When it comes to pickups, you have lots of options. Humbuckers are very popular. Ditto single-coil pickups. But what are P90 pickups good for? Let’s find out…
Whatever guitar you use, it will have some form of pickup on it. You can get guitars with a single pickup, two pickups, and even three pickups. And with types of pickup, you have three main options: humbuckers, single coil, and P90.
In this post, we’re going to do a deep dive on P90 pickups. We’re going to examine how P90 pickups are different from humbuckers and single coil pickups, which type of music is best suited to P90 pickups, and what P90 pickups sound like in action . By the end, you’ll know everything you need to know about P90 pickups.
What Are P90 Pickups?
A P90 pickup is kind of similar to a single coil pickup; they look very similar too. Although, a P90 pickup has different dimensions, thanks to its unique bobbin design. A P90 pickup is wider, for instance, than a single coil pickup and this is what gives them their unique tone.
If you know your pickups, you’ll know they’re basically magnets, magnets made from coils of wire wrapped around a core that is secured inside the bobbin. The bobbin ensures the core is protected and keeps the wires from being exposed to the guitar’s body.
But because the bobbin on a P90 is wider and shorter than that of a single coil pickup’s, this lends itself to a fuller, more dynamic tone. It isn’t as big or a rich-sounding as a humbucker but a P90 pickup does have its own unique tone that separates it from standard single coil pickups.
P90 pickups have great performance in the mid-range, delivering plenty of punch and sound separation. Guitars with P90 pickups usually sound brighter than ones with humbuckers. Essentially, the P90 pickup tries – and in some cases succeeds – to merge the best attributes of single coil pickups and humbuckers into one platform.
The only area where users need to err on the side of caution is if you use a lot of high gain settings on your guitar. P90 pickups have a tendency to hum with high gain settings, so if you crank the gain (or distortion) you will get plenty of hum and a lot of feedback. You can address this with a compressor but most just use humbuckers instead – that’s what they were designed for: to handle high gain signals with little to no humming.
What Are P90 Pickups Good For?
In the right setting, P90 pickups are a great option on your guitar. They’re perfect for pop music, blues, and country, thanks to the bright tone, clarity, and ability to cut through a mix. The only type of music P90 pickups are not suitable for is metal – they lack sufficient bass frequencies and tend to hum with high gain settings.
Can you use P90 pickups for metal? Of course! But in order to get the absolute best from them – both live and when recording – you’ll definitely need some kind of noise gate and/or compression. With these measures, the sound will be too messy and full of humming which you definitely do not want.
For metal, you’re always going to be better off with a humbucker pickup or something more modern like a Fishman Fluence which is an active humbucking pickup favored by bands like Lamb of God, TRIVIUM, and Animals as Leaders to name just a few.
P90 vs Humbucker: Which is Best?
If you want to play metal or anything that requires high gain settings, you’ll want to go with humbucker pickups. A humbucker pickup features two coils running in opposite directions – this is what cancels out the humming – whereas a single coil or P90 runs on a single coil.
P90 pickups, in the right setting, sound brilliant. They have more clarity and a brighter tone than a humbucker pickup. And they also have a lovely warmth to them as well. This makes them a great choice for indie rock, pop music, blues, country, and even things like jazz. A P90 pickup will help you cut through the mix and give you all the clarity and warmth you need.
Me personally? I like metal and rock music. I play with high gain and fuzz pedals, so I need humbuckers on my guitar. I have tried P90 pickups before and they’re great for more chilled stuff and things like blues and country, so if that’s your bag go with some P90s. If you want to play heavier music, however, you should ALWAYS go with humbuckers.
Are P90 Pickups Louder Than Humbuckers?
When it comes to the overall tone, a P90 pickup definitely has more bite – or presence – than a humbucker pickup. The emphasis with P90 pickups, however, is on the mid-range and treble which makes them sound clearer and more twangy than a humbucker which has mid and treble but also plenty of low-end bass too.
Beyond their ability to handle lower-end frequencies better, humbuckers are run with zero noise thanks to their dual coil design. This means you can run them REALLY loud with plenty of gain and never get any humming or noise, whereas with a single coil or a P90 you’ll get A LOT of humming and noise.
With overall volume, both are equally good at cutting through a mix. P90 pickups have more mid-range and treble to their sound, so this obviously makes them more audible in a mix or when playing live – treble and mid-range is easier to hear than bass, after all. But P90s lack the ability of humbuckers to run super high gain settings. This is literally the only major difference between the two types of pickups.
Can You Play Metal With P90 Pickups?
Gibson created the P90 pickup way back in 1946. The OG P90 was designed to replace the Charlie Christian pickups that were predominantly used by jazz players at the time. By the 1970s, however, P90 pickups had become pretty popular with some of the most well-known punk guitarists to have ever walked the earth.
Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls), Mick Jones (The Clash), and Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) all used P90 pickups on their guitars. To be frank, without the P90 and its unique sound, albums from The Sex Pistols and The Who definitely wouldn’t have sounded the same. So, yeah, P90s can be used in heavier settings, notably punk which tends to have more of an emphasis on the mid-range and treble anyway.
With metal or any of its variants, a lot of guitars like to tune their guitars down to either Drop D, Drop C, or D Standard. They also tend to run lots of high gain, distortion, and/or fuzz pedals. Because the lower end is more focal in metal, a humbucker is obviously advantageous – it is designed to stop and noise/humming and it has better low-end performance which makes it an ideal choice for metal players.
And yet, despite all of this, plenty of famous metal albums were made using guitars with P90 pickups. Even newer bands use them too. The guitarist in Wo Fat uses P90 pickups, for instance, and his tone is HUGE. Similarly, Tony Iommi used an SG outfitted with P90 pickups on the first Black Sabbath album. Zakk Wylde also used P90 pickups to record lead parts for Ozzy Osbourne too.
Moral of the story? You CAN use P90 pickups for metal. But you’re always going to be better off with humbuckers. Hell, you can use single coil pickups if you want; they worked fine for Kurt Cobain and, more recently, Brant Bjork. The best pickup is the one that works for you and helps you get the sound that you want. Me? I like my tone low and heavy, so I use humbuckers.
But, as Brant Bjork and the dude from Wo Fat, sorry, I don’t know his name, has shown numerous times, you can get amazing sounds from a P90 or single coil pickup, just so long as there isn’t too much gain on the signal. If you want lots of gain and you like to tune LOW, just go with a humbucker. You’ll have fewer problems and a better overall sound with less effort.