The Return of the Soapbar Pickup
August 20, 2004
A vintage design is revisited for those seeking classic tones!
My very first "serious" guitar (after the "little amplifier inside
the case" Sears Silvertone) was a dark cherry red Gibson SG Special. The SG stood for "Solid Guitar" - meaning it had a one-piece mahogany body - and for a short period, just after Gibson stopped making the standard Les Paul models for a while in the 1960s, this was actually supposed to be the
next step in guitar evolution.
In fact, in the years from about 1961 to 1963, the SG was actually called the SG / Les Paul Custom, but Mr. Paul
himself was not particularly fond of the twin cutaway design (in a 1978 interview with Tom Wheeler, he said, "...I didn't like the shape - a guy could kill himself on those sharp horns"). What's more, Les was in the middle of a divorce from Mary Ford, and so he chose not to endorse any particular guitar, as it might tend to muddy the financial waters. And so, in 1963, the guitar was designated simply as the Gibson SG. Essentially, there were no Gibson Les Pauls built from 1963 until its reintroduction in 1968, but that's a tale for another column.
Though I clearly longed for that top-of-the-line Gibson SG Custom, with its nickel-covered humbuckers and that unusual Gibson Vibrola (which, for some reason, was chosen over the time-tested Bigsby vibrato tailpiece), all I could afford was the SG Special. Instead of humbuckers, the SG Special came standard with a pair of what Gibson called
P-90s (and sadly, no vibrato tailpiece at all, just a combination bridge / tailpiece).
AND THE P-90 IS WHAT EXACTLY?
The original P-90 was actually a single coil design, so its tone was somewhat brighter than a genuine humbucker, though not quite as crisp as Fender's single coil pickups. However, because of its relatively rectangular shape, and the fact that the first P-90s on the original Les Paul Model of 1952 were white, it came to be popularly called the "soapbar" pickup.
Other similar pickups were mounted on Gibson's semi-hollowbody guitars (like the ES-330) via two triangular flanges, one on the top of the pickup and the other on the bottom, and these came to be called"dog-eared" P-90s. The same pickups were available on Epiphone models (since Gibson was building Epiphone guitars at the time) and the design is best remembered for
its appearance on the Epiphone Casino of the mid to late 1960s. All three Beatles bought one and recently, Paul McCartney stated, "If I had to choose one electric guitar, it would be this." High praise for a man who could own any guitar he might happen to desire.
In any case, I played that Gibson SG for several years before eventually trading up to a Gretsch Tennessean in about 1970. And though the P-90 continued to be in production for many years, it eventually fell out of favor with most guitarists who wanted either that bright, edgy Fender single coil sound or the darker, smoky tones of a real humbucker.
Still, several "guitar heroes" liked the sound of the original
P-90s. Leslie West of Mountain used a Les Paul Junior with but a single P-90 in the treble position for many years, and its signature sound can be heard on classics such as Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" and "Theme from an
Despite the synth-dominated decade of the 1980s and the crass commercialism of much of what we listened to in the 1990s (that's just my personal opinion, folks), the P-90 pickup proves the axiom that everything that's old will one day be in fashion again. While Gibson had offered a few
vintage reissues with P-90s, it wasn't until the folks at Paul Reed Smith decided to match up a set of specially-designed "soapbars" and mount them on their popular McCarty model that guitarists began to grasp the sonic potential inherent in this combination.
Today, the McCarty Soapbar is one of the better sellers in the PRS line. Since the pickups are single coil, they can often cut through a mix better than a humbucker-equipped instrument, but with some additional midrange growl and tight bass response not normally associated with traditional single coils.
Rolling back the tone control, particularly in the bridge position, produces a raunchy honk that I just have not been able to duplicate using any other guitar. So while it's true that these are not the quietest pickups around, it's still a classic tone that will be around for a long time!
The company even went so far as to match their popular Custom 22 model with a trio of soapbar-style pickups. Some dubbed this potent combination "a Strat on steroids," but that was never the aim of the instrument, though it's true that the five-position blade-style pickup selector could offer up a reasonable facsimile of the classic "in-between" positions the Strat is so justly famous for.
However, the Custom 22 Soapbar was produced in fairly small numbers and never sold well enough to continue production. Such are the peculiarities of the marketplace, though guitarists who purchased a Custom 22 Soapbar have shown no inclination to let these instruments slip through their fingers.
Fortunately, the McCarty Soapbar fared much better. Perhaps its simpler switching made it more attractive, or possibly its success is based solely on its good looks. In any case, as of this writing, the McCarty Soapbar remains in the PRS catalog along with a few other "soapbar-equipped" models that your Sales Engineer will be happy to tell you about.
What's that you say? Not looking for a soapbar? Well, that's okay, as there are hundreds of wonderful guitars currently waiting to be placed into the homes of dedicated, caring guitarists. So give generously - to yourself! I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you may be looking for, your brand new guitar is in stock in Sweetwater's gigantic warehouse.
About the Demos:
To give you a better feel for the wide tonal range available from a "soapbar" equipped guitar, I did some really quick demos of each pickup position, with both clean and dirty files.
Equipment used is a McCarty Soapbar through a Line 6 PODxt.
I set the POD to preset 2A, which is "Line 6 Clean" (though I did tweak the settings just a tiny bit). The files are pretty self explanatory, so you'll hear brief examples of the bridge, neck and both pickups.
For the files named "Dirty"
(i.e. "DirtyRiff.mp3"), I programmed in some modeled Tube Screamer with the Drive set to 60, Gain at 45 and Tone at 100%. The darker, fatter-sounding examples were recorded with the tone control of the guitar polled back to about 2 or 3.
I think you'll agree, these soapbar-equipped PRS models have a pretty broad spectrum of tones!
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