Why the P-90 pickup is making a comeback

Originally produced by Gibson from 1946, the P-90 were one of the first mass-produced single-coil electric guitar pickups and have remained in regular production to this day.

After being somewhat eclipsed by the PAF humbucker from the late 1950s, they have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. We’re curious why, so we catch up with Tim Mills at Bare fists to get his point of view on the rebirth of the P-90.

“The P-90s are characterized by a very wide and chunky spool,” begins Tim. “They are traditionally wound with 42 [AWG] calibrate the plain enamel wire at about 10,000 turns. This is the classic specification for an authentic vintage styled P-90. The former are typically Alnico III or, more commonly, Alnico II. The coils were almost always uncoated and were wedged on wooden spacers – used to raise or lower the coil – in a nickel tray.

“The early P-90s were characterized by a very shallow butyrate blanket that roughly covered the top to protect it. As you get into the late 50s / early 60s, you find that Alnico V magnets start to be used more commonly which was the biggest change in tone until then. Going deeper into the ’60s, you see starting to use spools of poly thread and clear plastic, which can be brittle and prone to fracture. And as you step into the ’70s, Gibson is reverting to the more traditional model of black coils.


(Image credit: bare finger mics)

Appreciated for their dynamic sound, the P-90s have found favor in a wide range of musical styles, as Tim explains.

“The P-90s have a pretty big, muscular wind on the spool,” he says, “and they’re driven by two bar magnets, so they’re able to put out quite a bit of power. There’s that nice wide frequency response, which is typical of a single coil. With a P-90 you have depth – extension in the bass and lots of clear highs, but there’s that nice ride in the mids as well.

“There is no vacuum. It’s a very shrill sound. The P-90s are extremely dynamic. They’re very responsive to volume and tone knobs: you can make them as dirty as you want, and you can clean them as much as you want. They are incredibly versatile.

In 1957, Gibson began to introduce the PAF humbucker in their electric guitars, and the new design quickly began to eclipse the old P-90.

“The P-90s are single-coil, so there’s no hum cancellation, which was a real problem back then,” says Tim. “The 50/60 cycle buzz was the enemy. As amplifiers got louder and more amplified, mains and RF interference became more of a problem.

“But back then the electricity wasn’t as good as it is today. I use a lot of single coil pickups and never have a problem with noise. What I record on my computer, in the studio or in concert.

“After the arrival of PAF, advanced guitar music just got louder and louder. People often associated sound – and sight! – Gibson humbuckers with these players. So the P-90s were perhaps considered a bit old-fashioned by some. But now people have come back and they are rediscovering the P-90s. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a huge resurgence in their popularity across the board.

“At first at Bare Knuckle I was focused on creating a P-90 that I could mount on a humbucker frame, because the biggest problem is their shape. So with the humbucker-sized P-90s that we make, you can get all the sound of the P-90 in a humbucker shape.

“As long as you have that wide, chunky coil, you can get that P-90 sound. Now if you’ve got humbuckers and want to get into the P-90s, there’s nothing stopping you. At all. Every P model -90 full size that I make, also do in humbucker size.We do seven string versions as well.

“There is nothing like a P-90. They fit so well between Fender-style single coils and a humbucker sound, but they also have their own vibe. To some extent, they are the king of microphones.

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