Still searching for the right pickups? It’s a search that can last a lifetime as your tonal preferences change and you move from one make or model of guitar to another.
But take heart. The search can be fun, provided you know a little something about what you’re looking for.
In this guide, we tell you the differences between vintage, high-output and Alnico pickups, so that you can find your way through the hundreds of different pickup models more easily.
DiMarzio PAF Master
Tell Alex Trebek you’re diving into the “They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To” column and you can bet the $1,000 answer is going to be, “What are electric guitar pickups?”
Amid all the talk of old wood, nitrocellulose lacquer, and handcrafting that populates any confab about old guitars, vintage pickups inevitably play a starring role. Since so many players have concluded that prized vintage guitars are indubitably awesome and few instruments made today can come close, you simply have to stir in the fact that pickups play a major part in the tone of any electric guitar to conclude that vintage pickups must, ipso facto, be likewise awesome. Add the fact that it’ll cost you upwards of $2,000 or more to purchase an original 1957–’62 Gibson PAF humbucker, or from $2,000 to $4,000 for a full set of pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster pickups, and that seals it: Not only don’t they make ’em like they used to, but they can’t even find the formula.
For many years, sure, that was probably true—and for a couple of reasons. First, many of the makers of the original classics really did mislay the formula, or gradually lose track of it at least, until their pickups no longer did the things that got people most excited about them in the first place. In many cases, the most desirable vintage specs were superseded bit by bit in an effort to make “improvements,” or simply to achieve economies of mass production. While all of this was happening, major players such as Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch all passed into the hands of new owners, closed the original factories where these hallowed pickups were wound, and moved to new premises—sometimes changing machines and processes along the way. Meanwhile, new suppliers came along, metal and magnet and wire formulas were subtly altered, and ever so gradually it all evolved to a different place.
And before even getting to the “secondly” part, it’s important to accept at this juncture that not all vintage pickups are mindblowing. Not even all PAFs, or pre-CBS Strat or Tele pickups, whatever they are worth as collectibles, are great pickups by any standard. In many cases, the pickups from major makers did become more consistent over the years; at the same time, they often lost much of the indefinable magic of the very best examples of their predecessors, but arguably they beat out some of the vintage dogs, too.
Modern Vintage Mojo
Now, secondly: In the early years of the replacement-pickup industry (call it late ’60s to early ’80s) players were less interested in vintage specs. More often they wanted hotter, louder, and more sustaining, so that’s what was pursued. If you wanted vintage spec, you could still get the original guitar for reasonable money, or find a pulled pickup in a repair guy’s parts bin after it had been replaced by an overwound ceramic-mag unit.
Today, a good couple of decades into a more heated pursuit of the vintage mojo, many pickup makers really are achieving something very close to what the best vintage pickups can give you (while contemporary guitar makers, I’d argue, are also making better guitars than ever before). After considerable dedicated analysis of magnet materials, winding patterns, bobbin and base-plate construction, and other details, plenty of movers in the industry—Lindy Fralin, Jason Lollar, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, J.M. Rolph, and several others—cracked the code on vintage Fender single-coils pretty early on, and several shops have continued to further improve these in more recent years.
Even while this was happening, word on the street was that no one would ever nail the enigmatic magic of the legendary Gibson humbuckers of ’57-’62 until several guys started to come very close, and arguably even got there. Today, makers like Arcane, Gil Yaron, Sheptone, Throbak, Wolfetone, Tim Shaw, and several of those already mentioned are putting out humbuckers that get you a long way toward the PAF’s legendary depth, bite, and dimension.
Is there magic in some vintage pickups? Sure, but not because of any mystical fairy dust sprinkled between the windings in Fullerton or Kalamazoo. The better of those pickups sound great for very quantifiable reasons, and intelligent contemporary engineers often come extremely close to replicating these sounds. If you need to restore an original ’58-’60 ’Burst to factory spec, then by all means, rip out the high-gain replacements some guy wired up in the ’70s and track down a $5k set of PAFs. But if you’re just desperate to cop that tone in a contemporary guitar—or vintage-certified Tele, Strat, Gretsch or whatever—save yourself some massive cash and explore any of several highly skilled pickup makers that are at work today.
EMG-85 MetalWorks Active Alnico Humbucker
If you want to rock, you’ve just got to do it with a high-output pickup right? After all, if you generate that hot-as-possible signal from the guitar you can slam the front end of the amp to kick it all into overdrive right from ground zero. It seems to make sense, and yet there are plenty of instances where lower-output (aka “vintage-wind”) pickups might yield preferable results—even when scorched-earth rock action is your objective.
All Wound Up
By “high-output,” I’m talking pickups wound with considerably more wire than standard for their particular type—whether the standard is a Gibson-style humbucker or P-90 single-coil, a Fender-style Strat or Tele single-coil, or a single-coil-sized humbucker. More turns of coil wire means in higher resistance readings and higher output (all else being equal). Keep in mind, however, that impedance readings don’t always tell you how a pickup will sound or potent it is, because there are many other factors involved. Very often, high-output pickups are made with ceramic magnets rather than the alnico magnets found in most vintage-style pickups. That said, not all pickups made with ceramic magnets are necessarily hot, but these are the baseline factors found in common in many high-output pickups.
There are plenty of uses for high-output pickups, and they serve many players very well. The craze for high-output replacements started around the mid ’70s, most notably with DiMarzio’s Super Distortion humbuckers and single-coils, when players were looking to drive some of the (admittedly rather lackluster) amps of the era into overdrive. The high-gain amp was a new and rare thing, juicy vintage tube amps of the ’50s and ’60s were often seen as “yesterday’s model,” and overdrive pedals were in their infancy. Add it up, and the super-hot pickup looked like the way to go.
Once the honeymoon was over, though, many players found that while they could get the big crunch and singing lead tones that were initially so exciting, some high-output pickups didn’t give them a whole lot else. Harsh highs, over-abundant midrange, and murky lows can be characteristics of these pickups, along with occasionally a lack of dynamics: an all-or-nothing response that leads to a “brick-wall” playing feel.
Dig into the most revered rock and blues-rock tones ever created, however, and you’ll find that many of them were achieved using lower-output, vintage-spec pickups. The original PAF and Patent Number Gibson humbuckers in the Les Pauls, SGs and ES-335s used by Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff, Alvin Lee, Mike Bloomfield, Gary Rossington, and others were all relatively low-wind humbuckers, even if they were at the upper end of the scale for PAFs (which could vary considerably in output). Likewise, the Fender single-coils in Jimi Hendrix’s or Ritchie Blackmore’s Strats, and in the Telecaster that Jimmy Page used to record the “Stairway to Heaven” solo and other classics, were all lowoutput pickups. Explore further and you’ll find the DynaSonics in the Gretsch Silver Jet that Billy Zoom used to crank out raw proto-punk riffs with his band X, or the Filter’Trons in Billy Duffy’s White Falcon with the Cult were also low-output pickups.
While many of the earlier tone crafters used these pickups because that’s all they had, later generations of players have learned that you can always add gain to a guitar’s signal, but you can’t take it away. An important point, because a signal tends to retain greater clarity, more dimension, and broader dynamics if it isn’t too hot coming out of the guitar. Hit the amp’s front end or your favorite distortion pedal with the electronic maelstrom of a high-output pickup, and your tone might kick off with some over-baked characteristics that you can’t dial out further down the line. Start off with the juicy goodness of a lower-output pickup, on the other hand, and you can add all the gain you like to that rich, sweet, dynamic foundation. You need to try any set of pickups through your own rig before you know for sure whether they’re right for you, but don’t assume that heavy rock requires high-output pickups, whatever the apparent logic might seem to tell you on paper.
Seymour-Duncan Alnico II Pro Humbucker
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.