Out of the three main types of guitar pickups (single coil, P90 and humbuckers), the most closely related are single coil pickups and P90 pickups, so what exactly is the difference between them?
I’ll address the pros and cons of each type of pickup, as well as compare the tone, output and music style suitability so you can figure out which is the best for your electric guitar.
Short on time? Here’s the quick answer…
Single coil pickups sound brighter and more articulate compared to P90 pickups which sound warmer and fuller. Single coil pickups have a lower output and are popular in pop, country, and funk music, whereas P90 pickups are often used in jazz and blues.
|Brighter and clearer tone||Warmer and fuller tone|
|More treble||More bass and mids|
|Good for country, pop and funk||Good for blues and jazz|
|Produce more feedback||Produce less feedback|
|Lower volume||Higher volume|
Single Coil Pickup Overview
Single coil pickups were the first of the three types to be invented in 1931. They consist of the fairly basic structure of 6 magnetic pole pieces wrapped in coils of wire, held in place by a plastic bobbin.
Single coils are well known for their bright and crisp tones. The EQ emphasis is on the treble frequencies which provides the clarity and they have a more scooped mid-range compared to other pickup types which makes them sound a bit thinner.
They are still used in a wide range of music styles such as country, blues and rock, however they are not typically used in heavy metal or other genres which use a lot of distortion. The reason being that they produce a considerable amount of feedback due to their single coil structure (something which humbuckers do not suffer from nearly as much).
Single coil pickups are hugely popular and used on many electric guitar models and by many famous guitarists.
Guitarists Who Use Single Coil Pickups
- Jimi Hendrix
- Eric Clapton
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Tom Morello
- Keith Richards
Guitars Which Have Single Coil Pickups
- Fender Stratocaster
- Fender Telecaster
- Fender Jazzmaster
- Fender Jaguar
- PRS Silver Sky
Pros and Cons of Single Coil Pickups
|Bright and articulate||Humming when using high gain|
|Ideal for country, funk and pop||Not great for hard rock or metal|
|Strong treble response||Weak bass and mid-range response|
P90 Pickup Overview
P90 pickups were first invented in 1946 as an alternative to traditional single coil pickups. P90 pickups still have a single coil, as opposed to a double coil structure like you’d find in a humbucker pickup, but typically have more coil windings, use different pole pieces and have the addition of bar magnets.
Due to the wider and shorter bobbin, P90 pickups sound warmer and fuller compared to traditional single coil pickups. They’re not as warm and full sounding as a humbucker, but they offer a compromise between the tone of a single coil and humbucker pickup and therefore are considered very versatile.
There are two types of P90 pickups:
- Dog ear
- Soap bar
The Dog Ear P90 pickup is mounted using two screws on either side of the pickup onto the body of the guitar. Alternatively, the Soap Bar P90 is mounted using screws located between the pole pieces. This has little impact on the tone, but it is easier to adjust the pickup height on a Soap Bar P90.
If you’re looking for more information, check out my comparison between dog ear and soap bar P90’s.
P90 pickups are not as popular as single coil and humbucker pickups and therefore are seen on fewer guitar models and used by fewer famous electric guitarists. However, there are still plenty of guitars and players which use them.
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 P-90 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 in-depth comparison between P90 and humbucker pickups.
Pickup Type Comparison
Okay so now we’ve been through the basics, let’s compare single coils and P90’s directly in the following categories:
- Pickup structure and design
- Music style suitability
Structure and Design
Both the P90 and single coil pickup consist of a single magnet wrapped with coils of wire, however there are several other structural differences between them.
- Single coils have 6 magnetic pole pieces whereas P90 pickups have 6 screw pole pieces
- Single coil pickups usually have approximately 8,000 coils whereas P90 pickups have roughly 10,000 coils of wire
- P90 pickups have bar magnets under the coils unlike single coil pickups
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.
A stronger signal results in one of two possible outcomes:
- If the amp is still below the “clean headroom”, the sound will be louder
- If the amp is above the “clean headroom”, the sound will be more distorted. This is often why high output pickups are described as dirtier than lower output pickups.
Many factors affect the output of a pickup, including how many coil windings there are and the magnet used. However, as a general rule, P90 pickups have a higher output compared to single coil pickups and consequently sound louder and distort the amp more easily.
Single coil pickups have more treble emphasis compared to P90 pickups, and as a result sound brighter and clearer. P90 pickups have more bass and mid-range emphasis and consequently sound fuller and warmer compared to single coil pickups.
Check out this YouTube video to hear a comparison of these different pickup types.
If you’re using a lot of gain or even a long signal chain, then you’ll probably be concerned about controlling feedback and background noise.
Single coil pickups produce more feedback and unwanted background noise compared to P90 pickups, hence if you’re using a lot of distortion, P90 pickups may be a better option. When using clean amp settings, this isn’t as much of a problem.
Even though P90 pickups produce less feedback than traditional single coils, it’s still important to recognise that they do still suffer from it far more than humbucker pickups.
If you’re concerned about feedback but still like the tone of single coils or P90 pickups, you can always go for “noiseless” pickups, which are far quieter and very popular in the modern guitar scene.
Music Style Suitability
It’s entirely possible to use single coil and P90 pickups for any music style, it all comes down to the tone you’re looking for. However, in general different pickup types lend themselves more to different music styles than others.
|Music Style||Best Option|
Both P90 and single coil pickups are very popular for rock music. If you’re using a lot of gain, I’d recommend checking out P90 pickups as the feedback won’t be as severe, or go for noiseless single coil or P90 pickups to eliminate the issue.
Again, both P90 and single coil pickups are ideal for blues however many players do prefer the warmer and fuller sound of a P90 for this genre. You may need to tame the brightness of a traditional single coil if you use it for blues.
P90 pickups are very popular in the jazz scene as they are nice and articulate but warmer compared to single coil pickups. With that said, you can still use single coils for jazz, but they’re just not as popular in this genre.
Single coil pickups are more synonymous with country music than P90 pickups as they have a lot of clarity and are capable of producing great twangy and bright tones due to the treble emphasis and scooped mid-range quality.
Neither P90 or single coil pickups are as popular in the metal scene as humbuckers, however out of the two, P90 pickups typically cope the best as they have a fuller tone and suffer less from background noise and feedback when using high gain.
Check out my in-depth comparison between P90 and humbucker pickups.