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This article was originally published in issue #36
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If I could only own one guitar to do everything and cater for any situation as a pro player, it would be some kind of Strat loaded with the EMG DG20. This is the EMG assembly that Dave Gilmour first started using in his red Strat way back in 1985 and has used on and off both live and in the studio ever since. The DG20 gives you 3 SA pickups, which are Alnico 5 sounding in character, plus an SPC mid boost, an EXG frequency expander and a master volume, all laid out in the familiar Stratocaster way.
The EMG SA is an absolutely fantastic sounding single coil type pick up and I own many guitars loaded with this very pick up. You may have seen me using my vintage Valley Arts guitars in GI reviews, and this is the pickup that came as standard in those guitars coupled with an EMG 85 humbucker in the bridge. In my experience, EMGs do bring out the character of the wood in your guitar so do not believe what you read by some of the disbelievers out there, as they can definitely sound fat, vintage, smooth or in your face. If you are good with tone, then EMGs make everything easier!
Like all EMGs they are dead silent, which is exactly what you want for studio use, or when using high gain, or on big stages with lighting rigs. Because EMGs are active and run off a 9v battery, they will power through any cable length without loss of tone, and if you have a big pedal board, they send undiluted signal to your amp, whether your pedals are true bypass or not. Yes, you do have to have a battery situated somewhere in your guitar to supply the tiny current EMGs need, and occasionally it will need changing, but if you unplug your guitar cable when the guitar is not in use, we are talking a long time between battery changes. I have had years of battery life out of my guitars.
So to add to the mix of the already great sounding SA pups, the DG20 has an on board SPC presence control on the bottom tone pot. This is actually a mid boost and a great secret weapon. As you wind it up you get a very fat sounding SA pick up that is bordering on humbucker in character. It's absolutely perfect for singing solos or any hi gain work. There is a tiny amount of increased hiss as you push it to full power, much like kicking in a boost pedal, but as you would probably use it on the fly, you would never hear it in use.
On the second tone pot you have an EXG expander, which drops the mids and boosts the bottom and top. Great for clean rhythm or articulate acoustic type parts. When you add up the tonal options of a 5-way switch, three SA pups, an EXG and an SPC, you can see why I say if could only own 1 guitar, I would go for this assembly on a good Strat, because you will be able to deal with any style in any situation.
So, how does it work on our test Squier? Well, the DG20 is unquestionably an instant upgrade for any average Stratocaster. Obviously you would not interfere with anything too valuable or vintage (or you could, but please don't!), but nine times out of ten, a set of EMGs will turbo charge your guitar for better. I understand to fit the DG20 no soldering is required and as long as you have room for a battery somewhere on board (see the comments from James Collins about this and our test bed Squier - Ed). All EMG pups come with a quick connect plug nowadays, so if you got bored of the sound your SAs, you could simply unplug it and drop in one of the other EMG single coils in the range (the EMG SLV is pretty special).
A word on our guinea pig guitar. This is a budget Squire Strat guitar made in China. With a little work, it can be a good work horse and get the job done. The guitar played OK as supplied, with no obvious choke problems on the neck. The action was of an average height that might slow a beginner down, but not bother an experienced player too much. The trem was flat to the body with only downward motion on the bar allowed, with quite a lot of force needed. The nut was binding the strings on any tremolo use or string bends, which caused tuning problems.
The pickups were very low output and quite thin sounding, with pronounced hum associated with single coils. Once you get to stage volumes these pick ups can often turn out to be microphonic causing uncontrollable squeal feedback. All these criticisms are easily solvable. Most times all these guitars need is a pair of experienced hands to give them a thorough tweak, which is why we gave the guitar to master luthier James Collins to work some magic. He worked on the nut, so there were no sticking strings, he floated the trem so that the trem stuff I do was now possible, he lowered the action to a perfect low to mid Stratocaster action and then he installed the V8 engine! The DG20 EMG assembly. The guitar will now easily hold its own against much pricier instruments. A good set up by someone who knows what they are doing is often all an average guitar needs, and in the hands of a good player, can sound just as good as a guitar costing thousands. EMGs are the perfect upgrade for a guitar like this.