Ceramic vs. Alnico: Which pickups sound better?
The pickup magnet argument is put to the test
We guitarists are an argumentative bunch, and the guitar world is full of opinions and arguments about how to get the best sounds. One controversy that has raged for years is: What exactly IS the difference in sound between ceramic and alnico pickups? Now someone has come up with a Mythbusters-style video doing an A/B test to throw new light on this question…
Ceramic vs. Alnico
You often hear that the sound of a pickup is dominated by the choice of magnet used in its construction. Alnico is nice and warm and great for blues. Whereas Ceramic is used in metal as it sounds tight, loud and cool. So we often hear. Is this all just a rumour launched by pickup manufacturers, or is it objectively provable?
YouTuber Darell Braun Guitars has tried to figure it out and come up with a simple way to compare the two different magnet types. Same guitar, same strings. Different pickups or different magnets.
Now, the real pickup geeks will chirp in and tell us about the different types of Alnico and polepieces used, the wire gauge and type. Then there are the pickup connoisseurs that will start talking about bobbins and spacers. But I find it’s probably best to avoid getting into an argument with these people, as whatever you say, you will be wrong…
A whole ’boutique’ industry has formed in the last 30 years. It revolves around the variances in the design of the humble pickup. Whether you are a single-coil, humbucker or P90 lover, there is something on the market for you these days. There are great pickups available from companies like Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Oil City Pickups and Bare Knuckle. Us guitarists are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a new set for our favourite guitar.
This comparison ‘test’ is certainly worth a watch and at the least gives you an idea about what you can expect from the two magnet types.
Funny they say alnico is vintage and natural and ceramic is modern and artificial… ceramic pickups have been around since end of 60s really. Plus whatever is natural or artificial in guitar tone anyway? Sure, they have slightly different frequency ranges, but so have different alnicos compaired to eachother. Next to bust: nitro lacquer breathing, poly doesnt…
When Bill Lawrence (who probably forgot more about pickups than most of the modern pickup “gurus” know) addressed the “ceramic is harsh and alnico is sweet” subject, he famously replied “Who the hell preaches such nonsense?” He maintained that the design of the magnetic circuit determined what magnet to use (and consequently how that pickup was going to sound) and that you could take either a ceramic or alnico magnet and make a pickup with either sound however you wanted it to by how you designed the rest of the pickup.
Interesting topic about pickup magnet choice. I can tell you that slight changes in magnets can produce noticeable changes in tone. I recently re-charged some of my old pickups using a “permanent magnet”. It was quite easy and really rejuvinated my Humbuckers.
Ceramic pickups have more ‘bite’, wich helps get a crunchy sound even if can’t afford a real classy tube amp. But if you want a nice clean tone, go Alnico 5. It’s like the difference between the Stones and the Beatles imho 🙂
did u not watch the video?
I have a ceramic neck pickup in my guitar as i found it had a better top end really cut through and a decent amount of mid and lower end. I prefered it to my alnico slash pickup. But in the bridge some say they are duller and i dont think that is entirely true it may sound like it. But i think its more to do with it being higher output and its driving the lows and mids harder. Giving the impression of dullness. But for this really i kept the alnico slash bridge. I could probably offset it with the amp or by lowering the bridge pickup maybe or slant it so the mids n bass are lower. ? There are some great sounding ceramics in my case mine is actully the better one for blues the top end really sings.
Old guy here hacking guitars since mid 60’s One thing not mentioned in the debate is that the ceramic field engages more of the pickup winding, being a wider bar. More windings covered by the field result in wider frequency response, so the his are in proportion with other frequencies being generated. Thus a warmer or rounded sound. Traditional alnicos have their field stronger thru the long axis and less of the windings are used, thus resulting in a more sharp, hi freq sound. (Reference an alnico tele neck pickup and how thin it sounds with the fewer windings).
My opinion, there would not be much difference if we could test ceramic poles versus alnico poles, or ceramic bar versus same size ceramic bar generating the same field pattern. Alnicos would be stronger, but the main difference in sound characteristic is more the shape and subsequent coil engagement than the substance the magnet is made out of.
This debate reminds me of the BS peddled about Hi Fi, the industry has to sell the latest production so claims ‘new skin for old ceremony ‘ .
Just check out the setup of any new Eguitar on sale any price and see the mess they are in offered for sale.
The pickup height is the best and INTENDED variable in adjusting tone and balance.
Use a good fit screwdriver and record the positions and YOUR ears impressions.
You will be surprised at the range of change you can achieve, fun too!
I recently bought a Squire Strat Bullet Hardtail, HSS, £109!
I prefer the sound and action to a £1200 Fender USA Texas Special I’ve just sold!
Buy guitars with your ears not from the industry clickbate BS!
PRS are a good example, guitars that look like oil paintings that sound, eh, dull! Sold that too!
The Squire Strat is going nowhere.
yes ! you are correct. I myself have been through that. My best guitar is some nameless thing strata-liker, quite possibly of original 80s Sth Korean descent. I am happy because it escaped the factory and hums like a sophisticated bell – without even being plugged in. After the connection is made it is like playing a sonorous beast – It kills any F****r strat I have played. And I have been playing since 1963. The pups are ceramic el cheapos and warmer. I also have 3 F****r Strats – they don’t like to talk much without a wire into an amp and perhaps a pedal or 2.
What type of amplifier are you using? Speaker type?
I put some Seymour Duncan Pickups SSL1 (Alnico 5) on my Fender Strat and I just bought a Squier Telecaster Bullet, with the basic Ceramic Pickups,Both use the same kind of Strings and Both have Locking Tuners and Both Body are Poplar Wood and the difference is there. Ceramic Pickups give me a Way better tone and a Perfect break up on my tube Amp and my Transistor Amp. It’s a Myth saying Alnico sound better and Ceramic are Muddy!!! I really prefer my Telecaster with a “Cheap” Ceramic Pickups. Like a lot of People I ordered a set of Fender Tex-Mex Alnico5 Pickups, installed it, try it…and I re-installed my Ceramic Pickups right away, for me Alnico are too bright and Ceramic are well balanced and have a beautiful Tone.
Now I can agree, it’s just a Myth.
He does confirm. They sound different, that much is true.
Wow. Such a huge difference. The ceramics sounded yukky and, rather cheap vs the AlNiCo .
To me anyone debating or claiming ceramic is better versus alnico… I ask them if they can tell which pick up was used on such on such recordings? Can they tell in a live concert if 4he guitarist is using alnico or ceramic?
At the end of the day it’s what sounds good to your ears. The pots, string gauge and amps play a part in how sweet the guitar sounds.
I have 3 Wilkinson Stacked P90’s Ceramic on my Vintage V6P they sound great even my tech said they are brilliant yes I have thought of high end boutique P90’S but I would hate to spend that kind of money not to hear a significant difference, many Ibanez use Ceramic even in their high end guitars, this is a debate that will not go away, we still look at the name on the product or head stock and still think it’s will be the best, brilliant marketing by Fenders and others have done, but let me stick this in I put my V6P against any Mexican Fender any day of the way, even up to some of the American made, ( not saying Custom Shop)
I have been playing for many years and have done a lot pickup swapping, too much, I recently took the ceramic humbuckers out of a Washburn WI64,
mahogany body, replaced them with Alnico 5’s, I play a heavy style of blues/rock, the ceramics sound better for the style of music I play, that’s all that matters to me, screw the brand name and the magnets, it’s what sounds good to you, there are cheap pickups out there that are as good or better than the expensive and so called boutique ones, fact not fiction, truth is, whether I rattle the windows and walls with ceramic or alnicos, the crowd doesn’t care.
You are pretty much spot on with your last comments! I find that I can find a decent tone out of most pickups, if the guitars are well made and wired up correctly, then there should be no issues.
I have a G&L ASAT with ceramic magnet pickups and I added a Alnico 5 Strat pickup in the middle for a wider range of tones. All 3 pickups sound very good and have very useable tones and sound good mixed as well. It all depends on the design of the pickup. I do prefer A2 in PAF style pickups but they were designed around Alnico magnets, some pickups were designed around ceramic magnets. There’s a place for both and the instrument makes a difference as well, a dark sounding guitar can benefit from swapping Alnico to ceramic if it just sounds too dark and lacks clarity while a bright guitar may benefit from going to A2 to lessen highs. The ultimate factor is what sounds good to the player and all the buzz words like Alnico or Formvar don’t mean a thing if your instrument doesn’t sound good to you.
The video is not working?