Alnico 3 Vs 5: What’s the Difference and Which Is Better? [2023 Edition]

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If you’re curious about Alnico 3 vs 5 guitar pickup magnets, this is the post for you!

I’m no expert on the subject, but I have been playing the guitar since 2003 and know a bit about this instrument.

Now let’s dive in!

Magnets in Guitar Pickups

Although we take it for granted these days, guitar pickups are a very innovative concept. Essentially, they use magnets as sensors to capture string vibration. This vibration is then translated into an electrical signal which an amp or other relevant device can process.

Aside from magnetic pickups, there are also piezo, or piezoelectric, pickups. But this is a whole different topic.

Pickups usually come with one or two bar magnets. These are placed at the bottom of the pickup construction. On the top, there are bobbins, thousands of turns of copper wire, and polepieces. These polepieces are usually made from steel.

Aside from polepieces, there is also what is called blade pickup design. This includes one continuous strip of metal that covers all strings. But the principles are the same in each of these instances. The steel pieces, wires, and magnets pick up string vibration.

However, magnets can sometimes come as individual poles. Although such solutions aren’t as common, they are still out there. For instance, Fender has such pickups.

There are also different types of magnets. And there are two main types in use these days, which are:

  • Alnico magnets
  • Ceramic magnets

Ceramic magnets aren’t that common. And they have somewhat of a bad reputation, though this reputation is perhaps unwarranted. They have their purpose and are quite useful for high-output harsh-sounding tones.

That said, Alnico magnets are more common and seem to be the standard these days.

Alnico Magnets

Alnico is an alloy family popular for permanent magnets. They’re made out of iron, as well as aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, along with a few other metals. If you look closer at the abbreviations, they are Al, Ni, and Co. And from this, we have the abbreviated name for this group of magnets.

They come in a variety of options. The differences come down to their chemical composition. And the chemical composition gives different magnetic, physical, and thermal properties.

There’s also a whole grading system of alnico magnets. But as far as guitar pickups go, we’re going to focus on Alnico 2, Alnico 3, Alnico 4, Alnico 5, and Alnico 8.

It’s also important to know that these designated names can be shown with Roman numerals as well.

Out of the bunch, the alnico 8 variant is pretty rare. Alnico 4 is somewhat common, although not as alnico 5 which is pretty widespread. And finally, alnico 3 finds its way into some pickups although it’s not that common. Of course, plenty of guitar players wonder what are the practical differences between these alnico magnets.

Generally speaking, alnico magnets give much softer tones compared to ceramic ones. But despite their lower output, they typically give a better dynamic response. They provide players with both warmth and clarity of sound.

Alnico 3 Vs 5: What’s the Difference?

Alnico 3

The alnico 3 magnet has more nickel and aluminum in the mix. Meanwhile, there’s almost no cobalt in there.

Given these chemical and physical properties, it has a very specific tone. Most commonly, alnico 3 magnets have a slightly darker tone.

Alnico 3 magnets allow for softer bottom-ends. And although high-ends still cut through it, the output is not as sharp.

But it also brings a bit more power. For instance, single-coils with Alnico 3 magnets can get closer in sound to humbuckers. Just add some compression, roll off the tone knob, and you’ve got yourself a humbucker sound.

Aside from the smoothness, you will notice some lower mids in there as well. This gives some bite to the tone, a punch if you will.

I’d say that alnico 3 magnets give a nice balance of bluesy smoothness and funky crispiness. But, at the same time, they usually emphasize more of the bottom-ends. This is especially noticeable with the distortion on.

Alnico 5

With alnico 5 magnets, you get less nickel and aluminum and more cobalt in the mix. And as a result, you will get a brighter tone compared to Alnico 3.

When pickups have alnico 5 magnets, you will likely notice a sharper attack. At the same time, you can also hear that classic Fender-style jangle.

What’s also typical of alnico 5 pickups is that they’re more balanced. They have a fair amount of high-mids in there as well. With some overdrive or distortion on, you should be able to cut easily through the mix.

But you should also be aware that things might get too sharp in high-gain settings. This is especially the case with alnico 5 single-coils. You’ll have to adjust the EQ and maybe even add some compression.

Overall, alnico 5 magnets typically bring a lot of brightness to the mix. On clean settings, the notes chime, especially if you let them ring out for longer. If we’re talking about single-coils, alnico 5 is a pretty great choice for funk tones.

How Do They Compare?

Honestly, there are many things to consider about pickups and their design. The exact type of alnico magnets is just one part of the equation. But it will impact the sonic output.

It’s no secret that alnico 5 magnets are much brighter. This makes them a really good choice for cleans or slightly overdriven crunchy settings. This also comes with some dynamic sensitivity.

From my understanding, alnico 3 magnets are easier to control in distorted settings. This doesn’t make alnico 5 worse in any way. It’s just that you’ll have to deal with some sharp sounds sticking out of the mix. This is especially true with single-coils.

Overall, alnico 3 tends to be easier to control. There’s more chance to get that fretting hand noise from alnico 5 compared to alnico 3.

On the other hand, alnico 5 brings a better dynamic response. Sure, it may jump out of the mix with its sparkle. But this is what some players are looking for. And it may work pretty well in the right context.

With all this said, you can use alnico 3 and alnico 5 magnets for the same musical styles. These differences come down to personal preferences. The way they react to playing or different pedals mean the most to those who are playing. And it’s all about your own preferences.

If you’re interested in a head-to-head comparison, here’s an interesting video on the matter:

Alnico 3 vs Alnico 5 Pickups Comparison

Alnico 3 Vs 5: Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you understand some of the differences between Alnico 3 vs 5 guitar pickup magnets!

(You can also read more about alnico magnets here.)

And if you want to read more about guitar materials, I have some posts written about them like:

And if you have further questions about this or some other guitar subject, please let me know in the comments!

I don’t know if I will be able to help, but I’d be happy to try!

5 Responses

  1. Ted McCarty says:

    A3 is absolutely not widespread, it’s even more rarely used than A4, which is not uncommon at all, just not as common as A2 and A5. The only “prominent” pickups that use A3 are the custombuckers Gibson puts in their reissues. A3 pickups are generally not dark at all, either; frankly they are considerably bright compared to the other AlNiCo mixes. Not sure where you’re getting your information from.

    1. Hey Ted, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for pointing it out. I see now that I worded it the wrong way so I edited the article.

      All the best,

  2. Pickups with magnetic pole pieces are common. Just look at any Strat, Tele, Mustang, Jaguar or Jazzmaster single coil pickup. Only the budget single coil pickups for these guitars have bar magnets.

    Magnetic pole pieces are harder to find on humbuckers, and Fender do make the wide range humbucker with individual pole magnets.

    Sounds like you are talking about humbuckers specifically.

    1. Hey Andy!

      Now that I look at it, I phrased the statement in a way that I didn’t intend to. There’s an obvious bias on my side since I’m more of a humbucker/Gibson guy. So I’ve worked with more bar magnet-type pickups rather than pole pieces ones, as is the case with Fender guitars. I’ll see to clear things up and edit that part.

  3. Andrew Mazurkiewicz says:

    I think the previous posters pretty much summed up the misinformation in your article! but at least it was noted. Cheers Andrew.

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