Mixing Magnets in One Pickup

Aggressive on the bass side, sweet on the top.

I was talking to Seymour the other day about the types of magnets used in vintage Fender pickups. I knew that Fender used strong, punchy alnico V magnets in most of their models, but I didn’t know that the earliest Teles used softer-sounding alnico IIs, or that the first Strats used even softer-sounding alnico IIIs, a detail confirmed by Fender’s page on the topic.

I recently had a chance to compare the sound of alnico II and alnico V while hacking together guitars for the Mongrel Strat Project. I’d tried an Alnico II Pro in the middle position of this mongrel, and liked it. But as I continued to experiment, I gravitated back to the more traditional alnico V sound — maybe because I play so much in lowered tunings, and in bands without bass, so I really like the strong, defined fundamental you get from an alnico V.

But until now I’d never tried literally splitting the difference via Duncan’s Five-Two, a hybrid that has three alnico V rods for the bass strings and three alnico II rods for the trebles. The idea behind this arrangement is to deliver a bold, snappy sound in the low resister, but with some softening and sweetness on top.

How does it sound? You tell me — here’s a demo video I made. Plus, there’s a micro-contest: The first person to name the tune I’m playing will have their name immortalized for the ages mentioned in an upcoming post. (That might be better than a poke in the eye, depending on whose eye it is.)

Have a listen:

(For a demo of the same guitar with an SSL-1 neck pickup — a super-traditional alnico V model — go here.)

A couple of observations: I wasn’t able to detect any weird tonal shifts when playing melodies that span the treble and bass strings. I like the pretty, chiming sound of the trebles, even when nudged by a germanium overdrive, as heard here. There a real nice feeling of air up there! And only now do I realize that I should have included examples of how the new pickup blends with the other two (a RW/RP SSL-1 in the middle, and a Twang Banger in the bridge). I guess I was just getting into the way I could get so many different tones from the one pickup. Anyway, the Five-Two meshes just fine with the others.

Do any of you guys have a strong magnet preference in Fender pickups? And has anyone had experiences with Fenders that have alnico 3s or 4s?

19 comments to Mixing Magnets in One Pickup

  • Sweet sound, and what a cracking idea to mix magnets. Definitely the way forward, amazed it’s never really caught on before…

  • Cross_J

    It maybe only me but I personally think that the 6-String transition sounds more naturall than other pickups cuz it stays clear and more even across the strings

  • Shane

    Interesting, I’ve got a Twang Banger and 2 Alnico II’s in my strat. Now I’m wondering if I should try out a Five-Two in my neck or middle? Cool song, Don’t have a clue as to what it is.

    • joe

      Well, that’s a cool combo as well, one I demoed here (but with an SSL-1 in the neck). Right now I’m seduced by the airy/chiming quality of the treble strings with the Five-Two. But hey, I change my tastes as often as I change my pickups. ;)

  • EgoVox

    Those treble notes sounded great! I’m definitely considering that pickup, now.
    And excellent song choice. I always loved the 28 Days Later theme.

  • dave

    I have a “Nashville Studio” bridge pickup in the neck position of a junk guitar that I have.  The Five Two used to be called “Nashville Studio”.   I really need to pull it out and put it in a deserving guitar.  My Strat currently has a Duncan Antiquity Texas Hot Custom in the bridge and it is so delicious that I’m reluctant to pull it.
    Is there a reason you put a Five Two in the neck Joe?  I would think that it would be a natural in the bridge.
    I’m not aware of anyone who makes a regular production Alnico IV single coil Strat pickup, although there are all kinds of Alnico III single coils.  Maybe there is a small time winder somewhere who does a4.  I’d be interested in hearing it, although I suspect it would sound less Stratty than the other Alnico brothers

    • joe

      Thanks for the info, Dave. Yeah, the pickup would probably be great in the bridge (SD makes a slightly hotter bridge version, not demoed here.) The reason I didn’t try it is, I’m just so into the Twang Banger pseudo-Tele pickup in the bridge, but I’ve raved on about about it so much that I’ve stopped talking about for fear of boring people to death. Even though I grew up playing a nice Strat, I’ve really become alienated from the Strat bridge pickup sound — and that reaction applies to vintage pickups, good fake-vintage pickups like the SSL-1, and hotter versions of the pickup. And sing/sing/hum configurations have never worked for me — I like all the pickups to be about equal output, and use them as tone controls, not gain controls. But the older I get, the more I dig Tele bridge pickups, and the Twang Banger really completes the Strat package for me.

      This, BTW, is all super-subjective, personal-opinion stuff. I totally get why so many players hear things differently. It’s just weird old me.

      But having said that, I should give the Five-Two bridge a go, and probably will in an upcoming post. :)

  • The Five-Two always looked like a very good idea to me. The only thing that kept me from checking one out are the staggered magnets. It’s still the 50s style pattern that may have been useful in the old days of wound G strings. The tone may be well balanced, but how about the volume?

    • joe

      Well, that staggered thing remains a mystery to me. Staggered just sounds a little cooler to me, though it really shouldn’t. Granted, I play relatively heavy strings — .011s for standard tuning, and .013 with a wound third when I tune down. But back when I was a wuss young, I used .010s, and the old pickups always sounded great to my ear. Maybe it’s just the sentimental association with that sound. Maybe I’ve modified my technique to play “to” the staggered pickup over the years without even realizing it. I totally get the reasoning behind flat magnets, but I think I’m’a be staggered for life. :)

      • I’m more of a flathead, then :)
        The ability of a player to “adjust” to the features of a specific guitar is a great thing. And you really have a point here. But what amuses me is the conservative attitude of many guitar and parts manufacturers. I guess that a lot of players anxiously want their pickups to look “vintage correct” right down to the height of the polepieces, so manufacturers build them that way – forever.
        Like that classic 50s Strat wiring where the bridge position has no tone control. Which is totally useless. And Custom Shop Fenders as well as the cheapest Chinese Strat knockoffs are still wired that way. So it’s good to see people like you experimenting with pickups, wiring etc. to break those old habits.

        • joe

          I totally agree about the “vintage for vintage’s sake” attitude. Yeah, the “no tone on the bridge” wiring is just absurd. Or to put it another way, I wouldn’t be dream of changing it on my old Strat, but wouldn’t be caught dead using it on a modern one. 

          On the other hand, I realize I tend to string up guitars the way they were likely to have been strung originally, with heavier strings and often with flatwounds. I did a session just a few days ago for a client who had a row of beautiful vintage guitars. My eyes went to a beautiful ’60s Grestch Jet Firebird just like the one in this pic:

          http://www.archtopelectric.com/gretsch-jet-firebird/

          The engineer said, “Oh, every guitarist who works here goes straight to that guitar, but never ends up using it.” And I could see way — it was strung with .009s, and just felt and sounded WRONG. No tension. no tone. The strings didn’t sit well in the saddles. I just KNEW it would sound great with heavy-gauge strings, though.

          So I agree with everything you’re saying. I just like the sound of staggered Strat pickups.  

          :pacman::pill:

  • Oinkus

    And just to say something, :stupid: would not have a clue that was what the song was geez ?

  • JH

    Damn Joe! Seems like you read my mind! Ive been wondering about those 5/2′s for a while, but never got around to trying them. I love a2′s to death, greatest for picking dynamics, and thats important in a strat/tele when your trying to get that classic sound.  sooner or later I’ll try it in the bridge where it needs a bit more bass.
    Your doing a great job here Joe! Keep it up!

  • Scott Marceau

    For Tele players out there, the Five-Two is definitely worth checking out, especially for the bridge position.  I put one in mine and was really happy with the results.  Tons of spank on the wound strings but zero ice pick from the treble strings!

    • joe

      Hi Scott! Scott is one of the product experts at Seymour Duncan, and he used to work at Fender. He really knows his stuff, plus he has really good taste! I always take his recommendations very seriously.

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