EMG shootout: 81 vs 85 vs 89 vs 60 vs S vs SA

Active pickups are a very polarizing piece of gear among the player base.

Their fans can’t live without them, while detractors argue they all sound the same.

You and I know better than that and have a critical appreciation for their tone, and curiosity over the wide variety in which they come.

Particularly, EMG, perhaps the brand that leads the market for this kind of pickup, has a very broad palette of variations, each with its particular tone.

In this article, I will focus on those considered the most iconic ones, and if you want a short summary of what sets them apart, here it is:

The EMG 81 is a ceramic pickup with a bright tone, while the Alnico V EMG 85 is darker and usually chosen as a neck pickup. The EMG 89 is similar to the 85, but it’s coil-splittable. The EMG 60 is similar to the 81 but cleaner and neck-oriented. The EMG SA is a darker-sounding single-coil than the EMG S.

For those who want to dive deeper, further down I will give you a brief description of each of these beasts.

After that, I will put them side by side and better define their differences.

Finally, I will talk about the most usual combinations for these pickups, and I will give you my conclusions about all these different models.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

Main characteristics of the EMG 81 pickups

The EMG 81 is a ceramic pickup, widely used in the bridge position due to its amazing ability to produce a tone that cuts amazingly well in most mixes.

This brightness might be overkill, however, in guitars with a sound more geared towards the treblier part of the spectrum.

Main characteristics of the EMG 85 pickups

The EMG 85 is an Alnico V pickup, popularly paired with the 81 as its neck pickup. It has a tone more focused on bass that’s very complimentary to soloing and melodic playing.

Its sonic characteristics, and its differentiation with the 81, make it a great alternative also as a bridge pickup in guitars with brighter overall tones, helping to cut off some of that treble.

Main characteristics of the EMG 89 pickups

The EMG 89 is an Alnico V pickup, very similar sounding to the 85, but the particular feature is that it’s coil-splittable and that it has 2 separate preamps, one for humbucker mode, and the other for its single-coil alternative use.

It’s usually chosen as a neck pickup, to allow for that bright cleanup when split, but it’s also a great alternative as a bridge pickup in HSS configurations, allowing to achieve also a tone similar to a SSS guitar.

Main characteristics of the EMG 60 pickups

The EMG 60 is a ceramic pickup, in the tonal neighborhood of the EMG 81, but way cleaner. It has a bright, clear tone oriented mostly to serve in the neck position.

It’s usually paired with any of the other humbucker alternatives in the bridge.

Main characteristics of the EMG SA pickups

The EMG SA pickup is a single-coil pickup but with a darker tone, more reminiscing of that of a humbucker pickup.

It’s usually used in a set of 3, for bridge, middle, and neck, or paired with humbuckers to get HSS or HSH configurations.

Main characteristics of the EMG S pickups

The EMG S pickup is a single-coil that retains the original tone of these kinds of pickups, with all the modern features of the EMG lineup.

Those who prefer a more vintage sound opt for a set of this one, for bridge, middle, and neck, or even choose to pair it with some of the humbuckers this brand offers, to get very versatile configurations.

Main differences between the EMG 81 vs 85 vs 89 vs 60 vs SA vs S pickups

Now that all the main features of each of these pickups are laid out, it’s time to make sense of them.

What I usually do in these cases to better map out where each of these ones shines, is putting them side by side.

This way, everything gets clearer in contrast:

MagnetCeramicAlnico VAlnico VCeramicAlnico VCeramic
Common positionBridgeBridge/NeckBridge/NeckNeckBridge/Middle/NeckBridge/Middle/Neck
CharacterRich in treble, great bite, scooped midsRich in mids and bass, not that much biteSeparate preamps for each coil, similar to the 85Clean friendly, similar to the 81, but neck orientedDarker and warmer than a regular single-coil, more similar to a humbuckerMore traditional, vintage, bright, quacky single-coil tone

As you can see, EMG has a pickup for every taste, and if you browse their full catalog, you will see that we are just discussing the tip of the iceberg here.

These, however, are their most emblematic options, and what most players are used to benchmark against.

Finally, here are 2 great sound comparisons for some of the pickups mentioned above:

Bridge pickup shootout

Neck pickup shootout

Most common combos for these pickups

This broad variety of available tones allows for players to mix and match between different alternatives, arriving at combinations that better suit their fingers and their guitars.

Here are some of the most common combos of EMG pickups:

81 – 85

The classic combo that captures the bite of the 81 in the bridge, and the more bass and mid-heavy features of the 85 in the neck.

81 – 89

In the same spirit as the classic combo, but using an 89 in the neck, which has very similar features to the 85, but with the ability to be coil split, opening the game to a broader choice of tones.

81 – 60

Pairing the aggressive 81 with a milder 60 allows for the player to have the best of both worlds. Roaring distortion in the bridge position, and the choice to use sweeter cleaner tones with the neck variant.

81 – SA/S – 89

A classic HSH setup, with the choice between a darker sound by going with an SA in the middle, or a more vintage sound 2nd and 4th switch positions with an S pickup. The possibility of coil-splitting the 89 in the neck gets this combo into strat territory.

81 – SA/S – 60

Another HSH alternative, probably more focused on clean humbucker tones because of the 60 in the neck, while taking advantage of the middle pickup to imprint its character.

81 – SA/S – SA/S

An HSS combo for all the superstrat lovers. The choice here is how vintage Fender you want to go, by choosing between SA, S, or a mix of both single-coil alternatives.

89 – SA/S – SA/S

Another HSS alternative, with the characteristic of having a coil splittable humbucker in the bridge. Due to the 89 having a deeper tone, this could work great in more mid-focused guitars such as PRSs or SGs.

85 – 60

Another popular alternative for those who don’t like the trebly character of the 81. The extra bass and mids from the 85 in the bridge will surely suit guitars with a not-so-great bass response such as SGs or PRSs.

Conclusion and recommendations

Choosing the right pickup for upgrading your axe is no easy task, and I wouldn’t want to influence you towards one or the other without knowing you or, more importantly, your preferences.

Here in GearAficionado, I don’t like pointing you in one direction blindly. I always encourage you to try, feel and hear all the differences between pieces of gear, and get to sense what resonates with you.

Being this said, if you want my insights about this comparison, here they are:

  • If your guitar has a strong bass response, you should try an EMG 81 in the bridge position
  • If your guitar is more of a mid focused instrument, try an EMG 85 in the bridge position
  • Usually, the EMG 85 is used as a neck pickup
  • The EMG 89 is very similar to the 85, but with the added possibility of coil-tapping
  • If you like switching to cleaner tones in some of your songs, the EMG 60 might work out for you
  • If you want a modern, darker single-coil sound, go for a set of EMG SAs
  • If you prefer a more traditional single-coil sound, check out the EMG S