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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 ol’ Battle Axe

The bass shown in the photo to the right has been my main axe for almost 12 years now. It’s a pretty amazing instrument, with lots of unique features that make it the most gig-worthy and the best-sounding bass I’ve ever encountered.

My 6-string fretted GTB 356 Model was made by a US-based company called PBC that was located in Coopersburg, PA – they’re no longer in business, but the basses are still made by Dave Bunker in Washington State. When I decided that a 6-string bass was going to be a necessity for Second Story, writing partner Scott and I took a trip up to PBC’s factory store to check out their basses and manufacturing facility. (We had seen a couple of their basses and even talked to a rep at one of our local music stores.)

When we got there, they had a showroom full of basses – and LOTS of them were sixers. I picked up at least half a dozen while we were there, and they were quite nice; well-appointed, and very nicely finished (most, including my bass, have AAAA-grade flame-maple tops or better.) When I came across the bass I eventually bought, I knew instantly that it was the instrument I had to buy – it practically melted into my fingers. There are some instruments that you just KNOW were made for you, and this bass was one of them. While I was “cashing out” the bass, the guy also confided in me that the bass was originally built specifically for Allen Woody; but when he came to get it, a new model caught his eye and he took one of those instead.

All I know is: the bass is awesome.


  • Bookmatched AAAA figured Maple top
  • Patented Tension Free neck, 5 piece, Maple fretboard
  • EMG Dual Coil soapbars, EMG BTC Circuit, 18v (The bass came with the pickups; I upgraded it to the BTC preamp and the 18v system)
  • Individual “Through Body” Bridges in Gold plated solid machined Bell Brass (one for each string)

The Tension-free neck is the most interesting special feature on this bass. Rather than a traditional truss rod, the maple neck has a pair of channels routed through it; within these cavities lie two cold-rolled steel bars. All of the tension that the strings impart on the neck assembly are carried by the bars – not the wood. The manufacturers claim that this eliminates dead-spots, and allows for excellent adjustability and durability. All I can say is that the bass plays like buttah, and from the low B on the bottom string to the very highest notes up the C-string the bass has a balanced, even sound – octave to octave, string to string.

The other innovation is the high-mass bridge system; there’s actually a separate through-body bridge assembly – made of bell brass – for each string, which ties into the massive tone plate on the back surface of the bass. It makes for a bit of added weight, to be sure – this bass is no lightweight – but it creates the ability for amazing sustain; and since each string has its own bridge, multiple notes played simultaneously ring out and sustain just as well as single notes do. There’s just a tremendous amount of clarity and focus to the bass. It… just… sings.

Of course, visually the bass is striking – with its no-headstock design and very beautiful bookmatched top. And the headless design makes for some great ergonomic advantages as well. Firstly, the balance on this bass is amazing – where most six strings “neck-dive” because of the weight of all those tuners on the end of the neck, this bass just “hangs” in playing position with no effort. Also, not having a huge headstock makes the bass a lot more compact, which is valuable on the many crowded stages I’ve played on – I never accidentally whacked my singer in the head (though I thought about doing it on purpose more than a few times). And it makes for a smaller case, which is nice.

Clearly, I can talk a lot about this bass and go on forever. The maker is relatively unknown, but I’m a big fan and will hang onto this bass forever!

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