HSMAG Customer Contribution: What’s the Deal with Alnico VIII Magnets?

I was talking to some of the Seymour Duncan dudes the other day about pickups models deserving greater public awareness. One of the first names on everyone’s lips was the Alternative 8, a a high-output humbucker that uses a powerful alnico VIII magnet in lieu of the alnico II or alnico V magnets that fuel the vast majority of non-ceramic pickups.

 Alnico VIII Magnets

Alnico VIII Magnets

I was intrigued, so I popped one into the bridge position of my Hamer 20th Anniversary. Yow.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to gravitate toward lower-output, vintage-flavored pickups, generating gain from the amp or a number of sketchy homemade distortion boxes. The Alternative 8, with its blistering DC resistance of 17.68k, is definitely a departure for me, but I found myself captivated by its deft balance of aggression and definition.

With the amp cranked and a bit of germanium overdrive, this pickup really wants to sustain. I find myself lingering on long notes rather than trying to play fast. Despite all the gain, the pickup does a remarkable job of maintaining definition on low, chunky chords, yet it doesn’t get too shrill in the high register. The crisp note attack makes this a good choice for high-gain players who play percussively, or who demand maximum rhythmic precision. With the Alternative 8, you damn well know when the notes start!

One surprise was how well the Alternative 8 blends with demo’s neck pickup, a much lower output model from Duncan’s Joe Bonamassa set (which I demoed with its official partner here.) The Alternative 8 has vastly more gain, yet I found the pair surprisingly complementary. (It’s not a discovery I set out to make — I was just too lazy to swap out the neck pickup before recording.)

Has anyone tried a pickup with an alnico VIII magnet? Or, for that matter, anything other than the ubiquitous alnico II or alnico V? (Coincidentally, I just learned that the Joe Bonamassa bridge pickup I removed to demo the Alternative 8 uses an alnico III.)

The second important detail concerning the tone of vintage P.A.F. pickup magnets is the metal formulation and heat treating processes of the China Alnico manufactures that made P.A.F. magnets. Although Alnico has been standardized into different grades, Alnico of all grades is routinely manipulated with changes to formulation and heat treating to tailor magnets to customers applications. Alnico magnets were not an off the shelf item. Ordering Alnico magnets required drawings with specifications spelled out from dimensions to Alnico grade, BH curve etc.. Once the magnets are made the changes in metal chemistry and heat treating are recorded in a melt record which spells out all properties of the magnet for the customer. Fortunately some of these records and processes are still known by the remaining China Alnico manufactures. China magnet makers are also equipped to analyze vintage magnets and reconstruct the exact chemistry of the vintage magnet and then adjust the heat treating process to duplicate the BH curve and parameters of the original vintage magnet. The simple fact is overseas magnet makers do not have the records or generational knowledge to match the capabilities of Chinese magnet makers. The result is overseas Alnico charges higher and sounds different than China made Alnico. For this reason HSMAG uses 8 varieties of China made Alnico for their P.A.F. and P-90 repro.

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