Magnets: Do magnets shape the tone? (and what are the differences between Alnico, Samarium Cobalt, and Ferrite?)

Hearing is believing, click on these to hear my point: “Sound” & “Sound” These are the detailed and complex sounds and colors of Alnico. And viewing a ‘ Spectral analysis graph ‘ comparing a Kinman AVN-56 to another Big Brand noiseless will confirm visually what you hear. This is the sound of the same Big Brand noiseless “Sound” In particular listen to the wound strings and low notes. A Strat should growl and bark with rock solid lows that have authoritative Thwack, definition, and clarity.

Intro: The properties of magnets are rooted in physics and while I do offer Scientific evidence such as the ‘spectral analysis graph’ and the ‘sound files’ above, I write this mostly in plain language.
The debate: Extreme gain/distortion tends to obliterate the sound of a pickup, but even then some desirable characteristics of guitar and pickups are needed to provide an edge, feel, and definition. Less discerning ears find it hard to differentiate between pickups under extreme distortion. But consider the reason that countless Artists, who want real Tone, demand Alnico magnet pickups regardless of the ‘gain’ they use. If any old pickup would do why are they so picky? This is an educational piece not an attack on anyone or any pickup design. But I certainly set out to dispel some popular myths that seem designed to confuse. This is a rant about magnets and in particular how magnets relate to the legendary Fender trademark guitar sound.

Background stuff: The whole thrust of this article is to dispel the myth perpetuated by some that Ferrite or Samarium Cobalt pickups can duplicate the characteristics that Alnico imparts to the sound. I am not against other types of pickups that use alternate magnets per se. However it is a fact that Ferrite (Ceramic) magnets play absolutely no part in tone shaping of a guitar pickup simply because they are non-conductive, non-metal magnets and do not influence the electrical behavior of the coil, and exchanging these with Samarium Cobalt magnets has similar sonic results; in other words these magnets are completely toneless / soundless (ie they play no part in tone shaping in themselves). On the other hand we have Alnico, the magical magnet. Alnico is unique because it imparts a TONE flavor and certain desirable performance characteristics into the sound. It does this because it is metallic and conductive and does influence the electrical behavior of the coil. There are those that will tell you that a clever designer of Samarium Cobalt or Ferrite magnet pickup can somehow, miraculously, compensate for the missing Alnico by clever magnetic circuit design, this is simply not so. Magnetism is just magnetism, but ‘ coil core ‘ material is a whole different story. Core material and behavior is one of the BIG subjects that old time Electrical Engineers (not the modern electronic variety of engineer) had to study during their education. You have probably heard about Inductance (measured in Henrys), it’s one of the most important and revealing specifications that a guitar pickup possesses. Did you know that Inductance is primarily derived from the core material? Steel had high inductance, Alnico has low inductance, about 1/4 that of steel. Fender sound demands just the right amount of inductance derived from the core.

The challenge: Designing a good circa vintage sounding Alnico noiseless is a lofty challenge. See, Alnico presents some formidable technical difficulties when phase opposed coils with Alnico cores are stacked. This is the technical reason very few have met with any kind of success at all. It’s a very difficult challenge and one which I have dedicated a good part of my life exploring new technology to solve, I know what I’m talking about.

Hearing is believing: Remember that the Human ear is MOST sensitive in the midrange frequencies, that’s no co-incidence because that’s where speech frequencies are concentrated. It’s significant that hearing loss begins in the upper midrange and is accompanied by loss of clarity and intelligibility. Alnico is the traditional (and preferred) magnet material for Fender pickups because Alnico imparts important detail in the midrange frequencies, in precisely the same range as the human voice and it also imparts a thwack in the low midrange that gives the wound strings a clean metallic cutting edge, a crisp edged bitey twang, crisp (almost metallic/brittle) highs as well as beautifully flavored complex midrange detail and character. Alnico give the sound an entrancing captivating character, a depth and dimension and the projection to be easily ‘heard’ in the mix. Alnico is rich in midrange complexity and upper midrange bite and grit that makes playing an interesting, stimulating exciting and deeply satisfying experience.

The differences: You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to understand the simple, undeniable, scientific fact that the core of the coil (be they steel alloy poles or Alnico magnets) have a BIG effect on the sonic tonal texture the pickup produces. Alnico also has more upper midrange bite and grit to cut and drive through the mix. For live on stage performances you simply can’t beat Alnico for presence, guts and projection.

UPDATE: I played a 50th Anniversary Deluxe Strat with Fender’s SCN pickups this week and at first I was thinking “these SCN pickup’s sound better than I expected, scary.” But then I discovered that someone had turned the EQ level of the parametric equalizer up to maximum boost on 2.5KHz. When I first saw the 50th Anniversary I was struck with the beauty of this handsome guitar with Gold plated parts. After a few minutes of playing and then comparing this guitar side by side to a regular Strat with my pickups and another Strat with a set of Fender CS-54’s, other differences became obvious. Everything I say in this article was confirmed, acknowledged and agreed by several other players including the owner of the 50th who observed that Alnico pickups have remarkable clarity, presence and sparkle.

Side-by-side comparisons with Fender CS-54’s and other single coils reveal how pleasing my Alnico pickups are. After this experience I am happier than ever with my products. And my optional Gold plated pole pieces really add a nice finishing touch to these beautiful instruments. Click here to see a photo of the latest Deluxe with S1 retro-fitted with Kinman’s. Upon request with order for pickups I can provide special wirogram and fitting instructions developed especially for the S1 system.

Artificial tone: There is a kind of midrange thickness that is really just a form of mud. This comes about when coils are over-wound, resulting in an increase of coil capacitance. This is the same kind of toneless muddy midrange that most side-by-side humbuckers have to some degree. It’s a low cost way of filling in toneless empty midrange of overly transparent pickups. On the other hand the kind of midrange complexity and detail that Alnico imparts is not muddy, rather it’s Tone-FULL and interesting, with loads of charm and character. It’s what I call ‘ real TONE ‘….and it can only come from one source… Alnico. If you want legendary, authentic, genuine Fender tone then you must have Alnico magnets in the CORE of your noiseless or non-noiseless single pole pickups. Once you hear what I’m talking about and lock onto the difference, actually discover it for yourself; it becomes pretty difficult to accept something else. Re-discovering TONE and the Alnico difference is a rewarding experience.

The Black and the White: Let me put this in BLACK and WHITE >>> “Magnetic circuit (or coil) design can in no way be compensated for what is missing when Alnico magnets are NOT used in the core of the coil to provide magnetism and mutual inductance”. Alnico and Steel have vastly different compositions, characteristics and properties that govern the way they behave in a magnetically inductive environment. The suggestion that Ferrite or Samarium magnet designs can reproduce authentic, genuine Fender sound is ….well…. let’s just say some folks are convincing wishful thinkers who mischievously thrust their unfounded opinions on others. No amount of debate, speculation, marketing or promotion can change the facts.

Meet the contenders:

  • Alnico is an alloy of 4+ different metals (iron, nickel, aluminum, and one or more of the elements cobalt, copper, and titanium), is hard and brittle with a crystalline structure. It can not be drilled, turned or milled. It can only be machined into shapes by wet grinding. If hit with a hammer it shatters. And when magnetized retains it’s magnetism permanently. Is said to be Magnetically hard. Imparts just 1/4 the inductivity of equivalent volume of steel into an associated coil. Most significant Sonic characteristics regardless of vintage are>> midrange bite and grit, colorful complex upper-midrange harmonic structure, cutting edge twang, crisp metallic slightly brittle highs, growly/twangy lows. Alnico tone has true grit and is not a smooth sound at all, that’s what makes it so interesting/satisfying. Kinman’s unique sonically high performing Alnico is outstanding in *all* respects.
  • The P-90 pickup has enjoyed a massive resurgence over the past few years, primarily because of the Alnico flavor in it’s sound. The P-90 has 2 Alnico bar magnets, it’s like a double dose of Alnico.
  • Steel is iron with carbon. It’s flexible, malleable, can be drilled, lathed, milled and hammered into shape. It can be magnetized by close proximity of a permanent magnet but will not retain that magnetism by itself. It is said to be magnetically soft. Imparts 4 times more inductivity than Alnico to an associated coil per given volume. Most significant Sonic characteristics are midrange deficient, overly transparent with not a lot of twang or grit, smooth silky highs. An overall silky smooth, uncolored non-metallic buttery sound with a whole lot less grit than Alnico.I have tried using different steel alloys as pole pieces, Nickel steel, case hardened steel etc., but none had the colorful sound of Alnico…..and what’s a guitar pickup if it’s got no Tone color?
  • Ferrite magnets are composite materials that are not metal. Ferrite is in fact a type of fired pottery clay with dispersed magnetic particles. Not being metal these magnets impart no induction to the coils like Alnico does and therefore do not contribute to the sonic tonal texture. That’s why Ceramic humbuckers sometimes sound brittle. They are technologically advanced magnets and very powerful, designed to increase the efficiency of electric motors and other electromagnetic devices that require powerful magnets. Guitar pickups do not require powerful magnets, in fact magnets that are too strong are positively a bad thing….even regular Alnico-5 is a bit too strong.
  • Samarium Cobalt sintered magnets (SmCo) are composed of samarium, cobalt and iron. A metal powder is compressed into a die and heated until fusion occurs. It is metallic but it’s very different to Alnico. It is extremely brittle and fragile. Inductively speaking SC magnets do not influence the sound because they are not in contact with the coil. The magnetism is collected and channeled by steel bars which do influence the coils behavior, see Steel.

The Chocolate cake analogy: If you want to make a genuine rich delicious moist Chocolate cake you gotta put chocolate in it, right? If you make it with Banana instead of Chocolate it may be a very nice Banana cake and taste good but it isn’t a chocolate cake. Same with magnets, if you don’t put Alnico in the recipe then you haven’t got Alnico sound. How can the cook make Banana taste like Chocolate? He can’t. How can a designer make steel poles sound like Alnico? Same answer, it’s impossible.

Does Marketing reflect Truth and Facts? These are scientific facts, that’s F-A-C-T-S! You can hardly find 2 more different metals. Facts can not be debated, only peoples perceptions can. In the end it’s up to you to decide what is truth, what is marketing, what is omission and what is deception, and indeed if you are prepared to spend the little extra to get genuine legendary authentic Strat or Tele tone (would you deprive yourself of that to save a mere $100 or so ? Hell, I spent an hour with my dentist last week and it cost me $420 and my grocery bill was more than $200 this week, and those only lasted a few days. We are talking about sonic pleasure that will last for donkeys years and serve you well during that time. Surely a difference of $100 or so shouldn’t be the deciding factor. If it is then I suggest you leave this site now, there is nothing here for you. I set out to achieve maximum sonic performance regardless of cost.

The simple Ferrite / The challenge of Alnico: I don’t make Ferrite or Samarium Cobalt pickups because I don’t want to, not because I can’t. If I did my customers would be quite justified in accusing me of *selling out*, and I’m not about to do that just to make a few dollars. But if I did make this type of pickup I would market it correctly for application in extremely high gain use only, not as a pickup having a Fender trademark sound.

The final analysis: So do magnets help shape the tone? Alnico magnets most definitely do; Samarium Cobalt and Ferrite magnets play no part in it whatsoever and their attendant steel poles can not mimic Alnico’s electrical and magnetic behavior under any circumstance, FACT! End of meaningful discussion….well almost….

Remember the Chocolate Cake analogy!!! Alnico alone has the most desirable of qualities and characteristics. Words are cheap but hearing is believing! My Alnico designs cost more but have you ever regretted buying the best?