These odd-looking ‘soap bar’ pickups have a very specific sound and bite to them that’s hard to find elsewhere. Even as guitar technology progresses and new pickups are designed for modern tones, players keep coming back to that classic P90 sound.
With their brilliant top-end shine and screaming quality, these pickups can cut right through a mix while retaining all of their tonal characteristics. It’s a classic sound that’s stood the test of time.
In the late 40s, Gibson was looking to expand their pickup selection on their electric guitars. At the time, their current popular pickup was a weird looking bar pickup that many called the “Charlie Christian” pickup, you don’t see these around much anymore.
They were looking to replace that old design with a new, punchier pickup set. Which they internally referred to as the P90.
After the PAF pickup was invented, the P90 declined in popularity until the 70s when punk rock entered the scene.
Early punk rock guitarists would buy older Les Paul Jrs at pawn shops as they were so cheap, but this new generation of players soon came to love the clarity and raw power of the P90.
The bite that P90s had worked incredibly well for this new aggressive style of music, and the P90 became an instant staple in the punk scene.
Bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols used P90 pickups on iconic albums that shaped the genre.
From there, players of all kinds developed a newfound love for these previously forgotten pickups. Across all genres, the P90 became as popular as it was when it was first made.
When used in the neck position on a clean amp, the P90 can create rich, full tones that are perfect for indie rock and even jazz.
When in the bridge position running through a cranked, overdriven amp, it’s an instant recipe for punk and classic rock.
How Are They Made?
P90s are essentially a single-coil pickup design with more output, but the tonal qualities are very different from standard Telecaster or Stratocaster single coils.
They’re made with two Alnico magnets on each side of six screws that run through the middle of the pickup. The two Alnico magnets, also known as bar magnets, induce a magnetic field that runs through the screws.
Early P90s, much like PAF humbucker pickups, are notorious for having inconsistent winding.
This means that the wire wound around the magnets could be overwound or underwound depending on what pickup you get. This directly affects the tone and output of the pickup.
It has a high output similar to a humbucker pickup, but it doesn’t have the same rounded sound.
Also, since the P90 is a single-coil pickup, it still suffers from 60-cycle hum just like Tele or Strat single coils. It’s noisier than a humbucker and higher output than a single-coil, so what is it?
Well, it’s a whole different animal. In terms of frequencies, the P90 can achieve the brightness and clarity of a single-coil, but it has more of a mid-range punch like a humbucker. This makes it ideal for cutting through a mix.
Lower output P90s can create amazing clean tones that are articulate and full without breaking up.
However, hotter P90s can push the amp into natural overdrive and compression like a humbucker. This is the “overwound P90” sound.
The P90 is also very responsive to your picking attack and can make for some very cool dynamic effects. They almost always sound lively, bright, and full of character.
So as you can see, the P90 is a very versatile pickup and can act almost like single coils or humbuckers depending on the situation.
They’re useful for almost any genre and can be dialed in to get almost any sound you’re looking for.
Tons of iconic albums and solos have been recorded using a guitar with P90s, and their popularity isn’t slowing down any time soon.
From punk to classic rock, indie to doom, these pickups can do it all. If you’re a guitar player and are feeling a bit stale with your tone, trying a P90 can be a quick way to add some more character to your sound without needing to buy a whole new instrument.
It simply has more personality, and that’s what music is all about, isn’t it?
Can you put a P90 in a humbucker pickup slot?
Most of the time, no. P90s are longer and thinner than most humbuckers, which are more rectangular. If you want a clean replacement, with no gaps or odd cuts, you’ll need to replace your pickups with something the same size.
They do make P90s that are humbucker-sized and humbucker pickups that are shaped like P90s, but these are not as common.
Who plays P90 pickups?
Honestly, there are too many to name. However, if you’re looking for some inspiration, here are a few names you might recognize that have used P90s at some point in their career.
Billie Joe Armstrong
These are all legends, and there are countless others including more punk rock guitarists. Need I say more?
Are all P90s white?
The white P90s are sometimes called “soap bar” pickups because they look like a bar of soap.
Many P90s are soap bar pickups, but there are plenty of black P90s as well. Specifically, many Les Paul Jrs use one black P90 in the bridge position.
Are there hum-canceling P90s?
Yes, some manufacturers make hum-canceling P90s. Practically, this achieves the tonal characteristics of the P90 pickup but without the 60-cycle hum. Some manufacturers also make hum-free single-coils that fit into a Tele or Strat style guitar body.
What is Alnico?
Alnico is a metal alloy made of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt (hence the name alnico). It was developed in 1931 but wasn’t used in electric guitar pickup production until the 1950s.
Alnico is relatively lightweight and easier to manipulate than some previous metal alloys used in guitar production.
Do all P90s have plastic covers?
The plastic covers on P90s have become as iconic as the pickups themselves because of their “soap bar” appearance, but P90s can also come with metal covers.
Most humbucker pickups have metal covers and most P90s have plastic, but these are not mutually exclusive.