When buying a new guitar or new pickups, you might have noticed that the pickups are either labeled as ceramic or alnico. But what does this mean, exactly?
Well, let us take a little deep dive into these two different types of pickups. What does it mean when a pickup is called alnico or ceramic, how do they differ, and if one is better than the other?
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Alnico pickups are the most common type. They can be found in almost every guitar.
Alnico pickups were also the first type to be used in electric guitars. Alnico was first developed in Japan in 1931 and revolutionized the magnet industry.
Alnico pickups are made from an alloy consisting of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, hence the name alnico. There are other metals in them as well, but these are the main ones.
This alloy makes for a very strong magnet. Their strength is evident in the fact that alnico magnets can be found in everything from motors to generators and even medical equipment like MRI machines.
Alnico magnets also come in a few different varieties and not just one standard type. These include alnico II, III, IV, and V.
The number associated with the pickup determines how strong it is. Although, somewhat confusingly, alnico II pickups are stronger than alnico III’s. But then alnico IV’s are weaker than alnico V’s. So, their strength actually goes III, II, IV, then V. Alnico II and V pickups are also the most common types.
Alnico magnets are aligned parallel to their poles.
Ceramic pickups are, as you might expect, made from ceramic. They were first formulated in the 1950s and then later improved in the ‘60s. Ceramic magnets are much cheaper and easier to make than alnico magnets.
This has given ceramic pickups a bit of a bad reputation. Because they are cheaper, many guitarists think that they sound cheap and often associate them with cheap guitars.
But the fact that ceramic pickups can be found in guitars like Jeff Beck’s signature Strat proves that they aren’t just cheap pickups.
Being ceramic also doesn’t mean that they are weak. Ceramic magnets are still very strong and can even be stronger than alnico magnets.
Unlike alnico pickups, ceramics contain a slab at the bottom of the magnets.
The difference in tone is quite clear between ceramic and alnico pickups. These differences make each not only better suited to certain sounds but also more desirable for that sound.
Ceramic pickups generally run hotter than alnicos. This gives them a more powerful and aggressive tone.
Ceramic pickups are very good at handling high levels of distortion. They also have a much higher volume output. Ceramic pickups have more of an emphasis on the midrange and the bass frequencies.
Overall, their tone is much more modern. This means that many metal guitarists prefer them over alnico pickups.
Alnico pickups tend to have a warmer, smoother tone than ceramics. They tend to be brighter because the higher frequencies are more pronounced.
They have a lower output than ceramics, making than a bit softer. Overall, their tone leans more toward a vintage sound.
Their clean tone also tends to be smoother and crisper than ceramic pickups. This makes them a bit better suited for clean playing, and they are generally preferred by jazz, blues, and soft rock guitarists.
The tone does differ a bit between the different types of alnico pickups. Alnico II’s, for example, have more high-end and are closer to a vintage sound.
Alnico V’s are more midrange-focused and have a higher output. This gives them a more modern sound and actually makes them quite comparable to ceramic pickups.
Some Top Pickup Picks
There are a lot of pickup manufacturers out there. Quite a few of them make exceptional pickups, making it hard to decide which one to go for.
All of the major brands (Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, EMG, Fishman, Fender, etc.) make both alnico and ceramic pickups. So, you don’t have to choose between alnico or ceramic if you want a pickup from a specific brand.
Single coil pickups are the ones to go for if you are looking for a brighter, more vintage sound.
Seymour Duncan makes some of the best single coil pickups money can buy. Their SSL-5 is an excellent alnico V pickup. It is very affordable and can be placed in either the neck, middle, or bridge positions.
You also don’t need to stick with one type of alnico pickup. Alnicos can easily be paired together if you are looking for different tones. The Brad Paisley La Brea set is a great example of this, combining an alnico IV and II.
If you want a true Fender sound, then Fender pickups are the obvious choice. The Fender Original ‘57/’62 is a great set of alnico V’s.
On the ceramic side, both the Seymour Duncan SVR-1n and DiMarzio The Cruiser are both excellent choices for under $100, while the Fender Hot Noiseless (featured in our noiseless pickups roundup) is an entire set for relatively cheap.
For hard rock and metal guitarists, the best choice to go for would be humbuckers.
For alnicos, if you want a more modern sound, both the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB and Fishman Fluence Modern are fantastic alnico V pickups. If you want a more vintage, hard rock tone, Gibson pickups are some of the best.
The Gibson Accessories ’57 is a particularly fantastic alnico II. If you want to sound like Slash, this is the one to go for.
For ceramic pickups, DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan are again among the top picks. Their DP100 Super Distortion and SH-13 Dimebucker, respectively, are both fantastic. The Fishman Fluence Ryan “Fluff” Bruce Custom is another great choice.
Choosing Between Alnico and Ceramic Pickups
As with everything else that has to do with the guitar, and any instrument, really, what you choose comes down to personal preference. Because of their different tones, one pickup is likely going to be more appealing to you than the other.
If you want a brighter, more vintage sound, then you are likely going to find the sound of an alnico pickup more appealing. If you want a hotter, more aggressive tone, you will probably go with a ceramic pickup.
Alnico V pickups are probably the most versatile, however. While they have a very modern tone, there is still enough of a vintage touch to make them appeal to jazz and blues guitarists.
They are also quite common and found in a lot of modern metal, rock, and blues-focused guitars.
Something important to note is that the pickups aren’t always clearly labeled on sites like Sweetwater. They will tell you the model of the pickup in the guitar but not always tell you what type of magnet it is.
So, just make sure that the pickup in the guitar is the type of magnet you are looking for.
There you have it. Everything you need to know about alnico and ceramic pickups.
Both types are great, and there isn’t really a downside to choosing either one. Just remember that a cheap pickup isn’t necessarily going to sound as good as a more expensive one.
And just because ceramic is cheaper than alnico doesn’t mean that a ceramic pickup sounds cheaper than an alnico.