Tonerider AC4 Alnico IV Classic Set Review / Demo

Reading time ~ 13 minute(s)

Introduction

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:

Pick sensitive, rich in harmonics and with a tight bass. A superb set for the Blues guitarist or a vintage-inspired rock player. This set is voiced for the maple/mahogany style of Les Paul-style guitars.Tonerider.com

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.

Unboxing

Tonerider AC4 package

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.

Tonerider AC 4 Neck

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.

Tonerider AC 4 Screw Height

Inspection

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.

Tonerider SeymourDuncan Wire
Red Black North coil start (hot)
Green Green South coil start
White Red South coil finish
Black White North coil finish

Installation

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.

Sounds!

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!

About Tonerider

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.

Conclusion

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.


UPDATE:

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:

Our Generator set would be a more direct comparison to the JB/Jazz set, but we’ve tighten up the bass on them as well and made things a bit tighter harmonically. They also sound a lot, lot better split than the AC4’s, which are quite low output and thin on single coil duty.Andrew Cunningham

  1. This description longer shows on the new Tonerider website.
(4.33 / 3 votes)
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7 thoughts on “Tonerider AC4 Alnico IV Classic Set Review / Demo

  1. Hello, this is a bit late for the coment, but is it possible that your assumption on the cable colour for Tonerider pickups was wrong? You put on the table: North start Green, North end White, South start Red and South end Black. However the colors stated by Tonerider are North start Red, North end Black, South start Green and South end White.
    Source: http://www.tonerider.com/files/humbucker-wiring-2014.pdf
    North coil and south coil seem to have been swaped. I don’t know if this could have any effect in the final sound.

  2. Thanks for the heads up! I do not remember working with the document you’re linking… Looking at the creation date on the PDF, it’s 23/01/2014, over three months after my review. The Tonerider site has been updated, so their documents are not available.

    In any case, you are correct! I must have been thinking about the neck humbucker, and perhaps misoriented it in my mind. In my defense, since my wiring was done purposely to split to the screw and slug as seen in the video, I was thinking in terms of “slug and screw” rather than south/north coil, and that’s what I did in the actual wiring.

    Therefore, this does not affect the sounds in the video, the selected coils are as presented there.

    I will make the necessary corrections. Thanks again.

  3. The Schecter C1 is constructed of the same materials as a Les Paul. They have a mahogany body and a maple cap. So the writers insistence that the Schecter is a completely different animal than a LP is wrong. In fact I nicknamed my Shecter C1 Standard FR “Les Paul Lite”. The AC4s are far from being a dull pickup and they have lots of character. It all comes down to what you want and how you define character. The AC4 allow for dynamics and touch sensitivity in your playing whereas a JB does not. I put a set of Tonerider AC4 in my Schecter and was blown away it sounded so good. I have played many many gigs with this guitar and always get loads of compliments on my tone. I play this guitar equipped with AC4’s through a Marshall DSL100 using the plexi side of the amp with the gain dimed. Tone to die for.

    1. The Schecter C-1 Classic could not be further from a Les Paul, except if it was a Strat or Tele!

      The Schecter C-1 Classic is a neck-through build, the Les Paul is a set-neck. In the neck-through paradigm, both string anchor points are on the neck, effectively making the neck wood the primary material in those guitars, the body “wings” have no direct string anchorage. Therefore the Schecter C-1 Classic is much more similar to a maple guitar, since its neck is maple (with some walnut strips). Speaking of neck material, the Les Paul neck is mahogany, another significant difference.

      The Schecter C-1 Classic has a 25.5″ scale, whereas the Les Paul is a 24.75″ scale instrument, another huge, defining, and very significant difference.

      The similarity between the C-1 Classic and the Gibson Les Paul ends with the fact that they come factory-equipped with humbuckers.

      Now, if you, having misread (or not read) the whole review, are talking about a Schecter C-1 Custom – a 24.75″ scale guitar, mahogany body and a set-neck, then yes, that would be pretty close to a Les Paul, even if, to my knowledge, it has a maple neck. The AC4 set was made for that type of guitar, so I’m not surprised at your results.

      I never said the AC4s ar dull! I said some people may say were dull or that they lack character (and have said that, in other reviews), and I antagonized that and pointed out that you need to look at your signal chain, especially EQ, before you can judge them (as with any other pickups).

      For the rest, of course, tone is subjective. As I said, even in the wrong guitar (and the Schecter C-1 Classic is the wrong guitar for pickups expressly made for Les Pauls), these pickups deliver great tone. Just not what I am looking for.

      1. There are great similarities between my Schecter C1 FR, which has a mahogony body, maple top and a set neck. Guess what Einstein…My Les Paul Standard has a mahogony body, maple top and is also a set neck. Don’t confuse the fact that the Schecter C1 Standard FR has a carve and blend on the set neck joint for a neck through. They are different animals.

        But similar in contruction and tone they are. They are both 24.75″ scale lengths smarty pants . The only difference being the thickness of the body and cap. The thinner Schecter body gives it better cut than the LP although the Lester has a bit more sustain.

        As for the AC4….why bother demoing the AC4 in a non mahogany/maple cap guitar? The manufacturer himself states that the pickup was designed for such.

        You are dead wrong and pretty much a cork sniffer. Didnt really like your demo either…your bends are flat.

        1. You keep talking about something else, i.e. your guitar! Have you actually read the review? Did you bother?

          In my first reply to your initial comment I simply laid down the huge differences between my guitar (the one in this review, imagine that) and a Les Paul.

          Then you come back and tell me about your guitar, once more! I’m not confusing anything, I was just telling you that my guitar is a maple neck, neck-through, 25.5 scale, 24-fretter, so it bears no comparison with an LP! The fact that your guitar may be close to one, doesn’t have any relevance whatsoever in the context of this review. It’s a different model altogether! How hard to understand is that, you self-absorbed prick?

          As for the AC4….why bother demoing the AC4 in a non mahogany/maple cap guitar? The manufacturer himself states that the pickup was designed for such.

          Are you serious now?! The Schecter C1 Classic does have a mahogany body, with a maple cap!

          It’s you who’s dead wrong and incompetent. What you call cork-sniffing is merely competence, i.e. knowing what I’m talking about.

          I get that you don’t like my demo, that’s absolutely fine, you’re free to move along, aren’t you? But haters gonna hate, won’t they.

          Oh, and my bends are flat if and when I want them to be flat, if that’s OK with you.

        2. I know this is an old thread, but I just had to comment. Bob, you are wrong. Guitar building is a science as much as it is a craft and understanding the dimensions and wood play a huge part in the overall sound of the guitar. Two guitars built out of ‘mahogany’ (a huge variety under that one name) can sound completely different. Heck, even two LPs from the same factory, both built with mahogany can sound vastly different. As a consumer, you need to take into account your guitar and how it will sound based on what you have seen here. I like this review as it has given an unbiased view on the guitar that he had available. Obviously different pickups are going to sound better in different guitars and he has stated this clearly.

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