mod improved all of my preset sounds, from the “rumble and click” setting to the “balls and chunk” preset. And it only takes 15 minutes and costs like a buck to try it; and for the faint at heart, it’s totally reversible.

Think I’m nuts? This is directly from the EMG Site:

“Can I use multiple batteries?
Yes. If you’ve got room for multiple batteries in your guitar, you can use two batteries wired in series to power your onboard circuitry at 18 volts. The output level will not appreciably increase, but you’ll have increased headroom and crisper transients. This is especially useful for percussive/slap bass styles where you can generate enormous instantaneous power levels across the entire frequency spectrum. You can also wire two batteries in parallel to provide a regular 9 volt supply but with much longer lifespan between battery changes.
Although most of our products are rated for 27 volts, we recommend a maximum of 18 volts. The additional benefits of 27 vs. 18 volts are negligible.”

Hold that iron!
All the standard disclaimers apply…
Please don’t blame me if you screw up your bass… this information is for you to implement at your own risk. However, this is stupid-easy. And I have personally performed this mod on 4 basses (3 of mine and a co-worker’s, who then helped two of his friends do it) and everyone has been tickled pink thus far. Though I’m pretty sure that the mod works with all EMG active pickups and circuits – you might want to check with EMG to make sure you won’t fry anything.

For instance, from EMG Tech Support:

“The EMG-HZ pickups are passive, not active. There is active tone circuitry in some (maybe all?) LTD basses that requires a battery. You can run the circuitry on 18 volts without damage to the circuitry as long as the modification is done correctly.”

This won’t work (obviously) on EMG Selects (they’re passive, silly) and I don’t have information on whether this works on any other active pickups by manufacturers other than EMG. I don’t know if this works with your Ibanez, or your Warwick, or what. Though I’m pretty sure that it’s an approved and kosher upgrade on the Woogie Fritzmeyer Signature Model. Got it? Good.

So on we go! It’s not tough, if you have moderate experience with a soldering iron.
Highly recommended – read ALL of the instructions before you start!

Materials required:

  • Soldering iron and solder
  • 9V battery “clip”
  • Something to snip and strip wiring (wire stripper, teeth, whatever you got)
  • Electrical tape
  • A couple of new batteries
  • a 9V battery holder is preferable – it keeps the battery from bouncing around in the cavity. (Surrounding the batteries with foam is a decidedly low-tech but effective approach, as well.)

The Instructions:

Figure 1: What you’ve got now.

The clip for the 9 Volt battery currently attaches directly to one of the prongs on the 1/4 stereo output jack; this way you’re not draining the battery when nothing is plugged in.

  1. Take out your current battery.
  2. Figure out how you’re going to jam 2 batteries into that little compartment (an important step – you may need an extra length of wire or some creative thinking, depending on your bass.)
  3. Heat the iron and desolder the black wire from the existing 9v clip from the output jack.
  4. Solder the red contact of the new 9v clip to the black contact of the existing one and completely insulate with the electrical tape.
  5. Solder the black wire of the new clip to the output jack where the old one attached.
  6. Do whatever else you need to do while you’re there — put in the battery holder, if applicable.
  7. Put in two fresh batteries – mixing old and new will give less than stellar results.
  8. Play and be stunned and amazed. If not stunned and amazed, reverse steps to negate, or use “Upgraded to 18v electronics” as a unique selling point when you get rid of this bass.

Figure 2: How it will look.

Here’s what it will (essentially) look like when you’re done (but don’t forget to insulate the wire-to-wire solder joint to prevent shorting.)

For those afraid of commitment:
Fellow TBL’er (The Bottom Line Bass Digest) Rick Blair suggests this alternate method which simply involves creating a harness with a three pack of battery clips:
“Wire 3 battery connectors in series and connect a battery to two of them and the third connector to the original battery connector in the bass. If you ever decide to go back to a single 9V battery, merely unplug the harness.”

Important Note: this section has been recently updated due to some people having trouble with this method. Please completely think the whole thing through as you’re doing it to make sure polarity is correct – reversed voltage may damage your preamp or pickups.

Figure 3: The temporary harness
(Again, don’t forget to insulate the solder joints to prevent shorting!)

For the real wackos:
You can, if slightly off-kilter in the noggin, even add a THIRD battery to increase to 27v. However, I’m told that the upgrade from 18 to 27 is not nearly as dramatic as that from 9 to 18; and it’s probably not worth the extra battery costs or trouble to make room in an already crowded cavity.

Hey, this mod is also applicable to guitars as well. I used to have an old Peavey six-string that screams.

Good luck, and keep living the low life!

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The FrankenStrat (part II)

(continued from yesterday’s post)
The Electronics
So, now that I had the beginnings of a cool guitar, I needed to outfit it with some pickups. I knew that a red tortoiseshell pickguard would look super cool against the pale yellow body, so I ordered a loaded pickguard from Carvin. The pickups actually sound really good, with a vintage vibe but not a lot of noise. They’re three single coils, classic Strat-style. However, they also add a special “7-way” switch to allow you to add the neck pickup to any other pickup combination; so, in addition to the typical five-way switching of a standard Strat, you also can flip the switch to get the previously unattainable neck and bridge combination, as well as all three pickups simultaneously.

Another thing trashpicked at GVOX was an old Fishman Strat-style bridge with piezo elements mounted in the saddles. Each of the tiny wires for the piezos had been severed, presumably for testing with pitch-to-midi systems, so I had to carefully re-attach them and wire it up as best I could. Once I did that, I got an active blending preamplifier from Bartolini to blend the piezo-electric elements with the magnetic pickups. I moved the “7-way” switch on the pickguard and installed the blend knob inline with the other two pickup knobs (vol/tone), and drilled tiny holes in the pickguard to allow access to the gain micro-pots for each pickup channel.

So electronically, the FrankenStrat exceeds the capabilities of most other Strats; allowing for 7-way pickup selection, “acoustic-like” piezo pickups in the bridge, an active blending preamp… it’s pretty awesome sounding.

The Final Touches
All that was left were some final touches. I got a custom matching (well, almost) back plate cover made, put Grover locking tuning machines into it, and most recently, got a custom neck plate with a holographic laser-etched “Custom Shop” logo design on it. I sanded most of the finish off the back of the neck and protected it with Boiled Linseed Oil, which is one of my favorite techniques for a really comfortable and fast neck. Finally, I took it to a trusted guitar tech and had him fully set it up for action and intonation.

While I’m not a great guitarist (I’m far better on bass) this guitar is like “going home” for me. It’s a little heavy, thanks to the Squier body, but it balances really well on a strap or on my knee. Perhaps it’s the special time and effort I put into it, but it just feels like “my” guitar and no one else’s. I’ll never get rid of it. If you’ve never dabbled with putting a guitar together with parts, no matter where the source, I highly recommend it. It’s a very rewarding experience!

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The FrankenStrat

Here she is, my favorite electric guitar. It’s a true FrankenStrat, and over the years I’ve put a lot of work into it and I’m quite happy with the results.

Humble Origins
The guitar got its start when I worked for a music software company. Among the products offered by GVOX was a computer interface for guitar; it allowed you to connect the guitar to your computer and use it for learning and composition. Nowadays, guitar-to-MIDI systems by Axon, Roland and Yamaha surpass (by far) the capability of the GVOX Guitar System, but at the time, they were cheap and pretty effective.

Over the years, they’d acquired a fair number of guitars at GVOX, for testing, giveaway prizes, etc. They had even forged a special relationship with Fender at one point to market and sell a “GVOX-Ready Strat” which had the mounting hardware for the GVOX pickup built in. So there were a lot of guitars around the office. I even had a pretty cool Strat next to my desk. That said, some of the technical gurus had even, at one point, apparently been working on wired-fret guitar systems and other such tech toys – so a lot of the guitars around the building had been somewhat “abused.”

One such instrument provided me with the body for my favorite guitar. One day, while helping to take out the trash, I noted that a Squier Strat was being sent to the dumpster; its electronics gutted, its neck de-fretted and cracked… but the body, a cool yellowed semi-transparent, was in really good shape! So the body (with permission, of course) ended up in my back seat instead of the dumpster.

Similarly, some months later, I was helping to clean out our basement storage area and a Mexican strat whose body had been heavily battle scarred (but whose maple neck looked to be almost perfect) was marked for disposal but found its way to my house. A little bit of Dremel work later, the neck fit securely into the pocket, and I had the beginnings of a rippin’ Strat!

(to be continued tomorrow)

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