Introduction by David Szabados, Review by Mike Mullen
After playing through a P-90-loaded guitar for the first time, my immediate thought was, "OMG! Where have you been all my life? And where have I been all these years!?"
While focusing on getting my ideal rock and blues tones for years, I’ve always played through and with countless variations of Les Pauls and Stratocasters (and copies) with a myriad of pickup arrangements. For one reason or another however, I had never gotten to trying a guitar equipped with P-90s. Until late last year…
Maybe it was because these pickups were traditionally installed into the lower-line Gibsons such as the Junior or the Special. Or maybe it was because I knew that these were some of the oldest designed pickups that came about before the advent of rock and roll. And of course wouldn’t a Gibson-style humbucker just have to be a superior pickup anyway? Why would I want to play through a lower-line guitar with an older-style inferior pickup? In my mind, single-coils were done properly by Fender as evidenced by the tremendous popularity of the Stratocaster and Telecaster, and so Gibson’s version would undoubtedly have little to offer.
Boy was I wrong.
Imagine this in a pickup…getting all the output of your favorite humbucker with authoritative tone and sustain BUT you retain the note clarity and definition of a single-coil rather than having the higher compression characteristics of a humbucker. That’s a P-90. It’s lively, dynamic, and powerful.
It can be warm and thick for blues or it can crunch and wail through an old Marshall like nothing else. The P-90 is a pickup that responds to your playing styles and rewards you with layers of harmonics as you attack the strings. If you’re a good player, the P-90 will let you shine.
If you haven’t given a P-90-equipped guitar a try, you owe it to yourself to find a Les Paul Junior, an older Special (Les Paul or SG), or a P-90 Goldtop and let her rip!
Or if you’re interested in checking out some P-90 type flavor, but don’t want to get a whole new guitar or modify your existing instrument, check out the Seymour Duncan Phat Cat reviewed below by Mike Mullen. They’re P-90s made to fit into a standard humbucker space.
SRP $109 each
By Mike Mullen
The P-90 is a single coil pickup from the early days of electric guitar that has found a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Seymour Duncan’s Phat Cat is a P-90 pickup designed to fit in a standard humbucker-sized slot and is made for players interested in getting P-90 tone without having to modify their guitars. The Phat Cats were originally designed by Seymour for Hamer and used in their Newport guitars and other models. Last year Seymour Duncan began offering this pickup to the general public and we decided to check out what the Seymour Duncan Phat Cat P-90 was all about.
I opted for Phat Cats with nickel covers to match the look of the Gibson humbuckers I removed from my 1981 Les Paul Custom. The pickups came with single-conductor leads along with mounting rings, springs and all the screws needed to mount the pickups. I pulled out my soldering iron and got to work. Seymour Duncan’s website also includes information about various pickup wiring schemes and tone/volume pot capacitor recommendations.
I chose to use the Les Paul’s 500K Ohm volume and tone pots along with .022uf capacitors. The Phat Cats are made with Alnico 2 magnets and have DC resistance of 7.98K Ohm for the neck pickup and 8.49K Ohm for the bridge. These output specifications are similar to most PAF-style humbuckers, so I believed the 500K pots would be a good starting point. I installed the neck pickup about 3/32" from the top of the pole piece to the bottom of the low and high E strings, (fretted at the last fret) and the bridge pickup at 2/32". I plugged into three amps: a Marshall JTM45, a 1976 Traynor YGL-3, (similar to a Fender Twin Reverb) and a Mesa Boogie Mark IV. I had very good results with all three.
I noticed right away that these pickups were very lively and punchy. They had a bit of a thinner bottom end than a traditional P-90, but there were plenty of mids and tons of top end sparkle. They were very responsive to pick attack and very touch sensitive. In comparison to the humbuckers, they were not as compressed in tone. To my ears they had a nice crisp sound with similar output to the humbuckers.
I compared the Phat Cat Les Paul to a 2004 Gibson Classic SG with stock Gibson P-90’s, (traditional soap bar style). I also compared it to a Les Paul Historic Special Double Cut reissue, (modeled after the 1960 Les Paul Special DC). I found the Gibson P-90’s in both guitars to be both a bit warmer and smoother with greater bottom end. Overall, the Gibson P-90’s had a much fuller and "wider" sound while the Phat Cats seemed more closely aligned with a hotter Fender single coil sound. With that said, the Phat Cats do not sound bad at all. The Phat Cats sounded very good overdriven and with high gain. They were surprisingly quiet and certainly would help cut through the mix in a band setting.
I found the neck pickup to be my favorite with lots of spank and clarity. Wired with 500K pots, the bridge pickup was a bit too bright for my ears, but I must confess I am a traditional humbucker player. I tried putting in a 250K tone control in the bridge and it helped reduce the highs but at the expense of some output. I raised the bridge pickup slightly and found a nice balanced output between the neck and bridge pickups. My personal preference would be to retain the boosted high-mids and top end sparkle, but to somehow increase the bass response. I like how the pickup responded to pick attack and seemed to have that P-90 "growl" when played hard. One additional bonus with the Phat Cats is that the bridge and neck pickups are reverse-polarity wound with each other and serve effectively as hum-cancelling when using both pickups together.
I found the Phat Cats could get a variety of tones and could be used for several styles. I think they would be at equally at home playing country, rock and blues, (Jazz players may need to look elsewhere). We were able to coax some rockabilly tones with both pickups on and finger picking was quite good. We were able to get some convincing Beatles "Taxman" style tones and managed a "Won’t Get Fooled Again" vibe.
Overall, while the Phat Cat is spec’d as a P-90 and built with similar parts, they do have some limitations that ultimately don’t exactly match a soapbar P-90’s tone. The physical dimensions of the pickup likely have an effect on the tone as an original P-90 is longer in length and shorter in width compared to the Phat Cat. However, I do think they manage to get some of the P-90 mojo. They are very good sounding pickups and can modify any humbucker loaded guitar to get some great single coil tones with ease. If you are in the market for P-90 tone, and don’t want to modify your guitar, the Seymour Duncan Phat Cats are an excellent choice.