The magnet has a huge impact on the tone and output of a guitar pickup. The most popular types of magnet are ceramic and alnico, but what’s the difference between them? In this article I’ll directly compare these two types of magnets so you can figure out which is best for your guitar.
Here’s the quick answer…
Ceramic magnets are typically used in pickups found on cheaper guitars, whereas alnico pickups are found on more expensive models. Ceramic pickups have a higher output and more scooped mid-range so can sound brighter and more aggressive compared to alnico pickups which in general sound fuller.
|Scooped mids and boosted bass and treble
|More balanced EQ profile
|Typically used in cheaper guitars
|Typically used in mid-high end guitars
|Brighter and grittier sound
|Excels when using high gain e.g. heavy metal
Alnico magnets are made primarily from aluminium, nickel and cobalt, hence the name al-ni-co. Many of the most premium brands including Fender and Gibson use alnico instead of ceramic magnets inside their electric guitar pickups.
There are typically two alnico magnets arranged in parallel on either side of the pole pieces.
Guitars with Alnico Pickups:
- Gibson Les Paul
- Fender American Professional Guitars
- Squier Classic Vibe Guitars
In terms of the tone, alnico magnets are often described as sounding warm and smooth. They can be used in a wide variety of music styles from country, all the way to heavy metal.
There are actually 5 main types of alnico used in pickups which all vary in terms of their tone and output:
- Alnico 2: second weakest type, warm and mellow tone
- Alnico 3: weakest type, dark tone
- Alnico 4: stronger than alnico 2 and 3 but weaker than 5 and 8, balanced tone
- Alnico 5: second strongest type, bright and more distorted
- Alnico 8: strongest type, very bright and the most distorted
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget to add alnico 1, 6 or 7 to the list. It’s just that these types of alnico are not really used in guitar pickups.
Check out my guide to the different types of alnico for more information.
Ceramic magnets are typically found on less expensive electric guitars, for example many Squier and entry-level Ibanez guitars use ceramic pickups. However, some more premium guitars will use ceramic pickups and some well-regarded aftermarket pickup manufacturers such as EMG and Seymour Duncan use ceramic magnets on some of their pickups.
Ceramic magnets were introduced after alnico magnets as a cheaper alternative to other types of magnets, and are made primarily of iron oxide and strontium carbonate.
Instead of having two magnets arranged in parallel on either side of the pole pieces like with alnico pickups, ceramic magnets consist of a single slab underneath the pole pieces.
Guitars with Ceramic Pickups:
- Squier Affinity Guitars
- Epiphone Power Players
- Ibanez GIO Guitars
In terms of the tone, ceramic pickups generally sound bright and hot. This is because ceramic magnets have a high output which results in a pickup which distorts more easily and has an enhanced treble and bass response but a weaker mid-range response.
Critics of ceramic pickups often describe then as sounding harsh and brittle. This can be the case with cheaper ceramic pickups, but more premium ones often suffer less from this problem.
Comparing the Tone and Output
Now we’ve been through the basics, let’s compare ceramic and alnico magnets directly.
Ceramic magnets are stronger than alnico magnets meaning that they have a higher output. This means two things:
- The higher output on a ceramic pickup causes it to distort more easily compared to an alnico pickup which sounds cleaner
- High output pickups have boosted treble and bass frequencies, but a scooped mid-range. Hence, ceramic pickups sound brighter but thinner than alnico pickups which sound warmer and fuller.
Check out this YouTube video where you can hear a comparison of alnico and ceramic pickups.
You’ll often hear ceramic pickups being described as “hotter” which refers to the high output of the pickup. High output pickups are better if you want a dirtier (more distorted) tone as they drive the amp to overdrive and distortion more easily as they send a stronger signal.
When using clean amp settings, ceramic magnets also sound louder than alnico magnets due to the increased output.
The output doesn’t just impact how clean/ distorted a pickup sounds though, but also the tone.
Ceramic magnets are sometimes criticised for sounding too bright and brittle, and this is due to the scooped mid-range and boosted treble and bass. Alnico pickups on the other hand sound fuller since they have more mid-range emphasis.
Some guitarists claim that ceramic magnets always sound worse than alnico magnets, but I think this is an overly simplistic view. There are good and bad ceramic pickups, just like there are good and bad alnico pickups. Tone is subjective after all and I’d recommend going in with an open mind when deciding which pickups to get.
If you’re looking to find out which magnets sound best to you without any preconceived notions, check out this blind tone test by .
It’s worth noting at this point though that the magnet isn’t the only thing that influences how a pickup sounds. The number of coil winds, for example is a huge factor that influences the tone and output of a pickup, so make sure you don’t neglect the other specifications and only focus on the magnet.
Music Style Suitability
As I said in the previous section, tone is subjective and it’s possible to use both ceramic and alnico pickups for a wide range of music styles. You should always go with what sounds best to you.
With that said, alnico and ceramic magnets are typically most popular for different styles of music.
For clean country and jazz tones, alnico magnets are typically favoured. This is because the pickups themselves sound cleaner as they don’t send as strong a signal to the amp causing it to distort more easily like ceramic magnets do. The fuller alnico tone is also often favoured when using clean amp settings.
For overdriven, crunchy rock tones, again alnico is typically the choice most guitarists make. Again, that fuller mid-range gives the tone more depth, and since the output is lower, the pickups feel more responsive to the dynamics of how hard and soft you play compared to ceramic magnets which drive the amp more.
For heavy metal distorted tones, ceramic pickups come into their own more. They distort more easily (great if you want a powerful, high gain tone), and sound a bit brighter and crisper which is useful for maintaining clarity.
That’s not to say that alnico doesn’t work for metal though, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Many metal heads still prefer the tone of an alnico magnet for distorted tones.
Pros and Cons of Alnico Magnets
|Suit a wide range of music styles
|Can lose clarity when using high gain
|Great for both clean and overdriven tones
|May need to use active pickups for metal
Check out this comparison between active and passive pickups
Pros and Cons of Ceramic Magnets
|Can sometimes sound brittle and harsh
|Suit hard rock and metal
|Not very versatile
|Good for maintaining clarity when using gain
|Not great for clean tones
Check out my comparison between low and high output pickups.