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Which magnets for which electric guitar pickups?

Which magnets for which electric guitar pickups?
September 8, 2020 Cecca Guitars
Different grades of AlNiCo magnets for electric guitar

Magnets are an essential component of electric guitar pickups. Without a magnet, there is no magnetic field, and therefore no sound: it's as simple as that. But how do these magnets affect the sound of the microphones? We will analyze the different characteristics of Alnico and ceramic magnets used in electric guitar pickups.

A for Alnico

Most of the microphones we use are equipped with Alnico or ceramic magnets. Alnico is the acronym for the 3 main elements that make up this alloy: Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt. They also contain a very small part of Copper and for some (6, 8 and 9) a little titanium. The different types of alnico are classified by grade (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9). Historically, the magnets used in the manufacture of electric guitar pickups are Alnico 2, 3 and 5. Subsequently, Alnico 4 and 8 were integrated. Very recently, Alnico 6 and 9 appeared.

Each grade of Alnico has specific magnetic properties and its own sonic character.

The output level of a microphone depends on several parameters including, in large part, the magnetic force of the magnet. This is measured in gauss and varies depending on the grade of the magnet and its size.

Different grades of AlNiCo magnets for electric guitar

The “vintage” Alnicos: 2, 3 and 4

Alnico 2 magnet: the vintage generalist

Alnico 2 is composed of 10% Aluminum, 19% Nickel, 13% Cobalt and 3% Copper, the remainder being iron. The microphones equipped with Alnico 2 magnets have moderate power with very present mids, recessed treble and good sustain. It was very common on the first Humbucker pickups but was not used on Fender single coils, although today Strat or Telecaster pickups can be made with Alnico 2. Slash signature pickups or PAF Antiquity for example, are equipped with this magnet. It is the most frequently used magnet, along with Alnico 5, for humbucker pickups . Low definition combined with very present mids and a moderate output level make it a perfect choice for vintage blues/rock rhythms as desired.

Alnico 3: Jazz, blues, Archtop and much more!

Alnico 3 stands out: it does not have Cobalt in its composition. It is made up of 12% Aluminum, 25% Nickel and 3% copper. He is the least powerful of all the ranks but he compensates for this lack of power with a strong character. The microphones equipped with this alloy are very loaded in the low mids which gives them this characteristic hoarse sound and hollowed out in the high mids. The bass is slightly behind but the sustain is excellent. When you send gain it seriously growls but if you slow down a little you can easily venture into Jazz, funk or reggae but with double coils. Alnico 3 is used much less today by major brands. Gibson reserves it, for example, for high-end models from its Custom Shop to equip its most faithful reproductions of Les Paul or ES-335 (Custombucker or MHS pickups). These famous Alnico III Custombuckers cannot be found commercially and for good reason. The first Strat and Tele single coils from the 1950s were equipped with A3 magnets and then with Alnico 5. Guitars equipped with Alnico 3 pickups are therefore quite versatile in the vintage register with a strong character!

The Alnico 4: the lord of Classic Rock

The Alnico 4 is almost a newcomer since it did not exist in the 70s even though it carries within it the DNA of the classic rock and hard rock sound of this period. It is composed of 7% Aluminum, 14% Nickel, 24% Cobalt and 3% Copper. It has become more widespread more recently and is used primarily for Humbucker pickups . It provides a higher output level than the Alnico 2 as well as more shine and better definition. It is located halfway between the Alnico 2 and the Alnico 5. It is perfect for Classic Rock, Blues, Hard rock and even metal. It very easily supports big distortions in a rather Old School register and becomes very bluesy as soon as you lower the volume of the guitar.

And the winner is: Alnico 5

It is by far the most used magnet in the manufacture of electric guitar pickups. It has a significant magnetic force, very present bass and treble, deep mids and very good definition. The sustain is slightly lower due to its significant magnetic force. The Alnico 5 can be used with all sizes and types of copper wire, it supports overwinding without problem. Finally, it is equally at home in vintage or modern registers, everything will depend on the amp into which you plug it. It is used in most modern or Hot Vintage humbuckers. Its versatility and widespread use, however, have a slight disadvantage: a certain lack of originality.

Modern alloys: Alnico 6, 8 and 9.

Alnico 8: a supercharged Alnico 5

Among these 3 alloys, Alnico 8 is the best known even if its use remains anecdotal compared to Alnico 5. Its composition is as follows: 7% Aluminum, 15% Nickel, 35% Cobalt, 4% Copper and, this is new, 5% Titanium. It is used as an alternative to ceramic magnets (Ceramic 8 or C8) with which it shares certain characteristics: very high output level, very present treble and excellent definition. My A8-equipped microphones are made to withstand large distortions while maintaining clarity and definition. The clear ones are quite dry and tend to twist quickly depending on the attack of the pick. We reserve it for the bridge pickup although a paired set is entirely possible.

Alnico 6: the outsider

Alnico 6 is used even less frequently. Seymour Duncan integrated it into the Joe Bonamassa signature set to equip his 1958 flying V named “Amos”. It's a magnet halfway between the 5 and the 8, from an output level point of view. It has very present bass and treble a little behind the Alnico 5 while retaining the hollowness in the mids. Its tone is darker than 5 and 8 while maintaining a modern sound.

Alnico 9, a rare bird

It has a magnetic power equivalent to the Alnico 8 but with less treble and more present midrange. This small sound difference brings it closer to the more vintage Alnicos but with a very high output level. It has the same composition as Alnico 8, the difference lies in the manufacturing process. It would be a mix between the Alnico 8 and the Alnico 4 with which it pairs perfectly in a microphone set.

C8 Ceramic magnets

We were talking about a high output level with modern Alnico. The C8 delivers approximately twice as much as the most powerful Alnico 8. Needless to say, we are not playing in the same league! The ceramic magnet delivers very present bass, very hollow mids and piercing, even aggressive treble. The clean sounds are chilling with this magnet, it is really made for big distortion. It supports (even prefers) overwinding which will remove highs in favor of mids and thus rebalance the sound. You do extreme metal, take C8

And the size in all this?

And yes, size matters here! We will make a first comparison between the magnet volume of a single coil Stratocaster with a Humbucker and a P90. The Strat pickup is made up of 6 cylindrical magnets of approximately 308 mm3 or 1850mm3. The humbucker has a single 2500mm3 parallelepiped magnet. The P90 has two magnets identical to the double coil, for a total magnet volume of approximately 5000mm3! The volume of the magnet(s) directly influences the sound character of the microphone and the output level. Now let's take Seymour Duncan's Invader: it is equipped with 3 magnets, including an oversized one in the center (the usual place for the magnet in a Humbucker). The other two are on the sides, smaller in size, otherwise it won't fit. It has a magnet volume of 7000mm3 and has the same winding as the famous JB of the same brand.

Find complete information about Alnico magnets on the page dedicated to them on Wikipedia, in the English version, which is much more complete .