P90 Pickups: A Guide (Tone, Genre, Pros & Cons)

P90 pickups guide

Plenty of guitarists have used P90 pickups over the years, so why aren’t they more popular nowadays? Here’s everything you need to know about P90 Pickups in one complete guide…

A Quick History of The P90 Pickup…

When it comes to pickups on your guitar, nothing divides opinion like the humble P90. First used in 1946, the P90 pickup was designed by Gibson as a replacement for its then-ubiquitous bar (or blade) pickup.

The first guitar to use P90 pickups was Gibson’s ES-150 which was released shortly after World War 2. From 1946 onwards, P90 pickups became Gibson’s standard pickup for all of its commercial models.

Between 1946 and 1957, the P90 pickup enjoyed its time as the de facto pickup inside nearly all of Gibson’s guitars. But its reign at the top was short-lived.

In 1957, the humbucker was invented, bringing with it significantly greater output than the P90 and, importantly, less hum.

The P90 wasn’t replaced right away, it took a few years for the transition to humbuckers to take effect, but after a short period of time, the P90 was relegated to just a few, select ES-330, Les Paul, and SG models.

By the 1970s, smaller single-coil pickups, mini-humbucking pickups, and uncovered humbucking pickups all but made the P90 extinct in Gibson’s guitar range.

That was, however, until the rise of punk rock which acted as a kind of resurrection of the P90.

The P90 Pickup, Punk Rock & The 1970s

During the 1970s, the P90 made something of a comeback. Reissues of classic Gibson models – notably the ’58 Reissue Les Paul – used P90 pickups.

But it was guitarists like Johnny Thunders, Mick Jones of The Clash, and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols that put the P90 back on the map, following the popularity of cheaper Gibson Les Paul Junior models.

Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls used a Les Paul Junior equipped with P90 pickups. It was a huge part of the band’s overall sound. And Thunders was a major influence on Mick Jones (The Clash) and Steve Jones (The Sex Pistols). And this in turn led to the Gibson Les Paul Junior becoming the guitar of choice for 1970 punk bands.

P90 Sound & Tonal Qualities

P90 Pickups

Because P90 pickups are essentially single coil pickups, just with more coil turns (around 2000 compared to standard single coil pickups) they possess a brighter and airier tone than most humbucker pickups. They’re not as bright as Fender single coil pickups but they are noticeably brighter and clearer than humbuckers.

The magic with P90 pickups happens in the middle and lower end, and this is what really separates them from single coil pickups and humbuckers. P90 pickups kind of occupy a middle ground, having plenty of “thickness” but also lots of clarity and detail at the high end.

What does this mean?

You essentially get the traditional twanginess of a single coil pickup with added layers of warmth and thickness that isn’t usually present on standard single coil pickups used on Telecasters and Strats. In this respect, the P90 is kind of a single-coil/humbucker hybrid, having elements of both pickups in its tonal range.

Types of Music Suited To P90 Pickups

If you’re into playing metal or anything with lots of gain, a P90 pickup probably isn’t what you should go for. In this context, a humbucker is going to be your best bet – they’re designed to handle high gain and distortion.

P90 pickups, however, can handle can down with the best of them when required, so if you’re in a rock band or you play punk, a P90 pickup is a great option – especially for those after a heavy rhythm guitar sound.

P90 pickups guide

This is why the P90 was used so by classic punk bands like The Clash, The New York Dolls, and The Sex Pistols.

The design and tonal qualities of the P90 pickup, while not great for metal, are perfectly suited to the following genres of music:

  • Blues
  • Jazz
  • Rock
  • Country
  • Indie
  • Punk

Guitarists That Use P90 Pickups

  • Carlos Santana
  • Pete Townsend (The Who)
  • Johnny Thunders (The New York Dolls)
  • Mick Jones (The Clash)
  • Steve Jones (The Sex Pistols)

Popular Guitars With P90 Pickups

  • Gibson Les Paul Junior
  • Gibson Les Paul Special
  • Gibson ES-335
  • Gibson SG Special
  • Fender Telecaster (modern player series)
  • Epiphone Casino

Types of P90 Pickups

When it comes to P90 pickups, you have a range of casings that they come in. The type of guitar you go for will depend on the style of casing used for its P90 pickups. Currently, there are three types of P90 casings:

  • Soap bar – On this type of P90 the pole pieces are placed between the second and third strings and between the fourth and fifth strings, giving it an irregular pattern that, when noticed, can never be unseen.
  • P-90 dog ear – You’ll mostly find Dog-ear P-90 pickups on Gibson’s hollow-body guitars like the ES-330 and occasionally its Les Paul Junior models.
  • Humbucker Casing – This type of casing is used when fitting a P90 to a guitar designed to run humbuckers, so something like a Les Paul or an SG. These types of P90 pickups are often referred to as “pseudo-P-90s”

P90 Disadvantages – When You SHOULDN’T Use Them

A lot of guitarists love P90 pickups. Carlos Santana was a huge advocate of the P90. Ditto Rick Beato. But there is a certain type of music that is definitely not suited to guitars that run P90 pickups. I’m talking, of course, about the greatest and highest form of music ever created: METAL.

Why aren’t P90 pickups suited to metal? Like any single coil pickup, a P90 cannot handle the type of extreme high gain and distortion required to create an iconic metal tone. You’ll have issues with humming, and feedback, and it’ll just sound terrible.

This is why Fender’s guitars that are designed for metal – like Jim Root of Slipknot’s signature models – run humbucker pickups. Humbuckers are DESIGNED to handle things like high-gain and distortion. They also eliminate hum too, so you get that heavy sound without losing any clarity.

Bottom line? If you want to play metal, use a guitar that runs humbucker pickups. And make sure you check out our guide to the best guitars you can buy right now.

For anything else, though, P90 pickups are a great option. They sound incredible in a mix and in live situations. They have plenty of low-end thickness and lots of brightness at the high end. For jazz, rock, country, blues, and indie music, the P90 is a beautiful pickup for creating earthy, organic guitar tones.

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