P90 vs Humbucker Pickups – Differences in Tone & Build

Author: Ross McLeod | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

P90 and humbucker pickups are both brilliant inventions that have revolutionized the tone of the electric guitar. Although these pickups share many similarities, there are some notable differences between the two.

These differences begin with the way that the P90 and humbucker pickups are designed and physically built. They extend to the sound they produce, and their suitability to particular guitar styles.

In this definitive guide, I’ll present you with all of the information you need on P90 and humbucker pickups, highlighting their differences.

What is a P90 Pickup?

The P90 was originally designed by guitar heavyweights Gibson. This legendary manufacturer began the process of designing the P90 way back in the 1930s, two decades before they became available to the masses.

A jazz guitarist by the name of Charlie Christian was largely responsible for the popularization of the electric guitar in general, but he is especially linked to the notorious P90 that was installed on his ES 150 in the 1930s.

The early edition of the P90 was extremely bulky, and utilized two cobalt steel magnets, with a straight blade. Mounting the pickup on the Gibson guitar was an invasive process, requiring the drilling of multiple holes into the instrument.

Throughout the following decades, Gibson reduced the size of the P90. When alnico magnets were employed, the pickups could be reduced in size, without compromising on the magnetic power.

This discovery had a profound effect on guitar pickups in general. When Gibson introduced their now-iconic guitars, the Les Paul Standard, Custom, and Special, the P90s were installed on all three and were largely responsible for their distinctive tone.

Fast forward to the present day, and P90s continue to be at the forefront of electric guitar pickups. They are installed on a wide range of Gibson and Epiphone guitars, in addition to many other brands and custom builds by musicians.

Some of the most popular P90 pickups today:

What is a Humbucker Pickup?

The humbucker pickup, sometimes referred to as “double coil”, is a hugely popular device that utilizes a pair of coils. Its name comes from its ability to “buck the hum”, reducing the unwanted noise that plagued single-coil pickups in the early days of guitar manufacturing.

The very first humbucking coil was invented by a small audio company from Indiana, around 1934. The early edition was designed for public addressing and speeches, but it quickly became a popular choice for electric guitar.

Humbuckers were first installed on an electric guitar when Seth Lover of Gibson was instructed by the company’s president to try and combat the issue of hum that single-coil pickups were prone to.

Gretsch was also experimenting with humbucker pickups on their guitars around the same time, but Gibson ultimately won the race, patenting their device a couple of years before Gretsch.

When rock n’ roll exploded on both sides of the continent in the 50s and 60s, humbuckers were employed by many of the leading guitar manufacturers, mainly for the cleaner tone they produced, compared to single-coils.

Some of the most popular humbuckers today:

P90 vs. Humbucker – Comparison

To establish the main differences between P90 and humbucker pickups, we must thoroughly analyze some key aspects of both devices. These include:

  • Build & Design
  • Tone
  • Volume
  • Suitability

Let’s explore each of these aspects of the P90 and humbucker pickups individually, to compare their strengths and weaknesses.

P90 Build & Design

Vintage P90s have a DC resistance of between 6.5k and 8.5k. The majority of these pickups fall somewhere in the region of those two values. Depending on the magnets that are used to design the P90s, their tone and inductance both vary.

The standard P90 casing is very similar to the humbucker design. They are generally a little thinner and longer than traditional humbuckers, but they don’t require your instrument to be modified in any way for installation.

There are two main designs of P90 pickups – the “soap bar” and the “dog ear”. The soap bar design looks very similar to the original Gibson P90 pickup. It has a rectangular shape, and screws for mounting in the center.

The dog-ear pickup looks similar to the soap bar, except the mounting screws are situated on triangular extensions that stretch out from both sides of the P90 pickup. These are generally more invasive to install on your guitar the soap bar variety.

Humbucker Build & Design

Designed to combat the issue of unwanted noise produced by single-coil pickups, humbuckers use two coils that have opposing polarities and windings. The assembly of these coils cancels out electromagnetic interference.

That’s the main thing that makes humbuckers unique – they’re the only pickups that utilize two separate coils instead of one. The way that the magnets are arranged is also notably different from the P90.

On a humbucker pickup, there is a single bar magnet [positioned underneath the two coils. This reduces the grittiness of the tone, which is a quality that P90s have in abundance.

The humbucker design remains very similar to the original models that were produced over half a century ago. They are built in the same way, the only thing that differs is the type of magnets that are used with them.

P90 Tone & Volume

P90 pickups produce a similar sound to the single-coil pickup, paired with a humbucker. It essentially blends the two extremes to create a low-output, vintage sound that is instantly recognizable.

The P90 has an especially strong midrange. When paired with a tube amplifier, there is likely to be plenty of warm saturation in the mid-range frequencies, which is great for various styles of music.

Another tonal quality of P90 pickups is their ability to produce the twangy, crisp highs that humbuckers struggle to deliver. They are highly compatible with semi-hollow guitars and provide them with a much-needed brighter tone.

Humbucker Tone & Volume

As I previously mentioned, the main purpose of humbucker pickups is to alleviate the hum that is present when using single coils. Overall, the tone of a humbucker is thick, warm, and balanced.

A humbuckers tone is closer to P90s than single coils, but there are still notable differences. They produce a fatter sound, with extensive sustain that lasts significantly longer than P90 pickups.

When combined with a tube amplifier, humbuckers show their true power. Although they’re more contained than P90s, they can still create red-hot overdriven tones when required.

Again, the overall sound of the humbucker is also largely dependent on the type of magnets that are utilized. Commonly Alnico 2, 4, or 5 magnets are employed, depending on the preference of the manufacturer.

Final Verdict

There’s no denying that both P90 and humbucker pickups are quite incredible creations. They both provide great alternatives to single-coil pickups and add their character to the tone of a guitar.

When you analyze the fundamentals of these two pickups, it’s apparent that there are some stark differences. First of all, P90s use only one coil, whereas humbuckers famously use two coils.

That’s not the only difference, though. The way the coils are configured on both pickups is also completely different, as is the arrangement and choice of the magnets. These variations cause noticeable differences in the tone and sound produced by both pickups.

Indeed, within the category of both humbucker and P90s, you’ll find that there are even significant differences depending on the manufacturer and model. Nevertheless, humbuckers tend to produce a thicker, warmer tone than the P90s.

P90 pickups combine the characteristics and qualities of single-coil pickups and humbuckers. It would be fairly accurate to call them a hybrid pickup, which provides the best of both worlds.

However, due to P90s only using one coil, they don’t boast the same level of proficiency when it comes to minimizing unwanted electronic hum from the signal and therefore, are more prone to noise issues.

There are, of course, ways around any problems that you may encounter regarding unwanted hum when using P90 pickups. You could use a noise suppressor pedal, a gate, or even EQ to remove some of the problem frequencies.

I prefer humbuckers to both single coil and P90s, simply because they are the most effective at keeping the signal as clean as possible. They also produce a fat, immersive tone that suits my style of guitar playing.

For you, the answer may be different. If you prefer to have a wilder tone with high output and plenty of characters, the P90 will provide that.

If, on the other hand, you’d rather stick to the most reliable type of pickup and not have to worry about electronic hum tarnishing your signal clarity, then humbuckers are probably the best choice.

Conclusion

If you get the chance, I’d encourage you to experiment with as many different types of pickups that you can. This will help you to determine which type best suits your playing style, and is most compatible with the rest of your rig.

Thankfully, P90 and humbuckers are quite easy to acquire these days and relatively affordable. I hope that this guide has answered the questions you had on the topic of these two pickup types.

About Ross McLeod

Ross is a music producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. He is the frontman of The Blue Dawns, where he handles vocal and bass duties. He has extensive experience with bass, drums and guitar. His most recent project is named Gold Jacket.

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