Modifying pickups

Ibanez RG550 20th Anniversary Reissue with DiMarzio PAF Pro installe

Ibanez RG550 20th Anniversary Reissue with DiMarzio PAF Pro installed

I bought a used DiMarzio PAF Pro from a member over at Jemsite last weekend for my Ibanez RG550 20th Ann guitar. It’s a neon green one out of an old JEM7, and it looks great with the black pickguard and Road Flare Red paint.

So I installed it without any problems, plugged in the guitar, and sure enough there was sound. The PAF Pro tone was what I was expecting, only problem was it didn’t seem to push my amp enough for my liking.

Now I probably need to put this in perspective. I’ve been using high gain pickups for the last 4 or 5 years, and EMGs at that. My EMG equipped guitars really push my Blackstar HT-5 beautifully. I can get a really nice heavy guitar tone with the HT-5 gain knob at 3/4s.

So you can imagine that when I let rip a few chords I was little taken back by the lack of drive from the pickup. I was completely aware that the PAF Pro was a “medium power” pickup according to DiMarzio’s website with a DC resistance of 8.4K, but I wasn’t aware of how much difference it was going to make when it came to pushing the amps dirty channel.

I was in two minds about the PAF Pro. On one hand I liked the tone it had, and dug its dynamics. But on the other hand it just wasn’t pushing my amp the way I wanted it to. I could use an overdrive to push it harder, but I wanted to see if I could do something with the pickup, or the electronics in the guitar to get it closer to the output that I was getting from my EMGs.

After having a bit of a search over the web I thought that maybe I might install some sort of battery-powered preamp in place of the tone knob on the guitar. I had narrowed it down to an EMG Afterburner, or a range of in-guitar preamps from a particular online seller.

After contacting the particular online seller (who shall remain nameless) and asking which of their preamp kits would work best for me, and receiving pathetic responses showing a real lack of customer service and sheer laziness I have decided that I will probably go with the EMG Afterburner, even if it cost me more than any of the products this online seller had.

Whilst I was going through these options I also started reading up on replacing magnets in humbucker pickups to change the tone and output. After reading the tutorials on and a few other sites that I cannot find right now I thought I might give it a go. If the pickup had have been brand new I don’t think I would have been as brave as to pull it apart, but since it was second-hand, and not too expensive I wasn’t as worried about breaking it.

So here is a list of the common sorts of magnets used in pickups. Information sourced from

Going from Alnico 2 to Ceramic, Alnico 2 is the weakest in magnet strength and Ceramic is the strongest.

  • Alnico 2: Warm, sweet, smooth tones, Lows tend to be softer in feel. Lows aren’t as tight as A5 and Ceramic. Generally will give your pickup more mid tones.
  • Alnico 3: Very similar to A2 and not A5. I feel like the mid tones are about the same and the overall vibe is like the A2 but shares more of the tightness of the A5. I’d put the A3 between the A2 and A5 but closer in its function to the A2 really.
  • Alnico 5: Tight, brighter tone than the A2. Slightly more scooped in the mid tones compared to A2 and A3. Tight lows, jangly, chimy.
  • Ceramic: Tight, powerful output. Very direct and to the point in its sound, strong tone overall.

The PAF Pro has an Alnico 5 magnet, and I wanted to replace it with a ceramic magnet to give the pickup more bite. I had an old Ibanez INF2 ceramic pickup from the bridge position in my spare parts box which would be the sacrificial lamb so to speak.

So I got to pulling apart my donor pickup, and it was all quite nice and easy. The tutorial mentioned earlier is working with a humbucker with a nickel cover, so there’s more steps there than what was needed with my PAF Pro and my donor. Undo the 4 screws on the back of the pickup, carefully pry the pickup base loose, moving the adhesive protective to allow movement, and carefully pry the magnet off the back of the pickup with a flat head screwdriver.

When taking off the magnet it’s important to be aware of the wiring for the pickup. You don’t want to accidentally break any of those otherwise you are in a world of pain to repair it! Also you need to take note of which way the magnet is aligned in the back of the pickup. If the poles are pointing the wrong way with regard to the pickups original design the pickup will end up out of phase.

To make sure you are putting the magnet in the right way around mark the original pickup’s magnet on the back (I did this with some masking tape, writing “back” on the tape. Once you have removed the magnet get your new one and touch it to the marked back of the old one. If they repel each other you have it the wrong way, if they are drawn together it’s the right way around. Once you’ve noted the right alignment drop the new magnet in, and put the pickup back together again.

I must admit when I first attempted this I made a silly mistake. I put in my donor magnet, put everything back together and tried out the guitar. I hit my first chord and thought, “Gee this sounds completely the same, &#@$!” I realised that I pulled apart the wrong pickup out of the INF set, and the magnet I just installed was an Alnico 5, just like the original PAF Pro one!

So I started again, pulling apart the correct pickup, and going through the process. When I was finally done I put my guitar together again, checked i was in tune, and turned on the amp, switching to the dirty channel.

I must say I was much happier with the result the second time! Swapping out the Alnico 5 and dropping in the ceramic magnet did make a noticeable difference, with the PAF Pro driving the amp harder than it originally did. the other difference I really noticed was that when in spilt coil mode with the middle single coil pickup the output dropped quite considerably, and had much more highs than the original PAF Pro setup. I lowered the pole pieces a little and that seemed to taper off the highs a little.

Now the PAF Pro is doing a much better job of driving the amp, and I’m quite happy with it, but I would like a little more gain if possible. I had emailed Perry Ormsby at Ormsby Guitars, over in Western Australia (check out his site, he does some awesome customs) about my woes with the PAF Pro, and as I was working on replacing magnets I asked if he sold magnets separately. I let me know that he had two sorts of ceramics available, the ceramic, and another stronger one he called the “distortion ceramic”.

Needless to say I’ve ordered a distortion ceramic, and when I receive it next week I’ll be sure to post my findings upon installation. Hopefully it gives me the extra boost I want.

Changing magnets in your humbucker pickups is really quite simple, as long as you take your time and be careful during disassembly. If you have a pickup that you like the tone of, but is too strong or weak for your tastes, have a think about replacing the magnet before you get another pickup. You might be pleasantly surprised, plus save a bit of money, while doing some DIY mods for yourself.

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