The candy apple red Fender V57 reissue Stratocaster is the iconic guitar that defines David Gilmour’s tones of the 80s and 90s. Perhaps equally iconic are the EMG pickups and tone controls that created much of David’s super smooth tones of the era. Here’s my review of the EMG DG20 pickup set.
This is an updated review originally posted January 2010.
In early 1984, David and his long-time technician Phil Taylor, visited the Fender Warehouse in Einfield, Middlesex, UK and tried a bunch of the new reissue guitars from the Fender Fullerton.
This was just prior to David heading out on the About Face tour and apparently, he didn’t want to bring his old guitars as they now started to rise in value (International Musician August 1984).
They bought a total of seven guitars and at least four were modified with EMG SA pickups and the EXG and SPC active tone controls. Including the V57 candy apple red. Read more about David Gilmour’s red Stratocaster here.
The EMG DG20 is a set containing both the three SA (single coils with alnico magnets) pickups and the active SPC and EXG tone controls. While older sets needed to be soldered, the current one has a solderless system making them very easy to install.
The SA single coils are similar to 60s era Fender pickups, with a distinct bell-like chime and nicely rounded low end. They do have a tad more output though, which adds more mid range too.
The active pre-amps drive the signal through large pedal boards much like a buffered pedal but they also add a slight compression to the tone. This evens out some of the high transients, which can be a good thing on brighter sounding guitars but it also makes the pickups somewhat less dynamic and open sounding compared to vintage style passive single coils. A matter of taste, I guess.
Much of the magic lies in the active tone controls. The EXG boosts the treble and bass frequencies, while the SPC boosts the mid range around 400Hz. It’s really much like adding an EQ pedal first in your chain EQing the singal fed into the pedals, rather than after.
David Gilmour would use the tone controls with care, only boosting the frequencies slightly, and surely the actual settings depended on what he needed right there and then based on how the guitar sounded in a specific environment. Much like how you would use an EQ or compressor pedal.
Personally I don’t use the EXG much. I can see how it might be useful for adding a bit of sparkle to darker sounding guitars and amps, but to my ears it also makes the SA pickups sound slightly processed and the top end gets very ice-picky very fast.
Boosting the SPC just slightly makes a huge difference. The guitar cuts through more and it makes everything sound smoother and more dynamic. How much you want to boost depends on the character of your guitar, amp and the pedals you use but 2-3 is often enough in my opinion to make a big difference and you can really hear David’s PULSE tones coming to life (pun intended).
The SA pickups are very quiet and all hum and RF interferance is practically gone but keep in mind that if you boost the tone controls too much, you’re also boosting the noise in those frequencies so too much will mean more hiss.
I’ve had the DG20 set for years and I did use the guitar quite a lot in the early days of my band Airbag. They’re all over our second album, All Rights Removed (2011). They gave me a bit more power and output compared to the passive single coils I was using but since then, I’ve moved on to humbuckers in particular.
I still prefer passive pickups as they, to me, sound more dynamic and they just seem to respond better to my playing and the amps and pedals I use. Still, there’s something about the combination of the SA pickups and the SPC mid range booster in particular that takes me right back to both Delicate Sound of Thunder and PULSE. Add a bit of compression and delay and you’re there.