There are three main types of electric guitar pickups: single coils, P-90s and humbuckers. In this article I’ll be comparing the tone, uses and pros and cons of humbuckers and P90s so you can decide which are best for you. Here’s the quick answer…
Humbucker pickups have more bass but less treble compared to P90 pickups, so sound warmer and fuller whereas P90 pickups sound brighter with punchier. Humbucker pickups produce less feedback and are popular in metal and rock, whereas P90 pickups are popular for jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
|Brighter and punchier tone
|Warmer and fuller tone
|More treble and upper mids
|More bass and lower mids
|Good for blues and jazz
|Good for rock, blues and metal
|Produce more feedback
|Produce less feedback
P90 Pickup 101
P90 pickups were first introduced in 1946 and are single coils but with a wider and shorter bobbin. In terms of the tone, they have less treble but more mid-range compared to single coil pickups which gives them a slightly warmer and fuller tone.
P90 pickups are popular in a wide range of music styles but particularly excel at jazz and blues. They are not usually seen in heavy metal or hard rock though because they suffer from feedback issues, like traditional single coil pickups do when using high gain.
There are two main types of P90 pickups: dog ear and soap bar. A soap bar P90 pickup is mounted onto the body of the guitar using two screws located between the pole pieces whereas a dog ear P90 is mounted by using two screws located on extensions on either side of the pickup.
Check out my article comparing dog ear and soap bar pickups.
Guitarists Who Use P90 Pickups
- Carlos Santana
- Pete Townsend
- Mick Jones
- John Lennon
- Billie Joe Armstrong
Guitars Which Have P90 Pickups
- Gibson Les Paul Standard ’50s
- Gibson Les Paul and SG Special
- Fender Player Mustang
- Yamaha Revstar Standard
- B&G Step/ Little Sister Crossroads
Pros and Cons of P90 Pickups
|Bright and punchy tone
|Humming when using high gain
|Ideal for blues and jazz
|Not great for hard rock or metal
|Strong treble and mid-range response
|Weak bass response
Check out my complete guide to P90 pickups to learn more.
Humbucker Pickup 101
Humbucker pickups were first used in electric guitars in the 1950s. In contrast to single coil and P90 pickups, humbuckers have two coils which are arranged in opposite direction which results in a hum-cancelling effect and reduces the amount of feedback when using high gain.
This hum-cancelling effect is what made humbuckers so popular as they are ideal for blues, rock and metal as they don’t sound as noisy as single coil and P90 pickups. Humbucker pickups also have a relatively high output which makes them louder and grittier.
In terms of the tone, humbucker pickups are well known for having a strong bass and mid-range response, but less treble. The result is that they sound warm and full but not as clear and defined as P90 and traditional single coil pickups.
To complicate matters, you can actually get coil split/ coil tapped humbuckers which allows you to achieve single-coil type tones with a humbucker pickup making the guitar very versatile. Check out my article on coil split humbuckers vs P90s to learn more.
Humbuckers can vary in appearance slightly but are significantly wider than single coils. Some humbuckers have a casing, and others just look two single coils pushed together as you can see from the images below.
Guitarists Who Use Humbuckers
- B.B. King
- Angus Young
- Jimmy Page
- Mike Bloomfield
Guitars Which Have Humbuckers
- Gibson Les Paul
- Gibson SG
- PRS Custom 24
- Jackson Dinky
- ESP EC-1000
Pros and Cons of Humbuckers
|Low feedback and humming
|Can sound too warm
|Ideal for metal, rock and blues
|Not great for country
|Strong bass and mid-range response
|Weak treble response
Check out my in-depth comparison between P90 and single coil pickups.
Now onto the direct comparisons between P-90 and humbucker electric guitar pickups. I’ve split this section into the following categories:
- Tone and output
- Music style suitability
Tone and Output
In comparison to humbuckers, P90 pickups have a brighter tone but with less output. Humbuckers sound warmer and fuller.
There are two aspects to unpack here so let’s address them individually starting with the tone.
When I’m referring to the tone of the pickup, I’m talking about how warm/ bright and full it sounds. This is affected by the EQ balance, which is the balance of the bass, mids and treble frequencies which shape the overall tone of the pickup.
- P90 pickups have more treble and upper mids emphasis than humbuckers
- Humbuckers have more bass and lower mids emphasis than P90s
The result is that P90 pickups sound brighter and have more top-end clarity compared to humbuckers. The tighter bass frequencies on a P90 give it a punchier tone.
In contrast, the bass emphasis on the humbuckers give it a looser low-end and warmer sound. They don’t have as much clarity as P90 pickups, but sound fuller in comparison due to the bass and lower-mid range emphasis.
The output of a pickup refers to the level of signal that the pickups send to the amplifier. High output pickups send a stronger signal to the amp compared to low output pickups.
Humbuckers have a higher output compared to P90 pickups. This means that they sound grittier in comparison to P90 pickups which sound cleaner because humbuckers drive the amp harder causing it to distort more easily.
Humbuckers also sound louder than P90 pickups due to their higher output.
This is only to a point though. If the amp is being driven to the point of breakup (overdrive) then the higher output of the pickup will only make the amp sound more distorted and not louder. However, if the clean headroom of the amp hasn’t been reached yet, the volume will increase instead.
Check out my article comparing low and high output pickups to learn more.
Here is a comparison of a Gibson Les Paul ’50s Standard with humbucker pickups and P90 pickups so you can hear the difference between the two. This is one of the closest comparisons as all other specifications of the guitar are the same.
A humbucker pickup consists of two coils instead of just one like P90 pickups have. These two coils are arranged in opposite directions which causes them to cancel the “hum” aka feedback when using high gain, hence the name humbuckers.
This doesn’t mean that humbuckers are immune to feedback though. It is still produced in other ways, but it’s not as noticeable compared to P90 pickups.
P90 pickups do not have this hum-cancelling effect since they just have a single coil, and as a result can sound very noisy and produce a lot of feedback which is noticeable when using overdrive and distortion.
Note that this refers to regular P90 pickups. Some manufacturers have actually come up with ways of reducing the humming on P90 pickups. The Lindy Fralin Hum Cancelling P-90s are a great example of this.
Music Style Suitability
It’s possible to P90 pickups and humbuckers being used by guitarists for a wide range of music style, however they tend to lend themselves better to some styles than others.
Humbuckers are more suited towards heavy metal than P90 pickups. This is because humbuckers don’t suffer as much from feedback/ humming when using high gain amp settings. P90 pickups on the other hand can sound too noisy when using a lot of distortion.
If you want the least background noise and more clarity when using high-gain amp settings, make sure you also consider active pickups too.
Check out this comparison between active and passive pickups
Both humbuckers and P90 pickups are popular in the rock scene, however humbuckers are used more frequently. This is because humbuckers don’t produce as much feedback. However, P90 pickups are still great for rock ‘n’ roll, particularly when using overdriven rather than full-on distorted tones, and have a nice punchy tone that’s popular with a lot of players.
Both humbuckers and P90 pickups are great for blues and it really is a personal preference. The feedback issues associated with P90s are not as much of a problem as usually only light overdrive is used rather than high gain. It really depends if you want the warmth and fullness of a humbucker or the brightness and punchiness of a P90.
P90 pickups are probably the most synonymous with jazz music, but humbuckers are still popular in the jazz scene as well. Jazz uses relatively clean amp settings so the feedback problems associated with P90s are not an issue. The bright and crisp P90 tones sound great for jazz.
Traditional single coil pickups are typically used for country music compared to P90s and humbuckers, however out of the two, P90s are usually the preferred choice for country as they sound cleaner and brighter.
Check out my in-depth comparison between P90 and single coil pickups.