P-90 Pickup: Your Ultimate Guide to Origins, Sound, and Differences

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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The p-90 is a single-coil pickup manufactured by Gibson from 1946 to the present day. It’s known for its distinctive “snarl” and “bite.” The pickup was designed by Gibson employee Seth Lover. Gibson is still producing P-90s, and there are outside companies that manufacture replacement versions.

It’s a great pickup for rock, punk, and metal, and it’s used by some of the biggest names in those genres. Let’s look at the history and sound of this iconic pickup.

What is a p-90 pickup

The Legendary Origins of the P90 Pickup

The P90 pickup is a single-coil electric guitar pickup that was first produced by Gibson in the late 1940s. The company wanted to create a pickup that offered a warmer, punchier tone compared to the standard single-coil pickups that were widely used at the time.

The Design and Features

To achieve this, Gibson positioned the P90’s steel pole pieces closer to the strings, resulting in a higher output and a tonal response that was more natural and dynamic. The pickup’s shorter, wider coils and plain wire also contributed to its unique sound.

The P90’s design features include:

  • A fully covered pickup with two screws on either side of the cover
  • A rounded cover that is often compared to the shape of a Strat pickup
  • A mixture of vintage and modern features that make it a versatile choice for any genre

The Sound and Tone

The P90 pickup is known for producing a sound that is somewhere between a single-coil and a humbucker. It offers more clarity and definition than a humbucker, but with a warmer, fuller tone than a standard single-coil.

Some of the P90’s tonal characteristics include:

  • A natural, dynamic sound that responds well to picking attack
  • A cool, rounded tone that is perfect for blues and rock
  • A versatile sound that can be used in a wide range of genres

The P90’s Popularity and Influence

Despite the P90’s popularity and influence in the guitar world, it is still a relatively rare pickup compared to other types. This is partly due to the fact that it is mainly produced by the Gibson company, and partly due to the extra wires and covers required to manufacture it.

However, the P90’s unique sound and tonal characteristics have made it a popular choice among guitarists who love its vintage style and dynamic output. It has also been referred to as the “super single-coil” pickup, and has been combined with other pickups to create even more tonal possibilities.

Ultimately, whether or not the P90 pickup is the right choice for you depends on your personal preferences and the genre of music you play. But one thing is for sure- the P90’s legendary history and features make it a good choice to keep in mind when considering your next guitar purchase.

The Punk Revival: P90 Pickups in Electric Guitars

The P90 pickup has been a popular choice among guitarists for decades. Its tonal qualities and overall sound have made it a favorite among many genres, including punk rock. In this section, we will explore the role of P90 pickups in the punk rock revival of the 1970s and beyond.

The Role of P90 Pickups in Punk Rock

  • The P90 pickup’s unique tonal qualities made it a favorite among punk rock guitarists.
  • Its raw and aggressive sound was perfect for the punk rock aesthetic.
  • The P90’s ability to handle high gain and distortion made it a popular choice for guitarists looking to create a wall of sound.

Notable Guitarists and Models

  • Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls was known for his Gibson Les Paul Junior equipped with P90 pickups.
  • Mick Jones of The Clash used a Gibson Les Paul Junior with P90 pickups on many of the band’s early recordings.
  • The Gibson Les Paul Junior and SG models were popular choices among punk rock guitarists due to their P90 pickups.
  • The Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster reissues equipped with P90 pickups have also become popular among punk rock guitarists.

How P90 Pickups Work

  • P90 pickups are single-coil pickups that use a magnetic field to pick up the vibration of the guitar strings.
  • The magnetic field is created electromagnetically by a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet.
  • The P90 pickup’s unique design places the coil in the middle of the pickup, resulting in a different sound than standard single-coil pickups.
  • The P90 pickup’s larger magnets also contribute to its unique sound.

The Making of a P90 Pickup

There are different types of P90 pickups, depending on the type of wire used and the number of windings. The standard P90 pickup is wound with 10,000 turns of 42-gauge wire, but there are also overwound and underwound versions available. The number of windings affects the output and tonal qualities of the pickup, with more windings producing a higher output and a thicker, warmer tone.

Design and Sound

The design of the P90 pickup is versatile and is associated with a wide range of musical genres, from jazz and blues to rock and punk. The P90 pickup produces a tonal quality that is somewhere between a single-coil and a humbucker pickup, with a smooth and warm sound that has a bit of edge and bite. The P90 pickup is known for its thickening effect on the notes, creating a beefy and present sound that is great for lead and rhythm playing.

Improving the Sound

There are several ways to improve the sound of a P90 pickup, depending on the type of guitar and the player’s preferences. Here are some tips:

  • Adjust the height of the pickup to find the sweet spot for the best tone.
  • Roll off the tone knob to get a spanky and bright sound.
  • Pair the P90 pickup with a hollow or semi-hollow body guitar for a crisp and clear tone.
  • Use a metal bar or screwdriver to slap the strings for a dirty and edgy sound.
  • Search for the right type of strings that complement the P90 pickup’s qualities, such as low-gauge strings for a smoother feel or thicker strings for a beefier sound.

The Different Types of P90 Pickups

One of the most common types of P90 pickups is the Soap Bar P90, named for its rectangular shape resembling a bar of soap. These pickups are designed to fit into guitars that have a wider cavity, such as Les Paul Junior models. Soap Bar P90s come in a variety of different styles, with variations in tonal traits and external casings. Some of the most popular variations include:

  • Dog Ear P90s, which have two pieces of casing resembling dog ears
  • Rectangular P90s, which have a wider rectangular shape
  • Triangular P90s, which have a shape resembling a triangle

Irregular P90s

Occasionally, P90 pickups come in irregular shapes and patterns, giving them a unique tonal range and fitting style. Some of the most popular irregular P90s include:

  • Fourth and fifth run P90s, which have irregular patterns of pole pieces
  • Custom-designed P90s, which are made to fit specific guitars and have a unique tonal range

Distinctions Between P90 Types

While all P90 pickups share some common traits, such as their single-coil design and tonal range, there are some key distinctions between the different types. These distinctions lie in the external casings, fitting style, and tonal range of each pickup. Some of the factors that depend on the type of P90 pickup include:

  • The shape and size of the pickup casing
  • The number and placement of pole pieces
  • The tonal range of the pickup

Ultimately, the type of P90 pickup you choose will depend on the style of guitar you have and the tonal range you’re looking for.

The P90 Sound: What Makes It So Popular Among Guitarists?

The P90 pickup is a single-coil pickup that produces a dynamic and vintage sound. It is known for its clarity and versatile tones, making it a popular choice for guitarists across different genres.

Compared to Other Pickup Types

When compared to regular single-coil pickups, P90s have a higher output and produce a thicker and more rounded tone. They are also less prone to electromagnetic interference and can be picked up by microphones more easily. Compared to double-coil pickups (also known as humbuckers), P90s offer a more natural and dynamic sound with a stronger attack.

Creating the Ideal P90 Sound

To achieve the ideal P90 sound, guitarists often use a combination of picking techniques and adjust the tone and volume controls on their guitar. The P90 pickup is also sensitive to the construction of the guitar body, with users reporting different sounds depending on the type of wood used.

Price and Availability

P90 pickups generally come at a lower price point compared to humbuckers and other high-end pickups. They are widely available and can be found in many different guitar models.

P90s vs Regular Single-coil Pickups: What’s the Difference?

P90s and regular single-coil pickups differ in their construction and design. P90s are larger and have a wider coil than regular single-coil pickups, which are smaller and have a thinner coil. P90s are also made with a solid body, while regular single-coil pickups are commonly found in a standard wire design. The design of P90s means they are less prone to interference and unwanted tones, making them a popular choice for players who want a clean and clear sound.

Magnetic Components

P90s consist of a bar magnet placed underneath the coil, while regular single-coil pickups have individual magnets placed under each pole piece. This difference in magnetic components alters the sonic characteristics of the pickups. P90s have a higher output and give a punchy sound, while regular single-coil pickups have a lower output and a more balanced sound.

Noise and Headroom

One downside of P90s is that they can be acutely responsive to interference and can be noisy when cranked through an amp. Regular single-coil pickups, on the other hand, have a higher headroom and can handle substantial amounts of gain without becoming too noisy. Balancing the act of getting the tone you like without too much noise is a consideration for players who like P90s.

Popular Players and Builders

P90s have been popularized by players such as John Mayer, who has equipped many of his guitars with P90s over the years. They remain a popular choice for blues and rock players who want a punchy and clear sound. Regular single-coil pickups are commonly found in Fender Stratocasters and are a staple of modern metal and hard rock playing.

P90s vs Dual-coil Pickups: The Battle of the Pickups

P90s and dual-coil pickups, also known as humbuckers, are two of the most popular types of pickups used in guitars. While they both serve the same purpose of converting the vibration of the strings into an electrical signal, they have some fundamental differences in their structure and sound.

The Mechanism Behind P90s and Dual-coil Pickups

P90s are single-coil pickups that use a single coil of wire to capture the sound of the guitar strings. They are known for their bright and dynamic sound, with a focus on the midrange. On the other hand, humbuckers use two coils of wire that are wound in opposite directions, enabling them to cancel out the hum and noise that is often associated with single-coil pickups. This results in a fuller and warmer sound that is enhanced in the midrange.

Comparing the Sound of P90s and Dual-coil Pickups

When it comes to sound, P90s and humbuckers have their own unique characteristics. Here are some key differences to keep in mind:

  • P90s are known for their bright and punchy sound, with a focus on the midrange. They have a lighter and cleaner sound compared to humbuckers, which can be more nuanced and layered.
  • Humbuckers have a fuller and warmer sound owing to their architecture. They have a higher output and are louder than P90s, making them ideal for genres that require more power and sustain.
  • P90s have a more traditional sound that is often associated with blues, rock, and punk music. They have a dynamic and responsive sound that is perfect for players who want to express themselves through their playing.
  • Humbuckers are often used in heavier genres like metal and hard rock, where a more aggressive and powerful sound is required. They have a thicker and heavier sound that can cut through the mix and deliver a more sustained sound.

FAQ’s About P90 Pickups

P90 pickups are single-coil pickups that use wider and shorter coils with larger wire, which produces a more dynamic and powerful sound compared to regular single-coil pickups. They also use a different electromagnetic structure, which results in a unique tonal character that is somewhere between a single-coil and a humbucker.

Are P90 Pickups Noisy?

P90 pickups are known for producing a hum or buzz sound, especially when used with high-gain settings. This is due to the pickup’s design, which makes it more susceptible to electromagnetic interference. However, some P90 pickups come with covers that can help reduce the noise.

What Type of Guitars Use P90 Pickups?

P90 pickups are commonly found on electric guitars, particularly those that are designed for rock, blues, and punk styles. Some iconic guitars that feature P90 pickups include the Gibson Les Paul Junior, Gibson SG, and Epiphone Casino.

How Expensive Are P90 Pickups?

The price of P90 pickups depends on the brand, type, and quality. Standard P90 pickups can range from $50 to $150, while more expensive and custom versions can cost up to $300 or more.

Can P90 Pickups Be an Alternative to Humbuckers?

P90 pickups are often seen as an alternative to humbuckers, as they produce a similar sound that is fuller and warmer than regular single-coil pickups. However, humbuckers have a longer and wider coil that produces a smoother and more compressed sound, which some guitarists prefer.

Do P90 Pickups Come in Different Colors?

P90 pickups usually come in black or white, but some custom versions may feature different colors or covers.

What Is the Size of P90 Pickups?

P90 pickups are smaller than humbuckers but larger than regular single-coil pickups. They are usually around 1.5 inches wide and 3.5 inches long.

What Is the Difference Between P90 Pickups and Strat-Style Pickups?

P90 pickups and Strat-style pickups are both single-coil pickups, but they have different designs and tonal characteristics. P90 pickups have a wider and shorter coil with larger wire, which produces a more dynamic and powerful sound. Strat-style pickups have a longer and thinner coil with smaller wire, which produces a brighter and more articulate sound.

Can P90 Pickups Be Difficult to Work With?

P90 pickups are fairly easy to work with, as they have a simple design and are easy to install. However, some custom versions may require special wiring or modifications to fit certain guitars.

What Is the Nature of the Sound Achieved with P90 Pickups?

P90 pickups produce a unique sound that is somewhere between a single-coil and a humbucker. They have a powerful and dynamic character that is great for rock, blues, and punk styles.

What Is the Work Involved in Building P90 Pickups?

Building P90 pickups involves winding the coil around the pole pieces, attaching the wire to the end, and adding covers and magnets. It is a fairly simple process that can be done by hand or with a machine. However, building high-quality P90 pickups requires skill and experience.


So there you have it- the history of the p-90 pickup, and why it’s such a popular choice among guitarists. 

It’s a versatile pickup for a wide range of musical genres, from jazz to punk, and it’s known for its warm, full, and biting tone. So if you’re looking for a single coil pickup with a bit of edge, a p-90 might just be the right choice for you.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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