Since the first magnetic guitar pickup was developed, pickups have come a long way. Nowadays, pickups come with different designs and functionalities, each supplying a unique voice to a given electric guitar. One of those pickups is the P90. But what exactly is a P90 pickup?
What are P90 pickups, and how do they work? P90 pickups are fundamentally single-coil pickups with a wider design and a different magnet disposition. Their assembly and size allow for more output and midrange response while maintaining a twangy tonal flavour. They're often seen as a cross between humbuckers and regular single-coils. P90s were developed and are still manufactured by Gibson Guitars.
In this article, we'll be touching upon the following topics:
- History of the P90
- Differences between single-coils and (dual-coil) humbuckers
The P90 was designed as a single-coil with a wider but shorter chassis and a different construction method. Its historical significance has been roughly overshadowed by its most popular counterparts, namely the single-coils issued with Fender guitars and Gibson's humbucking PAFs.
Single-coils had been the standard since the mid-'30s when California guitarist George Beauchamp developed the first commercial electric guitar with support from Adolf Rickenbacker. The Rickenbacker Electro A-22 (also known as the “Frying Pan” due to its peculiar shape) proved to be a huge success at the time. However, its original presentation is unlike any single-coil pickup seen on the market today.
A year later, Electro-Voice attempted to craft the prototype of a humbucking pickup, though not specifically designed for electric guitars. The credit for introducing the first guitar humbuckers goes to Seth Lover, a Gibson employee in the mid-'50s. The humbucker would be the trademark Gibson pickup from then on.
In 1946, after a long and encumbered process, the P90 came to the fore. Gibson was trying to find its signature sound. This process initially involved fitting huge magnets to Charlie Christian's E-150. The size of the magnets was due to the low-gauss cobalt steel used by Gibson. Christian would be instrumental in popularizing this Gibson model and electric guitars in general.
The advent of AlNiCo magnets allowed Gibson to design more compact pickups. In 1940, Walt Fuller was able to develop the P13 (the immediate predecessor to the P90) that was embedded in the ES-100, ES-125, and ES-150 models, with adjustable polepieces and wound with a 38-gauge wire.
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Pickup production was halted during World War II, a period in which Gibson reportedly stopped manufacturing guitars to focus more on military equipment (although it is claimed that during this time, the fabled “Kalamazoo Gals” would issue a great number of “Banner” guitars).
By 1946, Fuller built the first P90 pickups, using a blueprint similar to the P13 with some minor variations. The blueprint endures to this day.
A later contender to the P90 design was found in DeArmond's 2K and 2000 models. The 2K is more akin to the P90, with adjustable steel poles trapped between a pair of AlNiCo V bar magnets and a thin steel U channel to increase inductance. The 2000 model (employed in Gretsch guitars) uses quarter-inch AlNiCo V poles, and the sound produced could be described as “snappy.”
As a response to the sudden popularity of DeArmond's 2000, Gibson came up with a variant of the P90, known as the “staple,” which used permanent magnets with an elongated rectangular shape extending through the coil, producing a brighter tone. Gibson later abandoned this design in favour of the PAF humbuckers that would dominate in later years, as well as the regular P90s.
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The P90 used a similar design philosophy to the P13, with adjustable polepieces, but it came with a wider, plain 42 AWG enamel wire coil. This coil was far wider than those included in Telecaster and Stratocaster pickups, and the bobbin was significantly broader, albeit shorter.
The P90 is roughly double the size of regular single-coil pickups. It comprises two magnet bars (originally made of AlNiCo II) inserted below the fibre bobbin bottom and separated by a metal spacer. Above this spacer, the polepiece screws are prominently placed, visibly sitting at the bobbin top.
As a curious note, the AlNiCo magnets used in later years would push each other apart, creating a misalignment that would alter the magnetic field, which, according to some experts, would also invariably affect the tone.
To learn more about pickup tone, check out my article The Top 3 Factors That Give Guitar Pickups Their Tone/Sound.
The pickup works similarly to a single-coil pickup, acting as an antenna that captures the vibrations from the metal strings and the current of surrounding appliances (which interfere with the output).
It's basically a passive transducer that generates current from the disturbances in the magnetic field created by the strings' motion, which is then received and boosted by the amp and other external devices.
This magnet placement, together with the wider casing shape and the coil dimensions, endow the tone with a higher midrange than what is heard from single-coil pickups because it captures more of the strings' movement and is able to deliver more signals to the amplifier.
There are traditionally two types of P90 pickups:
- The “soapbar” is named after its rectangular shape and round corners. It also frequently comes in a dull white or cream presentation to fit with the name.
- The “dog ear” has triangular flaps on both sides, resembling a dog's ear, hence the moniker.
There is virtually no difference in tonal traits between variations. The distinctions lie mostly in the external appearance.
The regular P90 is still used in a wide array of electric guitars nowadays, including (but not limited to):
Even though Gibson is the company that patented the P90, other brands took on the formula and offered their own versions. Below are some examples:
- Lindy Fralin
- Seymour Duncan
- Epiphone stock
In terms of sound, P90s are often seen either as upgraded single-coil pickups or downgraded humbuckers (which is not entirely accurate considering that humbuckers came later).
The truth of the matter is the P90s provide a signature sound favoured by various select musical scenes. Punk and blues guitarists would be very fond of the raw sound that P90s conveyed, and many others would welcome the additional brightness or warmth, depending on who is being asked.
In theory, guitarists who play a varied repertoire ought to be sufficiently satisfied with the tonal qualities of a P90. They can employ their guitar in a wider variety of genres and musical styles, albeit the results may not be as optimal in each case as when using guitars suited for the respective formats.
Some argue that since they excel in no particular tonal range, P90s fall in the average category. In that sense, they will not completely satisfy both ends of the spectrum. However, this is an observation that could be deemed as subjective and not applicable to every case.
For example, jazz musicians may not need the ample sonic texture of single-coils. Still, jazz-rock players could benefit from some of the added fidelity of P90s compared to their usual humbucking guitars.
It is the same with metal guitarists who occasionally need to perform softer, quasi-acoustic themes or pieces (although hybrid guitars with piezoelectric pickups may be their best choice).
P90s vs. Regular Single-coil Pickups
The sound of the P90s could be described as warmer and fuller than that rendered by regular single-coil pickups. Additionally, the output is enhanced and highlights the midrange frequencies, owing to the pickup's architecture enabling more amplitude in the strings' vibration to be processed.
On the flip side, P90s lose a bit in terms of fidelity and dynamic layering in favour of cleaner notes. Regular single-coil pickups are able to deliver more nuanced sounds but with not as much power or gain.
For more information on single-coil pickups, check out my article How Do Single-Coil Pickups (Guitar/Bass) Work?
P90s vs. Dual-coil Pickups
Dual-coil pickups came around roughly ten years after the first P90s saw the light of day. The focus of these pickups was to offer a hum-free experience (hence the “humbucker” moniker).
P90s delivered less hum noise than traditional single-coil pickups (probably due to the magnets' structure “ironing out” the signal) but still struggled a bit in the noise department. Humbuckers solved this by using two coils wound in opposite directions, effectively cancelling the 60 Hz hum. On the other hand, Fender relied on a middle pickup on its Stratocaster model to cancel out some of that noise, essentially the same mechanism of winding a coil in reverse.
The P90s were some of the loudest guitar pickups of that period, but humbuckers produced an even warmer and louder sound. When comparing the two in terms of sound fidelity, the P90 has the upper hand over the humbucker (but is still behind regular single coils).