Today we continue our feature on dissecting the factors that contribute to the tone of a pickup. Make sure to to check out Factors that Affect a Pickups Tone -- Part 1 if you haven't done so already. We previously discussed how coil size and thickness relate to the tone of a pickup as well as how pairing two pickups with wires wound in opposing directions can be used to cancel out hum. Now we're going to take a look at high-output pickups, magnets and the tone they deliver.
A hot pickup is one that sends a stronger output signal to an amp. The benefit of this means the amp will hit distortion more willingly. Originally, double-coil pickups such as humbuckers had more output than single-coils but nowadays you can easily find single-coil pickups that can go toe-to-toe with humbuckers in output.
Imagine you had a guitar with moderate-output single coils and you just couldn’t get an amp into distortion no matter what settings you tried. Then say you switched to a guitar with higher output (hotter) pickups, you’ll probably hear a slightly distorted, dirty sound – even at the same amp settings you tried with the other guitar. Now, if you happened to have a third guitar with super-hot, high output pickups, you’ll probably hear distortion no matter what settings you try! What all this means is that higher output pickups means more distortion at any amp setting compared to a lower output pickup.
That’s not to say you can’t get a really distorted sound from a moderate-output pickup. You can always add a distortion or booster pedal to your setup or simply dial in a more distorted sound on the amp. You can also get a very clean sound from high-output pickups by using an amp that was created for an ultra-clean sound (such as a Roland Jazz Chorus) or by simply forgoing an amp and connecting your guitar straight into a mixing console. In fact, Jazz guitar players use these two techniques all the time. But by and large, its guitar players who focus on genres that require heavy distortion – such as metal and hard rock – that more frequently use hotter, high-output pickups.
While there are some rather weak, low-output pickups out there, you don’t really hear much about them. So for everyday purposes, when someone refers to the lower end of the output spectrum when it comes to pickups, moderate output is what they are referring to.
There are two main types of magnets used in today’s pickups: alnico and ceramic. Alnico is a lot more expensive than ceramic, so much so that alnico is not regularly used in grades of 5 or higher (grades are used to tell a magnet’s strength but only in comparison to magnets made of the same material). In order to keep down costs but still have a magnet with strength high enough for something like a high output pickup, ceramic is more commonly used.
Interestingly enough, ceramic magnets are actually weaker than alnico when they are of the same grade and size – but only after a certain point though. When it comes to magnets the size used in pickups however, ceramic is actually stronger and therefore brighter. Very bright, in fact. They also retain articulation and clarity even with heavy distortion which makes ceramic suited for heavy distorted styles.
As far as alnico magnets and tone goes, there are a few different grades that you can find in commercial pickups. Alnico II for example is a lower output magnet that is smooth and usually has just a bit of warmth. Alnico V on the other hand has more scooped mids and tighter in the low end which provides some bite and sparkle. Alnico VIII is generally between ceramic and Alnico V, with quite a bit of magnetic pull, punchy with upper mids but a little more warmth than ceramic.
Come back next week when we'll be covering pickup height and staggered versus flat-pole pickups. And if you haven't done so already, make sure to browse our huge selection of pickups from top manufacturers including Seymour Duncan and Lindy Fralin!