What are alnico pickups?

Alnico pickups: for guitar players, they are two words which go together like peaches and cream. But what does the term really mean?

The word 'alnico' refers to the magnets in the pickups and comes from combining the first two letters of the three elements that make it: aluminium, nickel, and cobalt. 

According to Fender, a company which knows a thing or two about pickups, ' In the early 1930s in Japan, alloys of iron, nickel and aluminium were found to display twice the strength of the best steel magnets of the time. Cobalt was soon found to be a useful addition to the mix, as cobalt alloys are highly corrosion-resistant.'

Put alnico together with iron, and you get a very durable and highly heat-resistant magnet. In fact, the only magnets stronger than alnico one are those made from rare-earth materials like neodymium and samarium-cobalt. Alnico, then is perfect or a pickup. 

Alnico pickup or ceramic magnet?

Alnico pickups have been around as long as the electric guitar itself, but in most other consumer devices have long since been replaced by ceramic magnets. Those, however, produce a harsh, brittle tone when they're used in a guitar pickup, and so pickup makers have stuck with the warm, velvety tone of the alnico magnet. 

But not all pickups with alnico magnets are equal. There are three versions, known as II, III, and V, and each has a different mix of elements in its alloy. The different mix of elements, gives each different properties, making them useful in different positions. Alnico III, which has no cobalt in it, is the weakest type, and so impedes string vibration the least, making it useful in the neck position. Alnico V has the strongest pull and with it, a punchier tone, and is used in the bridge position. Alnico II was the original form of the magnet and used in early Fender guitars like 1950s Telecasters. It's therefore used in vintage re-issues. 

Image by Josh on Flickr.

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