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If you’ve ever looked at the different spec sheets for guitars and wondered what the difference is between the various pickup types, you’re not alone. So what is the difference between ceramic and alnico pickups? Is one better than the other?
There is a difference between alnico and ceramic pickups, both in tone, and in the design and chemical composition of the pickup magnets. The tonal difference is subjective, though you will find certain terms used repeatedly to describe each sound. Players often describe ceramic pickups with more negative terms than alnico pickups. There is a difference in how the pickups are constructed and their cost, with ceramic pickups being less expensive to produce.
In this post, we’re going to compare alnico and ceramic pickups, and see if we can determine what all the noise is about. And we’ll give you some tips for determining what pickup type will best suit your style.
What are the physical differences between ceramic and alnico pickups?
The difference between the two pickup types is in the magnets. Both pickups are still normal guitar pickups with metal pole pieces wound with strands of copper. However, the magnets at the bottom of the pickups are different.
Ceramic magnets are typically a slab of material attached to the bottom of the pickup, while alnico magnets are attached along the sides of the pole pieces.
For an idea of what that looks like, see this image from the Guitar Dreamer blog. The ceramic magnet is on the left side of the image, and the alnico magnets are on the right.
Ceramic pickups use ceramic magnets, and alnico pickups, as the acronym suggests, use magnets constructed from an aluminum, nickel, and cobalt alloy.
The magnets in ceramic pickups are stronger, and the pickups themselves are considered higher-output than alnico.
Ceramic pickups often get a bad rap. Ceramic is a cheaper material than alnico, and these pickups are often found on more affordable guitars. This association has led to a bad sonic reputation for ceramic pickups.
However, this is not really the whole story. Yes, some ceramic pickups are cheaply made and don’t have a great sound, but you will find high-quality ceramic pickups from manufacturers such as Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio. It’s a tonal preference, and some players prefer the characteristics of a ceramic pickup.
The stronger ceramic magnet may give you a punchier, high-output tone with more treble. Critics of ceramic pickups sometimes describe the tone as brittle, harsh, sterile, or compressed. The difference is subjective, and again, some players prefer ceramic pickups.
Have you ever heard of Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton? Both musicians played guitars with Lace Sensor pickups using ferrite (ceramic) magnets.
Players favoring harder styles of music and an overdriven tone might favor ceramics as well for their high-output qualities.
What are Active Pickups?
Active pickups are ceramic pickups, typically humbuckers, that include an on-board preamp in the pickup. The preamp amplifies the signal, creating a high-output pickup suitable for high gain and metal. Active pickups require an external power source, usually a 9V battery.
Alnico magnets are softer and typically weaker than ceramic, contributing to a lower-output and responsive pickup. Often, the tone is described as warm, smooth, musical, or sweet.
Players who enjoy those clean single-coil sounds of rock and blues swear by alnico pickups. Jazz players might use alnico humbuckers to achieve a warm, clear tone good for individual note articulation.
Alnico magnets are made with different chemical compositions and ratios of the aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. This leads to a number classification system that can be confusing when taken out of context. You’ll see pickups listed as Alnico 2 or Alnico 5, usually represented with a Roman numeral. Just know that Alnico V pickups are higher-output than Alnico II.
What’s a P90?
P90 pickups are essentially an overwound single coil with alnico magnets. The pole pieces are wound with more copper wire than you would find on a standard pickup. This creates a single coil pickup with more output. P90s appeared on the scene before humbuckers.
Humbuckers, as you likely know, are basically two single coils wound together. They were created in effort to cancel out the undesirable hum you can get from single coils.
Tone, like musical taste, is somewhat subjective. We can agree that certain tones sound better than others, but one player’s “bright” tone is another player’s “piercing” tone. One player’s “smooth and mellow” tone is another’s “dark and muffled.” It’s going to be up to each player to determine their own preferences.
Subjective terms aside, Darrell Braun does a good tone comparison of alnico and ceramic in the following video using the same guitar.
Choosing Between Alnico and Ceramic
The type of magnets in pickups are just one consideration, and they do have an impact on tone. If you are deciding between alnico and ceramic, your best bet is to try them out, ideally on the same guitar, or the same guitar model.
For example, the Yamaha Pacifica 112J has ceramic pickups, and the 112V has alnico pickups. The models are close in specs otherwise, so it may be a good comparison. The 112J is one of the lower-cost Pacificas though so the pickups are likely not top notch.
Another comparison option could be the Squier Classic Vibe Series and the Contemporary Stratocaster. The Classic Vibe Series feature alnico pickups, while the Contemporary is loaded with high-output ceramics. They are similar in specs and price otherwise. I believe the Affinity line also has ceramic pickups. The Contemporary is closer in specs and cost to the Classic Vibe.
The next best option is to try different models of guitars that have different types of pickups. It should help you narrow down the options and your tone preferences.
There may be a time when you need or want to replace your electric guitar pickups, either to upgrade your sound, or due to a problem. This is another opportunity to consider which type of pickup will be a suitable replacement.
Unless you want to change your sound in a big way, our advice is to go with the closest replacement option, designed for your guitar. For example, with Strat pickups, most pickup manufacturers will have a series designed for the Strat. These pickups will come in different flavors from vintage, to hot-rodded humbuckers that fit in the single coil slot.
Replacing a pickup gives you the opportunity to explore some different sounds as well. If you’ve always had alnico pickups and want to try ceramic pickups, installing a replacement can be a good option for changing your sound without buying a new guitar.
Major manufacturers will have a tone profile for each pickup on their websites. This will give you an idea of the bass, midrange, and treble response.
So we’ve learned that there is a difference between these two pickup types, both in how they are constructed, and in their sonic profile. Hopefully this guide has helped clear up any confusion.