When it comes to the tone of an electric guitar, pickups are one of the most important factors. They can take your tone from warm and smooth to sharp and defined to anything in between. As guitarists, we will spend countless dollars trying out new pickups just to try and find the right sound. However, one way to better understand pickups and avoid some of the trial and error is by understanding pickup magnets.
Pickup magnets are what magnetizes your strings and allows the pickup coil to generate an amplifiable signal. While they may seem like an inconsequential part of your pickups, the magnets have a huge impact on tone. There are a wide variety of magnets used in guitar pickups, and they all produce their own distinct sound. This article will cover the different types of magnets commonly used in guitar pickups and how they compare with one another in terms of output and tone.
Alnico Pickup Magnets
Alnico magnets are some of the oldest, most common, and popular pickup magnets. They are a mix of aluminum, cobalt, and nickel, hence the name. Alnico magnets were discovered in the 1930s in Japan, and they quickly became the go to magnet for a variety of uses—including electric guitar pickups.
Fender and other companies were already using alnico magnets in their pickups by the 1940s. They tended to produce a warm and smooth tone that players loved. Though cheaper, more efficient, ceramic magnets were developed in the 60s, many manufacturers like Fender stuck with alnico magnets because of their beloved tone.
The other important thing to mention about alnico pickups is that there are different types of alnico (as seen below). They are numbered to differentiate between slightly different compositions of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. Each type of alnico has a different strength, as well as a different effect on the guitar’s tone. Let’s look at each type of alnico and what sort of impact they have on tone.
Alnico 2 pickups are the second weakest, meaning they pull the strings less and have a lower output. They are the most “vintage” sounding of the alnico pickups. They have loose, bouncy, and smooth lows, softer highers, and pronounced mids. These pickups are great for classic rock, blues, country, folk, finger picking, and mellower sounds.
Alnico 3 pickups are the weakest of all alnico pickups. They have a low output and provide a softer tone overall. Their lows are soft, but they also have more treble and beautiful, sparkling cleans. These pickups can work in a variety of settings, but they are best suited for softer rock, blues, funk, and other clean oriented music.
Alnico 4 pickups are stronger than 2 and 3, but weaker than 5 and 8. They are the most “flat” out of all the alnico pickups, providing a very balanced and even sound. Their response can be more influenced by the guitar itself, bringing out the tonal qualities of the instrument. The mids are fairly balanced, and the highs and lows are both tight and clear. These pickups can be incredibly versatile. They are common in classic rock, jazz, pop, and many more.
Alnico 5 pickups are the strongest of the bunch besides alnico 8. Their output is relatively high, making them a fair option for heavier styles of music. They are also one of the most common pickup magnets used today. Sonically, they tend to emphasize the highs and lows, producing a fairly balanced sound. They are also arguably the most versatile of all the alnico pickups, as they are commonly seen being used in nearly all genres from rock and metal to jazz and funk.
Alnico 8 pickups are the strongest and highest output of all the alnico pickups. They are one of the least used alnico magnets because their output can be too high for most players. However, their high output results in very strong and powerful lows, lots of mids (especially lower mids), and thick highs. They are mainly used in hard rock, metal, prog, and fusion for heavier, more distorted tones.
Overview of Alnico Pickups
As you can see, there is a lot of variation between the different alnico pickups. While reading about them can help you understand the difference, I think a demonstration is the best way to hear what separates them tonally. I recommend stopping by a local guitar store and trying guitars with different alnico pickups, but this video has also has a great comparison between them as well:
Ceramic Pickup Magnets
Moving on, ceramic magnets are the other very popular magnet type used for guitar pickups. As mentioned above, ceramic magnets started to gain popularity in the 60s because they are cheaper and more efficient. They very quickly replaced alnico in most consumer electronics, but guitars are a bit different of a story.
Ceramic pickups have developed a bit of a bad rap, mainly due to their cheapness and tone. Because they are cheaper, they are commonly used on lower-end guitars. This created an association between ceramic pickups and cheap/bad guitars that still persists to this day. The other factor in this association is tone.
Ceramic pickups are brighter and harsher than alnico pickups, as well as usually having higher output. They have strong and sharp highs, pronounced upper mids, punchy bass, and more compressed dynamics. While that might sound bad on face value, ceramic pickups can still be surprisingly versatile and useful depending on the musical context, the specific pickups, and your tonal preferences. There are many different types of ceramic pickups that can create a wide range of sounds, and many players love the brighter sound of ceramic pickups.
For example, ceramic pickups are very common in metal. They handle distortion very well, and their sharp, aggressive tones lend themselves to heavier music. Many of EMGs most popular pickups are ceramic, and even big name artists like Kirk Hamnet of Metallica have a set of signature ceramic pickups.
A great example of ceramic pickups being used outside of metal can be found by looking at the Peavey T-Series guitars, which we talked about extensively in a past blog and feature custom, ceramic, “super ferrite” pickups. While these pickups are still on the hot and bright side, they can produce both beautiful cleans and powerful distortion. These guitars were favored by Nashville legends like Jerry Reed and Carl Perkins, and their sound was well suited for country and early rock and roll.
Despite their bad reputation, ceramic pickups can still be great pickups with a lot of tonal variation. Though there are many cheap and low quality ceramic pickups on the market, there are also high quality ceramic pickups that sound great. And when legends like Jeff Beck, Kirk Hamnet, and Carl Perkins have all used them, there must be something special about them.
Pickups are one of the most important aspects of your guitar tone, and understanding pickup magnets can help you make a more informed decision about your next guitar or pickup purchase.
Alnico pickups are considered the standard and come in a bunch of varieties that all have their own pros and cons, making them usable in nearly any genre. Ceramic pickups, despite being known as cheap, can still be great pickups that produce great clean and distorted tones for everything from country to death metal. When looking for pickups, be sure to think about what kind of magnets you want and how they will impact your tone.