Are P-90 Pickups for You? What Can a Great Set of P-90’s Do for You and Your Guitar Tone!
Vintage 1959 Gibson Les Paul Jr.
While old school Pre-CBS Fender single coil pickups and exclusive vintage Gibson PAF’s seem to get all the tone hype in the guitar community, the humble P-90 might be Gibson’s greatest innovation in their company’s history! In this blog, I’m going to go over why you should consider getting a guitar loaded with P-90 pickups, what they have done tonally for guitarists over the years, and how you can use P-90’s in your music every day!
The Gibson corporation began life in 1902 as a premier acoustic instrument builder in the United States. Even though their instruments were considered to be some of the finest acoustic guitars made at the time, as music evolved there became a need to project what a single guitarist was playing to a crowd of eager listeners. In blues & jazz clubs of the day, guitarists traditionally just dutifully comped rhythmic chord changes to support solo instruments like saxophones and trumpets, as opposed to playing the style of lead lines commonly associated with modern electric guitarists. This stylistic choice was not because guitarists couldn’t play lead, but rather because their acoustic instruments could not be heard over the big jazz bands of the time.
Enter the advent of the electric guitar pickup.
The Gibson P-90 pickup was designed in the 1930’s as a way to conveniently electrify the vibrations of an acoustic guitar’s strings, and then send that electrified signal to an amplifier. Electric guitar pickups were a relatively simple invention, just a few magnets wound with electrical wire, but they managed to completely revolutionize the role of a guitar player in a band in just a few years. In just a few years, electric guitarists became less of being limited in a rhythmic support role, to being able to swing and solo with the best saxophone and trumpet players! Eventually, the P-90 single coil pickup would lead the Gibson company to design their fabled PAF Humbucker pickup!
Originally, Gibson thought of their new P-90 pickup as an accessory for guitarists that could be installed on any acoustic instrument, as opposed to a main selling feature for their guitar sales like they do now. But as more and more players began to use them, the tide would eventually change over the next couple decades. The first player to popularize P-90 pickups was the great blues and jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. Charlie Christian became famous as being one of the most innovative lead guitarists of his era, even going on to play with the famed jazz clarinet player Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, and arguably invented the popular jazz style of BeBop. Charlie Christian became an outspoken user of the P-90 pickup, fitting early large “blade models” on his Gibson ES-150’s so he could solo with ease. The P-90’s allowed Charlie Christian to cover a wide range of tonal options just by adjusting his volume control on his guitar, allowing him to go from large, thick and bright, to more spanky and warm as you roll the volume down.
The P-90 was the staple pickup for the Gibson Corporation from the early 1930’s until 1957 when Gibson debuted their “Patent Applied For” (P.A.F.) Humbucking Pickup. The only drawback from P-90’s and other single coil pickups at the time, was that there can be some 60-cycle hum/buzz when playing at louder volumes. In an effort to eliminate any unwanted noise with their pickup offerings, Gibson created the Humbucking pickup to use on all of their electric guitars and the humble P-90 fell somewhat to the bargain bin, only to be found by curious guitarists years later seeking a different type of vintage tone.
The P-90 Tone:
If someone asks you what P-90 pickups sound like, you should answer that it all depends on what guitar and amp you’re running them through. The P-90 is an extremely versatile pickup seemingly able to cross as many musical boundaries as possible. Early Alnico III versions, the P-90 pickups made after the early large “blade” style versions, were brighter, softer, and sweeter. Alnico III P-90’s also have much less volume output when compared to their modern counterparts. Much more at home in a Scotty Moore jazz-box style guitar playing, or early rock n’ roll as opposed to the full out snarly grind that I like.
Stronger Alnico magnets tend to increase a pickups inductance, wire gauge and magnet strength of a particular pickup, so later produced Alnico V P-90 pickups are widely considered to have more aggressive tone that sings strongly when clean, and barks with a powerful snarl and growl as you distort your amplifier. I associate the sound of Alnico V P-90 pickups with the smoking hot blues of the late great Freddie King through his 1950’s Gibson Gold-Top Les Paul loaded with P-90’s, as well as the raunchy punk rock of Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and Mick Jones of the Clash. Other notable P-90 using guitarists include Texas blues greats Gary Clark Jr., Eric Zapata, Doyle Bramhall ii, as well as the early tone of Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend from the Who, and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols!
To my ear, P-90 pickups are arguably the most versatile pickup ever created for the electric guitar. P-90’s handle a wide tonal frequency range that compliments wide styles of music, wonderful clarity between notes and lead lines, and handle picking dynamics well, all with strong, high-output tone. They handle the bright clarity-filled sustain one would need for blues soloing with plenty of dynamics above a band with ease. They maintain their clarity when they are used with warmer hollow body jazz-box guitars like a Gibson ES-335 or L5, especially when a jazz guitarist turns their volume control down. Bridge P-90’s, some vintage instruments only have one single bridge P-90, also can give some cutting, bright twang to any country riff or picked chords. Add some distortion from an amplifier, or a trusty distortion pedal, and P-90 pickups will give you an absolutely brutal raging snarl-perfect for grunge, punk, or distortion filled rock n’ roll.
Personally, I love using P-90 guitars for slide playing as they articulate both slide chords and single note lines well, even with distortion. The notes seem to bloom with an aggressive bent, not so much singing at you like other electric guitars, but angrily howling at the moon. Roll back on the volume pot, and suddenly you get a beautiful, bright, pedal steel like tone that would be equally at home in a gospel band as much as blues band. Rolling back and getting a brighter, clearer, clarity-driven tone also absolutely nails early B.B. King! I also love using P-90’s with fuzz pedals like my old Fuzz Face, or my Prescription Electronics Experience fuzz or the COB. The aggressive bent mentioned earlier becomes even more pronounced, sounding more like a gnarly broken speaker than a smooth modern distortion.
My personal P-90 guitar is my 1998 Gibson Les Paul Special loaded with two Alnico V P-90’s from the factory. I bought the guitar when I was 19 years old used off the wall at Guitar Center with one of my first paychecks from playing guitar. I had always wanted to try another guitar in my playing, and while I had grown up only playing Fender Stratocasters exclusively because of my heroes Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, I took my opportunity of checking out a P-90 loaded guitar after seeing the great Doyle Bramhall ii play live. Doyle used his P-90 Les Paul jr. on both slide and singing blues style solos and it was an absolute revelation seeing him get THE tone out of a totally different guitar.
Over the years, my Gibson Les Paul Special became a bit of a workhorse and made its way onto countless recordings, and into countless recording sessions. It always seemed to be able to take anything you could throw at it in a recording session. I’ve tried other P-90 styled guitars with similar results. Other P-90 guitars I personally like using live and in the studio include:
Gibson Les Paul jr’s
Gibson SG Specials
Gibson Les Paul Customs