Despite the obsession with 'originality' in vintage guitar circles, it's easy to overlook the fact the vast majority of famous players have always modified their guitars. Even leaving aside finish stripping, tuner changing and custom wiring, pickup swapping has been going on forever.
Eddie Cochran put a P90 on his Gretsch 6120, Lowell George used a Tele bridge pickup in his Strat, Keith Richards and Andy Summers installed PAFs in the neck position of their Teles and Neil Young uses a Firebird mini humbucker in his Les Paul. Even Curt Cobain realised his Fender Mustang couldn’t deliver the grunge he needed without a humbucker.
Traditionally, guitar modders have focused their attentions on Fender-style guitars with single coil pickups – but recently pickup manufacturers have been developing drop-in replacements for guitars equipped with humbuckers and P90s.
Guitars routed for Soapbar P90s
Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that the range of replacement pickups for guitars routed for P90 holes isn’t exactly vast; after all, genuine P90s are so great, most of us wouldn’t want to change them. But be warned, not all P90s are quite what they seem. Leaving aside all the stacked humbucker impostors that don’t sound like P90s at all, some are so overwound that they sound dull and muddy while others offer little more than an S-type bobbin under the cover or, even worse, half a PAF.
We could only come up with two alternatives. The first is the Rio Grande Baby Bucker (£119) – a miniature humbucker with two exposed bobbins and non-adjustable slugs. The fixing mechanism is unusual: a drilled bar is screwed onto the base of the pickup route and the pickup assembly screws onto that. Unfortunately we couldn’t get it low enough to clear the strings of our Squier Tele Custom test guitar, so it’s unfortunate that we can’t report on the sound quality.
Fortunately we had no such problems with the TV Jones P’Tron ($120). This is a Magnatron pickup in P90 form promising 'rockabilly twang for the 21st century'. It's actually far more than that, because this is a great all-round pickup. It's super-clear and dynamically responsive, with a wide open sound that can effortlessly drive an amp. It's bright too, although not in a sharp and skinny single coil sort of way. Rather, the emphasis is in the upper mids. It’s hard to beat a decent P90, but this pickup undoubtedly transformed the tone of our test guitar. The combination of a P’Tron in the neck with a P90 at the bridge proved especially versatile and effective.