So many variables determine the sound that ultimately spills from the speaker that it can be hard to isolate properties exclusively related to pickup choice. I haven’t devised the perfect solution to this problem, though I’ve tried to remove as many variables as possible.
I evaluated the eight pickup sets in this roundup in a single guitar, PG’s go-to Les Paul Traditional, a relatively light model with a bright, zingy tone. For each pickup pair, I set the bridge pickup precisely .090" from the strings, and then set the neck pickup height by ear till the levels matched. I didn’t adjust individual pole pieces—string balance sounded just fine on all the pickups. With the exception of the DiMarzio Bluesbuckers, every pickup set here consists of a unit optimized for the neck position and a unit optimized for the bridge position.
I recorded the audio examples directly into Logic Pro via an Avalon 737 preamp (with EQ and compression bypassed), monitoring through amp simulators. The input, output, and channel settings are identical for each example. After recording, I ran all the clips through a ReAmp to my test amps: a clean-toned, Fender-influenced Divided by 13 CJ11 for the neck and combined-pickup sounds, and a gnarly, noisy Ceriatone 18-watt clone, cranked, for the bridge pickup. Throughout, I never altered the ReAmp output, amp settings, mic position, or anything else. The mic is a Royer R-121. I’ve also included the same bridge-pickup examples processed with Logic’s amp simulators for the benefit of digital players. All clips feature an identical touch of plate reverb, but no post-recording compression or EQ. No noise reduction either—and P-90s can definitely get noisy at high gain. If that’s a major concern, consider one of the hum-cancelling models.
Obviously, I had to perform the musical examples separately for each pickup, though I monitored the original performance while playing, guarding against variations in touch and intensity. (The performances aren’t identical, but they’re pretty darn close.) But just to break the monotony, I improvised freestyle performances for each of the dual-pickup examples. I also recorded examples using the test guitar’s stock ’57 Classic pickups to illustrate the differences between a traditional PAF-style humbucker and the various P-90s.
Disclaimers for Days
A few more things to bear in mind: The differences between these pickups can be subtle—so subtle that they’re easily overshadowed by other elements in your tone chain. A twist of your amp’s treble knob can erase the difference between relatively bright and dark pickups. Altering pickup height can narrow the gap between loud and not-so-loud specimens. Not to mention all the changes that occur when you switch amps, add effects, or mix your tracks. So while I’ve aimed for a level playing field, it’s only one of many possible playing fields.
Also consider that many pickup makers can customize their products to suit your needs. It’s often possible to request different magnets, hotter or cooler coils, and varied cosmetics. If one of these models seems almost right for you, don’t hesitate to ask about custom changes. You may get them for little or no extra cost.
Note that I’ve mixed a few oranges with the apples: This roundup includes six true single-coil products, and two that offer hum canceling via dual coils. I review the single-coils first, followed by the dual-coils. Pickups appear alphabetically by manufacturer name within each section.
Last disclaimer: Given the number of humbucker-sized P-90-style pickups on the market, it’s virtually impossible to cover them all in a single roundup. We will cover as many as possible in future pickup reviews, but in the meantime we encourage you to explore as many options as possible in your pickup quest.