There is some debate when it comes to pickups and playing style, especially when it comes to the P90. Many guitarists have their own opinion what style of music this pickup is best suited for.
How Do They Sound?
The P90 sound is known for being bright and thick, it’s essentially a tonal blend of single coil and humbucker characteristics.
When it comes to tone, P90s are best known for having a spanky and warm tone with a good mid-bass response, especially when the volume is rolled off at low levels.
This type of sound is good for smooth jazz lead tones making them a popular choice when paired with a hollow or semi-hollow body guitar.
P90s are known to be popular with blues players, as they can produce a crisp but warm lead tone which is great for hearing the notes clearer improving feel and response.
When the volume knob is increased, the low-end frequencies come into play thickening up the tone. This creates an ideal sound for guitarists searching for a beefy rock rhythm tone.
When slapped with a bit of dirt, P90s have enough output and bite for an edgy ‘in your face’ sound, which is why they are used by punk guitarists for a dirty rhythm tone.
P90s also have enough bass and presence to cut through a band mix. Their construction and sound make them versatile and popular with guitarists associated with a ton of musical genres.
P90s – Disadvantages
Let’s get this out the way, P90s do not sound pretty with ultra-high distortion! The reason being they sound too thin and brittle, they also have a loose bass response for playing any style of metal.
Furthermore, a single coil slapped with high gain distortion will hum for days, and be unable to cancel their own noise effectively.
This ultimately means for playing any form of metal, they are best left to their humbucker counterparts.
The P90 History Lesson
The P90 style pickup was invented by Gibson in 1946, bringing with it a new tonal variation to the standard single coil pickup design.
Although P90s look like humbuckers, they are technically classed as single coils. When it comes to their construction, they are a standard single coil design.
The difference being the extra copper windings around the coil. This added copper increases their output. Resulting in a warmer version of the standard super bright and thin single coil pickup.
Gibson introduced this style of pickups in their early ES-150 models, which are incredibly rare and iconic guitars today.
The double coil design we all known as the ‘humbucker’, was introduced in 1957. It Produced higher output, canceled it’s own noise better, and produced less hum.
This paved the way for Gibson’s catalog of legendary guitars to follow. The P90 offers a ton of tonal variety. The pickup that’s best for you ultimately depends on the style of music you play as a guitarist and the tone you desire.
Who uses P90?
Pete Townsend (The Who)
Johnny Thunders (The New York Dolls)
Mick Jones (The Clash)
Steve Jones (The Sex Pistols)
Gibson Les Paul Junior
Gibson Les Paul Standard
Fender Telecaster (modern player series)
P90 vs Single-Coil – Differences
The single coil design has largely been unchanged since they were introduced in the 1930s. Single coils use 6 pole pieces wrapped around 8000 turns of copper wire between two metal boards.
With these differences in design, how much does this impact the tone? The answer is, with fewer wraps of coil, these pickups are known for being bright, transparent and thin.
Know one can argue, they are undoubtedly the best pickup for a clean tone with clarity and definition. This bright and spanky tone makes them popular with guitarists in the country, funk, blues and jazz genre.
P90s do not have the clarity of the original single coil design but have the thicker tone that can handle higher amounts of distortion without any hum, being the drawback of single coil pickups.
The P90 also has a warmer and punchier tone when it comes to lead playing, and can handle the heavier forms of rock music.
P90s vs Humbuckers
The P90 was Gibson’s standard pickup within their guitars from the 1940s to the late 1950s. It was a new tone that provided guitarists with a warmer and fatter sound compared to the tinny sounding single coil.
Unfortunately for the P90, the introduction of the humbucker meant that the glory days were well and truly over. Gibson decided on the humbucker as its standard pickup for the next generation of guitars.
When humbuckers were introduced, the design was not far off the P90. The differences being an extra copper coil with fewer wraps which was connected out of phase, to cancel the ‘60 cycle hum’. The hum was an undesired presence in guitars with single coils.
When it comes to the sound differences between P90s and humbuckers. P90s are a blend between a single coil and humbucker but have added bite and articulation than humbuckers but do not have the hum canceling ability.
As a side note, I have an awesome post comparing the tonal the differences between covered vs open-coil humbuckers. You should check it out here!
Humbuckers have a smooth, thicker tone due to the out of phase pickups which cancel any unwanted noise.
However, humbuckers cannot produce the clear and thinner tones of single coils and the P90s. Humbuckers make up for it in versatility, they are usually preferred for mid to high gain tones. Mainly in the genres: rock, blues, and metal.
It would be difficult to find a high distortion lover without a set of humbuckers installed.
Ultimately deciding on which pickup is best for you will come down to your genre of music and what tone sounds best to you and your playing.
Common Installation Problems!
It’s worth noting, to have a P90 installed on your current guitar. You will have to consider the pickups you have at the moment.
For example, if your guitar has single coils, it will have to be heavily modified to accommodate a pair of P90s. As they are the largest pickup taking up the most space on the guitar’s body.
If your guitar has a pair of humbuckers, luckily there are P90 pickups that can fit a standard humbucker sized guitar. Meaning you can have the P90 experience, without wasting money on modifications.
There are many P90 pickups to choose from, the modern guitarist is spoilt for choice. Here are some of the most popular choices…
Seymore Duncan Phatcat P-90s pickups
Seymore Duncan cleverly offers an authentic P90 single coil pickup, without the hassle of having a humbucker style guitar heavily modified, saving you cash in the process. The Pickup is designed to fit and be wired to any humbucker slot.
When it comes to sound, the Phatcats are considered hotter than most stock Gibson pickups offering louder output which typically sound at their best when overdriven.
The Phatcats include a pair of Alnico II magnets that can produce a punchy, spanky tone when the gain is rolled back for a classic P90 tone. These magnets also allow for increased sustain and great tonal clarity.
Bareknuckle Mississippi Queen P90 Pickups
Barekuckle are known for producing amazing high output pickups. Used by the likes of Adrian Legg and Matt Bellamy. The Mississippi Queens are a clever humbucker sized P90, allowing players to avoid expensive modifications.
The bridge is powered by an Alnico V magnet while the neck pickup is powered by an Alinco V magnet. These pickups are all about the mid-range frequencies and scream at higher volumes while still offering tons of headroom and clarity.
Gibson Gear IMP9R-CC-90
I couldn’t include a product that didn’t recreate the classic warm, vintage tone of some original 1946 P90s.
This pickup has the most clarity amongst the pickups whilst recreating the warm original sound that gives the P90 its tonal character.
If you are looking for a pair of vintage-sounding pickups that scream blues and jazz then there would be a safe bet.
With all the confusion with pickups, sound, tone, and genre. It’s easy to forget that personal preference is the key when it comes to your tone.
Hopefully, this post has helped with everything P90, and all the other pickup choices on offer for you tone freaks out there.
Check Out My Related Post
Now we have covered P90 pickups. I have a similar detailed guide all about EMG pickups. How do they sound? What musical genres they are suitable for etc? You can find it here.
Join Our Newsletter...it's FREE!
Introduce yourself and your program
No Spam, no Junk! Your information will *never* be shared or sold to a 3rd party.
Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!