Alnico pole-pieces were always used for vintage Stratocaster pickups in the pre-CBS era, and through the years that’s remained the case with premium Fender standard Strats. For a number of reasons, however, the Strat pickups of the 1950s gathered kudos in the ensuing years, and by the latter 1970s it was almost universally recognised that Fender no longer made ‘em anything like they used to. Even though the late ‘70s Strat pickups had the same basic assembly as ‘50s units, with fibre top and bottom plates and alnico pole pieces, the spec in detail was quite different – and so was the sound.
The 1950s pickups had staggered pole-pieces, which balanced the volumes of the individual strings differently from the flush poles of the late ‘70s pickups. They’d also typically have significantly more coil windings, giving a higher output and a fuller, less glassy sound. Setting apart the ‘50s unit even further, a different type of coil wire with thicker insulation was used, pushing the outer windings a greater distance from the poles. It all added up to a fairly brittle-sounding late ‘70s Strat, versus a sweeter and more sympathetic-sounding ‘50s model. Additionally, the 1950s pickups were wax-saturated to solidify the coil windings and prevent them going ‘microphonic’. This was not the case with late ‘70s pickups.
What Seymour Duncan did with the Alnico II Pro, was take the revered formula of an authentic ‘50s Strat pickup, and sweeten things up a little more, by reducing the strength of the magnets from Fender’s standard alnico V, to a less magnetic alnico II. This lowers the output, but it also lowers pull on the strings, meaning you can get away with setting the pickup higher to compensate.
It should be noted that these are not ‘aged’ pickups. However, they do perform in a very similar manner to an old Fender pickup, because a new alnico II magnet can be very similar in strength to an old, degraded alnico V. Much of what you’re paying for with ‘aged’ pickups is the appearance. It costs money to make a new pickup look like it’s been around for fifty plus years. But most of that visual ‘ageing’ is invisible with the pickup cover in place, and if you’re buying for a newer Strat which you’ve no intention of turning into a ‘relic’, an artificially antiquated pickup will look alien anyway. Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pros do, to my ears, have the subtlety of an old Strat pickup, and they’re a great way to get that sound without paying extra for someone to carefully and lovingly knacker the aesthetics.
It should also be noted that when people talk about roundness, sweetness and warmth in relation to these pickups, they don’t mean your Strat’s gonna start sounding like you’ve fitted a set of P90s or something. It still sounds just like a Strat. Just a less brittle one.
The next thing you’ll probably notice about Alnico II Pros after using stock Fender pickups (even USA ‘57/’62s, CS ‘69s or CS Texas Specials), is that the Seymours distort more sympathetically. This is something I’ve never really been able to explain. I don’t think it’s specifically the alnico II magnets, because Seymour’s Vintage Staggered Strat (SSL-1) pickups distort more attractively than Fenders too, and they use alnico Vs. I suppose the secret has to lie in the coil, but I’m convinced that any discerning player will notice the difference.
I don’t want to get too carried away eulogising these pickups, because the whole point of the Planet Botch review/retrospective section is to provide balance in the face of hype. However, I can’t find anything negative to say about the APS-1. The only thing I’d warn against is using them in a Strat which inherently has a very warm acoustic tone and is extremely well matured. I wouldn’t exactly expect the APS-1s to make such a guitar sound woolly, but I don’t think adding roundness to roundness is a particularly great plan, and I personally would want a toppier pickup on an old alder body / rosewood board Strat which is well played in and definitively mellow in tone.
There’s no shortage of people who can take your money in return for vintage-type Strat pickups. But I do consider the Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pros extremely good value. They’re hardly any more expensive today than they were in the ‘80s, so taking into account inflation, and provided they’re still of the same quality (I can’t personally vouch for the current output, but I’ve heard no reports of a decline), then the value for money today is twice as good as it was when I bought my first one.
To see how the pickup looks without its cover, incidentally, please check out my Know Your Strat Pickups article. The pickup in the photo is an SSL-1, but they're identical to look at.
Strat fan? You've come to the right place! There are loads of highly informative Strat articles on this site - all of which can be accessed via the Making Music page. Articles corresponding to the pics in the composite image above can be found on the following links (clockwise from top left): Fernandes RST50 'Revival', 1980s Tokai TST50 Goldstar, Original '92 Squier Silver Series Strat, and Original '87 Eric Clapton Strat. This is just a small selection from the wealth of available matter.
Posted by: Bob Leggitt
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