The heart of any electric guitar is the pickup, and pickups play a huge role in the overall sound of any guitar. So it only makes sense that when players look to improve their sound, the pickup is the most common modification. There are dozens of reputable pickup makers to choose from; from large volume producers like Seymour Duncan – who virtually invented the aftermarket pickup market – to boutique winders making vintage style pickups with OCD-like fervor. And to a great degree they are all working with the same basic materials: Wire, magnets, screws, and various methods to hold it all together.
For an item of such critical sonic importance, there are not many ways to quantify their design. Besides the typical specification of DC resistance, which is a function of wire gauge and number of turns of wire, magnet type is the other most commonly specified feature of a pickup. The choices are typically a ceramic magnet or some type of Alnico, which stands for Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt. Alnico magnet materials have been around for decades, and are the material of choice for the majority of high quality pickups. The benefits of Alnico material is that it’s efficient (think in terms of power-to-weight ratio) and it’s also very stable and holds its power well over time.
There are several different grades of Alnico, and the different grades are based on their metallurgical makeup. The most popular for guitar pickups are Alnico 2, 3, and 5; oftentimes referred to as II, III and V. Generally speaking the grades are not in order of “goodness” and the numbers simply denote a particular material composition. Besides what magnet grade is being used, the pickup maker can also vary the amount of magnetic charge (Gauss) the magnet has. Magnets bought in bulk are usually shipped un-charged, and the pickup maker energizes the magnet as part of the build process.
There has been a lot written on the qualities of the various Alnico grades, and the how a magnet material affects the sound of a pickup. So while I’m not blazing any new trails, here are my general opinions on the impact of Alnico grades, gained from my own personal experience and experimentation.
Disclaimer: There are so many other factors in making a pickup – wire gauge, winding tension, winding pattern, potting – that attributing the tonal characteristics solely to magnet material is somewhat folly. Also, some magnet grades are closely tied to pickup style, so you’re unlikely to see a high output metal pickup using Alnico 2 material.
Alnico 2 – Alnico 2 is used most often as a bar magnet material in humbucking pickups. This was the grade used in the early “PAF” pickups, and as a result is commonly employed in vintage-flavored designs. Examples of pickups using Alnico 2 material are the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover, Alnico II Pro, and the Arcane ’57 Experience. Pickups using Alnico 2 material tend to have a slightly soft attack, generally warm tonal characteristics and a slightly loose, bouncy feel. Wound strings have a somewhat woody tone and for some may lack enough definition. While pickups of this sort are generally not wound for high output, when pushed they develop a nice singing quality and make a pretty nice pickup for leads. Players who like to work their amps hard versus using pedals will dig Alnico 2.
Alnico 3 – Alnico 3 magnet material is used in both Gibson humbucker type designs and Fender Telecaster style pickups. Common in early Telecaster bridge pickups, Alnico 3 has good attack qualities, and a clear high end that some would describe as “grainy” and complex. In humbucker pickups, they create a nice balance of warmth, bite and clarity. This is the material used in the Arcane Triple Clone, which is modeled after the 1960 Gibson PAF. Tighter sounding than Alnico 2 pickups, lead tones are crunchy and pleasantly tight, and don’t get overly mushy in the neck position. A nice pick for both rich complex cleans and medium gain rock.
Alnico 4 – Not as common as the other more traditional materials, Alnico 4 is used by few pickup winders such as David Allen, Bare Knuckles, and Mojotone. The opinion is that Alnico 4 combines the warm feel of Alnico 2 but with better attack and note definition. We really like the tone and pick response of the David Allen P-51 humbucker, which is an Alnico 4 pickup.
Alnico 5 – Likely the most popular magnet material, Alnico 5 shows up in both humbucking and single coils designs; Strats, Teles, and P-90’s. Alnico 5 pickups are characterized by strong output, clear tone, and punchy attack. This all sounds pretty good, and just about every conventionally constructed Stratocaster pickup uses Alnico 5. Some of most popular humbuckers use Alnico 5 including many Seymour Duncan models including the SH-1, JB, and just about every Rio Grande pickup. Compared to Alnico 3 they may lack a little sonic complexity, but for those about to rock, Alnico 5 is a very good choice.
The Wrap – As they like to say in commercials, “your results may vary.” Your own experience with your own guitar will be the best teacher. Fortunately, pickups are neither very expensive, or hard to install. So do a little testing of your own and see you what you think. You can always drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.