In an age when so many guitar makers buy their pickups from third-party manufacturers, it’s great to know that your Gibson is loaded with in-house pickups designed to optimize the performance of that specific Gibson-brand guitar. Out of the many classic pickups Gibson has designed and manufactured since releasing the first electric guitar from a major maker in 1936, two remain hands-down legends in tone circles: the P-90 single coil, and the PAF humbucker.

The Seminal Single-Coil

It’s incredible to think that Gibson’s P-90 was first released in 1946, way back in the jazz age, yet remains a favorite of many guitarists playing every variety of music today. Whether it’s beneath the “dog-ear” cover as found on jazz guitars of the late ’40s and on later Les Paul Juniors of the ’50s, or the “soapbar” cover used on Les Paul Goldtops and Specials, the pickup inside has been the same since the late ’40s. The main ingredients include a wide, shallow coil comprising approximately 10,000 turns of 42 AWG wire, with six individual threaded steel pole pieces running through the center of the coil and into a steel bar at the bottom, which is in contact with two Alnico bar magnets, one either side—all held together by a steel bass plate.

Gibson Humbuckers

The design and ingredients of this wide single-coil pickup translate any guitar it’s used in to a sound that’s clear, broad, deep and rich. This foundation is enhanced by elements of characterful granularity, sweet highs, and a distinctive midrange punch that all add up to a unique sonic personality, along with some severe growl when pushed through an overdriven amp. Given its wide “magnetic window” relative to narrower single-coils, the P-90 has a thickness and creaminess that thinner pickups are lacking, but it still has that single-coil articulation and focus that many players like, enabling meaty twang and jangle tones, and great cleans as well as raunchy leads and crunch-rhythm voices.

Gibson Humbuckers

Any fan of the great P-90 will tell you there’s no other pickup like it, and despite the slight hum that single-coil pickups can induce, the design remains an entirely viable tone tool today. So well respected was it in the first decade of its existence, in fact, that when Gibson president Ted McCarty (who himself held an engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati) wanted a new hum-rejecting pickup, he specified his love of the existing P-90, and the objective that the new component should sound as similar as possible… without the hum.

Converting the Package to a Humbucker

P-90 and humbucking pickups are often considered by players to be near opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of Gibson-certified tone at least. Apples and oranges. But consider that these two pickups are made from very nearly the same raw ingredients, just re-configured into different shapes, and their sonic kinship begins to come into better focus. And in fact, the humbucker has one less of one of the P-90’s essential components, and one more of another.

In 1955 when McCarty asked Seth Lover and Walter Full to create a hum-free pickup “that still sounded a lot like a P-90,” the Gibson engineers did the logical thing and simply reconfigured the existing pickup’s main ingredients into a new hum-rejecting design. Lover and Fuller applied their knowledge of amplifier chokes (transformer-like coils designed to reject hum from a tube amplifier’s power supply), twisting the existing single-coil into a dual-coil unit, in which two similar but reverse-wound coils with opposite magnetic polarities were placed side-by-side and wired together in series. As a result, the configuration rejected much of the hum that single-coil pickups can produce—which the humbucker negates when the signals from two “mirror-image” coils are summed together—but passed along all of the guitar tone.

Gibson Humbuckers

Each of the two coils, wound around two narrower individual bobbins, carried about half of the P-90’s 10,000 turns of 42 AWG wire—around 5,000 per coil, although the windings were never especially precise back in the day (this imprecision another element of the revered PAF tone). And the new double-coil pickup required only one of the P-90s two Alnico bar magnets, since it was now placed between the two sets of six pole-pieces in each coil, providing opposite-polarity magnetism to each set from each side of a single magnet.

In addition to their hum-rejection, though, the double-coil pickups’ side-by-side coil positioning also alters the way that the humbucking pickup senses string vibration. The wider “window,” which samples vibration at the pole pieces across the tops of two coils, produces a warm, rich sound that can often be fuller than that of the average single-coil pickup, even one (like Gibson’s P-90) that contains the exact same amount of wire in its single coil as is used in the humbucker’s two coils together. The engineers also added a thin metal cover made of nickel-silver (aka “German silver”), an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel, which further reduced electrostatic interference.

Gibson Humbuckers

Certain quirks of the original “PAF” humbuckers made by Gibson between 1956 and ’62 (so called for the “Patent Applied For” stickers on the bottoms), like the slightly unevenly wound bobbins and the lack of wax potting, helped these to have great clarity, edge and bite, so they still cut through the mix extremely well for a “fatter” sounding pickup. Otherwise, their width, and the way that they combine signals from two coils positioned slightly apart, made them warmer and thicker than the average P-90

Siblings in Sound

Through all of this, it’s easy to see where the P-90 and the PAF-style humbucker still have much in common, despite their obvious differences. Since each has approximately the same amount of wire—whether wound into one coil or two—they have similar output readings, of between around 7.4k ohms and 8.4k ohms for vintage-wound example, and therefore will drive an amplifier equally hard.

The constructional elements also give them a similar personality, namely the steel pole pieces and magnet placed beneath the coil (rather than having magnetic pole pieces within the coil, as in some other pickups) inducing some muscle, punch, and a slight grittiness to the tonality that adds girth and character.

Of course, they do differ in many ways, too. Players looking for either a little more twanginess or a more raw, gnarly form of rock’n’roll tone might find that more immediately in the P-90. Those seeking creamy, singing, sustaining leads might achieve it more easily from the humbucker. In truth, either pickup can also usually perform either task extremely well—but each has its strengths and players who love one or the other tend to stick with them for what those strengths are.

Add it all up, though, and the humble single-coil P-90 and the mighty PAF-style humbucker have a fascinating number of characteristics in common.

Gibson still makes accurate renditions of both of these perennial favorites, using the same ingredients and processes employed in the golden era of pickup making. Check out the units available on our wide range of models from Gibson and Gibson Custom, to experience several reproduction PAF humbuckers and P-90 single coils tailored to perfectly voice the characteristics of each guitar.