Paul Reed Smith Guitars: Luxury Ain't Cheap (But Are They Worth It?)
Beginnings Take Flight
The 1980s truly did try to kill us all. With the rise of disco music, followed by synth driven pop and rock, the guitarist was flailing and fighting for survival. Thankfully, the ocean that was the music industry at the time was rather shallow and the guitarist had no fear of drowning after all.
1985 was most likely an odd year to break onto the scene as a new guitar manufacturer, however. That's the year Paul Reed Smith's PRS Guitars took flight with what was most likely some awkward backstage begging and pleading for musicians to try his guitars out. While a handful of known musicians took him up on his offer, it wasn't until Carlos Santana himself took up the PRS rally that Smith's big break finally came. I suppose Paul Reed Smith realized in that moment he would do quite well for himself: Santana was, after all, the musician who found and put Mesa/Boogie amplifiers on the map
The first thing a gawker will usually notice about a Paul Reed Smith guitar is its beauty. There are few manufacturers that take as much care to ensure perfection not only in the instrument itself but in its appearance as well. Aside from the artistic approach to staining, spraying, coating and buffing a guitar, PRS is famed for the quality of the wood used in each guitar. Whether it's a standard base model or a 10-Top (a guitar whose flame maple top has perfect striping from center to edge), anything less than stunning won't cut it with PRS. During a meeting I had with a PRS employee in 2011, I was told if a guitar has even a small imperfection at any point in the creation process, the guitar is taken to a band saw and permanently destroyed.
Most PRS guitars come with a double cutaway Strat-style shape. Most models don't include a pickguard as the bodies are carved tops. Set necks are typical as well, although the company offers a couple of bolt-on neck models currently. The famous birds in flight inlay down the neck is standard on most PRS models. Pickups, in many cases, tend to be created to specifically suit the tone of a particular model and the vision that particular design has given Paul himself.
Through the years, Paul Reed Smith has taken the approach of "change is necessary and good." You will rarely see a model that, through the years, has not evolved in some way. Whether it's the pickups, neck shape, tuners or electronics, the time and effort is taken to correct what's seen as past mistakes and improve upon the company's strengths.
It didn't take long for the list of notable PRS endorsers to begin piling up. Since the 1990s, PRS has consistently been one of the most recognizable brands among professional guitarists worldwide. Many longtime Fender and Gibson lovers made the switch as time progressed and the company's reputation solidified. First and foremost was Carlos Santana, who still remains loyal to the brand almost since its roots.
Other well known names include Joe Walsh (The Eagles), Derek Trucks, Dave Navarro (Jane's Addiction), Dave Matthews, Orianthi (Michael Jackson), Chad Kroeger (Nickelback), Brent Mason, Bob Weir, Axl Rose (Guns N Roses), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Al Di Meola, Jewel, Jimmy Buffett, John Fogerty, John Mayer, John McLaughlin, Marty Friedman (formerly of Megadeth), Melissa Etheridge, Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park), Vince Neil (Motley Crue), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Steve Stevens, Ricky Scaggs, Neal Schon (Journey) and yes, even Michael Bolton.
As is the case with human nature, gripes will always be heard when speaking of PRS guitars. The first, of course, is usually price related. While efforts have been made in recent years to bring more models to the masses, a "real" PRS guitar will set a buyer back a few thousand dollars in most situations. At that stage, many fear for the safety of the guitar, whether from theft or damage. While many are drawn to the beautiful guitars, it's quite difficult for many to justify spending the amount of money on a PRS when it will most likely stay at home in its case, away from danger.
Another common complaint from long time fans tends to be PRS's devotion to evolution. It's not uncommon for a famous model to be reworked with new features long time fans despise. One of the biggest issues PRS faced in recent years was the redesign of neck shapes across many models. Dropping the Wide Fat, Wide Thin and Regular profiles and substituting them with Pattern Regular, Pattern Thin and Pattern shapes, PRS actually lost many users due to their insistence to change neck shapes. While Paul Reed Smith claims what little change was done to the necks was to improve quality, small- even miniscule- changes can drastically alter the feel and comfort to longtime users.
PRS currently offers a wide selection of models suitable for any genre. While the Korean made SE series is incredibly popular and the even newer S2 series (which now includes the Mira and Starla models) bridges the gap between the SE series and higher end models, guitars within these two subsets will not be included below. PRS has also recently added a limited range of acoustics to their lineup, all worth checking out, but will not be covered either.
Keep in mind, most models have a wide range of color and figured top options which can dramatically raise the price listed for each guitar:
- NF3- PRS's take on the classic Fender Strat-style guitar. Three humbucking Narrowfield pickups give a unique spin on classic guitar tone. Tone is exceptionally clear and focused, can go from clean and airy to deep and chunky. The bolt-on pattern regular maple neck is unusual for a PRS guitar, but feels just right. Body wood is korina, tonally similar to mahogany with more mids. Price is $1986.
- DC3- Very similar to the NF3 model but with traditional single coil pickups instead of humbuckers. Body wood is alder, a balanced tonewood commonly used in many Strats. Price is $1986-$2246.
- Studio- The Studio gives you the traditional PRS body shape with a best of both worlds pickup configuration: a humbucker in the bridge and two Narrowfield pickups in the middle and neck positions. Just about every tone imaginable can be achieved with this guitar, with no hum issues whatsoever. Body wood is the traditional Les Paul combo of mahogany with a maple top. The set neck has a rosewood fingerboard and pattern or pattern thin shape neck. Prices start at $2774.
- Custom 22- The Custom 22, a longtime fan favorite, gets its name for having 22 frets. Sporting the traditional PRS shape, mahogany body with maple top, dual humbucking pickups (Vintage Bass and HFS) and pattern or pattern thin shape neck. Prices start at $2705.
- Custom 24- With a similar look and body composition as the Custom 22, the two can get easily confused. They are, however, two completely different guitars. The Custom 24, while sharing the same scale length, gives you two more frets. While the Custom 24 also has two humbucking pickups, they are 57/08's instead of the options in the Custom 22. Pattern Thin or Pattern Regular neck shapes are available. Prices start at $2705 for the non-S2 version.
- 513- The 513 can be quite intimidating upon first glance. One of the first things you'll notice is the dual pickup selector switches: one is a 5 position and the other 3 position. While it appears the guitar has two humbuckers and a single coil, it technically has five separate pickups. With the combination of the pickups and the switches, thirteen different tones are available, thus the reasoning behind the name: 5 pickups with 13 tones. Wood composition is the normal mahogany and maple top with a pattern regular neck. Prices start at $2979.
- 408- The 408 can come as an all mahogany body or one with a maple top. The pickups chosen were designed specifically for this model and are matched to compliment each other, but actually differ in size. With the combination of the pickup selector switch and two mini-toggles, a wide range of tones can be found with this guitar. Prices start at $2580.
- P22- The "P" in P22 stands for piezo. Aside from the LR Baggs piezo system, it also has two 57/08 humbucking pickups. Wood options are same as most other options, with a pattern regular neck. Prices start at $2999.
- SC245- The "SC" in the model name stands for singlecut, for those who want a more traditional Les Paul style guitar. Scale length is a 1/2" shorter than most PRS models, at 24.5". 57/08 pickups and the standard mahogany/maple top combination as expected, with a pattern shape neck. Prices start at $2726.
- Paul's Guitar- The guitar of choice for Paul Reed Smith himself. With much more intricate designs, matching narrow 408 pickups with two mini-toggle switches, lightweight mahogany and highly figured maple top and a pattern neck, this is a breathtaking guitar. Prices start at $3676.
- Hollowbody II/Singlecut- While the Hollowbody models will be easily recognized as being a PRS guitar, they are deeper and include dual f-holes for a more acoustic tone. While the II and Singlecut versions include 57/08 pickups, they also have a piezo system onboard as well. With maple top and bottom and mahogany sides, these are guitars that truly sing even when not plugged in. Pattern neck is available on both versions. Prices start at $3548.
- Hollowbody 12- Not simply a 12 string version of the Hollowbody II, the 12 has a mahogany back and sides with maple top. It has no piezo system built in and has different pickups in the Archtop Treble and Bass. Price is in the $4000 range.
- JA-15- Another singlecut design, the JA-15 is aimed more towards the jazz musician. With a spruce top, mahogany sides and curly maple back, it certainly sounds different than your average PRS guitar. 57/08 pickups are included and the fretboard is ebony. Quite unique and a rarer guitar in the PRS line. Prices start at $4185.
PRS has a wide range of signature models available. Each includes features unique to the model itself and are too vast to list here. Some of the models included are: Dave Navarro, Carlos Santana, Neal Schon, Al Di Meola and Mark Tremonti.
What's the most a sane human being should spend on a guitar?
It's hard to disregard the beauty of a PRS guitar. With the care and attention given to each model, the quality of each part, and the stares you're likely to get, you can make the argument a PRS is worth every cent. While most PRS guitars would have a place of honor in any guitar museum or display, the fear of devaluing the guitar could very well cut the wings off a guitar that was designed to fly. For many guitarists, a $4000 PRS is a lifelong goal never quite achieved. Whether the culprit is lack of funds or fear itself, you have to admit your wall would look so much better with one of these hanging from it.
© 2013 Robert Allen Johnson