Say “Gibson pickups” to most players, and they’ll think of humbuckers. Fair enough – the pickups Seth Lover designed in the middle ‘50s are one of the bedrocks of great Gibson tone. But you should never pass up the chance to try the single-coil pickup that came before the PAF, the P-90. The P-90 offers a varying sound and an allure that’s never gone away. And right now, the P-90 is back in vogue – here’s a brief guide of what you need to know.
Post-war Pickup Power
In 1946, WWII was over, Gibson resumed full production of guitars and introduced a new pickup, the single-coil P-90. Gibson P-90s would reign as the undisputed king of Gibson pickups until 1957, when the patent applied for (PAF) humbuckers were introduced.
But P-90s still showed up after that. When the (post-SG) singlecut Les Paul Standard was reintroduced in 1968, it had P-90s... see Tom Scholz’s 1968 Les Paul, albeit with a retro-fitted humbucker at the bridge. These P-90 Les Paul Standards gradually cam fitted with Gibson mini-humbuckers, which marked the transition to what we know as the Les Paul Deluxe.
You’ll probably already know that P-90 “pups” come in two major varieties – the soapbar and the dog-ear. The soapbar is a rectangle, and these are used on solidbody Gibsons. The mounting screws on a soapbar are within this rectangle, making it look like it had extra polepieces. Dog-ear P-90s, on the other hand, had the mounting screws on the “dog ears”, and these are used on the semi-solid and hollowbody Gibbos.
A Les Paul with P-90s simply sounds different to a Lester with buckers. Like all single coils, a P-90 has more of a twangy tonal character than humbuckers, yet more mid-range too. So if you want a Les Paul with lots of the growl of the humbucker, like many heavy rockers/super amp’d blues rockers usually, but also a hint of single-coil brightness, then a P-90 will be your thing.
What makes P-90 tonality special? A number of things. They have – compared to what came later with humbuckers – what would be considered low-strength alnico magnets. But this gave the P-90 a warm but well-defined sound. The single row of poles (as opposed to the wider string area sensed by Gibson’s humbucker), also kept the P-90 pure and defined at the top end. Power, purity, rawness and twang? Bring it on!
The P-90 through the Decades
Of course, the design of the P-90 didn’t stay static. Stronger magnets did come along, and different players like different P-90s for different reasons. The original Alnico III magnets are more closely equated to ‘50s jazzbox tones or the early rock’n’roll stylings of players such as Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore – these earlier-design types sound brighter, softer and sweeter with lower output. But later Alnico V P-90s are considered to have a more aggressive, snarly and powerful tone – you’ll possibly associate these with the more smokin’ sounds of Freddie King or the punk churn of Johnny Thunders and The Clash’s Mick Jones.
Whatever your preference, there’s still a number of modern-day Gibsons powered by P-90s. With a sonic signature of strong mids, full, tangy bass and harmonically complex trebles, they’re true greats. They can sound woody and mellow. They can sound riotously brutal – it all depends on how you play and what you plug into. But you can use P-90 guitars for jazz, blues, country, rockabilly, punk, heavy rock and metal – that’s why they’ve been favored by players diverse as Leslie West, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Pete Townshend, Paul Weller, Scotty Moore and those punk reprobates. What’s not to like? Here are some of those models to try... some have been out a while, some are brand new. See your Gibson dealer for availability.
P-90 Tone on Current Gibson Electrics
True Historic 1956 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue
Oh, my! The True Historic Series from Gibson Custom feature replica-level detail, from plastics recreated based on lab analysis of original ‘50s parts, to double-carved top and neck profiles and thin, hand-sanded finishes, they are the most complete, accurate and refined recreations of the guitars that form the mid-century legend of Gibson’s solidbody range. And it has those all-important P-90s with Alnico III magnets.
Read the full spec of the Gibson True Historic 1956 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue.
What a beauty this is! A new spin on the revolutionary CS-336 semi-solid features two powerful “dog ear” P-90 pickups and is constructed with a carved and chambered solid mahogany body for enhanced mid-range and snarl. The four gorgeous finishes are partly inspired by the Les Paul Specials of the 1950s – it comes in TV Yellow, TV White and TV Black Gold as well as Cherry Walnut. The CS-336 is a scaled-down ES-335.
Read the full spec of the Gibson CS-336 Mahogany.
Les Paul '60s Tribute 2016 T
This model from last year boasts an authentic vintage-style finish (three choices) that gives the look of a well-played original. There’s nothing fancy about the appointments, and the instrument's unbound body and fingerboard add a fine minimalist touch. But it has those crucial P-90s, with slightly hotter Alnico V magnets this time. A bargain.
Read the full spec of the Les Paul '60s Tribute 2016 T.
Les Paul Special Singlecut Maple Top
For a little extra on the Special, why not go for a maple top? A faux tortoise pick guard and deep, dark cherry finish keeps things looking traditional. This Gibson Custom model again has Custom P-90 soapbars.
Read the full spec of the Les Paul Special Singlecut Maple Top.
And why not an SG with P-90s? These Gibson USA SG Nakeds may be hard to find now, but in two satin sheen finishes – natural and walnut – you’ll certainly know when you see them. Alnico V P-90s and all-mahogany bodies make for a classic Gibson combo.
Read the full spec of the SG Naked.
Go to the Gibson Store to buy Gibson P-90s for your existing guitar.