Considering how important the tone and output level of a guitarists instrument is, the selection of the right pickups for the desired sound a guitar player is seeking deserves a good deal of research and understanding on the components that work within the pickup to deliver different qualities that can be considered sign posts on a players quest for the tone they desire. The following is the result of many days of research on the internet, many years of playing, more money spent than I care to admit, and a strong desire to be of assistance to those who take up the quest. The focus of this article is the different magnet types used in the construction of guitar pickups and their contribution to both the tone and output level a player might expect from a pickup that utilizes a magnet of one of these specific types. Because opinions as well as consideration of need vary I've tried to keep this piece true to the opinions of those that actually build pickups and what their opinions are on the qualities of each magnet type. I have utilized articles, catalogs and books from sources such as Gibson, Fender, DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckle, HighOrder, Lindy Fralin, Rio Grande, Craig's Guitar Tech Resources, WCR, Harmonic Design, Suhr guitar pickups, Tom Anderson, my friends at Fazio's Frets and Friends, and fellow forum members who've been kind enough to share their thoughts and opinions. I've attempted to do the research, other than you listening with your own ears, for you. The following information is the result.
Guitar Pickup Magnet Types
There are six magnet types pickup designers / builders select from when making a pickup for the electric guitar. Five of these are varying forms of AlNiCo, Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt with trace amounts of other elements. These forms or grades of AlNiCo are known numerically as II, III, IV, V, and VIII. The sixth type is Ceramic, a mix of Iron Oxide and Strontium Carbonate or Barium. Although multiple components used to build a pickup have a direct effect on tone and volume this piece will focus on the basic differences between these six types of magnets. What makes each type different from the others.
First, let's look at the Ceramic magnet. It's the only type that was not part of the original range of pickup magnets. Why was it brought into the fold? What does it offer that AlNiCo types don't? Ceramic magnet tends to strongly boost treble response. Does this mean Ceramic pickups are bright? No. A second component of a pickup is the number of windings it has. More windings equal more volume. More windings equal less treble response. The D.C. Resistance, a good gauge of pickup output, goes up as the number of windings go up. AlNiCo magnets, with pricey exceptions, are at their peak tonal levels when the D.C. resistance is between 5k and 10k. Once you cross the 10k threshold AlNiCo magnets, in general, start to suffer from a noticeable loss of high end. Some manufacturers have produced pickups using AlNiCo V magnets that have crossed the threshhold into the 14k to 16k range and one or two have pushed the 20k summit. These pickups tend to be expensive because of very special forms of AlNiCo V being used, higher gauge wire for the windings, and other added components. They fall outside the range of the average buyers wallet.
Enter the Ceramic magnet. Because of it's extreme high end, it's a good replacement for AlNiCo when the D.C. resistance or number of windings passes the 10k threshold. Is it a direct replacement tonally for AlNiCo? No. While Ceramic will improve the clarity and prominence of the high end in louder pickups it doesn't offer as much midrange and it's distortion tone is less smooth than AlNiCo. Another plus for Ceramic is it's low cost. Another negative is the fact that it is very brittle when compared to AlNiCo. Does it have a place in the world of Dino tone? Absolutely. When high output with clarity and high end response are the main requirements, as in many forms of Metal guitar, Ceramic magnets fill the bill.
Now let's look at AlNiCo magnets which have been used since the beginning of guitar pickup design. When kept within their normal range of D.C. resistance, Output, they are tonally superior to Ceramic magnets at any range of D.C. resistance. They are smoother, have a sweeter voicing, seemingly glide in and out of distortion, and have a slightly compressed quality that Ceramic pickups do not. As stated earlier, five types of AlNiCo magnets are used in the construction of guitar pickups. AlNiCo II, III, IV, V, and VIII. Note* If you list the AlNiCo magnet types by output from low to high the order would be III, II, IV, V, and VIII. It just is. I don't know why.
AlNiCo VIII is rarely used because of it's higher cost. It's the only AlNiCo that can live in the world of +10k resistance and still retain it's beautiful AlNiCo tonality. If you want high output but don't want to sacrifice the smooth, slightly compressed voicing of AlNiCo, this is the magnet for you. Sadly, it's seldom used since Ceramic was brought into the fold. Seymour Duncan now offers an AlNiCo VIII but I've never tried the model out. It's pretty new to their lineup. Also, from time to time High Order pickups stock this magnet and offer it as a build option. Note* Even pickups equipped with AlNiCo VIII magnets, while being bright enough to produce output far in excess of AlNiCo V types, cannot reach the output level of pickups using Ceramic magnets.
AlNICo V is the most widely used AlNiCo magnet in pickup construction. While not as smooth or warm as AlNiCo II and not having quite the sweet high end voicing of AlNiCo III or IV it definitely adds a tonality of strength and presence that the others do not. In most cases it's the hard rock guitarist's magnet of choice. It has an overall big balls quality to it that many Dino guitarists prefer. When you think of modern Dino tone this is probably what your thinking about.
AlNiCo IV provides for a very strong and bell like high end and a very tight bass response. Good clarity with a little less warmth than AlNiCo II. Less air when compared to AlNiCo III. Think of AlNiCo IV and III as the most vintage voiced of the AlNICo offerings with IV being a bit punchier with excellent dynamics and a mid to late 50's voicing. Fusion or Jazz guitarists might love this magnet.
AlNiCo III is probably the magnet of choice for vintage tone. It has the lowest output of the magnet types used in guitar pickup construction. Think late 40's / early 50's Fender tone. It has a quality of openness or air about it. Highly articulate. An excellent glassy voicing in the upper frequencies with a very tight, distinctive bass and a flat midrange when the D.C. resistance, output level, of the pickup design is very low.
AlNiCo II is probably the second most common AlNiCo magnet used in guitar pickups. Think smooth. Think midrange. Where AlNiCo V is ballsy AlNiCo II is sweet and prettty. Where AlNiCo V is in your face AlNiCo II is dreamy and rich with overtones and harmonics. For an emotive tone it's probably the best of the best. It's not Balls to the wall or a heavy rock voice like AlNiCo V. It's more ethereal. I like pickups with AlNiCo II magnets in them for neck position high gain leads. I believe Slash uses AlNiCo II in exactly this way.
There are many components involved in the voicing of a guitar pickup. Magnets, windings, wire type and thickness, coil shape, strength of magnet, magnetic field, etc., etc.. Magnet type stands out mainly because of it's prominence in discussions about pickup voicings. Is it very important? Yes. Is it the only ingredient of importance? No.
Below are some examples of popular pickups listed by magnet type.
Note. S is Strat single coil Size , H is humbucker Size, T is Tele Size and P is Soapbar Size (P90).
Gibson '57 Classic Humbuckers. H
Gibson Burstbucker Models 1, 2, and 3. H
Gibson 490r and 490t. H
Fender Atomic Humbucking. H
S. Duncan AlNiCo II Pro APH - 1. H
S. Duncan Custom Custom SH -11. H
S. Duncan Pearly Gates SHPG - 1. H
S. Duncan AlNiCo II Pro APS-1 or 2. S
Bare Knuckle Stormy Monday. H
Bare Knuckle The Sultan's. S
Bare Knuckle BKP-90. P
HighOrder Custom AlNiCo II. H
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage '54 Pro DP408. S
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Heavy Blues 2 DP409. S
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Solo Pro DP414. S
Fender Nocaster. T
Fender Original Vintage Noiseless Telecaster. T
Gibson P90 pre 1957. P
Bare Knuckle Apache. S
HighOrder Custom AlNiCo III. H
Lindy Fralin Real 54's. S
Bare Knuckle Abraxas. H
Bare Knuckle The Mule. H
HighOrder Custom AlNiCo IV. H
Lindy Fralin High Output. H
Gibson Burstbucker Pro. H
Gibson 498t. H
Gibson P90 starting in 57'. P
Fender Original '57 / '62. S
Fender Custom Shop '69. S
Fender Custom Shop Fat '50s. S
Fender Custom Shop Texas Special. S
Fender Vintage Noiseless. S
Fender Custom Shop '54. S
Fender Vintage Telecaster Noiseless. T
S. Duncan '59 Model SH - 1. H
S. Duncan Custom Five SH -14. H
S. Duncan JB Model SH - 4. H
S. Duncan Jazz Model SH - 2. H
S. Duncan Full Shred SH -10. H
S. Duncan Screamin' Demon SH -12. H
S. Duncan Vintage SSL-1 or 2. S
S. Duncan Hot SSL-3. S
S. Duncan Quarter Pound SSL-4 or 7. S
S. Duncan Custon SSL-5 or 6. S
S. Duncan Vintage P-90 SP90-1. P
DiMarzio Virtual PAF DP196 and 197. H
DiMarzio Fred DP153. H
DiMarzio Breed DP165 and 166. H
DiMarzio PAF Pro DP151. H
DiMarzio Norton DP160. H
DiMarzio Tone Zone DP155. H
DiMarzio Blue Velvet DP170 and 171. S
DiMarzio HS-2 DP116. S
DiMarzio HS-3 DP117. S
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Blues DP402. S
DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Solo DP404. S
DiMarzio YJM DP217. S
EMG 85. H
Bare Knuckle Holydiver. H
Bare Knuckle Nailbomb. H
Bare Knuckle VH II. H
Bare Knuckle Trilogy. S
Bare Knuckle The Sinner. S
Bare Knuckle Mother's Milk. S
Bare Knuckle BKP-91. P
Bare Knuckle BKP-92. P
HighOrder Custom AlNiCo V. H
Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot. S
Lindy Fralin Blues Special. S
Rio Grande Barbeque Bucker. H
Rio Grande Genuine Texas. H
Rio Grande Buffalo Bucker. H
Rio Grande Half Breed strat. S
Rio Grande Muy Grande strat. S
All John Suhr Guitar Pickups use AlNiCo V Special.
S. Duncan Alternative 8 SH -15. H
HighOrder Custom option when in stock. H
Gibson 496R and 500T. H
Gibson Dirty fingers. H
Burns Tri-sonic. S
Bill Larwrence L-500XL. H
S. Duncan Custom SH - 5. H
S. Duncan Distortion SH - 6. H
S. Duncan Dimebucker SH -13. H
S. Duncan Invader SH - 8. H
S. Duncan Hot Rails STHR -1B. S
S. Duncan Little '59 ST59 -1B. S
S. Duncan JB Jr. SJBJ-1. S
S. Duncan Hot P-90 SP90-2. P
S. Duncan Custom P90 SP90-3. P
DiMarzio Evolution DP158 and 159. H
DiMarzio Evo 2 DP215. H
DiMarzio Super Distortion DP100. H
DiMarzio Super 3 DP152. H
DiMarzio D Sonic DP207. H
DiMarzio X2N DP102. H
DiMarzio SDS-1 DP111. S
DiMarzio Chopper DP184. S
DiMarzio Cruiser DP186 and 187. S
EMG 81. H
Rio Grande Crunchbox. H
Rio Grande Punchbox. H
Rio Grande Dirty Harry. S
Rio Grande Dirty Harry Jr. S
The Tony Iommi Signature pup by Gibson is really one of a kind. Half of it is an AlNiCo II Magnet for tonal voicing and half of it is Ceramic for the amount of power it provides. It's the only pickup I've found that attempts to blend the beauty of AlNiCo II with the power associated with AlNiCo V or Ceramic design. It truly is a one of a kind.