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Are P-90s Becoming America’s Most Wanted Pickups?

Ted Drozdowski
|
06.03.2009

“Got anything with P-90s?”

That’s a question heard often at guitar shows these days. And if you look at eBay, you’ll see that prices for vintage Les Paul Specials and Juniors, and older Gibson hollow body dream machines like ES-125s and ES-330s, have been rising.

That’s because P-90 pickups, the fat single-coil models unveiled by Gibson in 1946, are undergoing a renaissance.

Young bands like the Kings of Leon, who have latched onto Gibsons with the pickups’ colorful, cutting sound, have sparked this new wave of interest in P-90s. But in general there’s a rising generation of players who —disinterested in the often semi-acoustic, toned-down edge of today’s radio rock — have embraced the classic sounds of Pete Townshend’s P-90 equipped SG Specials, or David Gilmour’s P-90 driven Goldtop on “Another Brick in the Wall” and his more recent solo work. That same sound informs Bob Marley’s tone and the bray of Neil Young’s Old Black, as well as the proto-punk snarl of the New York Dolls.

The list of great musicians who’ve used axes with P-90s to make history is long, indeed, also including John Fogerty, John Lennon, George Harrison, Mike Bloomfield, Robby Krieger, Billie Joe Armstrong, Frank Zappa, Leslie West, Wes Montgomery and even Muddy Waters.

Two more factors are sparking the current P-90s craze. Vintage Juniors, Specials, SGs and hollow bodies are still within the price range of collectors and star players who can’t shell out six figures for an original ’50s Les Paul or Flying V. And Gibson’s contemporary reissues of classic guitars with P-90s — especially the ’56 Les Paul Gold Top VOS — have caused a buzz among working musicians due to stellar performance and sound.

“There has been a real resurgence of interest in P-90s, and not necessarily where you’d expect,” attests Steve Urick, founder of New York City based RetroFret Vintage Guitars. “ES-330s, for example — we can’t keep them in stock. But there’s always been consistent interest in guitars with P-90s. We’ve never been a new guitar dealer, but we used to joke that Les Paul Specials were our best-selling line.”

What exactly is the charm of the P-90? Blues guitarist Colin Linden, who plays a ’56 Gold Top reissue and a 1969 ES-330 with the hot little beasts, explains: “They are magnificent in so many ways. They cover the waterfront. They give you the immediacy of a single coil pickup, but have a chocolate-ier sound that’s so dark and complex compared to a more conventional single-coil pickup, which is very bright and toppy. And P-90s are super responsive to your hand tone, so they give you the best of a single coil.”

One way to look at the Gibson P-90 is that its high output and biting treble has more nuanced harmonic coloring than the typical Fender single coil pickup.

Gibson introduced P-90s after World War II ended and guitar production resumed. They were more efficient replacements for the bar style pickups, sometimes called Charlie Christian pickups, that came on hollow body electrics like the ES-150. By the late ’40s the P-90 was the standard pickup for all new Gibson models, including the earliest Les Pauls.

That ended when the humbucker was introduced in 1957, but P-90s continued to be used on less expensive guitars like the ES-330, the Les Paul Junior, Les Paul Special and the SG Junior and Special. Typically throughout the ’70s new guitars — even many of those models — were given humbuckers at birth, while certain Les Paul models during that decade received P-90s.

More recent spectacular reissues like the ’67 SG Special that was one of Gibson’s “Guitar of the Week” releases in 2008, the SG Classic and the Custom Shop’s beautiful ’56 Les Paul Gold Top VOS as well as the Epiphone Casino — a model favored by both Beatles’ guitarists — all speak the increasingly popular language of the P-90.

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