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Tone Talk: P90 Pickups

Tone Talk: P90 Pickups

Posted by Matt McCracken on 27th Sep 2021

If you’ve never played a P90 pickup before you might be surprised at the range of tones on offer. Despite an inherently single coil design, they offer more warmth of tone than the pickup made famous by Fender, with less brightness and edginess in its sound.

Often seen as a bridge between the traditional single coil and humbucker style pickups, the P90 is seeing somewhat of a revival in the modern era of guitar, featuring on many brand new Fender ranges such as the Noventa and Paranormal series, as well as the classic Gibson guitars that are defined by the P90 tone, like the ES series.

The History of the P90

The original P90 was invented by Gibson in 1946, replacing the ‘bar’ or ‘blade’ pickup that had been a standard on all Gibson guitars. The P90’s time as the default Gibson pickup didn’t last very long however as it was quickly usurped by the humbucker in 1957. This relegated the P90 from the spotlight and back onto budget models like the Les Paul Junior, SG Special, and the ES-330.

50s Gibson Gold Top with P90 Pickups and Trapeze Bridge

Despite having disappeared from Gibson models for the most part, the P90 made its comeback during the dawn of punk rock in the early 1970s. Both Mick Jones of the Clash and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols started using the P90 -equipped Les Paul Junior, favouring it thanks to its cutting overdriven sound and its inexpensive nature.

Ever since then the P90 has come and gone from the forefront of rock guitar but over the last 15 years or so has steadily made its way firmly back to the front, offering guitarists an alternative to traditional single-coil and humbucker tones that have dominated the soundscapes of all guitar-based music for so long.

Types of P90

There are three primary types of P90 casing you’ll see, all of which deliver that signature warm, punchy tone:

Soap Bar

The ‘Soap Bar’ type pickup has a rectangular shape with rounded corners. The first of these to appear on Gibson guitars were a white/cream colour, which is most likely what led to the name. The mounting screws for the pickup are in between the 2nd/3rd and the 4th/5th string pole pieces which lends that irregular look, leading a lot of people to mistakenly believe there are 8 pole pieces.

Soap Bar Pickups

Dog Ear

The ‘Dog Ear’ style has angled extensions on either side of the pickup (or sometimes just on one side) which hold the mounting screws for the pick up. You’ll find these on the Gibson ES and Epiphone Casino models most often, as well as some solid body models like the LP Junior.

Dog Ear P90

Humbucker Casing

More colloquially known as the Humbucker-sized P90, this style of pickup offers that hallowed P90 tone without requiring you to rout extra space on your guitar body. A more modern invention, the humbucker sized P90 opens any humbucker equipped guitar to the dazzling depth of P90 guitar tones.

Humbucker Sized P90

Our Choice Picks

Here at Northwest Guitars we’ve got loads of different types of P90 pickups, all the way from boutique to budget. P90s are some of the most popular pickups we sell here, so in no particular order, here are a few of our personal favourites.

Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90

The Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90 Dog Ear Pickup utilises two specially calibrated Alnico 2 bar magnets to deliver the vintage correct growl of the late 50s ES-330 pickups. They have the same construction as those sacred pickups made in the old Kalamazoo Gibson guitar factory, with the same hand fabricated bobbin, plain enamel mag wire, and fallback tape.

Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90

In the neck position this pickup will deliver a smooth and round sound whilst the bridge delivers gritty midrange without sounding harsh. This pickup is a direct replacement for any standard Gibson P90 Dog Ear, and has an aged black cover for extra vintage aesthetic. It gives you period-correct tone with modern reliability and build quality.

Wilkinson W90 Soapbar

The Wilkinson W90 Soap Bar Pickup features Alnico V magnets and offer outstanding value for money for the guitarist on a budget. If you need a guitar sound brighter than a humbucker, but less harsh than a single coil, then this is the pickup for you!

Wilkinson P90 Pickups

The W90 is more 'open' sounding than a regular P90 and will give you a fat tone with plenty of mids. When driven they deliver excellent grit that cuts well, delivering plenty of output. Compared to a standard single coil, this pickup really sings in the both the bridge and neck positions. It's available in Cream or Black to match your finish and hardware.

Artec Vintage P90 Dog Ear

Another one in the budget range, the Artec Vintage P90 Dog Ear also features Alnico V magnets, giving you vintage-esque tone with a medium output, which to some ears might be slightly hotter than a traditional P90. We found them to be an excellent replacement to the stock pickups you’d find in an Epiphone Casino, and they’ll be a straight swap for most P90 ‘Dog Ear’ equipped Epiphone guitars.

Artec P90s

Embodying the traditional P90 sound, this pickup is clear and warm when clean, delivering plenty of grit and bite when you drive them harder. There’s a little hum from them when you crank the volume, but that’s to be expected with single coil pickups. That said, the lack of squeal compared to a stock Epiphone pickup when you crank it is frankly astounding, even more so when you consider the cost.

Lollar P90 '50s Wind Soapbar

Now we’re getting into the more boutique end of guitar pickups with the Lollar ‘50s Wind P-90 Soapbar. These are based on the exact specs of Sean Costello’s ’53 Goldtop, with weaker magnets that product a lower output, delicate attack and a more treble-y tone.

Lollar P90

Switching to a set of these will make your guitar more responsive to pick attack and despite the lower output, the tone they deliver is still fat and articulate. They’re a great choice if you’re looking for more versatility from your guitar, and they pair really well with a variety of FX such as boost, compression, delays and reverbs.

Humbucker Sized P90s

We couldn’t finish this article without giving a shout out to the much loved humbucker sized P90. If you're one of those players who doesn't already own a P90 equipped guitar and don’t wish to commit to extra routing, this is the perfect option for you. It lets you swap out your existing humbucker for a P90, without the fiddly extra routing required to make a P90 fit.

Tonerider Rebel 90

The Tonerider Rebel 90 Humbucker Sized P90 is a firm favourite here at Northwest Guitars. Powered by Alnico 2 bar magnets, they deliver strong bass and crisp highs, sitting perfectly in the sweet spot between a traditional single coil and a humbucker.

Tonerider Rebel 90 Humbucker Sized P90

Artec Splendor

The Artec Splendor Humbucker Sized P90 utilises Alnico 5 magnets, giving you a thick and full sound that isn’t overly bright. Despite their low cost, they deliver plenty of mid range punch and will give your guitar tone more definition, working equally well with chords and single note riffs.

Artec Splendor Humbucker Sized P90

In Conclusion

P90s are making a comeback for a reason. They offer a tonal avenue yet unexplored by the majority of guitarists and as musical endeavour continues to progress and evolve, more and more guitarists will look to the lesser trodden path for inspiration. Having a variety of tone options as a guitarist is paramount to your development as a player, so if you’re struggling to find your signature sound, or you’re just bored of the one you have, it might be time to give the P90 a go.

Check out our entire selection of pickups here.

Read More about Guitar Pickups

For more excellent guitar pickup selections check out our Tonerider Pickup Guide.

Get the lowdown on the top-selling Seymour Duncan pickups with our Seymour Duncan Pickup Guide.

For those on a tight budget, our Wilkinson Pickup Guide offers an insight to these outstanding value for money pickups.