The average fully appointed PRS typically sells for around $2,500—a fair price, especially when you consider the difficulty of building a guitar that performs and looks like a PRS. Now, imagine trying to build a guitar of the same caliber for less than $800. This unenviable task is exactly what Paul Reed Smith asked of the special team that oversees his SE guitar line.
To meet the price point, PRS builds its SE guitars entirely at a specially chosen Korean factory. The maple tops they use aren’t heavily carved—the SE Custom’s top is totally flat; the flame effect on the maple caps is achieved through a seamless veneer application, and the famous PRS bird inlays aren’t on offer. But these are mere cosmetic differences. In use, the SE instruments are no less playable or beautiful sounding than the legendary guitars built in Stevensville, Maryland. This month I have the pleasure of reviewing two of the latest additions to the SE lineup: the PRS SE Custom and SE Singlecut guitars.
PRS SE CUSTOM
The PRS Custom has been the company’s flagship guitar since the mid Eighties, and it’s an appropriately pricey piece of equipment. My SE Custom test guitar is specifically the Korean variant of the PRS Custom 22. As with the American Custom 22 the SE’s mahogany body benefits aesthetically and tonally from a flamed maple top. But to reduce production costs, it has a flat, rather than carved, top. This is a first for a PRS guitar, and while I missed the smooth curves of the American-made model, the flat top had no unfavorable effect on the guitar’s playability.
The mahogany neck is set into the body on a 25-inch scale and features the PRS wide-fat carve; however, to me this neck feels a little less wide than the U.S. necks of the same name. Moon inlays dot the rosewood board, and the 22 medium jumbo frets feature the same flattened crown that gives expensive PRS guitars a worn-in and fast feel. Hardware includes a beautiful version of the famous John Mann tremolo used on domestic PRS guitars and a set of sealed chrome tuners. The SE Custom’s black-and-tan humbuckers are also custom-wound in Korea and help to distinguish the guitar tonally from any instrument that PRS has offered to date. Controls include a master volume and tone with a threeway pickup toggle.
The SE Custom’s pickups are unique and astoundingly responsive. Through my modified Mesa and Marshall, they were extremely sensitive to pick harmonics and full of usable presence. Their brilliant attack, screaming highs and intense dazzle are unequaled by any other PRS pickup. When I knocked the gain down on my amps, the SE Custom’s hot magnets got me closer to an authentic brown crunch than any of the U.S.-built Customs that I’ve played in the past. I found the clean sounds, especially using the neck pickup, to be mellow and satisfying, but not so dramatic as the Custom’s driven tones.
PRS SE SINGLECUT
PRS Singlecut guitars have enjoyed incredibly popularity since rockers like Mark Tremonti picked them up.
It’s hard to not be moved by the SE Singlecut’s sexy bodylines. The carved maple top is beautifully smooth and the body’s mahogany back keeps the guitar lightweight and full of warm tone. Fortunately, since the recent resolution of Gibson’s lawsuit against the design, Singlecut production is back on track, and we can now enjoy the new SE version of the PRS Singlecut guitar.
As with the SE Custom, the SE Singlecut is built on the standard 25-inch PRS scale, and the set-in wide-fat mahogany neck feels very comfortable in all positions. Its 22-fret rosewood board is marked with abalone moon inlays, and the impressive fretwork includes the exclusive flat-planed PRS fret crowns. The Korean-built stop-tail bridge and chrome tuners are essentially indistinguishable from the American hardware and are integral parts of this guitar’s clean and open tonality.
Much of the Singlecut’s universal appeal is due to its pickups. The SE’s specially wound humbuckers are designed to please a wide range of players, and they mate equally well with everything from clean to heavily overdriven amps. Standard controls include a single volume and tone with a three-way pickup switch.
After hearing the SE Singlecut’s tone, I was excited to plug the guitar into my Marshalls and Fenders. It was not overly bright, though it did sound rather jangly and open, for a PRS, so much that I wondered if it had a tone chamber in the body (it doesn’t). Through my very crunchy Marshall, the SE Singlecut performed admirably, producing loud, punchy and dynamic tones. As I pushed the amp’s gain higher, I also noticed that the SE Singlecut didn’t lose its vintage flavor. The highs were never shrill, and the midrange was always woody and deep. The guitar gave me the same results through my Fender Deluxe Reissue and delivered a much broader spectrum of tone than I could have imagined from a mahogany guitar in this price range.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Paul Reed Smith’s SE guitars aren’t just less-expensive versions of the iconic American masterpieces. Each guitar design has a unique set of features and tonal qualities not found on its U.S.-built counterpart. The SE Custom is versatile enough for any gig, but its scorching pickups make it especially exhilarating when combined with wicked high gain. If you’re looking for a guitar that embodies the vintage-modern ideal, then the SE Singlecut is an excellent choice. I was extremely impressed by its ability to produce distinct layers of resonant tone. The PRS SE guitars get my vote for import guitars of the year.