What Is a Guitar Pickup?
An electric guitar pickup is a magnet wrapped in thousands of wire coils. The strings vibrating over a pickup disturb the magnetic field when you play. This movement creates a current that moves through the wire coil. Every pickup must contain at least one magnet.
Basic pickup design is simple, but several variables, including magnet type and strength, number of wire coils, type of wire, and winding pattern, impact how a pickup sounds and outputs signal.
There are six pole pieces on a six-string guitar pickup. Each pole piece is centered under a string exerting a magnetic force. The sound is affected by the distance of the pole piece from the string and the magnet’s strength.
The signal created from the string vibration moves through your insanely overpowered pedalboard into an amplifier, boosting the signal to the required level.
It’s time to have guitar pickup magnets explained.
Who Cares About Magnets?
You should care if you want to avoid sounding like a piece of poop onstage!
The magnet used in a pickup’s construction significantly affects overall tonal quality and character. The two main types used in pickups are Alnico and ceramic.
Alnico stands for aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. There is usually some copper, iron, and titanium in there.
The percentage of each element determines how the pickup sounds. Except for Alnico 3, each successive designator indicates a stronger pickup.
Alnico 2 and 5 are the most common guitar pickup magnets.
Ceramic magnets contain strontium, barium, and iron oxide. These are stronger and cheaper than Alnicos.
How Do Magnets Affect Tone?
Pickups arguably have the most significant impact on electric guitar tone, and magnets are a major part of pickups.
Each type of magnet has a unique sound used to create different tones in an instrument. Experiment with different types to find the sound that you like best.
You may prefer one type of magnet for neck pickups and a different magnet for bridge pickups.
Alnico magnets produce a warmer, smoother sound than ceramic magnets.
Ceramic magnets produce a heavier, more distorted sound than other types of magnets, and they exert a greater pull on strings than Alnico 5s.
This power creates tighter bass, lower mids, and crisp highs. These are great for high gain styles and are known for intense high-end attack.
Less powerful magnets like Alnico 2s have strong midrange output, while stronger magnets like Alnico 5s have boosted treble and bass response.
There are other magnets used in pickup construction that you won’t encounter too often. Samarium Cobalt and Neodymium are not Lord of the Rings characters. They are rare-earth (not Middle Earth) magnets.
These are stronger than Alnico and ceramic, and they are also more expensive because of the cost of the materials. You sometimes see these in acoustic pickups.
The rare-earth magnets are ultra-powerful, so they require smaller magnets. These provide exceptional frequency range.
Rubber ferrite, otherwise known as “fridge magnet,” is used in gold foil guitar pickups. These pickups emerged in the 1950s.
Gold foils are cheap and have weak output, although some guitarists like them for niche pursuits. I’m guessing Jack White uses gold foil pickups occasionally, but I’m not sure.
Alnico 2 is a weaker pickup magnet. This weakness means the string vibrates more than it would over a stronger magnet.
Increased vibration means heavier low end. Mids are also heavy. 2s have a vintage sound often heard in blues, jazz, and rock.
Alnico 2s are mostly iron with about 10% each of aluminum and cobalt and 20% nickel.
These pickups are known for good sustain. Initially used in humbuckers, Fender did not use Alnico 2s in their early single coils.
Vintage and PAF-style humbuckers often utilize Alnico 2s. They create medium output and are suitable for bridge position because the reduced highs warm things up.
Alnico 2s are the weakest of the Alnicos and are often used in neck pickups because they produce a warm, smooth sound.
Alnico 3 is the lowest strength Alnico. No cobalt is used in these, making them Alni.
These magnets create more high-end than Alnico 2s. Great for mellow, clean sounds and P90 tones. Boosted low-mids are present, and excellent sustain is a positive factor.
Alnico 3s are slightly stronger than Alnico 2s and are often used in middle pickups because they balance the warm sound of a 2 and the brighter sound of a 5.
The Alnico 4 is right in the middle of 2 and 5 in terms of strength. Some people complain that these sound flat without any real dynamics.
Humbuckers are the main container for Alnico 4s, and these magnets are great for classic rock. The flat tone allows the natural sound of the guitar to come through.
Alnico 5 is the most popular magnet used in pickup construction today.
This is a strong magnet, meaning it has high output. This one pulls harder on the strings giving more attack while slightly reducing sustain.
Reduced mids and pronounced but contained bass define this very versatile magnet. You will hear strong high-end that is not brittle.
The Alnico 8 magnet replaces ceramic magnets.
8s are high output with high highs, just like ceramics, and they’re great for intense distortion.
The Alnico 6 is rare. This magnet is in the middle of the Alnico 5 and Alnico 8. It is darker than Alnico 5s.
The Alnico 9 has similar output to the 8, but with lower treble and boosted mids. This magnet has a high output vintage tone.
Ceramic 8 pickup magnets are twice as powerful as Alnico 8s. Are you brave enough to try these?
Clean sounds have a brittle, ice pick sound. These are really for intense distortion.
As you can see, pickup magnets are a necessary part of creating the sound of an electric guitar. If you want your instrument to sound immaculate, it is important to understand how pickups are constructed.
Without pickups, we would be stuck in the 1940s playing lap steel like a pack of idiot dorks. Thankfully we are in a golden age of pickup design and have access to more magnets than what’s found on your grandmother’s insane fridge. She has weird pictures of animals and relatives no one knows.