How it Came to Be: The P-90 Pickup

How it Came to Be: The P-90 Pickup

As I’ve mentioned before, the pickup is by far the most important part of an electric guitar’s tone. Nothing can alter the sound of a guitar quite like the coil(s) and magnets. They can make Squires sound mint and Custom Shops sound cheap. A guitar can only sound as good as its pickups, meaning they are quite prevalent to all players. Understanding pickups and their characteristics is one of the first steps to learning tone.

If you’re being general about it, most would group pickups into humbuckers and single coils. This makes sense because nearly all fall into one of these two categories. However, many would also add a third pickup to those first two groups. You guessed it, P-90s. While technically they are still single coils, these pickups are so unique in sound and appearance that they really call for their own category. Additionally, so many throughout the electric guitar’s history have fallen in love with their signature crisp tone. The bite and clarity of P-90s is one heard across genres and players everywhere. Here is a brief history of how this pickup type came to be what it is today.


An Origin from Innovation

Like with most things in guitar invention, the P-90 was not created in a day. No, this iconic pickup was the result of several others that came prior. While the first P-90 was first introduced in 1946, we have to look back at the 30s to really understand how it was brought about. In fact, the 1930s were some of the most important years for the development of pickups (and audio) in general. One discovery in particular was the catalyst for many pickups designs to come.

In 1931 Japanese metallurgist Tokushichi Mishima discovered an alloy of nickel, iron, and aluminum that had a coercivity of 400 oersteds. This finding was important due to the strong magnetic properties of its elements. Today we now recognize this alloy as Alnico. Alnico meant that magnets could now be quite a bit smaller but still maintain their strength. Hence, why we guitar players appreciate Mr. Mishima’s uncovering.

Before the new Alnico magnets were really being utilized, longer and larger options where all there was. The P-90’s first younger brother can be found in the bodies of jazz guitars from 1932 to 1936. The pickups in these guitars were strait-bar designs, often simply referred to as Charlie Christian pickups due to him popularizing their image.  

The real start to P-90s was all of the changes and advances made to the Charlie Christian models. These alterations are in credit to the Gibson design engineer, Walter Fuller. Fuller is also the mind behind the Charlie Christian layouts, so he had a pretty good idea of where he needed to take it. He made such advancements as adjustable pole pieces, exposed screw mounts and a rectangular housing. These new changes are referred to as P-13 pickups.

The P-90 is Born

Fast forwarding World War 2, we come to 1946 where Walter Fuller has now designed the first P-90. This pickup took a lot from the P-13 and made some more changes. The P-90 still had a rectangular housing with adjustable pole pieces. However, this was still a different pickup in several other ways. This first incarnation of the P-90 can be found on both ES-175 and Switchmaster Gibson models from the following years. People took well to this new Gibson pickup. It was a large part of Gibson’s early acclaim in the budding electric guitar market.

The P-90 was seen in most Gibson guitars from the late 40s into the 50s. Actually, the original Les Paul in ’52 came equipped with them and would continue to do so for a few more years. Yet, as many will be aware of, this trend was changed in 1957 when Seth Lover’s PAF humbuckers were changed to be the Les Paul’s standard config. This did not however mean the end for P-90s. Yes, P-90s stuck around through several means.

Jazz musicians were using Gibson hollow bodies with P-90s well into the 60s. This just goes to show that a lot of the P-90’s continued prominence can be traced right back to the start with Charlie Christian. Additionally, more and more blues/rock players began taking an interest in the pickup as the two genres progressed. And as punk started to really open up, the Les Paul Junior became a staple for rock n’ rollers everywhere. While there is not a massive amount of P-90 only guitarists, nearly every famous player has used them along the way at some point.


Where Things Stands Today

The modern P-90 is quite similar to the original Fuller design from way back when. There have been some magnet updates and variants to the housing, but not much else has changed physically. There has been a notable shift to the way people think of the P-90. As years have passed, the design has become less of a “Gibson thing” and more of a fundamental part of guitar tone. Now, we see all kinds of brands and models coming loaded with this type of single coil pickup. Most people would agree that a P-90 guitar is an essential part of any player's arsenal.

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