“The best way to keep them working is to keep them happy,” said Rob Turner, founder and president of EMG, Inc., about the more than five dozen production employees in the north Santa Rosa factory.
From injection molding for plastic cases around the company’s dozens of variations of electromagnetic pickups for amplifying musical instruments to precise wire winding for pickup coils to cable assemblies, the factory staff make and assemble most all the key components in a 30,000-square-foot factory in an industrial park near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a good labor base,” Mr. Turner said. Most of the production workforce are sons and daughters of immigrants and the legacy of high-technology companies in the county for the past four decades has provided a base for design and engineering staff.
To help production workers excel inside and outside the factory, EMG for the past year has been offering English language classes through the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, which splits the $1,000 cost for 10 sessions. Sensitive to the family ties and needs of workers with family, EMG tries to be flexible with holiday and family leave schedules. The company also accommodates breastfeeding schedules.
EMG is known for its revolutionary design for a low-electrical-impedance humbucking pickup with a built-in preamplifier powered by one or two 9-volt batteries. In the mid-1980s, the company developed passive pickups, which don’t have preamps, incorporating some design of the active pickups to make them electrically quieter than traditional passive pickups.
The name EMG is short for “electromagnetic generator,” the apparatus that turns the wheels in electric cars, moves loudspeaker cones and translates the movements of metal strings or microphone diaphragms through an electromagnetic field into sound. The company also makes pickups for acoustic stringed instruments, including the eight-string Greek bouzouki and the banjo, the pickup for which went into production just this month.
In recent years, EMG has been releasing improvements to expand its market reach further. A few years ago, EMG introduced a solder-less wiring connections for its electronics to make it easier for musicians to install. Out this year is a pedal-like external battery pack for active pickups, so a battery doesn’t have to be installed in the guitar itself.
Electric guitars first appeared in the 1930s, and passive “humbucker” pickups, which cut audible hum through amplification systems, hit the market a couple of decades after that. What made EMG pickups different when they came on the market in the late 1970s was the active preamp, which could “grab” more high-frequency nuances of each note at higher volumes than passive pickups, which are powered by the amplifier-loudspeaker or mixing board. And the low-impedance design limits the loss of those highs over long cable runs from instrument to amplifier.
Most of what EMG makes in Santa Rosa are active pickups and the higher-end HZ line of passive pickups. The Select series of passive pickups, destined for original equipment manufacturers of instruments retailing for less than $400 and sold to foreign markets, have been made in South Korea since 1985.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make down-market product here,” Mr. Turner said.
Currently, OEMs make up half the company’s business. U.S. wholesale and direct sales of pickups and accessories make up 25 percent to 30 percent of sales, and shipments to retailers outside the country account for the balance.
EMG pickups are niche products, like an artist’s expensive brushes of various shapes and widths, according to Mr. Turner. It does make sense for such a niche product like higher-priced pickups to be made in a smaller domestic factory where quality and intellectual property can be tightly controlled and a run for a given product could be just in the hundreds of units, he said.
Currently, the Santa Rosa factory runs with just one shift. Production moves into overtime occasionally to to meet OEM and retailer shipping dates, particularly in late September for late-year holiday sales.
Yet major consolidation among brick-and-mortar musical instrument dealers and shift to more online sales is scaling back the size of orders to limit store inventories, Mr. Turner said.
But the Internet also has been a marketing boon for EMG. From the company’s beginnings, OEM and musician endorsements have been key. Getting the ear of the maker of Steinberger basses and guitars in the late 1970s propelled EMG’s growth as the manufacturer’s space-age look to its bass and standard guitars attracted notice on MTV and notable players, including Marin County heavy metal guitarist James Hetfield of the band Metallica and west Sonoma County iconoclastic bassist and vintner Les Claypool.
Yet the emergence of Internet video has taken EMG marketing to ears print advertising in guitar magazines can’t, according to Mr. Turner. So much of the selling points of EMG pickups are the subtleties of sound between the models and how each model sounds in various applications under the skilled fingers of notable artists. So a few years ago, EMG purchased a recording studio in Santa Rosa and has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading it for high-definition video production of artist interviews and product demonstrations for the company website.
After switching from professional drumming to repair of electric musical equipment, Mr. Turner started trying out improvements on guitar pickups in 1969. The company started as Dirtyworks Studios in April 1976 and moved to Sonoma County a couple of years later, taking on the name Overlend, a name company lore attributes to the amount of financing needed to get the venture going. The company expanded several times in northwest Santa Rosa before selling the facility and moving to the current factory in 2005.
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