With a lifetime of experience accompanying vocalists and singer-songwriters, the jazz guitarist revisits the role of bandleader with his minimalist, intuitive playing on his latest full-length, Spry.
It’s been more than 30 years since Adam Levy first received national attention for his guitar work with Tracy Chapman. With all the well-known vocalists he’s played with since then, it might be easy to overlook his substantial output as a bandleader and his world-class work as a jazz instrumentalist.
His new instrumental trio record, Spry, is a fine reminder. The outing includes a consummate rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Joey Baron. I saw a version of the band in Brooklyn a few nights before I spoke with Levy, with Kenny Wollesen subbing for Baron. Both on record and live, Levy and his band showcase compositions that are succinct, rootsy, and spacious. With a warm tone that contains a slight bite, Levy squeezes all he can out of a few notes. This record has a lot of blues in it; the slow and mid-tempo tunes can be sultry, sly, sometimes evoking song forms that came of age in the ’30s and ’40s. No 32nd-notes, odd times, or complex changes. Rather, he draws you in with slow, patient dialogue, songs that almost seem timeworn, and yet offer a new twist. One could say that his guitar is the singer in this situation. Given that it’s a trio, there’s a lot of highly developed chord work, and much give and take between the players.
Born in 1966, Levy grew up in Los Angeles. Levy’s grandfather, George Wyle, was the music director of television variety shows (The Andy Williams Show, The Flip Wilson Show, Donny & Marie) and introduced the young Levy to the values of song, musicianship, and studio efficiency. He and his grandfather would jam together on standards.
Your Name Here (feat. Larry Grenadier & Joey Baron)
In the jazz orchestra at Thousand Oaks High School, Levy picked up Miles and Monk tunes, and at Los Angeles’ Dick Grove School of Music, he focused on lyrical accompaniment—not the soloing. He took lessons with jazz artists such as Ted Green and Jimmy Wyble. “My biggest musical takeaway from both of them,” says Levy, “was that chords are built from melodies—not the other way around. And then there was the sound. Each of them had a singular sound, the result of their technique and their conception.”
An early influence was Mike Miller, who Levy describes as “fiery yet thoughtful.” Then, seeing the Bill Frisell Quartet in Santa Monica in 1989 made a big impact. “The tunes, the way those four guys played together, Bill’s sound…. In L.A. at that time, shredding seemed to be a way of life,” says Levy. “After I heard Bill, I got into taking better care of each note.”
“My biggest musical takeaway from both of them was that chords are built from melodies—not the other way around.”
Absorbing jazz greats such as Joe Pass, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and Jim Hall, Levy began to perform standards around town with trios and quartets. Still, it was with singers that he found the preponderance of work. Hearing him play, it’s easy to see why. He is inherently tuneful, tasty; he knows what not to do, which makes his parts supportive, spare, empathetic. His playing is like his speech: quiet, but sure.
On Spry, Adam Levy translates the sparse approach he’s developed as a singer-songwriter accompanist to a trio context, performing with Larry Grenadier on bass and Joey Baron on drums.
These qualities continued to evolve and bring employment throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s when Levy moved to the San Francisco Bay area. He played a ton of duo gigs with local singers in bars and bistros, and continued to develop his instrumental prowess with colleagues such as violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and multi-instrumentalist Robert Burger.
Upon moving to New York in 1996, all of this groundwork eventually led to a gig with the one and only Norah Jones. He says the call came by word of mouth, just as it was with Tracy Chapman. Guitarist Charlie Hunter recommended him to Chapman, while it was drummer Kenny Wollesen who did the same with Jones.
“In L.A. at that time, shredding seemed to be a way of life. After I heard Bill [Frisell], I got into taking better care of each note.”
“When I first started playing with Norah,” says Levy, “we were doing brunch gigs for tourists. Little by little, it grew. We were an opening act for the Indigo Girls, the Dave Matthews Band, Taj Mahal. And just a few months later, we were headlining. It kept getting bigger. Even though I was a bit older than everyone else in the band, I wasn’t more experienced as a touring player. It was new for me, and for all of us. It was thrilling to be part of something that touched so many people. I left Norah’s band at the end of her 2007 European tour for her third album, Not Too Late. I was still enjoying playing music with her, but I needed to get off the road because my wife was ill.”
Levy had already had almost two decades working with singers before working with Jones, but there were still lessons he took from the experience. “Before Norah blew up,” says Levy, “we were playing a gig at a small club, with Norah on a Wurlitzer, Lee Alexander on upright bass, and me on my 1979 ES-335 going through a Princeton. After the gig, she suggested that I turn down. This was kind of surprising, given that I was playing through a small amp at 3 1/2 on the other side of the stage from her.
Adam Levy's Gear
As a student at Los Angeles’ Dick Grove School of Music, Levy absorbed the lesson that “chords are built from melodies, not the other way around.”
Photo by Christoph Bombart
- 1964 Gibson ES-335
- 2022 Collings DS2H SB with K&K Pure Mini pickup
Amps & Mics
- Fender Blues Junior with Gefell M71 and Royer R-122 mics
- Telefunken M60 (stereo pair); acoustic
- Benson Amps Germanium Boost
- JAM Pedals Delay Llama
- JAM Pedals Harmonious Monk
- JHS Overdrive Preamp
- Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man
- Rupert Neve Designs RNDI-S; acoustic
Strings & Picks
- John Pearse 2600 Nickel Wound ( .011–.050; electric)
- John Pearse 250LM 80/20 Bronze (.012–.056; acoustic)
- BlueChip TAD50-3R
“I digested what she said, and I concluded that the real issue was that I was stepping on her. I was still playing in my head, not as part of the composite,” he continues. “Just the keyboard, voice, and bass in this trio setup covered a lot of ground regarding melody, harmony, pulse, and rhythm. What I realized is the guitar could float, be a foil. It didn’t have to duplicate what those other instruments were doing. In small ways I was adding more than the situation needed, so I began to play with more space.”
Levy continues, “The tricky part is you don’t want to go too far in the other direction. If you play too little, the singer says ‘Hey, support me! Where are you?’ So I learned to be strong and supportive.”
“It was thrilling to be part of something that touched so many people.”
A valuable lesson, that. In fact, even today, the quality I most associate with Levy is space. He plays as few notes as possible in any given situation—it’s a minimalist approach. Levy prizes simple forms, dialogue, melody, and concision. In the midst of it all, he twists, bends, and shakes notes, runs double stops up and down the neck, and employs gorgeous voice leading with sophisticated chord work. Minimal doesn’t mean simplistic.
“When I came to New York around 1996, I heard players like Ben Monder, Adam Rogers, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mike Stern who had monster chops,” Levy shares. “I realized that, much as I might want to be, I wasn’t that guy. I had to find my own lane. But it started before that. Growing up in L.A., all the guys my age were going to Musicians Institute, studying with Scott Henderson, Frank Gambale. It was the ‘school of shred.’ Van Halen and Allan Holdsworth were everywhere. People were playing with more notes and speed than ever before. When I was a teenager, I figured the career path was to try to get Chick Corea to hire you. But I gradually saw I would never be that person, and meanwhile I was working all the time doing my thing. So I went the opposite direction.”
While touring with Norah Jones, Levy wasn’t necessarily ahead of the curve just because he was older than his bandmates, and still learned how to better act as an accompanist from the experience.
Photo by Christoph Bombart
Levy’s guitar sound is integral to his world view. “For some folks,” he says, “a huge pedalboard is the way to go. But I get option anxiety. When my stepdad was a kid, he would never get electric windows on his cars, back when that was an option. He figured it was more stuff that would break. I have a minimalist pedalboard, and a simple guitar.”
For Levy the classic ES-335 gives him everything he needs. His go-to for years has been a 1964 strung with John Pearse strings. His amps for Spry were a Benson Nathan Junior with a 12″ cab and speaker as opposed to the usual 10″, and a mid-’60s Fender Vibro Champ—small, compact, no frills. Levy also uses a Collings I-30, a hollowbody with pickups that are modeled after Gibson P-90s. For acoustic, his choice is a 2022 Collings dreadnought, the DS2H SB. “Anything beyond what I have takes my attention away from the singer. To most people, the tap tempo on a delay is not important. What I tell people is, ‘Pay attention, streamline, and play to your strengths.’”
“I digested what she said, and I concluded that the real issue was that I was stepping on her. I was still playing in my head, not as part of the composite.”
Relatively late in life, this instrumentalist started feeling as if he wanted to sing songs of his own. Several of his recordings since then feature him as a rough-edged but sweet vocalist. He wishes he’d begun writing and singing songs earlier.
The first time Levy performed as a singer-songwriter, at the Living Room in New York City, he ended up playing two sets in a row of the same 10 original songs.
Photo by Christoph Bombart
“I started writing songs while I was part of Norah’s band, just to see if I could do it,” says Levy. “She was supportive, and even recorded two of my songs—‘In the Morning’ and ‘Moon Song.’ Once I had written 10 songs, I decided to book a show to sing them. I’d been a sideman for singer-songwriters for a long time. I figured it was time to step up to the mic and see what it felt like. I booked a 9 p.m. set at the Living Room—one of the small clubs in New York City where Norah got her start. I nervously sang my way through my 10 songs. When I was done and walked offstage, the soundman told me that the 10 p.m. band canceled, and asked if I wanted to do another set. I told him I didn’t have any more songs. He said, ‘No problem. Sing them again.’
“When I woke up the next morning, I could feel that the bug had bitten me,” he continues. “I wanted to keep writing, performing, and recording songs with words—something I never thought I’d do!” He’s spent much of the past 20 years being an in-demand writer and session guitarist, sharing studios and credits with the likes of Allen Toussaint, Meshell Ndegeocello, Vulfpeck, Rufus Wainwright, Gaby Moreno, and numerous others.
“What I realized is the guitar could float, be a foil. It didn’t have to duplicate what those other instruments were doing.”
As Levy looks back on his career, he’s amazed at how many great people he’s been associated with. Along with those already mentioned, he’s toured with singers Lizz Wright, Amy Helm, Roseanne Cash, and Amos Lee. He played in Joey Baron’s band in the early 2000s with fellow guitarist Steve Cardenas and Tony Scherr on bass. Levy makes frequent appearances at guitar camps around the country, especially on acoustic. He’s released five records on his own Lost Wax label, and for several years he was chair of guitar performance at the Los Angeles College of Music.
And what of the future?
“I’d like to put myself into different sorts of ensembles. On my vocal and instrumental records so far, I’ve mostly leaned on rhythm sections, almost always with a drummer, bass, and/or Hammond organ … sometimes another guitar,” he reflects. “I’m thinking that different types of instrumentation and orchestration could lead to something new. I’d love to make a solo guitar record, and then play some solo concerts. Just before the pandemic, that was my plan.
“Of course, that would’ve been the perfect time to record it. And I did, sort of. I didn’t make a solo album, but I recorded a number of etudes at home and released them on my Bandcamp page. As the lockdown rolled on, I got so hungry to play with other people that I abandoned the solo thing as soon as I could. Now that things are pretty much back to normal, I’d like to revisit the idea of a solo record and tour.
“In all of this, I think the ‘big idea’ is to see what I’m made of as an artist. I do have a style and a temperament. But I don’t want to just keep repeating myself, you know?”
Adam Levy exhibits his smooth, gently complementary style in a performance with Rich Hinman at Nelson’s Drum Shop in Nashville.
The Super Dragon is a recreation of the amp Jimmy Page used for touring and recording, from 1969 on Led Zeppelin II and all studio albums to follow.
As a follow up to presenting the world with a faithful recreation of the combo Jimmy Page used to record Led Zeppelin I, Sundragon announces the introduction of the Super Dragon.
“The Super Dragon is a faithful recreation of my “Number 1” amp. After recording the first Led Zeppelin record and creating sounds that define rock guitar I needed an amp capable of reproducing this broad palette of sounds including the light and the shade in the studio and a live setting. Not only was the volume and tone important but it needed to have enough power to hear the subtlety of various aspects of my guitar playing. I experimented with different amps until hearing about a fellow in the States named Tony Frank who was modifying Marshall amps. I sent Frank my favorite Marshall, a 1968 Super Bass and the result was exactly what I was looking for. Frank’s modification enhanced the amp’s power of the dynamic range. This amp became the main amp for live shows as well as the principal amp I would rely on in the studio for all Led Zeppelin records from Zeppelin II onwards." - Jimmy Page
A limited edition of only 50 Super Dragon half stacks will be hand built by Mitch Colby along with the highly skilled Sundragon team. To insure the exact duplication of Jimmy’s sound, the amps feature meticulously recreated transformers, New Old Stock GE 6550 tubes, Iskra and Allen Bradley resistors and Phillips “mustard” capacitors as well as specially designed speakers and cabinet that recreate the response and feel of Jimmy’s original. Each head will be signed by Jimmy Page. The amplifiers will be available as of December 2023 and built through the middle of 2024.
For more information visit the website at www.sundragonamps.com
How do different magnet mixes help us find sonic bliss? Fender pickup guru Tim Shaw explains the laws of attraction behind our favorite guitar sounds.
Close your eyes for a second and imagine your favorite electric guitar sound. What do you hear? Whether it’s a crystalline clean, a bulldog-growl crunch, or a hurricane of distortion, what do you envision?
Maybe you’re seeing the contours and finish of your guitar, the different pieces of wood that comprise the whole; a certain brand of strings ricocheting in microscopic variances; the woven grille in front of your amp’s speaker vibrating in a sonic windstorm; or perhaps your hands, both working in harmony to create exactly the right sound. It’s unlikely that when you think of your specific sonic nirvana, you picture the little bits of metal compounds that we call magnets.
Yet it’s magnets which are the catalyst for the boundless wealth of sounds we can produce with modern electric guitars. Beginning with their first applications in guitar pickups in the early 1930s, magnets have evolved into one of the most critical factors in how we get the tones we love. They’ve bloomed from a rustic and rudimentary technology to a precise, booming cottage industry. And while dedicated tone hunters spend a lot of time discussing pickups, the particulars of the cylinders and strips of precision-machined magnetized materials that give each pickup its tonal signature aren’t often in the spotlight.
These mysterious bits of earth elements and their invisible force fields—the strengths of which are measured in a unit called a Gauss—breathe life into everything from hushed fingerstyle jazz acrobatics to industrial-grade doom-metal sludge. So how do we know what magnets can help achieve which tones? We need to understand some science, for sure. But we also need to know the history that created the pickup magnets we know and love.
This blueprint, filed along with the patent application in 1934, demonstrates the A-22’s ingenuity, and the pickup magnet’s configuration.
A History of Attraction
The very first electric guitar pickups, circa 1931, probably wouldn’t be much fun to play through. They were created by American inventor George Beauchamp and Swiss-American engineer Adolph Rickenbacker, who together founded—you guessed it—the Rickenbacker company, first named Ro-Pat-In, then Rickenbacher, before they settled on their final designation. The duo built the Electro A-22, nicknamed the Frying Pan (take a quick look and it’s fairly easy to guess why), an aluminum lap-steel guitar constructed to capitalize on the popularity of Hawaiian music at the time. It was the first stringed instrument to bear pickups.
The A-22’s chunky pickup magnet, crafted from an iron alloy with around 36 percent cobalt steel, was incredibly weak and unfocused. But it established a universal principle that shaped the future of the guitar: A magnet’s field can magnetize guitar strings, and together with a spool of wire, the magnets can generate enough output current to send to an amplification system. The basic process of capturing and amplifying sounds hasn’t changed much in the 90 years since Beauchamp and Rickenbacker slapped a big, magnetic rock on a guitar that looked like kitchenware, but the tools to accomplish it have.
“A lot of what Leo Fender did involved war surplus stuff in Southern California ’cause there was tons of it around for all the aircraft factories.”
Tim Shaw, chief engineer with Fender, has been building pickups for the past half century. He’s spent the last 27 years in various capacities with Fender, prior to which he ran research and development for Gibson, operated a repair shop, and helped Fishman establish their OEM pickup system. But before all of that, he learned how to make pickups from Bill Lawrence, the German-American builder who changed Gibson’s trajectory in the late 1960s. Lawrence, says Shaw, was the real deal—he had a coil-winder in the trunk of his Cadillac, which was functionally the same as Leo Fender’s original winder. And he didn’t suffer fools.
“He was pretty crusty,” Shaw recalls. “He would cuss me out in Polish and German. But I learned a tremendous amount from him. He would explain these things very clearly, very logically, in a very German way. It was priceless.” Lawrence, who came to pickup design with a respectable music career and a background in physics, instructed Shaw on which magnets to use, and how many turns of what gauge wire were required for certain sounds.
Tim Shaw has been building pickups for nearly half a century. When it comes to magnet materials, he says guitarists stick to what they know.
Perhaps the most important lesson that Lawrence taught Shaw was that he shouldn’t get into the pickup business to be an artist. “Most of the time, you’re not making something which never was,” says Shaw. “You’re working with an established vocabulary. So much of what we do is ‘in the style of.’” The reality of magnet selection and pickup design, says Shaw, is that there isn’t a whole lot of room for experimentation. “The big fight with all of this is guitar players,” he says. “There’s a conservatism: We know what we like, we play what we’ve played. If you have something that’s interesting but radically different, there aren’t as many people as you would like to think who will just a priori accept that and go for it. I could literally do a pickup brand from all the stuff that people didn’t want.”
Instead, when he designs pickups, Shaw follows the same three principles that guide musical instrument production: They have to give us the sound we want, at the volume we have to play, and we have to want to play them. “If you don’t get all three of those things right,” says Shaw, “you’ve got a decorative wall hanging.”
From alnico to neodymium, magnets have gotten stronger and changed how our electric guitar playing sounds and feels. They’ve radically altered how pickups themselves are designed and built—if a builder worked with the same design specs and material ratios for a ceramic-driven pickup as they did for an alnico-powered pickup, the result would probably be unbalanced at best.
Let’s look at the popular magnet materials that have been wired up by pickup designers over the last century. Along the way, we’ll dig into how their construction, physical composition, and magnetic properties change how our guitars sound.
The first alnico alloy—aluminum (Al), nickel (Ni), and cobalt (Co), plus iron—emerged in the late 1930s. Since then, five different versions of the alnico magnet have grown in favor among pickup builders: alnicos 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8. The first four are the most common ones and can be used in both rod and bar form.
Alnico 3, which paradoxically contained no cobalt thanks to a Korean War-era embargo on the substance, is the least powerful, but it became the first go-to alnico alloy in Fender’s early electrics. I think a lot of what Leo Fender did involved war surplus stuff in Southern California cause there was tons of it around for all the aircraft factories,” says Shaw. “So he had access to a lot of alnico 3 rod material, which he got cut into lengths that made sense for him.” Gibson, meanwhile, was cutting it into bars to outfit their P-90 pickups.
Making alnico magnets was a nasty business. Shaw describes alnico factory lines as “14th-century-looking stuff,” where a massive ladle is filled with over 600 pounds of iron, cobalt, copper, and aluminum shot, heated to the materials’ respective melting points, then poured into molds. But the magnets that came out often varied massively in composition and sound. Aluminum has a much lower melting point than its ladle-mates, and as it boiled off while waiting for the others to melt, the mixture’s composition would change. One would need to continue adding aluminum through the process to maintain the correct ratios. The magnets made on a Wednesday morning shift could be totally different from the ones poured the night before, explains Shaw. “That’s one of the explanations for why vintage pickups do not all sound the same,” he notes.
Technically speaking, alnico 2s are slightly more powerful than 3s, with 4s and 5s topping both for magnetic strength, and, therefore, output. In terms of sonic characteristics, Shaw says the alnico 3s have the slowest attack, and the “warmest and woofiest” sound. Alnico 2 dials back that thick character a bit, while alnico 4, says Shaw, is sharp but “polite:” “It almost has a smirk to it,” he grins. Shaw describes alnico 5s as the boldest of the bunch—the magnet that says, “Yeah, we’re gonna go for it, guys.” Fender P-basses were initially outfitted with alnico 3s until Leo Fender realized it tends toward what Shaw dubs a “drunken elephants dancing” tonality. He swapped in alnico 5s around the mid 1950s for their brighter, harder sounding magnets, a decision that cemented the brand’s signature sound. “Leo was all about attack,” observes Shaw.
The high-output alnico 8s are the strongest of their alloy class thanks to their inclusion of titanium. The 8s are so powerful that they can pull strings out of their arc in the right conditions: if you raise your neck pickup too high and play above the 12th fret, you might hear weird tones thanks to this phenomenon.
Like Leo Fender favoring cheap metals that he could get in bulk nearby, other regional pickup-design characteristics—and the sounds they encouraged—can also be traced back to geographical and industrial particulars. The former Chicago-based discount guitar manufacturer Harmony turned to Toledo, Ohio’s Rowe Industries and lead designer Harry DeArmond to find cheap pickup materials. In response to booming demand, Rowe was turning out rubberized ferrite magnets—the kind you’d find on your grandparents’ refrigerators—which Harmony popped into their jazz guitar pickups. These are the magnets that power the infamous gold-foil pickup.
By the early ’70s, barium and strontium ferrites (compounds which are “deadly poison to be around,” notes Shaw) were developed. These were much stronger than their rubberized ferrite predecessors, and cost far less to produce than alnico alloys thanks to the elimination of the need for smelting. Instead, they’re created through a compacting and heating process called powder metallurgy. They became popular across a huge spread of sectors, and before long, pickup designers like Rick Turner at California manufacturer Alembic Inc. began to recognize that these stronger, harder ferrites—now known as ceramics—could be applied in guitars.
“I could design a whole guitar around a magnet if I wanted.”
Under Bill Lawrence’s direction, Gibson began employing these bar-shaped ceramics in humbuckers, which lent their guitars a sharper attack that paired well with players’ growing interest in heavier overdrive and gain. Lawrence’s Super Humbuckers were the first major pickups produced with ceramics. To deal with unwanted feedback and to prevent their covers from vibrating, designers like Lawrence epoxy-potted the pickups.
Ceramics found in pickups are usually ceramic 8s, which on a Gauss meter typically clock in at around twice the power of an alnico 4. Thanks to their magnetic flux at the pole pieces, ceramic 8s grab the strings quicker than regular humbuckers, and deliver a brighter, harder attack. These qualities make them especially well-suited for high-gain guitar playing without sacrificing definition, and builders like EMG and players like Kirk Hammett have gravitated toward them since.
The original patents for the cunife magnets, made from copper, nickel, and iron, date back to the late 1930s, at which time there was a growing need for a magnetic material with high ductility—the ability to be manipulated and reshaped without breaking. Cunife magnets of all different shapes were used in speedometers, altimeters, and tachometers (a function that lent them the nickname ‘tach-rod’).
“The big fight with all of this is guitar players. There’s a conservatism: we know what we like, we play what we’ve played.”
By the early 1970s, Fender was looking for a response to Gibson’s humbucking pickups. Seth Lover, who created the humbucker for Gibson before switching teams to Fender, came up with a unique opponent: the wide-range cunife pickup. The cunife magnet’s ductility meant that, unlike alnico, it could be machined into screw-like pole pieces like the humbucker’s steel slugs, and Lover discovered that when paired with more winds of wire, cunife’s higher inductance translated to more bottom end and low mids without sacrificing Fender’s classic high-end clarity. By the end of the decade, though, digital appliances were becoming more prevalent, so cunife’s industrial and consumer utility was swept away and production lines for the magnet vanished. Pickup builders like Lover realized there wouldn’t be any material left to build with, so it was abandoned in most pickups—until a few years ago.
Tim Shaw managed to track down some incredibly expensive cunife magnets to design a new, revitalized line of vintage-correct wide range cunife pickups for Fender. But building with the magnet was tricky—he had to balance the physical and aesthetic demands with the cunife magnet’s needs—namely, a larger wire coil. “It could only be so tall if I wanted to fit it in a vintage guitar,” says Shaw. “I could design a whole guitar around a magnet if I wanted, but what I ended up doing from a practical standpoint was finding something that worked inside that form factor.”
Cunife-loaded pickups tend to strike a balance between humbuckers and single-coils: As their trademark name implies, they capture a wider range of frequencies than your average Strat pickup, but they don’t quite dive to Les Paul humbucker depths on the low end.
Neodymiums are the strongest pickup magnets around, and builders like Q-tuner have pioneered eye-catching new designs around the material.
Neodymium is a powerful, expensive rare-earth metal that’s still relatively rare to find in guitar pickups. Commonly used in iPhone speakers, neodymium’s strong magnetic field means that its application in pickups looks different than other magnets—thanks to its high output, only a small amount is required, which impacts how it’s inserted and oriented in a pickup context. Proponents celebrate the magnet’s ability to capture a wide dynamic range with detail and sensitivity. Fishman fits their magnetic pickups with neodymium magnets, for example, and builder Q-tuner has been churning out eye-catching neodymium pickups for almost 30 years.
But while some pickups can be swapped out without much worry to achieve different tones, stronger materials like neodymium require a bit more engineering. For example, Shaw says it wouldn’t be wise to simply replace a Strat’s alnico pickups with neodymiums. “I have, and you wouldn’t like the way it sounded,” he says. “It’s bright, and very forceful. Insistent, if you will.”