Since the 1980s, it’s been possible to walk into a guitar shop and come out with pretty much any type of guitar pickup you could imagine. I daren’t even calculate what I’ve spent over the years on these small but often very expensive items of hardware. But when I consider what might be the best guitar pickup ever made, I frequently find my mind zooming straight back towards a positively ancient design which pre-dated the retrofit market by a good three decades. Introduced by Gibson as the P.U.90, but now overwhelmingly known as the P90, this immediate post-war single coil could well be the true king of electric guitar pickups…
The first P90 pickups arrived well before Gibson’s solid-bodied guitars, appearing from 1946 on two of the company’s three Electric Spanish models. Namely, the flagship ES-300, and the ES-150. The third ES model of the day – the ES-125 – featured a similarly packaged pickup to the P90, but the units were not the same. Whereas the ES-125’s pickup featured non-adjustable, cylindrical-slug alnico polepieces, the P90 housed two horizontally mounted alnico bar magnets, nestling against screw-adjustable, slot-head poles. The adjustability was a really cool feature for its time, and historically it makes a mockery of Fender’s later pre-staggered poles. With a P90, the guitarist could stagger the poles any way the specific set of strings dictated.
But it was the sound of the P90 that really brought it such admiration. A nominal 10,000 turns of 42 gauge coil wire, complimenting what today would be considered low-strength alnico magnets, gave the P90 a warm but well defined sound – even from new. Actual magnet strength is deemed to have ranged between alnico II (2) and alnico IV (4). But compared with the subsequent Fender standard of alnico V (5), the P90 had weakish magnets, and that, especially in tandem with a more substantial and physically wider coil, meant a significantly more musical and toneful sound. The sharp focus of a single row of poles (as opposed to the wider string area sensed by Gibson’s subsequent Humbucker), kept the P90 pure and defined at the top end. The tonal balance in a P90 was, arguably, perfect.
Indeed, when Gibson ‘upgraded’ the P90 design to produce their rectagular-poled ‘Alnico’ pickup in the early ‘50s, the ‘upgrade’ (with stronger magnets and thus higher volume and a brighter tone) proved a long-term flop. Maybe the P90’s pure, yet warm tone could not be improved upon. If the original tone really was perfect, how could it be improved upon? You can’t improve upon perfection.
In the 1950s, the P90 was nevertheless overshadowed by a revolutionary new Gibson pickup, designated the P.U.490. Infinitely better known today as the PAF Humbucker, this twin-coiled marvel took the lead primarily due to its noise-cancelling properties. The PAF was undeniably a fantastic unit, but did it have a better basic tone than the P90?…
Well, the P90 was certainly not phased out in the wake of the Humbucker. It continued to appear on late 1950s and 1960s models such as the Les Paul Junior, Les Paul Special, ES-330 and (Gibson-made) Epiphone Casino, which immortalised themselves with some of the world’s most enduring contributions to modern music. From Leslie West, through Bob Marley to Paul Weller, star performers would go on to make many truly iconic records using these P90-fitted guitars. But it was something that happened back in 1968 that really cemented the P90’s status as a continual rival to the classic Humbucker…
The Les Paul (Standard) guitar had carried both P90s and PAF Humbuckers at different stages during its original production run. From 1952 to 1957 it came with P90s, at which point the Humbucker entered the arena, and from ’57 until 1961 when production ceased, the spec instead featured PAFs. Through the mid 1960s, the model was unavailable, but after considerable pressure to reintroduce the classic Les Paul, it was finally re-launched in mid 1968. However, this revival of the classic LP did not come in the late ‘50s / early ‘60s format with two Humbuckers – it came in the earlier guise, with two P90s.
This was an important step for Gibson’s 1940s single coil. And in due course the pickup moved even higher up the Les Paul range, reserving a place on the fantastic Pro Deluxe model. No longer was the P90 playing second fiddle to the Humbucker. In the Les Paul range of the 1970s, the P90-fitted Pro Deluxe was now subordinating several Humbucker-driven alternatives (such as the Standard and the Deluxe). Given that the Humbucker had corrected the P90’s technical imperfections (considerable background buzz), the obvious outcome would have been for the P90 to bite the dust. So why did it not only persist, but work its way back into the high echelons of Gibson manufacture? Because, say some, its tone was unbeatable.
I wouldn’t recommend butchering a Strat to house a P90. I think the pickup should be experienced as part of the guitars it was made for. It suits the Gibson style of manufacture, and some of the old models which carried the unit as standard rank among the sweetest sounding guitars ever made in my view. Usually, a pickup either offers fantastic clean tones, or great overdrive/distortion, but not both. The P90, however, excels in both departments. Truly beautiful used clean, and yet rich, creamy and floor-quakingly powerful when overdriven, the P90 is a genuine jack of all trades, and that makes it a very rare beast. Is the P90 better than the PAF? Well, in these days of technology we don’t have to worry too much about the extraneous noise. We can simply enjoy the tone of the pickup. And on tone alone, I genuinely believe the average PAF struggles to match the average P90.
If you feel Strats and Teles are too brittle, but you don’t want the rather blunt slab of sound purveyed by modern ‘sooperbuckerz’, a classic, P90-fitted instrument will cover virtually all of the territory in between. But most importantly, it will do so with personality, style, and a sweetness almost too good to be true.
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