Doing things backwards is a theme for me, which is why I got one of Seymour Duncan’s Alnico II Pro humbuckers months before buying a guitar to put it in. I knew I wanted a slice of that early G’N’R crunch, with its nickel ashtray clang and explosion of blues harp harmonics, and I knew the pickup would be best served by a thick mahogany body with a maple cap, the kind of guitar I’d never owned. Recently I found a good example and set about swapping out its bridge pickup with the Alnico II, which Seymour Duncan designates APH-1b.
This I did with mostly new gear, having tired of the finicky, sweat-inducing hassle of my dreadful $15 Radio Shack soldering iron and attendant make-do accessories.
- Clear safety glasses from Walmart’s gun section, my last soldering attempt having sent a glob of molten metal to land, harmlessly thank god, onto my eyelid when a freshly desoldered wire sprang free. Unhurt but considering myself warned, I tried sunglasses. Too dark. Duh.
- Wire strippers from Lowe’s. They had a much larger selection than Home Depot. Quite why for so long I’ve been stripping each tiny wire by hand, gingerly cutting around the insulation with a knife, which takes AGES, I don’t know. This thing is a dream. The thin wires in four-conductor pickups seem to be 24 AWG; if you’re going to buy one of these strippers make sure it can cut that small, as not all can.
- Weller soldering iron, predictably sold to me by the dude in Home Depot as, “the Cadillac of soldering irons.” I doubt this: I’ve seen variable wattage ones online for $300; this was $30. But it’s certainly an improvement on the primitive hot nail Radio Shack sold me, particularly in the way it doesn’t just keep heating up infinitely over the course of a job until it’s frying connections, and in how you can hold it much nearer the tip to control it more like a pen.
Like I’m sure many people have, I had a set of concerns about the Alnico II Pro that I couldn’t find easy answers to, among them:
- How weak is its output?
- Will I need a pedal to use it without a Caswell amp?
- Can I play metal with it?
- Is its bass as wimpy as I’ve heard?
Happily, the answer to most of these is good news. Up until the time I plugged in and switched on, I was prepared for the thing to be utter weaksauce in the output department. Its numbers are frightening after all — 7.85k! — and so I knew it might have to come right back out if it whimpered away like an old single coil. No need. This thing is raging. You could even say aggressive, although of course not hard-edged like a ceramic. Even on my amp, which is not overly saturated, the pickup is nowhere close to requiring a boost to get as much rich overdrive as you’d want. In fact I found myself winding the gain back a couple of notches to let its detail ring through. I believe that covers points 1 and 2. Points 3 and 4 we’ll get to as we discuss…
The characteristic tone is a two parter. First you have a classic rock clang. A great big, windmilling, blaring clear clang, shouting but warm. This must be where the word “Kerrang!” came from. Open, PAF-like, ringing out for all the world, it is utterly impossible not to sink into a few sour-faced AC/DC riffs when this ’bucker first wakes up your amplifier. Doesn’t matter your technique level. You want to hear open D, G and C, and you want to hear them again. Crunchy, clear. There’s a thin-but-not-too-thin clarity, detail that brasher pickups miss; sweet in the top, but not before some angry little upper mids make their point.
There’s usually some attendant hype that follows the Alnico II Pro about how its weak magnet makes for less string-pull and consequently more sustain. This seems to hold true. It just keeps going, as the overtones bob and weave. But then it is attached to an immovable mahogany coffee table with a neck.
As you up the gain beyond plexi levels, on top you find that wild, unpredictable swirl of harmonics that made Appetite just a tiny bit scary at the same time as great. It’s a bitching rock club in Hollywood, but you don’t know exactly where you are and you overheard something about a knife. What am I talking about? It’s a pickup. There’s a really nice squawk to chords, riffs and double-stops, a sort of natural wah at the beckon call of your hands depending on how you hit the strings. It roars and talks and clanks.
In my opinion, you can play metal with this pickup. It’s not a loose, muffled, vintage tone; it’s fiery, chromed, snarly. Imagine you could plug in a Zippo. A Zippo fueled with whiskey. It’s like that. However it’s not a wall-of-guitars pickup, and although it covers a lot of ground, in this area it’s probably confined to what I must regrettably call classic metal. These aren’t Blackouts, after all. The bass is lean, as you might have heard, but it’s not loose. Just less chug-chug-chug, more chip-chip-chip. It certainly handles the gain and sustain.
This stigma surrounding bottom end performance that follows the Alnico II Pro, and its overall balance, is well addressed with a few pole piece tweaks. Lying completely level after the install, the pickup had a great preference for the B string. Every chord, every arpeggio, it would leap out, drowning out its neighbors. The A string it also seemed to favor, while the bottom E was soft and a bit lost, without enough edge or definition. A subtle raise of the pole pieces under the strings that were being shouted down evened things out into a balanced, addictive crunch, with just the right openness and spread, and the low E started really talking, giving up those sleazy riffs that are the A2Pro’s birthright.
Downsides? Depends on your application. With both pickups on and their volumes rolled back, the Alnico II Pro did not mix as subtly and sweetly with the neck pickup (a ’59 here) as the Seymour Duncan JB it replaced, but at full crank, where I am most of the time, the JB was awful and moany and indistinct, which is why it was replaced within a week. On its own, too, performance of the A2P with the volume pot backed off narrows to become too middy for my tastes. A 50s wiring mod and non-ceramic caps may alleviate the fatiguing elements of that sound.
I may have to try that, because at full whack this humbucker has a textured, addictive character that just spills harmonics. A lot of people install the Alnico II Pro as a neck pickup, because they’re thinking one thing: Sweet Child O’ Mine tone. That’s fair. It’s a grail tone. We’d all like to have it. But don’t overlook it as a bridge pickup; it has plenty to give, despite its wee numbers on paper.
I mainly use the Alnico II Pro for rhythm guitar. Here is a woefully inadequate clip of that, played through my Splawn into English Greenbacks, with only one track and no EQ or other fiddling done in GarageBand.
a2pro clip (mp3)
A stab at some AC/DC with this pickup in my Edwards:
‘Appetite’ type sound and some Van Halen riffage (skip to the end):
June 21, 2010: Simply lowering the treble side of the pickup, leaving the pole pieces set as described, mellowed the hard mid focus I was hearing from the Alnico II Pro with the volume pot rolled off, and simultaneously stopped these frequencies from overpowering the neck pickup when mixed, too, offering a lot more options in how to employ the pickup as you play. It doesn’t simply need to be on its own with the volume on 10, doing that ’86 rhythm tone. I have regained a beautiful blend of neck and bridge together, one of my favorite Les Paul tones; I love to build a solo by starting with both pickups on, rolled back to 3 or 4, bring them up to 10 after a few phrases for that despairing Mark Knopfler kind of Brothers In Arms tone, and finally switch to either bridge or neck alone as the solo peaks. With this versatility I am out of reservations about the Alnico II Pro.