Today I want to touch on the subject of pickup magnets and address how they affect tone and what kinds of pickups each magnet has been used in historically, without getting too controversial in regards to characteristics.So, let’s just briefly go over a few kinds of magnets typically used in guitar pickup production: AlNiCo II, III, IV, and V, as well as ceramic.
While all manufacturers will produce an alloy of slightly different composition, as a general rule you can count on AlNiCo II magnets to be softer and sweeter than other magnet strengths.These magnets have been widely used throughout history in tons of vintage-voiced pickups.AlNiCo II magnets are associated with classic PAF style pickups and are actually surprisingly versatile for a lower strength magnet type.Tones will be clear and chimey while rolling off some of the more harsh and brittle high end frequencies, giving their pickups the aforementioned “sweet” flavor when playing with clean tones, and an equally clear and chimey tone when playing with overdrive.AlNiCo II pickups are often described as “vocal” or “singing,” and remain clear when using complex chord voicings, providing excellent string separation and overall articulation.
With no cobalt in its alloy, AlNiCo III is actually considered the weakest of the AlNiCo magnet types we will be discussing today.These pickups have been a hot choice for neck pickups over the years and pair well next to an AlNiCo II pickup in the bridge.One might notice they still have the same sweet quality as AlNiCo II magnets but with a bit more of a bold flavor and some extra richness.Being a lower output pickup does not mean they cannot grit up like some higher output pickups, and many players actually prefer them even in louder rock music as they remain bold and clear when pushed and do not have the same frequency spikes that some stronger magnets tend to display.AlNiCo III pickups can be heard in all their glory in Fender’s ‘54 Strat pickups.
One will likely notice a little more punch here and even a more defined high end than with AlNiCo II or III.These magnets are used much less often than the typical AlNiCo II and V, as many manufacturers argue than a slightly demagnetized V will sound the same while others say it’s all about how the pickup is wound in this case.Those who dare to experiment with the AlNiCo IV may find that it is beautiful in the neck position of just about any type of guitar, as it still has that commanding pop of an AlNiCo V but does a slightly better job of opening up the high end and not allowing the neck pickup to get too boomy and lose definition.I personally prefer AlNiCo IV magnets in my PAF style pickups as they are slightly hotter than IIs but still have that glassy articulation and dynamic sweep when using your volume knob to control intensity of sound.Currently a number of manufacturers use AlNiCo IV magnets in some of their pickups including Mojotone, Tonerider, and Fralin.
The AlNiCo V is likely to be considered as widely used as the AlNiCo II.Still bold and clear, it is the most aggressive of the commonly used AlNiCo strengths and is great when playing thick chords through heavy distortion.Like any AlNiCo magnet, it is going to be articulate and great for both lead and rhythm players.Expect a bit more bite and edge and even some exaggerated midrange.Pickups made with these magnets can help boost a lame amp into a more bright and aggressive territory and can take an already beautiful amp to the next level.Again, these can be extremely dynamic for those players who use their volume knob to shape sound.
Considered to be the most aggressive-sounding magnet, think of ceramic magnets as a more modern-voiced pickup build.These have often been overlooked by many players since ceramics are cheaper than AlNiCos, but over the years pickup design has come a long way and ceramic magnets have really come into their own.These have a higher output and more “cut” than AlNiCo magnets.They also tend to exhibit more low end thump and bold sounding midrange frequencies.Ceramic magnets will often have a higher output or higher DC resistance rating and are typically used in heavier music; although, some will find that ceramic magnets do have their place elsewhere and can be extremely versatile with their compressed highs, strong midrange, and beautiful harmonics.
I know I say it a lot, but the only way to really figure out what is best for you is to use the information at hand and take a leap.Experiment with as many pickup types as you can so you can figure out what works best for your style, your attack, your amp, etc.Hopefully this primer will get you comfortable with making the first move!