Not too many parts to it but each can affect tone
How’s it been music fans?! Well, hopefully everyone out there had a great weekend enjoying the last few days of summer and if it was anything like it was over here in sunny Southern California, it was a hot one! Now, how about we talk some pro audio? Guitar pickups; they’re very important, that we all know, they also seem to come in a limitless amount of variations, and I’m not just talking about the manufacturers or brands here. Hot rock pickups, vintage blues, metal screamers, country cuts... although I made most of those up, the point remains the same – if you’re looking for a specific pickup tone for a specific genre, chances are very likely that you can probably find one. Now whether their definition of the perfect metal tone, country tone or what have you matches your own, that’s a whole different story! Anyways, have you ever wondered what exactly gives a pickup its specific tonal characteristics? Well, that’s the focus of today’s article and it’s actually some pretty interesting stuff. Not only that, by knowing exactly how and why a pickup sounds a certain way, you can give yourself a very educated grasp on what to look out for the next time you’re in search for something sonically specific because as any pro guitarist can tell you, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as finally attaining that perfect tone!
Alright, for those of you out there a little fresh into the anatomy of a pickup, you should check out our article on that very topic because from here on out I’m assuming that you know that a pickup is made out of magnets, poles and wiring that are put together in such a way that they can pick up the vibrations of strings and turn them into an electrical signal that can then be sent out of the guitar and into an amp, preamp, effects pedal or any of that other good stuff. Anyway, let’s get right back at it with things that affect the sound of a pickup!
A lot of you out there have probably heard of Alnico and Ceramic in terms of pickups. These are pretty much the two main types of materials used for the magnets of a pickup. Also, a lot of people out there tend to believe that in terms of the two, alnico magnets give off a brighter tone. This unfortunately is incorrect; it’s not what the magnets are made of that influences their sound but their strength. But as that old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and in this case, there actually is something to that rumor of alnico being brighter.
Alnico is a lot more expensive than ceramic; so much so that alnico is almost never 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 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. Which brings me back to that rumor of alnico pickups being brighter; if you had pickups the size of a football, yeah, the alnico will be brighter – but good luck trying to fit that inside your axe!
Magnet Age and Tempering
Another little rumor regarding alnico magnets is that they weaken with age. Well, that’s technically true, but as far as tone quality goes, it’s completely irrelevant at best – and a misleading idea at worst. Most manufacturers state that magnets lose their strength at the rate of 0.2-2% every one hundred years. Besides the fact that most of us will probably never see that age (assuming we bought out pickups when born), 2% is nothing to worry about. Not only that – aging can actually be quite beneficial to a pickup. There are a lot of manufacturers out there who artificially “age” their magnets all the time by applying a high degree of heat. Yes, this does make a magnet weaker, but benefits of heating far outweigh any loss of magnet strength (which is so small that it you probably won’t notice any negative effects, at least not nearly as much as you’ll notice the positives). By heating an alnico magnet – also known as tempering – you actually end up evening out the strength of the entire magnet, giving you a balanced output for each of the poles (and in turn, each of your strings).
There are a few different things that can lead to an alnico magnet being uneven in strength. One of the more common causes is a difference in the magnetic strength of the poles which can wear into the pickup after some time. Also, some alnico magnets simply aren’t tested for evenness in strength. Fortunately though, it’s not a common problem with new pickups and even still, tempering is not that tough of a job – as long as you have the right tools and take the necessary precautions. Also, you can just stick with ceramic magnets.
The Little Things
While these may not be a crucial to a pickups, there are a small changes that can affect a pickup in terms of magnets. First off, how they are placed has an effect on the signal that is created by the pickup. If you take a look at a P-90 type pickup, you’ll find that the polarity of the magnets are repelling each other while most others tend to have the polarity attracting each other. As far as tone goes, having magnets facing in opposing polarity tends to sound rounder but “less focused.”
Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today’s article but we’ve only gotten through about half of what I would like to discuss, namely the very important subject of a pickup’s coil and wiring. Also, it should be said that while one of these facets alone will probably not make a huge difference on the overall sound of the pickup, it’s the mixing and matching of all of these in a specific way that ultimately leads to a specific tone, but much more on that tomorrow!