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Guitar Pickups: Alnico Magnets vs. Ceramic Magnets

Updated on March 4, 2016

Alnico Magnets vs. Ceramic Magnets

Does magnet type in a guitar pickup really matter?

----- It only doesn't matter if tone isn't an issue.

We say that in jest but as the saying goes there is much truth in jest! Each component serves a purpose and like anything in life, we use certain things to achieve certain results and at the end of the day, much comes down to personal preference and each one's unique ear for tone which is different in everyone.

So when it comes to magnets, each serves a purpose and, of course, each comes from a different source which impacts cost, availability, and characteristics. Because many of today's magnets are manufactured and not, necessarily, purely natural, the result comes at a cost.

We will take a look at:

  • Tonal & Other Characteristics of Alnico Magnets
  • Tonal & Other Characteristics of Ceramic Magnets
  • Why Alnico over Ceramic

Single Coil Guitar Pickup

'50s style pickup with Alnico V beveled magnets.
'50s style pickup with Alnico V beveled magnets.

Alnico Magnets vs. Ceramic Magnets Characteristics

Property
Alnico
Ceramic
Tonal Temperature
Very Warm
Cold
Tonal Power
Medium
Strong
Sustain
High
Low
Dynamics
High
Moderate
Cost
High
Low
Manufacturing Ease
Moderate
Easy
Material Availabiity
Moderate
Readily Available

Tonal Characteristics of Alnico Magnets

Alnico Magnets

  • Power

    Alnico pickups have diminished power when compared to Ceramic magnets. This diminished power allows for more dynamic depth or tonal spectrum in a pickup.
  • Dynamic Depth

    Because of the compromised power of Alnico pickups, the reduced power seems to allow for increased dynamic depth allowing for a greater tonal spectrum. It "appears" that the lower initial impact of the wall of sound, allows for the capture of greater highs and a tighter response with the low end. This is merely based on experience and opinion.
  • Warmth

    The chemical composition of Alnico magnets is Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt. The process required to cast these elements together yields a flavoring different than Ceramic or Iron pickups. Much like the ingredients of mom's perfect spaghetti sauce, unique elements yield specific results. There is a certain character of warmth to Alnico pickups that is lacking in Ceramic pickups which can only be described in terms of depth and warmth or sterility and as anemic. This is not good or bad just a matter of character and, perhaps, opinion and ear.
  • Cost

    The chemical process required to cast three elements together is not only more expensive due to 3 elements, but the fact that three elements are needed, in itself, increases the cost. It is known that the "sinistering" process achieves greater mechanical functionality but increases the manufacturing cost. This results, on occasion, of Alnico pickups being priced higher than the average ceramic pickup.


Tonal Characteristics of Ceramic Magnets

Ceramic Magnets

  • Power

    By far, without question, Ceramic magnets are more powerful. For this reason they are often sought out for application where tonal power is required rather than tonal dynamics. If you need power, a Ceramic magnet is usually a good first response.
  • Sustain

    The general equation is that more power equals diminished sustain. This is true no matter the magnet. So if you want true natural sustain, you may want to compromise on overall magnet power. However, with today's amps, the lack of sustain can usually be remanufactured through electronics and power.
  • Warmth

    In most cases, if power is the primary characteristic in choosing a pickup, then often the other factors or characteristics of that magnet become secondary or a non issue. Likewise, in the case of Ceramic magnets, it "appears" that Ceramic magnets often lose warmth or overall tonal spectrum. They have often been called sterile or anemic in this area of description. However, that being said, most who choose ceramic magnets are not after tonal warmth but power.
  • Warmth

    The chemical process required to sinister ceramic or ferrite magnets is far more efficient in both process and cost than its counterpart, Alnico. For this reason, in reducing costs. You will find pickups being made of Ceramic magnets. It gives the player the "feel" and "appearance" of having a powerful guitar especially in practice settings.


Magnets in different form for different functions

Magnets offer so much ability to do so much.
Magnets offer so much ability to do so much.

Why Alnico over Ceramic

Bottom Line: You get what you pay for.

Ceramic magnets are cheaper to make and very generic in function. This yields a very powerful, stale magnet, which is very versatile in function, but not flavorful in application.

The higher cost of Alnico magnets has caused many pickup manufacturers to dup and deceive buyers into believing the tone is better. It may be more powerful, which is useful --- rarely, but never yields quality and tasteful tone.

If you listen to a guitar for warmth, tonal spectrum, dynamics, sustain and ability to recapture playing technique and nuances, most musicians who plays for this style choose Alnico magnets. In addition, there is a strong chance the musician who inspired you used Alnico magnets (in conjunction with tube amps). Mass production does not equal high fidelity. In final, if you want the warmest and purest, non-colorized tone, this requires purity. Purity is more expensive than the norm. Ceramic is ordinary and cheap, Alnico requires more effort to produce and is more expensive.

Remember, you get what you pay for. Manufacturers try to increase profits by using Ceramic magnets, don't give in to the bottom line. Choose Alnico, in fact, demand it.

Alnico vs. Ceramic Pickups

Which type of pickup do you have currently?

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