Ahh, the eternal comparison: P90 vs Humbuckers. From the late 1940s through the early 1950s, the P90 was the standard pickup for Gibson electric guitars. The reason for their popularity was that they were the hottest pickups the guitar world had ever seen, capable of putting out bolder, more powerful rock guitar sound, without the overly bright twang that some single-coil pickups produce.
The humbucker, on the other hand, is known for one key thing: the design eliminates the 60-cycle hum that was a background presence in all single-coil tones. While they’re certainly capable of giving you powerful overdrive, they can also deliver louder clean tones than any previous pickup, giving them more versatility across a wider range of genres.
There are a lot of key differences between the P90 and the humbucker, both in terms of their internal components and the sound they produce. Each pickup style also has its own set of fierce adherents who will extol its virtues over any other design. Both P90s and humbuckers each have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, and you might find either one gives your sound the edge you’re looking for.
So, let’s begin our analysis so we can finally get to the bottom of the P90 vs Humbuckers question:
P90 vs Humbuckers – The P90s
The P90 is a single-coil pickup that has some of the attitude of a humbucker design. They’re not as twangy as the single-coils traditionally used on the Strat, for example, but have more bite and mid-range strength than the typical humbucker. P90s are known for their brightness and transparency, giving you a balanced sound with plenty of body.
Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat Pickup
The main drawback of many P90s is the fact that you have to modify your guitar in order to use them. The Phat Cat is instead designed to fit into a standard humbucker slot, giving you a P90 tone without taking this potentially costly step. They use a pair of Alnico II magnets that bring both a punchy attack and a high end sparkle. These pickups definitely lean more toward the typical hot Fender single-coil sound than other P90s, which is great if you like to play with a lot of gain. The Phat Cats really shine when overdriven, and are versatile enough to sound at home in a wide range of styles.
Tonerider P90 Bridge Pickup
If you’re looking for a P90 pickup that can give you a combination of sound quality and value, the Tonerider Hot 90 is a good option to check out. The most impressive thing about this pickup is its bass response. Most P90s are strong in the mid-range with a bright high end, and while the Hot 90 delivers on those fronts, it also brings a rich, full bass that gives you an overall more balanced tone. It uses an Alnico V bar magnet for a powerful tone and attack that doesn’t sacrifice anything in the way of clarity and articulation. The interior construction is built to let the best sound shine through, with wax potted poles to minimize feedback and a durable soapbar-style casing.
P90 vs Humbuckers – The Humbuckers
The lack of extraneous noise is a humbucker’s namesake characteristic, but these pickups also tend to have a similar sound character that most devotees praise as much as the lack of hum. The attacks are softer than your typical single-coil and the sustains longer, with an overall darker or warmer tone. The end result is a rock tone that’s less aggressive and more responsive to a wider range of dynamics.
DiMarzio X2N Humbucker
This is the highest gain pickup in DiMarzio’s catalogue, built for players who like to push the overdrive. The ceramic magnet gives the sound a raw power that’s sometimes missing from the sound profile of humbucker designs. While it’s marketed to metal players because of how it plays at high gain, it’s cleans up pretty well for such a powerful pup. When you turn down the level, it has a nicely balanced tone with a fat bass and sizzling highs. Because it is so assertive, it can be tricky to pair in combination with other pickups, but it’s versatile enough you might not want to use any other pickups, anyway.
Seymour Duncan Black Winter Humbucker Set
Seymour Duncan makes fantastic pickups in all the common styles, but their humbuckers are especially strong. The company describes the tone of these pups to be “as dark as the winters in Scandinavia,” with a complex tone that’s equally rich across the treble, mid, and bass tones (see full specs). It’s another aggressive pickup that does well with distortion and is perfectly suited to a gritty grunge or metal tone. The ceramic magnet helps to give the sound its power, and while they are a very aggressive pickup, buying both the neck and bridge as a set means you won’t have to worry about how they pair with other pickups.
P90 vs Humbuckers — So Which Are Better?
The question of whether you want to use humbuckers or P90 pickups is in some ways determined by your instrument. Guitars are built to accommodate one specific pickup design; changing to anything else will require modification, except in the case of special models like the Phat Cat (see full specs) on the list above.
The decision will ultimately boil down to two questions: cost and tone. Many people find the P90 pickup brings the best of both single- and double-coil designs together into one pup. But while it’s quieter than traditional single-coils, it still does add some inherent noise to your tone, unlike a humbucker; how much this bothers you will depend on what style of music you like to play and how clean and subtle a tone you’re going for.
From an economic standpoint, you can spend a lot on a set of humbuckers—more on average than it costs to get a P90, though for both you’re looking at an investment of between $50 and $150 per pickup. Where the question of cost really comes into play is if you have to modify your instrument to change pickup styles. In that case, you’d be best served by getting an estimate from the person who’d be installing them first to find out what it will cost before buying the pickups. You might be willing to spend $50 to experiment with a P90 tone, but if the modification costs hundreds—and is permanent, to boot—that could make the decision a bit more difficult.
There is no right answer as to whether P90 or humbuckers are categorically better. Each is the right choice for its own situation. If your ideal tone is brighter with a punchier attack and a vintage sensibility, a P90 is likely to be to your liking. If you want a darker tone, a humbucker might be more your speed. Whichever way you go, the pickups on the list above bring a combination of quality, clarity, and power that’s hard to beat. Good luck!
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