ALNICO MAGNETS & GUITAR PICKUPS
The amazing (and often frustrating thing) about the internet is that there’s endless information and opinion about even the most esoteric of subjects. And that goes for the magnets used in guitar pickups, too.
But rather than have you scour the forums for this information, here’s a short-hand break down of the Alnico grades I use in my pickups.
Alnico II is the second lowest magnet strength, Alnico III being the lowest. I often describe it as “vintage” sounding, by which I mean it exhibits a lot of vintage dynamics. It is “looser” with a warm low end and rich mids. Alnico II helps to tame the “bite” in an otherwise shrill or overly bright pickup position because the treble is tame. For that reason it’s great in a bridge humbucker. In the neck it can get muddy and dark but that also depends on the winding of the pickup. I use Alnico II in some of my Revel ‘V‘ humbucker series, in the Retro P.A.F.s, in my V-90 humbucker sized P-90, and in the Fat Boy.
The lowest strength magnet I use in pickups. Similar to Alnico II but tends towards more treble. The low end is softer than Alnico II but also a bit tighter. The mids are slightly less pronounced.
Alnico III is a great magnet for a neck position humbucker when you’re looking for an aged feel. It makes for an open, woody tone, almost piano like in its expression. It will help with note clarity and in hearing the tone of the guitar.
It likewise works well in a bridge position humbucker for all the same reasons and especially for a vintage, low wind, P.A.F.
In single coils they are, perhaps, my favorite. They lend a great 50’s tone and I use them in several pickups, like the Black Watch or the Fab 50’s. They have a bell like chime in the highs and a very clear tone. The mids are wide and rich.
Alnico IV is used and praised for it’s more balanced “EQ.” In tone it’s between Alnico II and V. The highs are “crispier” than Alnico II but not harsh. The lows are rounder than AV but tighter than AII. Alnico IV can sound fantastic in some guitars and not very good in others. It has a medium output and and, having a balanced EQ, allows the tone of the instrument to come through. I use them in my Cynic humbuckers.
I don’t feel Alnico IV lends itself well to many single coil pickups but I use them in my Melancholia Tele pickups. Here they add some heft to the mids and give a punchier response. In these pickups Alnico IV give good tone for more rock oriented pickups but not so much for vintage applications.
I think Alnico V must be the most commonly used magnet in guitar pickups and is the strongest of the common magnets. It has higher “output,” more bite, pronounced treble sometimes described as “sharp, and tight lows. In a low wind pickup they are crispy and bright. In an overwound pickup they can be boomy and muddy. They come in my S.W.T.C. humbuckers which are hot and meant for rock, harder rock, and metal, where the lows of the Alnico V can offset the highs. They’re also the stock magnet for mini humbuckers, as they were originally. They are also used for a variety of P-90’s.
In single coils they retain these same properties. In something like the Bully Breed they make a rocking set of strat pickups. In the Sweet 69’s they are degaussed slightly, lending all of these qualities but slightly tamed.
ALNICO V UNORIENTED
A really interesting magnet that I describe as something between Alnico II and Alnico V. It’s smoother and warmer than V with a little looser bottom but brighter than Alnico II.
A warm, high output magnet with lots of mids and tamed treble. A firm low end like Alnico V but more output and warm like Alnico II or IV.
ALNICO BAR MAGNETS IN HUMBUCKERS
Alnico II Long: Scooped mids, chimey highs, vintage & “loose.”
Alnico II Short: The same as the long magnet but spankier.
Alnico III Long: Weaker than Alnico II but nice clarity and open, almost flute, like tones.
Alnico IV Long: Balanced EQ, tighter than Alnico II and rounder lows than Alnico V.
Alnico V Long Oriented: Accentuated mids, focused, tight low end and bright.
Alnico V Short Oriented: Same as long Alnico V but fatter.
Alnico V Long Unoriented: Tight low end clarity and stronger mids.
Alnico V Long Unoriented: Less low end clarity than the long magnet but more treble and comparable mids.
AGED MAGNETS, SECRET ALLOYS AND THAT SPECIAL SAUCE
I can appreciate that I sound cynical when discussing the marketing around magnets and pickups. But more important to me than cynicism is diligence.
You have probably come across a company that sells $400 or $500 humbuckers behind a very long and sometimes tall tale of vintage correct everything and special winders and special alloys derived from the metallurgical examination of many original PAF bar magnets. And maybe some part of this story is true and maybe some of it is not but ultimately it is unimportant. It’s what has to be done to sell anything, and it is especially what has to be done to convince someone that paying $400 or $500 for pickups is totally reasonable.
What is important is that a well made pickup, regardless of how special the magnet is, will knock your socks off.