Can You Play Metal With P90 Pickups?

Pickups are the heart of electric guitars. Most often than not, they play a major role in defining the sound of a band. 

P90 pickups were created by Gibson back in 1946. They replaced the Charlie Christian pickups that were mostly used in jazz bands at that time.

This gear gained a lot of popularity when the punk scene emerged in the ’70s. Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls), Mick Jones (The Clash), and Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) are some of the guitarists whose sound was defined by a P90 pickup.

It is quite transparent then, that P90s are a quality option regarding punk rock. But what about metal?

Can you get into a metal band and play exclusively with P90 pickups? Here’s the short answer: 

You CAN play metal with P90 pickups. However, they are NOT the best option for most sub-genres. P90s lack the low end and definition of humbuckers and have a muddier sound, although this, paired with their top-end clarity could be used in some styles. Most professional bands do not play with P90 pickups.

So now you might say “I am a bit confused. Should I, or shouldn’t I play metal with P90s?” 

My answer is not to rush to conclusions already. Instead, let’s analyze this question thoroughly, to see whether or not a P90 pickup suits your style. 

What makes P90s interesting for metal? 

P90 pickups are adaptable. They are, to some extent, in-between a single coil (Fender) and P.A.F humbucker. 

As a result, you get the impressive combination of the P.A.F. mid-punch (although a bit muddy) with the brightness of a single coil. 

This is fantastic because vivid sounds help to hear the notes clearer. 

But hey, do not worry! Your music will be far from sounding soft (the nightmare of every metalhead). 

One feature that stands out from P90s is the clarity of its sound, especially on the top-end. This means that such pickup would work perfectly on guitar solos. 

For example, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour recorded the solo from Another Brick in The Wall (Part 2) with a P90 pickup. Although Pink Floyd is not metal, such brightness would be undeniably good for studio recordings, despite the genre.   

P90 pickups could be interesting for metal, especially if your style is vintage-oriented.

Why P90s could not work out for metal? 

You may buy a guitar with P90 pickups and find out it is not what you were looking for. The reason is that P90s and high distortion do not go hand in hand. 

This is because P90s’ sound is brittle and delicate. Metal, on the other hand, is robust and coarse. 

Metal needs loud distortion. 

You should probably want to find a guitar that provides the later characteristics. Unless, of course, you are looking for your Gojira tribute band to sound like Green Day!    

Still, I would consider the main issue to be the hum. Add lots of gain to your P90 and you’ll get lots of humming. 

However, a decent amp and proper effects, such as a noise gate, could get rid of such a problem. 

So, if planning to play on high gain settings, P90 isn’t the best choice. 

Lastly, bear in mind that many guitarists like to play with feedback on their high gain amps. Therefore, single coils will generate a massive amount of it. 

In other words, as soon as you stop playing, your guitar will scream (and we want singers to scream, not strings). 

Examples of P90s used in metal 

As ironically as it may seem, metal was founded with a P90! Tony Iommi recorded the first Black Sabbath albums mostly with a 1965 Gibson SG Special. 

This guitar presented a P90 pickup in the bridge, which was fitted into a John Birch’s metal case, as well as a John Birch custom P90 type single-coil in the neck

Of course, at that time nobody said, “Wait a minute Tony, you can’t play heavy metal with a P90 pickup. I read it on an internet article”. 

‘Metal’ wasn’t even a thing in the early 1970s. 

But what about now? Do modern metal bands play with P90s? 

Not many, actually. 

The most vivid example could be Daron Malakian from System of a Down, who used a 1964 Gibson SG Special for the recordings of both Mesmerize and Hypnotize. According to him, P90s are “much more wild and open”. 

Together with the pointed attack of a humbucker, the results are magnificent. 

Last but not least, let’s not forget Zakk Wylde, who received a 1957 Gibson Les Paul Junior (with P90 pickups) as a gift from Ozzy Osbourne, not long after joining the band. A great addition for cleaner tones in the studio.

Metal genres in which the P90s sound would shine 

As I mentioned before, P90 pickups are splendid for sounding like a late 60’s/early 70’s band. After all, it has been the #1 selection for The Who, Pink Floyd, Mountain, and The Doors, among others. 

Therefore, P90s sound would absolutely shine on a stoner metal band, which is mainly influenced by the psychedelic rock from the ’60s and Black Sabbath (and lots of hallucinogens, but that is a topic for another article).  

Regarding Doom metal, one could argue that a Humbucker can make a better job. Even though this is true, a P90 might be the right choice.   

If you can stand the noise issues, of course. 

I would recommend you to listen to Greg Anderson to see what I mean. 


 To sum up, we can make a quick list of the main characteristics of P90s concerning metal:

  • They are better for specific studio recordings 
  • They May be great for experimenting with new sounds 
  • Great for hearing the notes clearer 
  • Not the best option for live performances
  • Not good on high gain settings 
  • Suits the most on “vintage” styles 

With all that said, remember that creativity is limitless. If your guts are telling you that a P90 pickup should be your choice for metal, then you already have the answer. 

And most probably, that answer is going to be right.