P90 pickups - one of Gibson's earliest pickup designs are forerunners of the Blues90 pickups that are fitted to the BluesHawk
Having resumed production of electric guitars after World War II, Gibson took the opportunity to introduce several new pickup designs, one of which employed six adjustable pole pieces protruding through a black plastic cover secured via dog-ear end lugs. This was the model that would become the company's most successful single-coil, the P90.
The first guitars to benefit from the new pickup were existing archtop-electrics such as the ES150 and ES300. The less-expensive ES125 initially utilised a cheaper alternative featuring fixed polepieces, but by 1951 the normal P90 was standard fitting for all Gibsons, including late-forties launches like the ES175, ES350 and also the ES5, which came with no less than three! As the company's preferred pickup, the P90 also saw service on the more up-market models added in the early fifties: carved top, big-bodied acoustic-electrics such as the L5CES and Super 400CES.
Cream covers debut
In 1952, the all-gold ES295 represented a flashy departure from the company's ultra-conservative sunburst or natural finishes, and accordingly its twin P90s sported smart cream covers to match the other plastic parts.
The same year also brought what would be Gibson's most influential electric ever, the Les Paul, and it was equipped with a pair of P90s.
However, the solidbody construction demanded a different design, and thus the de-lugged soapbar version of the P90 was born, complete with cream plastic covers on the gold-topped model, while black alternatives matched the sombrely clad Custom that debuted in 1953.
The P90 assumed definite second string status in 1957, following the introduction of Gibson's humbucking pickup. Almost overnight, the latter replaced its single-coil stablemate on virtually all of the maker's up-market instruments, leaving the P90 to power only the more modest creations.
Les Pauls evolved into SGs during the early sixties, but pickup parity remained unaltered and the revised Junior and Special initially retained their respective P90 types. However, from 1966 a change of scratchplate styling saw the Junior equipped with a single soapbar. Taking flight in 1965, Gibson's revised Firebird I and III spurned the mini-humbuckers of their reverse-bodied predecessors, instead favouring two and three P90s respectively.
Along with the ES330, the ES125 was by now virtually the only other Gibson acoustic-electric still employing the P90 - a far cry from the its fifties dominance and an indication of the humbucker's all-pervading popularity.
When the original style Les Paul was revived in 1968, Gibson decided to outfit the newly named Standard with a pair of soapbar P90s, leaving the Custom to provide the humbucker option.
The SG Junior and Special suffered the same fate in 1971, as did the ES125, while the ES330 followed the next year. The revamped SG range briefly included a P90 equipped Pro, but this was axed in 1972, leaving the short-lived Les Paul Custom 54 to carry the P90 flag for that year, after which the pickup virtually vanished from the Gibson catalogue.
However, it wouldn't be away for too long, re-appearing in 1974 on the Les Paul 55 - a revival of the single cutaway Special. This was joined by the Special Double-Cutaway model in 1976, and the Pro Deluxe issued two years later also championed the P90 cause. Since then Gibson has issued a selection of reissues and variations, like the Les Paul Studio Gem, all putting the P90 to good use and re-kindling interest in what many regard as Gibson's best-ever pickup.
adapted from Paul Day - Guitarist magazine