P90 pickups are a classic design most frequently associated with early Gibson guitars and many hollow and semi-hollow body guitars. Although they aren’t as used as often as your ordinary single coil and humbucker pickups, P-90s are still quite popular and sought after by those who are after its sound.
In this article, you’ll learn about P90 pickups and how they compare to the more common types of guitar pickups, so you can decide if you should get a guitar that has them.
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A Brief History Of P90 Pickups
The P90 pickup was developed by Gibson in the 1940s and was intended to be a replacement for the Charlie Christian pickup, a blade-style one that has its own part of history – it was associated with jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and the Gibson ES-150.
Nonetheless, this transition to P90 pickups was fully achieved by the early 1950s, with all of Gibson’s models using them, including the Les Paul.
However, the popularity of the P-90 pickup would not last very long since it would lose favor to the PAF pickup, one of the earliest humbuckers to be created and stands for “Patent Applied For.”
Even though most Gibson guitars would use the PAF humbucker by the late-1950s, a handful of models would still use P90 pickups. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Gibson would also reissue some Les Pauls with the P90, as there was still a cult following for them, especially amongst punk rock guitarists.
Fast forward to today, there is still a demand for P90s, and plenty of other pickup manufacturers, such as Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio, have done a great job of replicating them and even doing their own spin on them. They even offer them in humbucker-sized form, in addition to the classic soap-bar and dog-ear design, so that you can get the P90 sound in any type of guitar.
However, they tend to sound best in the types of guitars that traditionally used P90s in the past! In addition to Gibson guitars, P90s are often found in other vintage guitar brands like Guild and Gretsch, who are well-known for producing semi-hollow and hollow-bodies guitars. The Fender Jazzmaster is also another popular model that uses them as well.
Later in this article, you’ll learn more about the kinds of music P90s are excellent for, but next, let’s talk a bit about how P90s work.
Are P90 Pickups Single-Coil?
P90 guitar pickups are single-coil passive pickups that use alnico magnets, but they do have differences from the standard single-coil design that the Fender Stratocasters popularized.
Aside from appearance, due to casing sizes, one of the main differences between P90s vs. regular single-coil pickups is that the P90s have a shorter but broader bobbin. This means the wires will not only be wrapped closer to the poles, but the coil windings will also be more robust.
This design translates to a thicker and warmer sound than the very bright and crisp tone typical single-coil pickups are known for. They also have more output.
However, although P90s have these characteristics, they still have noticeable humming, and this is why humbuckers such as the PAF pickup would eventually replace them as the preferred pickup in Gibson guitars and ones from other brands.
One of the most significant differences between the P90 vs. humbuckers is that the latter would eliminate the extra noise that comes with single-coil pickups and provide an even fuller tone and higher output.
Still, P90s have their own kind of sound that people have loved throughout the decades, and many people still prefer using these classic passive pickups to this day, and the next section will discuss some of the most notable uses and benefits of P90 pickups.
But first, be sure to check out this great video that compares P90s vs. single coil pickups and humbuckers so you can hear their differences.
What Are P90 Pickups Good For?
Despite not being as widely used as your standard single coils and humbuckers, P90 guitar pickups are versatile and have historically been used across many genres because of their clear, articulate, and warmer tone, yet can get dirty-sounding with an overdriven tone.
Some of the most prominent styles of music where the P-90 has truly shined have been various kinds of rock, country, blues, and jazz (when used with a clean tone).
Speaking of jazz, if you’re a cat looking for something suitable for this style of music, you should check out my guide to the best guitar pickups for jazz! Here, you’ll read about many pickups that are based on the original P90 and find them in the soap bar, dogear, and humbucker forms.
The primary genre where P90s aren’t typically used is metal music, and that’s because they don’t cancel noise as humbuckers do, which is essential with high-gain amps and distortion. This is one of the main cons of P-90 pickups.
However, with the proper settings, you can make them work. Single-coil pickups can be used for metal, and the P90s are no exception, but they’re just usually not the #1 choice. In my opinion, they can definitely be great for that early heavy metal sound that popped up in the 60s and 70s, though.
Overall, if some of your favorite guitars play the type of music you enjoy using a guitar with a P90, you won’t go wrong with using one as well.
Luckily, there are plenty of choices these days, and you can find P90s that accommodate most guitars. This is especially nice if you have a Les Paul or SG routed for humbucker pickups, but you want to try the P90s out.
While they’ve had periods where they’ve declined in popularity, mainly due to the advent of the humbucker, the P90 has a rich history and even richer sound that people cherish.
In fact, it seems that the P90 pickup is showing a revival these days, hence why many individuals, such as yourself, want to learn more about these pickups.
This is because people recognize the unique tone and versatility that P90s offer; with the clarity and bite yet having a warmer tone than typical single-coil pickups, these genuinely bring something different to the table.
If you’ve been interested in P90s, I hope this guide has given you a nice overview of their history, what makes them different from other types of pickups, and what styles of music P90s are suitable for.
Perhaps your next guitar will have them, or you can find a P90 pickup that will make a fine addition to your existing instrument.