This week on TPS, Dan & Mick explored the world of P-90 pickups. As Mick noted, the general impression of P-90s is that “tonally, they tend to be slightly fatter, warmer, with less shrill high-end. But that’s not always the case, because it depends on the guitar.” So, why not see what happens when P-90s and humbuckers are compared across different guitar typologies?
In doing this, Dan & Mick not only related the backstory of this unique breed of pickups and discovered a more versatile set of tones, they also had a chance to profile the all new Keeley El Rey Dorado stompbox, developed in partnership with Riff City Guitar.
The Ongoing History of the P-90
You’d probably know one when you see it, but where do P-90s fit in the history and heritage of gear?
The original P-90 pickup first came out in 1946. As Mick noted, Gibson intended it as a replacement for the “Charlie Christian” pickup, which had been around since 1940. (That pickup, and modern takes on it, is distinct to the eye and ear due to the protruding metal bar magnet running down its center). Mick continued, “It’s tempting to think that the electric guitar was invented in 1950 when the Fender Telecaster came out, but of course that wasn’t the case. Go back ten years…through the forties hollow guitars were developed [with pickups].” For Gibson, the P-90 was standard-issue for about a decade. By 1957, however, the dynasty of the humbucker began and the rest is, well, history.
Observations on Tonal Profile
While the sound of a guitar cannot be reduced only to its pickups—otherwise we’d all just do like Jack White did in that famous scene from It Might Get Loud and hammer a pickup onto a scrap piece of lumber—part of the unique sound of a P-90 is due to its internal construction. As Dan described, “single-coil pickups use magnetic pole-pieces, whereas P-90s use bar magnets on either side.” P-90s also come in two exterior designs: soap bars and dog-ears. Just look at them and you’ll see why.
So how does this different design sound? Here are some notes on the different sounds of P-90s vs. humbuckers in guitars of similar design.
Hollow body style sounds. The first comparison was between a Gibson Memphis ES-335 with humbuckers and a Collings I30 LC equipped with P-90s. To Dan’s ear, the difference here went beyond top-end frequencies. “There’s almost a fatness to it, almost like a built-in level of compression [with the humbuckers].” The P-90s, on the other hand, still had that characteristic openness to them but less compression when a bit of gain was added to the mix. As Mick noted for the hollow body with P-90s, “That feels like a much more dynamic guitar, which of course may also have a lot to do with the construction of the guitar and all those other variables.”
Paul Reed Smith solid body sounds. Here, the faceoff was between a pair of Paul Reed Smith guitars: a DGT model with humbuckers and a McCarty model loaded with the P-90 soap bar pickups. The McCarty with P-90s had a distinct honk in the mid-range frequencies. Dan noted, “You automatically assume with P-90s that you’re going to get this top-end, but with this, the top-end was still there, but it was really fat.”
Gibson Les Paul solid body sounds.The next round was between a 1958 Les Paul with humbuckers and a 1960 Les Paul with P-90s, both reissues, but both brilliant takes on a pair of classics. One of the clearest outcomes from this comparison was to confirm the old adage about P-90s. As Mick noted, “everyone always says that [P-90s] are kind of in between a single coil and a humbucker, and here it absolutely is!”
Gibson SG-type sounds.The final a-b experiment was between Dan’s 1961 Gibson Les Paul and Mick’s Collings 290 DC S. Here, there was plenty of distinct P-90 honk to go around. As Mick noted, “To me, that is the P-90 sound: it’s that bit of honk.” With this style of guitar, the open warmth of the P-90s really shone through in the clean sounds, which only further underscored the versatility of the design.
The All New Keeley El Rey Dorado Overdrive
In addition to a tutorial on P-90s, this week was the first time the new Keeley El Rey Dorado made an appearance on a board on TPS. The pedal is a brand new overdrive made available first through Riff City and developed out of discussions between Robert Keeley and our own Joe Leach.
A few days before the episode, Dan & Mick took the pedal out for a test drive. As Mick described, the name means “Golden King,” which gives a nod to the golden-age Marshall Plexi-like sound delivered by the stompbox. The pedal includes a toggle switch between two modes of British inspired gain, each offering edgy yet warm tube-like overdrives. As Dan and Mick demoed with a library of guitars, the El Rey Dorado reacts, responds, and explodes with single-coil, humbuckers, and, yes, even P-90s. As Dan commented in the P-90 episode, “That pedal is aggressive, but there’s a sharpness to it…and body behind the sound.”As either a foundational amp-in-a-box style pedal or a power plant of gain, the El Rey Dorado is an ideal choice for a golden gain that is at once distinct in sound yet adaptive to your style.
If you’re looking to add a splash of gold to your board, head over to Riff City to get in on the first wave of the Keeley gold rush. And don’t miss our full selection of pickups and P-90 loaded guitars to explore new tonal terrain in your rig.
TPS Rig Rundown
Guitars: 1954 Gibson ES-125, 1961 Gibson Les Paul Junior, PRS DGT, PRS McCarty Soapbar (2002), Gibson SG Standard (2002), Collings 290 DC S, Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335, Collings I-30LC, Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul Standard, Gibson USA 1960 Les Paul Special, Nik Huber Krautster II.
Amps:Marshall 1987x, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III.