What's the Big Deal about Alnico Pickups?

October 22, 2013

ASK ANY EXPERIENCED PLAYER AND they’ll tell you that you really need alnico pickups if you want the optimum in tone, touch sensitivity, and dynamics—at least if they’ve swallowed the hype that most of the chat-o-sphere has perpetuated for years. After all, aren’t alnico-loaded pickups truly better than those made with ceramic (ferrite) or other types of magnets? The truth is some are, but some certainly are not, and there’s a lot more to it than simply defining the type of magnet that goes into a pickup’s construction. Let’s dig deeper.

Most guitarists have to admit a predisposition toward anything “vintage” or “classic.” If it helped Hendrix, Page, or Clapton create seminal tones in the ’60s, then it must still be valid here in the 21st century. The vast majority of pickups used alnico magnets in the Golden Age of guitar tone, so they were partly responsible for most of our major reference points. Out of that has grown the assumption that if these classic tones were rich, dynamic, and luscious then, well, alnico pickups must be all of that too.

Sure enough, the good ones can be in the right guitar, when it is played well. Alnico does seem to have a certain softness and roundness to its response that enhances dynamics and touch sensitivity, and along with it, the warmth and girth of the note. But the overall design of the pickup plays an enormous part in it too, and on top of it all there are different types of alnico, with the compositions used in II, III, IV, and V all varying slightly from soft to punchy, respectively.

Does all of this mean ceramic magnets lack these characteristics when used in pickup making? Some early efforts might have led us to believe so. One popular pickup modder’s trick of the 1970s was to jam a ceramic magnet into a design intended for alnico, and get more amp distortion as a result of the increased output. The trouble was, as much as these were fun for high-gain players, such pickups often sounded muddy and harsh in many applications.

Pickup design and construction has come a long way since then, though, and creative makers have learned to harness these more powerful magnets—and other components— in extremely toneful ways. As pickup guru Joe Barden tells us, “Magnetism is magnetism. You just can’t go substituting, blindly, one for the other. It depends how you go about it. Like you can’t go taking a tire off my car and putting it on yours and expecting it to work.”

Learning how to work with a variety of magnets enabled designers to create pickups that opened up a broad range of bold new sounds— from clean and clear to hot and nasty—for players who wanted to break beyond conventional bounds. Barden’s own acclaimed double-rail pickups could only be achieved using ceramic magnets, and Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Jason Lollar, Lindy Fralin, and several other notable makers have advanced the art using ceramic and other alternatives. Lace Sensors? EMGs? Yeah, both are ceramic-loaded designs.

Pickup makers today are also turning out better renditions of classic alnico-based designs too, making it easier than ever for players to enjoy consistently great Gibson-, Fender-, and Gretsch-based tones. Bottom line is, if you want to make your mark with a broader sonic palette, there are plenty of stunning pickups available with both alnico and ceramic magnets.

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