Though the pickups had a specific designation at
Gibson, they are referred to by collectors as "alnico V"
pickups because they incorporated alnico V magnets. Use of an
alnico V magnet isn't particularly unique (Gibson has used the same
magnet on several pickups) but that name has always stuck with that
pickup. The pickup was designed by Seth Lover, the man who invented the
humbucker. Gibson had been using the P90 pickup exclusively on all
electric guitars for several years. Gibson asked Lover, who worked
for Gibson in its R&D and electronics department, to come up with a
more powerful pickup that more closely resembled the D'Armond single
coil pickup that was popular at that time (D'Armonds were most notably
used on the Gretsch duo jet line and other Gretsch electrics).
Each of the polepieces is its own magnet. Rather than have a long
rectangular magnet at the core of the pickup on which metal polepieces
(typically screws) are attached and consequently magnetized, Lover
designed this pickup with long alnico V magnets operating as the
polepieces. When you take one of these pickups apart the
polepieces look like tiny little bricks. Sonically, these pickups are
very nice. They have about the same amount of bite as a P90.
In my experience they are a little bit brighter in tone. Although
it is supposedly a more powerful pickup I have never detected a material
difference in output between an Alnico V pickup and a vintage P90.
Seth Lover has commented that the reason these pickups never became too
popular with players is because most players have a tendency to adjust
the height of polepieces fairly close to the strings. It's not a
good approach with an Alnico V pickup because of the way the magnetic
field operates with the six individual magnets - - the tone becomes a
little "squawky" when you do that. Personally, I love these
pickups. Gibson first began using them in quantity in 1954.
It was deemed a higher end pickup so it was used on the Super 400CES,
L5CES, Byrdland, and could also be found on a few ES-5s and ES-5
Switchmasters (P90s are much more common on the ES-5s of this period).
The first Les Paul customs from 1954 have an Alnico V pickup in the neck
and a P90 in the bridge. There may have been some other models
that used this pickup but I can't think of them at the moment. Gibson
ultimately took the pickup out of production when the humbucker became
available on production guitars in 1957. That's why you see so few
guitars equipped with original Alnico V pickups - - it was only
available on a few high end models (which are always produced in lower
quantity) from 1954 through early 1957. Scotty Moore used an Alnico V
equipped L5CES, Super 400 CES and later upgraded to a Super 400 with
has been making the Alnico V pickup again in connection with its
Historic Collection guitars. Most of the archtops in the Historic
Collection can be ordered with Alnico V pickups in lieu of humbuckers or
P90s. It is also used, obviously, on Gibson's 1954 reissue Les
Paul Custom. Occasionally, vintage Alnico V pickups from the 1950s
crop up in the vintage market. They typically sell for between
$200 and $300.