Above: Mike Ness of Social Distortion rockin’ the Les Paul Goldtop with P-90s.
It’s a single coil, it’s a humbucker, no…it’s a P-90! They’re one of the most overlooked, but widely-revered pickups ever made. Sounding somewhat in between that of a single-coil and a humbucker, the result is a vintage, low output sound with a mean mid-range personality. Many imagine guitars to have a sound between 2 tonal spectrums: twangy single-coil Strat sound, or beefy humbucker Les Paul sound, so the P-90 is a welcome, but often overlooked pickup on a sonic plane all of its own.
Aesthetically, the casing makes it about big as a traditional sized humbucker, despite it being wired internally as a single-coil pickup. Those that are unsatisfied with typical single-coil pickups lacking body, or humbuckers lacking high-end bite may enjoy the P-90 sound. Godin actually makes a guitar that can switch between all 3 as demonstrated below. From 3:00 to 4:00 they test out all 3 side by side so it makes for a great comparison:
The P-90 was introduced in 1946 by Gibson and remained the standard pickup for all of their guitars until it was replaced by the humbucker pickup in 1957. Gibson saw the benefits of humbucker pickups immediately as they produced less hum (hence the name) and greater output, but something had to give. Humbuckers lacked the midrange growl and the twangy high-end bite produced by the P-90. From ’57 on, P-90s were then relegated toward use on Gibson’s budget model guitars such as the Les Paul & SG Juniors and Specials.
Although P-90s had a rather short run as Gibson’s standard pickup, this did not undermine it’s popularity; in fact, it may have boosted it. Famous musicians of all eras were not dissuaded in the least from making it their pickup of choice. For example, only P-90 pickups have that “raw” midrange sound, punk guitarists were quick to notice and bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash and New York Dolls to name a few, preferred this sound. Also, they work great on semi-hollow guitars that require a brighter, but still full-bodied tone, like Paul McCartney’s Epiphone Casino. For those that just aren’t satisfied with humbuckers and single-coils that make up the large majority of all guitars made today, a guitar equipped with a P-90 is likely the one for you. They’re hard to describe in words really; one has to play it to get real grasp on its tonal characteristics. Look for them on guitars in your local music shop and give em a try!
To spot a guitar sporting P-90s, know that they have 2 different looks to them:
The original “soapbar”
and, The “dog ear”
Still not convinced they’re one of the coolest pickups ever invented? Below is a video-list with some of the greats who prefer the P-90 to traditional single coils & humbuckers:
David Gilmour – Pink Floyd
Johnny Thunders -New York Dolls
Tommi Iommi – Black Sabbath
Mike Ness – Social Distortion
Pete Townshend – The Who
Paul McCartney – The Beatles
Robby Krieger – The Doors (skip to 10:45)
Eddie Vedder – Pearl Jam (skip to 3:30)