I own a Schecter C-1 Classic, a beautiful guitar, factory-equipped with Seymour Duncan pickups, the Jazz SH-2 (neck) and the JB SH-4 (bridge), which, although a famous and great sounding set (in certain instruments, Seymour Duncan himself uses it in a Telecaster-type guitar), always seemed to me somehow unsuited to this guitar – these pickups, with their Alnico 5 magnet, especially the overwound JB, seem too hot, and either too muddy or too shrill for many applications, prompting me to do my JB SH-4 vs Custom SH-5 comparison.
I have decided to let go of my Seymour Duncan fetish, and try a pair of (much) less expensive, vintage output PAF clones, in the form of Tonerider’s Alnico IV Classic Set – AC4, a set that gets quite a lot of positive reviews.
I’ve always been curious about the Alnico 4 magnet, which presumably happily combines the tone characteristics of Alnico 2 and Alnico 5, and I thought my Schecter would sound better with lower output pickups. So I casually ignored the fact that the AC4 set is voiced for Les Pauls, which my Schecter is pretty far from.
Tonerider AC4 specs
In their own words 1:
Manufacturer specs for these pickups are:
- Alnico 4 magnet
- DC resistance: 7.9K (neck), 8.6K (bridge) [versus 7.72K the Seymour Duncan Jazz, and 16.4K the JB]
- four-conductor wiring as standard
The Alnico IV Classic Set is available in uncovered black or zebra, or with metal nickel or gold (which is what I got) cover.
The pickups are neatly packaged, and were grouped together in a larger box, as a set. On the left, the neck pickup. Curiously, the orientation is different, the neck pickup screws face south, the bridge is packaged the other way around. Whether or not this has any significance, I do not know.
There are mounting screws and springs in each box, and the bridge package contains the wiring instructions, which are the same as those on the official website.
Looking at the neck pickup (below, marked TONERIDER AC4N), one finds the TONERIDER logo engraved in the what looks like a nickel baseplate. The build seems neat, altough there is a copper stain and a drip mark at one of the cover attachment points, and there is some residual wax on the four conductor cable, and filling one of the baseplate mounting screw holes (more about the cable and the color codes further down). Compared to my Seymour Duncan set, these come really close in terms of build quality.
The pickups seem to have been fine tuned in the factory, the poles are all raised between 1 and 2 mm (see photo below). I must say that the gold cover is quite awesome, sporting an almost flawless mirror finish, looks high quality, looks expensive.
On the multimeter, the pickups measure as follows:
AC4 Neck: 7.59K (factory spec 7.8K)
AC4 Bridge: 8.61K (factory spec 8.6K – spot on)
The 0.2K deviation is something that does not worry me, my Duncans are also not exactly as specified. This small deviation may be due to my multimeter and measuring conditions.
The four-conductor cable strikes me as good quality, no better and no worse than your garden variety Seymour Duncan. The color codes are different from Seymour Duncan, and the equivalent colors are shown in the table below. To swap the Duncans with Toneriders, convert colors from the second column to the first. Go the other way around, respectively, to swap Toneriders with Duncans.
|Red||Black||North coil start (hot)|
|Green||Green||South coil start|
|White||Red||South coil finish|
|Black||White||North coil finish|
The installation process is straight forward, there are no surprises whatsoever regarding fit, mounting, screws, etc.. I simply removed the old pickups, and put the AC4s in, accounting for the different color code, using the same wiring. The only thing that went away was the 0.047uF capacitor placed on the neck Jazz hot wire (that capacitor removed some of the boominess and mud). All the soldering done, everything just worked as expected.
The pole screws required some adjustments, which was painless and went well.
Although this is not a proper comparison with the Jazz/JB set, I won’t be able to refrain from comparing the tone, in my guitar. After all, I got the Toneriders in order to solve my main problem with the Seymour Duncans: the uncontrolled bottom end, which translated to muddiness and boominess very difficult to dial out (and corrections ussually resulted in shrillness).
ATTENTION: all my following assertions are valid for my particular guitar and setup! Please remember that when considering them.
As expected, the Tonerider AC4s are very different from the pickups they replaced. But first, let’s revisit the manufacturer’s claims.
Are the Alnico IV Classics pick sensitive? They sure are. They clean up very well with the volume knob, too. Are they rich in harmonics? Yes, they are. There is a high-end sizzle and a certain soft scratchiness of the pick attack which I happen to look for in my guitars, but some people may dislike. With plenty of top end, I found myself dialing back the highs. The pinch harmonics on the bridge humbucker are harder to achieve than with the JB, but they have a certain complexity and sweetness that’s extremely pleasing, much more so than those on the JB. Do they have a tight bass? Well, tighter than the Jazz/JB, in this guitar. There is no boominess, and practically no mud. As for the “blues guitarist or a vintage-inspired rock player” as the main target for this set, I would have to agree – the AC4s can definitely take you there.
There are present, indeed, elements of Alnico 2 (sweet highs, complex mids) and Alnico 5 (a slightly tighter bass, a certain amount of brittleness in the highs – easy to dial out, though) tone, but I wouldn’t simply consider the Alnico 4 to be the middle ground – it has its own character.
The AC4 bridge is bright and lacks JB’s harsh upper-mid push (which drives me crazy in this guitar), which along with the significantly lower wind makes it much more articulate – the lower mids mud is practically gone. Fast powerchord rhythm passages are well defined, bitey, and “chug” can be achieved, but obviously not at Alnico 5 or ceramic level. The JB was lacking in this department, as its bottom got very muddy, very fast, with high gain. The bridge pickup handles distortion well. Some folks have said they felt the need for a hotter pickup than the AC4 in the bridge – I get that. Coming from the JB, the AC4 seems very tame, therefore one needs to switch paradigms, i.e. use the amp more for the distortion heavy lifting. This is the trade-off for lower output: less mud, better note separation, but less gain to be achieved from the pickup. I prefer the lower output method, myself.
The AC4 neck is a great improvement over the Jazz in terms of articulation. Chords are much more articulate, and there’s an overall sparkle in the tone that I couldn’t get with the Jazz. The bass is clear and deep, but (finally!) not muddy. Above the 12th fret, the AC4 shines: clear notes, with that “flutey” character to them. The Jazz, however, had a certain warm fullness to it that I cannot reproduce as of yet with the AC4.
The split tones are close to decent, but thinner than what the Jazz/JB achieved (which is to be expected, the latter being hotter pickups, and the bass response of the Toneriders is also weaker). I generally have no use for the bridge split, so I didn’t pay much attention to it, and it didn’t draw any attention, either – pretty weak, thin. The neck split tone leans more toward an acoustic, piezo kind of vibe, than a single coil. The parallel positions are also weaker than with the Duncans, but remain usable, if on the bright side. Adding a clean gain booster fattens things up nicely.
The pickup equalization seems significantly flatter than that of my Duncan set, but actually it might be that they have “scooped” mids. Tonerider states this set has been “voiced for the maple/mahogany style of Les Paul-style guitars”, which are usually rich in the mid-range, and on the darker, boomier side. As I hear it, the AC4 set has very nice highs, a polite bass, and backed-off mids.
I think this is why some people say the AC4s are pretty clean and tidy, but lack character. Indeed, you need to start rethinking your rig signal equalization all over again (which is obviously normal, and needs doing everytime you switch guitars or pickups), otherwise you’ll get a much more neutral sound, some may say “dull”. For example, I used to fight with the mids all the time with the Jazz/JB, and usually ended up on the subtraction side for both mids and bass; well, I’ll let you guess what sort of tone you get when you run pickups with less mids, less bass, and less overall output through the same EQ. But once you reset your EQ, things change, these pickups come alive in their own tonal territory.
Now, I have to say that I have put the AC4 set in the completely wrong guitar – it’s the opposite of a Les Paul in almost all respects. However, this was a useful experiment, which showed, yet again, that with the neck-through construction the tone will be dictated by the neck materials. The “wings” only add mass and shape, with very little, if any, tonal contribution. In my case, the neck is maple and walnut, the “wings” are mahogany. As you will hear in the video, these pickups were bright, and I mean bright. The amp sim model had the Treble on 2 in the video below! Fortunately, they are the right kind of bright: open, airy, not harsh.
About the video you’re about to see:
- Guitar: Schecter C-1 Classic loaded with Tonerider AC4 Alnico IV Classics set, volume and tone knobs to 10
- Strings: GHS Santana 0.095
- Pick: Dunlop Big Stubby 2 mm, a bright pick, with a defined, immediate, “glassy” attack
- Amplitube 3, using an ENGL model clean and dirty channel, respectively
- I recorded a progression, looped it, then basically improvised on top of it, so bear with me
- Most sounds are clean, to give you an idea of the real, inherent character of the pickups
- I mixed everything really basically in Reaper, and also recorded drums, to show how the guitar behaves in the mix. The drop of volume in split/parallel modes was compensated by raising the track volume for that part. Apologies for the occasional digital clipping you may be hearing on some notes I attack too strong, it has nothing to do with the pickups, but with the interface input settings (my bad).
- 720p HD-quality is available and will let you hear better quality sound, too
Without further ado, have a look and a listen at the video below, recorded with the Tonerider AC4 pickup set.
Video commentary (written by my ear and approved by myself; you are free – and encouraged – to skip it completely and form your own opinion):
- The neck humbucker tone is definitely on the bright side (a lot of highs, but no harshness), thin (reduced mids and bass), almost singlecoil-ish, chords ring out clearly, no mud.
- There is clarity and “sweet roundness” all over, the pick attack is definitely softened in a nice way (compare with the clean samples in my JB vs Custom SH-5 comparison to see what I mean), while retaining definition and developing a “glassy” character – at times the neck pickup attack really sounds like banging the pick against a glass.
- The splits are workable, yet very thin, in some places closer to a piezo than a single coil, I’d say.
- The middle position (position 3, both humbuckers in parallel), gives a very nice hollow, ever-so-slightly honky tone that I really dig.
- The bridge clean sounds woody, a little nasal, fatter, very clear and clean, no harshness at all – also very nice to my ear.
- The bridge dirty sounds really sweet, with an awesome, rich harmonic content, and a certain discreet squeakiness which gives it character, even if a bit on the thin side – I can understand why some people would like a hotter Tonerider pickup in the bridge to pair with the AC4 neck. I get that sensation myself, but only with distortion, on clean this set is very well balanced.
- The neck dirty is also very sweet, rich harmonically, with very good sustain, clear, excellent for solo work. Just check out the awesome, awesome note “bloom” at 4:07!
In short, Tonerider is a guitar pickup company run by Andrew Cunningham in China, just north of Hong Kong. He did this for over ten years now. Since he actually lives there, as I understand, he’s able to make sure the quality control stays in check. And it shows, in my opinion. They don’t offer a lot of products, but there seems to be focus on a few crowds that matter. The Alnico 4 offering is definitely something you don’t see too often these days.
Their pickups get a constant buzz around the web, because they presumably are a lot of bang for the money – I can confirm that presumption, they are. In the right guitar, I’m pretty sure the AC4s have what it takes to be absolutely awesome, I mean Duncan or Dimarzio level awesome. Heck, even I managed to play them pretty well in a totally inappropriate instrument.
The Jazz/JB set is awesome, I can glimpse at its tone quality and character even in a guitar it’s not suited for, so this review should not lead anyone to believe that I’m preferring Tonerider over Seymour Duncan in general. Far from it, especially since the Tonerider AC4s are completely different beasts than the Jazz/JB. But the Alnico IV Classic Set seems to have tamed, softened, the really stiff, aggressive, and ultimately unpleasant tone of this Schecter.
In the end, I think the AC4 set might be just the ticket to brighten a dark Les Paul. They are good quality, sweet sounding pickups that can easily rival the bigger players on the market, in my opinion, as long as they are suited to the application, just like any other set from any other manufacturer. At their price point (a set of humbuckers costs the same as one Seymour Duncan humbucker), they should be one of the first options for dark, “middy” Les Pauls.
Even if their voicing is, in theory, completely unsuitable for my Schecter, I think I managed to squeeze some really nice tones out of them, with very little effort. But as they proved to be a bit too much on the thin, bright side for my needs, I went back to the Jazz/JB combo and my previous problems.
And thus the tone journey continues on.
Andrew Cunningham himself, the founder and manager at Tonerider, was kind enough to offer advice upon having come across this review.
He says the AC4 are better suited to an overdriven amp, where they would have “clarity and brightness, along with great evenness and sustain”.
For a humbucker set closer to the JB/Jazz combo, that splits better, he recommends the Tonerider Generator set:
- This description longer shows on the new Tonerider website. ↩