It’s easy to forget David’s red Strat after the Black’s triumphant return but the guitar and not least its tone is a favorite among many fans. The magic behind its tone is created by the unique active EMG SA pickups with the SPC and EXG tone controls. Love them or hate them – here’s my review.
It’s been awhile since I last tried the SA pickups. It was during a period when I was trying out new pickups for my main Strat and I was quite honestly very disappointed by their sound. I settled for Fender Custom Shop 54 and later the 69s with the Duncan SSL5 bridge pickup. A setup that suited my style and taste better. But after all these years I thought it was in its place to refresh my memory. I installed the set in my new Fender CIJ 62 Strat and gave it a new shot.
Contrary to what one might think, the DG20 is not designed for David or his specifications. They originate from 1979 when EMG introduced the SA pickups. The SA is an active single coil pickup with alnico 5 magnet, internal shielding and a slightly higher output than the typical vintage style single coils like CS69 or CS54. After several tours dealing with noise interference and signal loss due to growing rigs David installed the SA’s in several of his new Fender American Vintage reissue 57 Strats that he’d bought in early 1984 (both of the cream/blondes and at least two candy apple reds). He also equipped the guitars with the SPC and EXG active tone controls. The set was “premiered” at the Live Aid concert in 1985 where David played guitar with Bryan Ferry. Since then the pickups have been used on A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), Delicate Sound of Thunder (1988), Division Bell (1994), PULSE (1995), On An Island (2006), Remember That Night (2007), Live in Gdansk (2008) and countless guest appearances and recordings.
The DG20 comes neatly packed in a box with a picture of David on it. The first thing you notice though when you open the box is the ugly pearl pickguard. I have no idea why EMG chose this but I soon replaced mine with a white 3-ply. The whole setup is super easy to install with EMG’s Solderless Install System. Every wire feature a clip that’s easily fastened. No messy soldering needed. The 9V battery fits nicely into the guitar’s cavity and if you remember to unplug the jack cable when you don’t use the guitar you’ll have the battery for ages.
I plugged the guitar straight into my trusty Sound City with the EXG and SPC controls neutral (set to 0, 10 is max) and hit the first chord. I must admit that my first thought was that they sounded much more like regular Strat pickups than I remembered. Still my impression is about the same as I got all those years ago. With the SPC and EXG set neutral these pickups sounds dull and flat. I know many disagree with this but it’s my honest opinion. In the neutral position I would have wanted them to sound a bit more open with more character. A huge plus though is that they’re dead silent.
The EXG (Guitar Expander) tone control acts just like a “smiling” EQ. The more you increase the control the more you boost the treble and bass while scooping the mids. This works great for cleans and mild overdrives where you want to add a bit more brightness and balls without having to use a compressor squeezing the hell out of your tone. Again I would have wanted the effect to compensate a bit more for the fact that the pickups alone sound dull but it really makes a difference. One thing I’ve noticed though is that when you turn past 6-7 you’ll get a lot of hiss due to the increased treble so you might not want to go that high. On my rig the sweetspot is around 5 where the EXG adds just enough brightness without the boosted bass making everything muddy. All in all this is a feature I don’t use that much.
The main reason I wanted to try the DG20 once more was the SPC (Strat Presence Control) feature. Is the legend true? Does it really create the magic everybody keeps raving about? It’s obviously been too long since I last played with the DG20. After setting the SPC control (lower tone knob) to about 7, as David mostly does, I was instantly brought back to when I saw Pink Floyd performing in Earl’s Court on my TV in late 1994. I was totally mesmerized by seeing and hearing David play the opening on Shine On You Crazy Diamond. That fat, smooth, warm bluesy tone was now coming out of my amp! Without wasting anymore time I plugged my guitar into my pedal board, kicked in some compression, mild overdrive and delay and started on the top of the list – Coming Back to Life, Another Brick in the Wall, Breathe… all with PULSE in mind. This is the tone!
The SPC boosts the mid range while slightly reducing the highs. The effect creates a tone similar to a humbucker with a single coil flavor. Much like the P90s although not quite. The effect is just incredibly versatile adding more presence, power and character to most of my tones. One of my issues with the Tube Driver has always been that it lacks a bit mid range. The SPC adds just the amount the pedal needs and smoothes out the sometimes harsh overtones. The SPC also works great with a Big Muff (triangle especially) adding that little extra that makes the Muff sing. The SPC is extremely responsive and while I mostly keep it around 7-8 it can be used as an expression control adding dynamics while you play (as David is seen doing).
There’s a couple of things you can do if you’re not a DG20 fan but still want some of the PULSE tone. Pickups like Fender CS69, 54, Fat 50s, Duncan SLL5 and all similar lack that slight humbucker touch and the boosted, creamy mid range. This can be achieved by using pedals with a boosted mid range character. Switch the Big Muff with a RAT for your leads and the Tube Driver, Colorsound Powerboost or Boss BD2 with a Maxon OD808/Ibanez TS808 or TS9 for the overdrive tones. You can also add an EQ pedal in your rig either after the gain effects or more effectively first in your chain (or after any fuzz units) set to boost the mid range with a hint of treble cut (keep in mind that if you place one EQ first in the chain, you should have a second unit placed after the gain pedals if you want to effectively EQ these). These substitutes won’t be the actual thing but you’ll get a tone somewhat similar.
So, have I become a believer? Well, I still prefer my CS69s but the DG20 is still in my 62 Strat. I’ve often had a hard time recreating some of the sounds I’ve recorded with humbuckers (with my band Airbag) and the SPC in particular allows me to use a Strat on stage and get the fat tone I need. I also see my self using the guitar on a lot of stuff on our new album that we’re about to record. As for David’s tones I still stand by my initial opinion that the DG20 is not suited for the 70s and present tones, i.e. the Black Strat. As David him self discovered in 2005 they just doesn’t sound Straty enough and you’d want that vintage flavor for Pompeii, Dark Side, Animals etc. However, the DG20 are essential for recreating that authentic Delicate/PULSE tone. If you’re a fan of this era – the moment you try them you’ll realize that you’ve struck gold. One of my favorite DG20 moments is when David cranks the Tube Driver, turn the SPC all the way up and switches over to the neck pickup. The tone he gets is simply indescribable!