Gibson’s P-90 single-coil is one of the electric guitar manufacturing world’s oldest pickup designs. But in spite of this, it still finds itself just as valid and useful today as it was when it first went into production all the way back in 1946.
The P-90 appeared on Gibson’s very first solidbody electric in 1952, but its popularity waned with the invention of the Gibson humbucker later on in the decade, which cured the annoying hum problem of the earlier single-coil design. Since its usurping by the mighty humbucker, it’s fair to say that the P-90-style singlecoil only began to reappear in any significant numbers during the retro revival of the early nineties.
Despite this relative lack of popularity over the years, the P-90 has remained a thoroughly characterful pickup and it has proved to be a more attractive proposition for rootsier players than the highfret virtuosos. That said, it’s still trailing a long way behind the dominant pair of the humbucker and the Fender-style single-coil. As if to emphasise this unfortunate lack of popularity, the rather excellent PRS SE Soapbar we have here will actually be discontinued in 2010. Pah!
The P-90 design comes housed in two forms: the original ‘dog-ear’ style, so named because of its cover’s triangular ‘ears’ (as found on Gibson ES-175 and early Les Paul Junior models), where the only height adjustment available is from the polepieces.
The second is the most common variety, the more solidbody-friendly ‘soapbar’ - its ear-less cover resembles a bar of soap and it is height adjustable via two screws either side of the centre polepieces. Designed with a fatter, flatter coil than the later Fender single-coil Strat and Tele pickups, it features a single row of pole pieces producing a sound with more thickness than you get from a standard Strat or Telecaster single-coil, but still with that edgy attack.
Not all P-90s are created equal
A P-90 can be beautifully raw, but should still clean up nicely with application of the volume control for touch sensitive jazz tones. Of course, not all P-90s are created equal. Those with lower outputs can sound really clean and strident in the top end, while others with a higher output create a much thicker and warmer voice.
Often with a DC resistance of around 8.5k ohms, early Gibson P-90s were a lot ‘hotter’ than many modern versions and, when loaded onto Juniors and Specials, helped to create that raw, resonant tone that’s so beloved of P-90 fans. Sound-wise, many people will place the soapbar P-90 halfway between a humbucker and single-coil - and that’s not a bad way to view it. So, let’s take a look at our four modern soapbar guitars…