Tinkering with Pickups 102 – The Humbucker Magnet Swap
In Tinkering With Pickups 101 we went through some fairly simple modifications that can alter the tone of humbucker pickups. These didn’t really risk damaging the pickup, but the following modifications do carry some risk of damage, if you are not careful.
Please understand that performing the next modification is something that you are doing of your own risk. We cannot be held responsible for any damages caused as a result.
Conventional electric guitar pickups use an array of magnets to help create particular tones. The magnet doesn’t create the tone of a pickup by itself, but the way in which it works with the coils, the wire gauge used, and the choice of slugs or screws can determine particular tones.
First off, it’s probably best to understand the general characteristics of the more popular magnet types. I won’t go into the construction of each magnet, just what sort of effect the magnet has generally within a pickup:
Alnico 2: These are typically used in pickups that are more vintage in output and sound. Alnico 2 generally creates warm, smooth tones, with looser and softer lows. Pickups with this sort of magnet have more mid tones.
Alnico 3: The mids are similar to an Alnico 2 equipped pickup, but is a bit tighter.
Alnico 5: Typically much tighter and brighter sounding than a pickup with an Alnico 2/3 magnet. The mids are a little more scooped, while the lows are tight, and the highs are a bit jangly.
Ceramic: High output, with very fast attack. Ceramic loaded pickups are typically very focused with big bold tone.
In addition to these common magnet choices is Alnico 8, a relative newcomer to pickup designs. Alnico 8 is kind of a tonal bridge between Alnico 5 and Ceramic. Alnico 8 pickups typically retain a lot of the qualities that Alnico 5 loaded pickups have, but generate a similar output to Ceramic ones. Swapping out Alnico 5 magnets for Alnico 8 has become quite popular over the last few years.
Secondly, where can you find magnets to test with? Many of you may have some old stock pickups lying in your parts drawer. Use these to test with first to make sure you are comfortable with swaps. The magnets may come in handy too, saving you money. To find retailers of guitar pickup magnets, do a search of the Seymour Duncan user group forms for reputable sellers.
Very few tools are required for a magnet swap. A selection of flat head and Phillips screwdrivers and a utility knife are all you need. (The type of bridge on your guitar may determine if you need any other tools.)
Remove or loosen the strings on your guitar. I’m using a guitar with a Floyd Rose type bridge, so I can take off the bridge with the strings still tensioned up by removing the tremolo springs and lifting the bridge out of the guitar. If you have a tune-o-matic equipped hard-tail with a tailpiece you can loosen the strings a little and remove the tailpiece to move the strings out of the way. You may have to remove the strings completely on guitars with other bridge setups.
Your guitar may have a pickguard or pickup rings. Remove the screws from the pickup ring or pickguard. If your guitar has direct mount pickups, unscrew the pickup from the body of the guitar and skip the next step. Take care not to lose any screws. Put a rag or cloth own on your guitar body to minimize any scrapes.
Remove the pickup from your pickguard or pickup ring. Be careful not to lose any springs if your guitar uses them to adjust pickup height.
Turn your pickup over and remove all four screws holding the baseplate to the bobbins.
Now this is where things can get a little hairy. Use the blunt side your utility knife to carefully loosen the protective tape around the pickup from the baseplate. It may be quite sticky, so take your time.
Carefully pry the baseplate away from the bobbins. Be very careful of the wires running out from the corner of the baseplate. You definitely don’t want to tug too hard on them and break the connections. You should now be able to see the magnet sitting on the back of the bobbins.
Use a flathead screwdriver to pry the magnet from the bobbins and retainers. Take care to avoid breaking any wires. There may be a bit of excess wax holding the magnet in, so take your time. Once the magnet starts to come out, get your replacement one and touch it to the stock magnet. If it attracts, take note of the alignment to ensure you install the new magnet with the poles aligned the same as the stock. I mark the back of the stock one with a small piece of tape or similar, noting which side should be facing the backplate. I also note down the type of magnet on the tape for easy identification later.
Install the new magnet, ensuring the poles are aligned the same as the stock one, and reverse all of the above steps. Once it’s all back together, plug in to your amp, and tap the screws/slugs with a screw driver to ensure the coils are both good. You’ll hear a click through your amp’s speaker if they’re fine.
And there you have it! Your newly modified pickup is ready to go.
In Tinkering With Pickups 103 we’ll look at modifying pickups to give them a more rounded, vintage tone.