Monday, 14 July 2014

Pickup Magnets: Alnico vs Ceramic vs Neodynium

How do the different magnetic materials that go into a guitar pickup affect it's tone? In general there are 3 major magnetic materials used to make pickups today: Alnico, Ceriamic and Neodynium. Each of these materials has it's own characteristics, so how do you choose between them?

Well from all the reading I've done, as you could probably expect, it all comes down to subjective preference. This being said, there are some generally accepted facts out there in the guitar community. Here's some info that might help you understand the differences and make a more informed decision.

Alnico is an acronym comprising the first two letters of three different metallic elements, aluminum, nickel and cobalt. Back in the 50s, Alnico was the leading edge of magnet technology. It was the recipe for very strong, long-lasting magnets. Both Fender and Gibson continued to use Alnico magnets through the 50s and 60s.

These days there are also different kinds of alnico magnets, usually designated by Roman numerals—i.e., alnico II, alnico III and alnico V etc. Counter intuitively, these alnico numbers do not increase in order of magnetic strength, as you might at first suppose (i.e., II being the weakest, III in the middle and V the strongest). On the contrary, the order of magnetic strength goes like this: alnico III has the weakest magnetic force; alnico II is in the middle and alnico V is the strongest.
  • Alnico II is what you find on the earliest Telecaster guitars of the 1950s. It is especially good for middle-position pickups, and it contributes to a very sweet and musical “vintage-y” sound. They tend to give pickups a thick smooth, gritty tone that is great for rock leads and blues.
  • Alnico III is the weakest of the three because it actually contains no cobalt. Since it exhibits the least amount of magnetic pull, it’s the type that impedes free string vibration the least, hence making it a great choice for neck pickups (over which there is usually the greatest amount of string vibration). This is the type used in the first Stratocaster guitars in the mid-1950s. Open, clear, balanced, smooth, and mellow, the Alnico III is particularly good in the neck position because it's it doesn't boom like alnico 2 and 5 do.
  • Alnico V is the strongest of the three; more powerful in tone and response. The most powerful and aggressive of the alnico magnets. It's got a very prominent upper midrange bite that is great for pushing your amp and cutting through a mix. Its greater output makes it a good choice for bridge pickups, over which there is usually a smaller amount of string vibration. Good for an aggressive, punchy sound.

Technically more efficient ceramic magnets took over in a wide variety of commercial applications starting in the 1960s, but ceramic-magnet guitar pickups were found to have a generally harsher, more brittle sound with sharper peaks than their alnico predecessors.  In general ceramic pickups display strong treble and tight bass, with noticably less midrange (scooped mids). Ceramic magnets have a wider frequency range than alnico and sound full and balanced when using high gain.

Neodymium is presently the future for magnets, for a large number of applications: pickups, speakers and also the latest hi-fi headphones and microphones. It is said that Alnico V was to ordinary Alnico III 40 years ago, what Neodynium is to Alnico V now.  Neodymium magnets are very strong, rare earth magnets. They produce a very wide frequency range and they have an aggressive, clear high end, scooped midrange, and tight bass. Reportedly, Neodynium pickups produce higher highs, lower lows, and generally more explosive power than any other pickup material.

Concensus seems to be that Alnico pickups are generally warmer and tonal, producing the "vintage" tone of early guitars. They are great for clean playing. Ceramic pickups are generally harsher and edgy, and are great for distortion and metal applcations. Neodynium are a modern sounding pickup which can produce a lot of power and well as tone when used correctly.