EMG Pickup Installation in a Gibson Explorer (part 2)

Posted by Andy on November 19, 2007

Here’s my first real post on my project to install EMGs in a Gibson Explorer. I got this Explorer a few years ago after my apartment got broken into. I got some insurance money for the stuff that was stolen, so I figured I’d get a new guitar, rather than replace crappy DVDs. I’d always wanted a Gibson Explorer, mostly because of James Hetfield of Metallica, and more recently Claudio Sanchez of Coheed & Cambria, but also because it’s a frickin’ sweet axe! I got kind of a low-end Explorer model, which meant that the included hardware wasn’t exactly high-quality. After a few years of playing, the volume knobs started getting a little scratchy, so this was as good a guitar as any to overhaul.

I got the EMG “Zakk Wylde” pickup pack, which includes an EMG-81 and an EMG-85. People usually put the 81 in the bridge position and the 85 in the neck position. I could pretend like I know exactly why these two pickups are different, but alas, I guess I just don’t care enough to delve down to that level of detail. I did read that the 85 actually has a higher overall output than the 81, but produces a “warmer” tone, possibly because the pickups use different types of magnets. On a guitar, the neck pickup “slot” produces a warmer tone anyway, because of its positioning further down the string, so the 85 is a good fit for the neck spot. The 81 has a high output as well, but has a “less warm” frequency response (mid frequencies filtered out a bit more) which is good for boosting the highs and lows of the more “focused” string vibrations over the bridge spot. A lot of people go with this 81/85 combination, but I’ve also heard of people using two 85s, or two 81s instead. Since this is my first time, I figured it wouldn’t really matter because it’s all new to me.

Here’s the first step in the process – remove the pickguard:

Remove the pickguard

Here’s a closeup, you can see the toggle switch and its wires, and the braided wires coming from the old pickups:

Remove the pickguard closeup

Here’s the step I probably should have done first – remove the rusty old strings:

Remove the strings

With the strings off, the tailpiece and the “tune-o-matic” bridge aren’t attached to anything, so they might just fall off if you flip the guitar over. Be careful with the screws that hold the tune-o-matic, if these are mistakenly screwed up or down, your string height/action will change, which will create for some annoying adjustments later. Speaking of the tune-o-matic, there’s actually something you can do with this thing if you’re having intonation problems with your guitar, which was the case for me. If your string lengths are not set correctly, the guitar may sound out-of-tune at higher frets, even if you have the open strings tuned perfectly. For example if you tune an open string correctly, and then press down at the 12th fret and find that you’re sharp or flat, it means that your string is either too short or too long. This can be easily adjusted with a tune-o-matic – each string has its own “saddle” that can be moved back and forth with a little screw. In my case, I was having the “sharp-at-the-12th-fret” problem, which meant that my string was too short. I moved the saddle as far as I could to lengthen the string, but unfortunately, I hit the limit on how far I could move it back, and the string was still sharp at 12. Luckily, the saddles are shaped like a little angled wedge, and the factory setup is for the wedge to slope up from the bridge towards the neck. (I hope that makes sense.) Anyway, I found that you can flip the saddles around so that the wedge slopes up from the neck towards the bridge. Flipping the saddle basically moves the string contact point back 2mm or so, and gives you a little more room to screw the saddle back even further, if the 2mm change is not enough. Here’s a nice, blurry picture showing a few of the saddles flipped around. I don’t know if it’s really clear, but it actually helped, in the end, I was able to achieve better intonation.

Tune-o-matic closeup with flipped saddles

It’s hard to see, but the two on the left have been flipped around, and the 3rd one from the left is screwed all the way forward – I’m about to take it out to flip it around. This was just a little side-thing to do while I had everything dismantled.

This is probably enough for one post, but I’ll post a few more blogs with more pictures.

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