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With a formidable reputation in top-flight, hand-wound pickups to suit nearly every imaginable playing style, who better to ask about pickups?
How does the magnet at the heart of a pickup influence tone?
“A magnet doesn’t have a tone, per se – you can’t put it to your ear and hear anything. It’s really the engine that drives the coils in a pickup. In a humbucker you’ve got a bar magnet located under the coils; if it’s a Stratocaster or a Telecaster you’ve got magnetic rods that are in the centre. But essentially they’re all doing the same thing: throwing up a magnetic field that the guitar strings vibrate in when they’re plucked.
“The pickup translates those vibrations into an AC signal that goes down the guitar lead, via the volume and tone pots, and into the amplifier – and the speaker then re-shapes it back into sound. So different types of magnet produce different effects – and that’s where you can say a magnet has a ‘sound’.
“As a general rule, the more powerful the magnet the more high frequencies you’ll get, and also the more low frequencies as well. The high frequencies don’t really need a lot of power to drive them, but the bass frequencies do. However, it’s also down to the coil windings you use and the gauge of wire. So it's not just the magnet that’s responsible for the change.”
How does that relate, tone-wise, to the common types of magnet used in pickups, such as Alnico and ceramic?
“Take a humbucker wound with 42-gauge wire as a benchmark. With an Alnico II magnet, it would have a warm, soft bass response, a very sweet high end and a slightly pronounced mid- range. Alnico III, funnily enough, is not quite as strong as Alnico II. So, the highs tend to be more muted and rounded. Probably the best way to imagine the sound of Alnico III is to think of the early 1950s when this form of magnet was very common. Think of the sounds of the jazz and clean guitar tones from that time – that plummy roundness.
“Move up to Alnico IV and the power rating comes up and the frequency response flattens out – you get a balanced and natural- sounding response from the coils, but not so it’s boosting the treble. The mid-range stays quite constant as well. And then you go to Alnico V, which has the highest power. Then the bass and treble do get boosted and the sound starts to get more aggressive – more ‘rock ’n’ roll’, for want of a better term.
“Ceramic is a much more powerful magnet again [than Alnico V]. The bass and treble get boosted significantly. A lot of people think ceramic magnets scoop the mids out, but when you analyse it you find the mids tend to stay where they are – it’s just that the bass and treble get boosted so much you get a V-shaped taper in the EQ. Ceramic pickups tend to suit players who need a very fast and percussive pick attack.”
Do hand-wound pickups really sound better?
“The bottom line is you get a better dynamic response from the coil. Most people who play a hand-wound pickup say it sounds more ‘open’. It’s easy to make a pickup sound brighter but to have a truly open voice it’s got to be dynamically responsive – and that’s what scatter-winding [intentionally irregular hand-winding of a pickup coil] does. Also, compared to a machine-wound coil, the frequency response is slightly extended. So the sound is bigger and you hear more not just in the high frequencies but also in the depths of the frequency response.”