Consider the P-90: a single-coil pickup that dates back to 1946 and was once favoured across Gibson electrics in the early 1950s, a formative era for both the electric guitar and rock ’n’ roll.
It was raw, hot and bright and full of attitude. Jazz, blues, rock; the P-90 did the lot. Then along came Seth Lover and the humbucker, and progress, with merciless inertia, swept the P-90 aside. The elastic snap of the Fender Stratocaster single coil and the warmth of the humbucker assumed the future. But you can’t keep a good tone down...
If the P-90 pickup maintained a cult status across the following decades - the likes of Leslie West using its pugnacious attack to great effect on Mountain’s sumptuous Mississippi Queen - it gathered momentum as the demand for retro boutique tone surged in the 1990s. Now it’s as popular as ever.
This month’s round-up sees new solidbodies from G&L, Yamaha and Guild, while Gordon Smith Guitars feature them proudly as their USP. The Gordon Smith GS1 60 and Guild’s T-Bird pursue old-school tone, the Yamaha Revstar uses P-90s in a bold modern context and the G&L is an inter-generational crowd-pleaser, all going to prove that P-90s still rock.
Gordon Smith GS1 60
This one looks familiar?
There are no prizes for guessing that Gordon Smith took the Gibson Les Paul Junior as inspiration. With a solid mahogany body and a set mahogany neck, a single P-90 in the bridge, complete with traditional ‘dog-ear’ housing and a shorter 625mm (24.625 inches) scale a la some vintage Gibsons, the GS1 turns the clock back to 1954.
Isn’t Gordon Smith a high-end custom shop?
Gordon Smith hand-build to order, but with many pre-spec’d models shipped out to dealers. Go online and you can custom-spec your GS1. Prefer the doublecut? A thinner, lighter 36mm (1.4 inch) body? Well, go ahead and fill your boots. With a starting price of £600, the GS series is an adorable taste of bespoke luxury from Britain’s longest-running guitar manufacturer.
Only one pickup - is it a one-trick pony?
No, not at all. The GS1 has a surprisingly wide range of tones that cater for every player, pleasing the choppy reggae rhythm player and jazz noodler alike. Roll back the treble to tame its high-end and it’s a master for blues. Add a little overdrive and you have a driving rock tone.
At a glance
Key features: Mahogany body, mahogany neck (set), 625mm (24.62") scale, 22 frets, brass nut, rosewood fingerboard, 1 x P-90 pickup (bridge), 1 x volume control, 1 x tone, chrome wrap over bar bridge, spec options available online
Finish: Vintage White (as reviewed); many more online
Yamaha Revstar RS502
Wait, is this really a new guitar from Yamaha?
Well, newish. Yamaha’s first new electric solidbody line in 20 years, the Revstar is worth the wait, a double-cut reminiscent of Yamaha’s SG line, though a little more bulbous around the body. The Revstar line is broadly inspired by London and Tokyo’s café racer motorcycles and, accordingly, the RS502 has a sort of industrial, hot-rod feel.
It looks built for metal...
Certainly, that workshop aesthetic makes it look like a latter-day shred machine, but with its Alnico P-90 pickup pairing, the Revstar might be a little under-gunned for shred; this is all about stoking the inherent warmth and harmonic resonance from those pickups, with a Dry Switch on the master tone to offer some versatility: “Vintage tone with bite,” says Yamaha.
A Dry Switch, what’s that all about?
Well, it’s pretty simple actually. If you pull up on the master tone knob, just as you would for a coil-split, you activate a bass cut that filters out low frequencies. The result is a pure, single-coil snap. Bright and articulate, it’s all very present, and perfect for country and indie jangle.
At a glance
Key features: Mahogany body, mahogany neck (set), 628mm (24.75") scale, 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard, 2x Yamaha VP5 P-90 style pickups (neck and bridge), 1x volume control, 1x tone with Dry Switch, adjustable wrap around bridge, vintage floating aluminium tail-piece on RS502T model
Finish: Billet Green (as reviewed), Black
G&L Tribute Series Asat Junior II
Is there something wrong with the price?
No, the price is right. With G&L’s Indonesian-built Tribute Series, a top spec’d guitar can be yours for a pittance. There’s something ineffably cool about G&L - perhaps it’s the Jerry Cantrell connection - not to mention a custom-shop kudos that comes from the Junior II being inspired by a small-batch special that was once produced by G&L’s hallowed Fullerton shop in California.
What makes it so special?
Well, that classic T-style body shape is a winner for starters, with a high-gloss Irish Ale finish that looks not unlike a toffee apple. The maple neck is finished in a vintage nicotine. There are no fancy switches or gizmos; what you have is a guitar that plays the percentages. Plus, the pickups are designed by Paul Gagon.
Gagon is a veteran electronics whizz who has worked with Fender and helped develop G&L’s now iconic Legacy model, and the pickups he designed here are perfectly balanced in output, meaning you can switch between neck and bridge without fiddling around with the volume.
At a glance
Key features: Mahogany body, maple neck (bolt-on), 647mm (25.5") scale, 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard, 1 x G&L AP4285B (neck), 1 x G&L AP42105B (bridge), 1 x volume control, 1 x tone, 1 x three-way blade pickup selector, Tone-Pros locking C-TPFP bridge and CT1 tailpiece
Finish: Irish Ale (as reviewed)
Guild T-Bird ST P90
What sort of shape is this?
File the T-Bird under ‘o set double cut’, but that doesn’t seem poetic enough for a guitar that looks like something you’d see in The Jetsons. Resplendent in Pelham Blue with a lovely tortoiseshell pickguard, it’s as cool a retro-futuristic reproduction as we’ve seen. It has vintage kudos in spades.
It looks pretty weird. What sort of player would want this?
Anyone with a jonesing for old-school cool and period detail, such as sharp and crisp P-90 tone, will love the T-Bird. Think the kinetic skronk of surf-rock, slick rockabilly and boogie-woogie blues. It has a solid mahogany body and neck, which is glued to the body. While the shape looks wonky, it’s well-balanced, a good weight and a joy to play.
And what about those pickups?
A pair of Guild Franz P-90s in neck and bridge get the job done with plenty of bright midrange and classic tone. They’re named for the now-defunct Franz Company, New York, which wound similar pickups for Guild back when they were branded as Frequency Tested pickups.
At a glance
Key features: Mahogany body, mahogany neck (set), 628mm (24.75") scale, 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard with block inlay, Grover Sta-Tite nickel open-geared tuners, 2 x Franz P-90 pickups (neck and bridge), 1 x volume control, 1 x tone, Guild Tune-O-Matic bridge
Finish: Pelham Blue
Head to head
What we have here is a celebration of the P-90 and also, perhaps, a recognition of some of its idiosyncrasies.
In high-volume, overdriven scenarios, they can be plagued by hum - a situation compounded by some venue’s wiring - and they can be fierce on the treble, so it’s instructive that all four guitars have a mahogany body, a tonewood that complements the P-90 by offering warmth and tames some of the treble.
The Gordon Smith GS1, with its myriad online options, notably offers a poplar body and neck as standard, a tonewood that performs a similar function. But those who worry overly about signal noise should note that on the dual-pickup electrics, selecting both pickups kills a lot of the buzz.
All of these instruments are hugely playable. Even the T-Bird, with its unconventional body shape, is great fun, with a neck that bridges the generational gap between the thicker vintage pro les and the more svelte, modern standards.
Head on, the Revstar looks like a lot of wood to contend with, but it has been sculpted accordingly and is a forgiving instrument. The Junior II, with its longer 647mm (25.5-inch) scale, has more of a Fender feel, its neck a fast but comfortable modern C pro le.
All hold their tune well, with fuss-free hardtail bridges. Tone-wise, the Revstar and the Junior II offer the broadest voices. We love the Revstar’s Dry Switch, with its on-tap country treble tones, far brighter than what you might expect from a thick mahogany body. Good for jazz, funk, blues and country, the Junior II won’t let you down.
With a good valve overdrive, the GS1’s classic rock tones present its strongest suit, with a punky midrange bark and searing leads, with plenty of LP-issue sustain. Meanwhile, the T-Bird’s vintage clarity is effortlessly cool, a throwback tone begging for some tremolo or slap-back delay and a Sun Records songbook to get started on.
If you’re a player whose sound lies in reproducing the surf rock tones of Dick Dale or just some ole time rock ’n’ roll, it’s hard to look beyond the T-Bird. Its vintage voice is unbeatable and its stunning Pelham finish and retro-futuristic aesthetic stands out a mile.
But what of the Revstar? At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of looks, its modern versatility (with that Dry Switch changing the character of the instrument at a stroke) allied to its solid finish and pro feel and incredible neck, is best for those who want to keep their tonal options open.
None of these guitars are ideal for high- gain metal, but don’t underestimate the P-90’s output. Often described as a happy medium between a humbucker and a traditional Fender-style single coil, it can handle a bit of gain, or even a fuzz pedal; in the Junior II’s bridge pickup, and on the GS-1, that can get a bit unruly, but, if you can handle the hum, unruly has its uses, as any garage rocker will tell you.
The GS1 feels like the most premium model with a price reflecting this, and it’s a great single-cut for anyone who has coveted a Les Paul Junior, and in offering so many options, Gordon Smith are really cementing a reputation as an affordable custom shop. At £429, available discounted online, the Junior II, with its charming tone and easy playability, is hard to beat on value.
Best for rock: Gordon Smith GS1 60
4 out of 5
Best all-rounder: Yamaha Revstar RS502
5 out of 5
Best value for money: G&L Tribute Series Asat Junior II
4 out of 5
Best for retro cool: Guild T-Bird ST P90
4 out of 5