Guitar Tone Secrets
In our search for great tone we guitar players often get stuck in a cycle of buy this guitar or this amp or these pedals. Money flies out the window before we have addressed the true factor and primary influence on our tone. The pickups!
Your pickups are more like the foundation of your tone. Think of them as the base of a skyscraper. Build a 600' building on a base that is only designed for 200' well you get the picture.
This unfortunately is how the vast majority of mass produced pickups are made for the mass produced guitar market. They are built using the least expensive materials and with the least expensive processes in order to shave costs. I get it its a great business model for those big guys pumping out 100's or even 1000's of units monthly.
For example: Probably the least talked about aspect with the most influence on sound. The Magnet type. Most (but not all) mass produced cheaper pickups will be equipped with ceramic magnets. Not to say they are terrible or cannot be used to achieve good tone, because they can. The problem is the way they are used in these instances. The ceramic magnet is very cheap to use it produces a very sharp high end frequency and very tight low end with scooped midrange. To compensate mass market pickup makers will wind the coils with thinner wire to achieve much higher output in order to calibrate with the magnet and tame the high end sharpness. This becomes deceiving for the buyer as they believe they are getting high output pickups however the inductance (horse power) is lower in most cases resulting in less overall output.
Briefly about magnets we use. The material most commonly used in higher quality builds is Alnico. Which is Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt. The various grades allow us extreme flexibility with building pickups for the best tone.
Alnico 2 is the second weakest of the Alnico Guitar Magnet strengths, pulling on the strings less. It also has what’s referred to as the most “vintage” tone. It has more mids, and more tapered and softer highs than Alnico 3. As a guitar pickup magnet, the lows are loose and bouncy, instead of tight, some might refer to it as “vintage” or “smooth”.
Alnico 3 is the weakest of the Alnico magnets and has the lowest amount of string pull in a bar magnet. As a guitar pickup magnet, it’s lows are soft and bouncy, mids are generally warm and full, and highs are glassy. Alnico 3 is weaker than Alnico 2 in a Bar Magnet form, but stronger than Alnico 2 in a Rod Magnet form.
Alnico 4 is stronger than both Alnico 2 and 3, but weaker than Alnico 5. It has the most balanced and “even” EQ out of all of the Alnico strengths. The bass and highs are tighter and stronger than Alnico 2, and the midrange is more balanced. Alnico 4 has softer highs than Alnico 5.
This is by far our most widely used guitar pickup magnet. In it’s rod form, Alnico 5 gives the traditional Fender tone. In Fender-style pickups, it has the best balance of extended lows, mids, and highs. Alnico 5 gives that open, airy top-end sparkle that we’re so used to. In Humbuckers, it gives our pickups a brighter tone, Which is most desirable in the neck position.
The wire: Not much secret to the wire itself however like the magnet it is the use of it that has the most effect on the tone. The use of thinner wire to tame ceramic pickups causes more capacitive loss and lower inductance. The reality is higher kohm does not mean louder pickup. All factors contribute to the overall power. The better the materials the more influence they have on the final sound.
Wire used in mass production will almost always be Polyurethane coated single build.
Wire differences: Single build Plain Enamel and Polyurethane wire provide the same tonal response and frequency when all things are equal such as wind count and winds per layer etc. Heavy Formvar has twice the thickness of insulation which causes each wind to have more space between the wires. All things equally this will produce a fatter size of coil having a profound effect on tone.
The base and cover materials: Mass produced will generally use brass material for example the base or cover of a humbucker. Brass again is very cheap to acquire and use on a large scale. It does however re introduce high frequencies which in turn forces these builders to add more wire to the coil to tame those highs. As mentioned this will raise the kohm rating but not necessarily the actual volume.
we only use Nickel silver or German silver for these parts of the pickups. This will produce the lowest amount of eddy current having the least effect on the magnetic field. Brass will generally be the highest resulting in more high end sharpness.
Each time they use more wire winds on a bobbin to compensate for these materials the more they flatten the resonant frequencies as a result. In the end this lowers the power and quality of the pickup.
These are just some of the points to be aware of. To be honest for such a small item there is a ton of considerations to make which in the end has the largest actual effect on your tone.
At Pegcity pickups We use only the best possible materials in order to produce the best possible pickups. Join us on our site for even more.