In the world of electric guitars, there is a myriad of variables to look for, and one of the most important among them is the pickup, which takes the place of the resonance chamber of acoustic/electric guitars. Pickups function through magnets, which can be made of various materials (including ceramic and alnico), and it's reasonable to expect that they differ in performance.
What are the differences between ceramic and alnico guitar pickups? Ceramic (ferrite) and alnico pickups differ in material composition (their magnets are made of different alloys), duration, and magnetic properties. Alnico pickups generally sound warmer and rounder, while ceramic pickups tend to sound sharper and brighter.
In this article, we'll discuss the differences between ceramic and alnico pickups, along with the pros and cons of each, to give you a better idea of the types of pickups that will best benefit your guitar(s) and playing.
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A Primer On Guitar Pickups
As stated before, ceramic and alnico pickups differ in composition and performance. Before going into more detail, let's review what a pickup actually is to understand better what we're discussing.
We can define a pickup as a device common to all solid-bodied guitars, replacing the hollow soundboxes responsible for resonating notes in acoustic/classical guitars. It is comprised of a set of magnets (which can be manufactured from ceramic, alnico, or neodymium) wound with coils made of thousands of turns of thin, conductive copper wire.
The circuit resting beneath the bobbin is called a coil. Pickups can include one coil (single-coil pickups) or two could (dual-coil pickups or “humbuckers”).
The mechanism by which a pickup operates is different than what goes on in traditional acoustic soundholes. Instead of relying on air molecules, the pickup effectively magnetizes the electric guitar strings and generates a magnetic field around the coil(s).
As the magnetized strings vibrate, the disturbance of the magnetic field around the conductive coils produces an alternating current via electromagnetic induction. This movement of the strings is effectively captured by the wires and transformed into a low-level audio signal. This signal travels through the circuit to a recording and/or playback device.
By sending the signal to an amplifier, the amp can amplify the audio signals and drive a speaker (or multiple speakers) to turn them into audible sounds. This is somewhat analogous to the hollow soundboxes on acoustic and classical guitars.
The magnetism exerted by the pickup depends heavily on the type of magnet used, the specific alloy of the magnet, the overall pickup design, and the pickup's status. The magnetic properties of most magnets can last a very long time, but they progressively wane, especially under heavy usage. Additionally, the stronger the magnetism (and the greater the changes in the magnetic field), the greater the amount of electricity that can be produced and transferred via electromagnetic induction.
Differences Between Ceramic And Alnico Pickups
Now that we've established the basic notion of what a pickup is and how it works, we can talk more in detail about these two magnet types, their composition, and their capacity.
Ceramic magnets are also known as ferrite magnets. First formulated in the 1950s and further developed in the 1960s, ceramic magnets are one of the cheapest options on the market.
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They're made from a combination of iron oxide and strontium carbonate that is heated at very high temperatures. Alternatively, manufacturers may add very small amounts of zinc, nickel, manganese, and/or barium to the alloy.
Ceramic is usually very brittle due to its hardness level. Notwithstanding, its strong magnetism and resistance to demagnetization more than makeup for its shortcomings. These latter features are the main reason why most of the magnets available for home usage are made of ceramic.
Ceramic magnets can come in different grades, to wit: 1, 5, 8, and 8B. The higher the grade, the stronger the magnetic field created and the resulting output. For guitar pickups, 8 is the most common grade used (sometimes referred to as C8).
Due to the strong magnetism of ceramic magnets, ceramic pickups benefit from higher output levels, requiring less gain in the following signal chain. Tone-wise, which is admittedly subjective, ceramic pickups tend to have a sharper tone with greater attack and treble content, though this could be experienced as harshness.
The pickup's design is not that different on the surface from most pickups. However, under the hood is where the differences are far more discernible, as the pickup contains a plain slab at the bottom of the magnets, a feature that distinguishes it from most other models.
Examples of renowned ceramic pickups include:
Developed in Japan in 1931, alnico is an alloy of Aluminum, Nickle, and Cobalt, at times with small amounts of copper or even titanium (the latter found in more powerful grades). The name derives from the combination of the symbols of these three elements (Al-Ni-Co).
Alnico magnets are known to possess low temperature coefficients, so they are often used for applications with high temperature sensitivity.
The alnico magnet revolutionized the magnet industry and was deemed the strongest permanent magnet available until rare-earth magnets began being manufactured in the '70s. Furthermore, it was the first magnet type employed in the development of electric guitar pickups.
Alnico, just like ceramic, is available in different grades according to strength. Alnico 2 is the weakest alnico grade, while Alnico 9 is currently the strongest. For a majority of electric guitars, the grades used are 2, 4, and 5 (II, IV, and V), the last of which is, at the moment, the most employed. The first PAFs issued by Gibson had alnico 2 magnets in them, hence their vintage, old school sound.
Alnico pickups tend to have lower output levels than their ceramic counterparts due to their weaker magnetic strength. Tone-wise, they have a softer attack and a warmer sound with less high-end and greater balance, though they could be experienced as dull.
Design-wise, it should be noted that alnico magnets are attached parallel to the poles and don't cover their bottom like in the case of ceramic pickups.
Below are some examples of famous alnico pickups:
- Seymour Duncan Alnico
- Fralin Blues Special (links to check the prices of the Strat and Tele-style versions at Fralin Pickups)
- DiMarzio Red Velvet
Which Pickups Are Better: Ceramic Or Alnico?
As a foreword, the answer to this question is highly subjective and is grounds for debate.
A word of caution: When making comparisons for yourself, strive to choose guitars with similar specs and build quality. Guitars feature a great number of components that, directly or indirectly, induce changes in tone and timbre.
Additionally, you may try pitting two pickups of the same brand and similar tier. For example, you can use both a DiMarzio Crunchlab (ceramic) and a DiMarzio Twang King (alnico). Needless to say, you should make sure that the guitars also have similar specs. Strats are great in this regard due to their highly modding capabilities, but this can theoretically be done with any other model as well.
Finally, you may still find experts arguing that the differences in the magnets are not really as significant as the distinctions between guitar builds or even pickup designs. However, the general consensus is that there is variation in tone, though there's certainly debate as to the degree.
Reasons Ceramic Pickups Are Better
The popularity of ceramic pickups has led to some bad reputation since most cheap guitars have these installed, owing to their affordable nature. This means that most of the fault for the irksome tone of cheap guitars is attributed to the pickup. However, the bulk of the guilt is not to be pinned on the material but, rather, on the build quality of the guitars.
With that said, we can summarize the reasons ceramic pickups are better as follows:
- In line with what was previously said, ceramic pickups have some of the strongest magnets available today, apart from being some of the cheapest.
- The sound output is stronger and sharper, favourable to those who play harder genres such as hard rock or metal.
Reasons Alnico Pickups Are Better
Alnico pickups are generally weaker than ceramic pickups, but they have their target audience and are still used widely in P90 pickups. It's no surprise that some guitarists who are not as versed in hard genres of music may not be fond of the sharpness that ceramic delivers, so alnico offers a great alternative.
These are the reasons why alnico may be the best option:
- While their output capacity is decreased, alnico pickups are better at detecting nuances in playing and a wider layer of sounds.
- The tone is rounder and warmer, very welcoming for guitarists who fall on the softer side of music (e.g., jazz, pop, Latin, bossa nova, etc.).
What About Neodymium Pickups?
Neodymium is the most common type of rare-earth magnet and is made from an alloy of neodymium, iron, and boron. With magnetic strength nearly seven times that of ceramic, neodymium pickups output much stronger signals than both ceramic and alnico pickups. Furthermore, they require fewer windings in their coils to do so.
Neodymium is much more brittle than alnico and ceramic and also lasts much longer.
However, neodymium pickups aren't popular due to the very magnetic characteristics that would make them great.
Primarily, the output levels are largely considered too high for use with passive instruments, meaning the output signals are liable to overload whatever comes next in the signal chain and distort the sound.
Furthermore, the strong magnetic field of a neodymium pickup can even pull magnetized guitar strings from their natural resting position, thereby negatively impacting the action and intonation of the instrument.
So then, neodymium magnets are largely saved for active systems (with compatible internal preamps) in bass guitars, which have strings large enough to maintain their position against the pull of the neodymium pickup magnets.
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