Price paid: $ 1100
Purchased from: Only Guitar Shop, Clifton Pk, NY
Features: Bought mine in '87; at the time there were only two production models, Standard and Custom. Both had 24 frets and the same neck profile & pickups, the difference being that Standards had a solid mahogany body and moon fingerboard inlays while Customs had the curly maple top and fancier diving bird inlays. BTW, the mahogany is carefully selected- exceptionally lively, very resonant and musical- just tapping the headstock lightly makes the whole guitar shiver; it wants to sing. I have never felt a guitar come alive at volume the way this one does. There's a story about Paul wandering through a warehouse full of high quality wood with a rubber mallet, tapping on blocks to see which ones had the magic in them; the wood guys thought he was nuts, but the proof that he wasn't has spent hundreds of hours singing in my hands. I believe the story to be true, heard it firsthand from a trustworthy acquaintance who's a pretty famous guitar player, and also proud owner of one of the handbuilt PRSs which was made from that wood.
Mine is Midnight Blue, essentially black but with a pearlescent dark blue sheen when viewed in bright light or sunlight. For all intents and purposes, onstage it's black. The typical beautiful sculpted double cutaway body is familiar to all guitar lovers by now, but back then it was new and cool and of course as graceful, aesthetically pleasing and well-balanced as it still is nowadays. Hangs perfectly on my body, right at home in my arms since the first moments.
Two hot-bright humbuckers (each tailored, I believe, to its position). Volume knob, 5-way pickup select knob, and a sweet switch. No tone control, which took some getting used to, especially because the pickups are bright in character. But understand that when I say these pickups are HOT & bright, they are not thin or fizzy at all. Very well balanced, fat, sweet & juicy, just with mondo gain and a much more open high end than I'd ever experienced in humbuckers before. More on this (and the 5-way) later.
It has PRS' locking tuners and a graphite nut that's essentially self lubricating to go with its tremolo bridge, which pivots on a knife-edge and has a solid sustain block hiding underneath. This combination of hardware is, IMO, the ideal tremolo setup: feel is very much like the classic Strat trems but with a range that goes all the way down to strings-stuck-to-the-magnets (and you aren't bending a bridgeplate or loosening any screws however much you use the thing), and there's no need for a complicated pain-in-the-butt locking nut like the Floyds or Kahlers that were popular at the time (plus it doesn't break strings often because they aren't clamped down, and changing strings is a breeze- feed thru the back, lock at the head, tune-stretch-tune and you're done). The difference between changing strings on this and doing it on my old Floyd Rose-equipped ESPs is night and day: ten minutes to string & tune versus about a half hour because of the locking nut factor.
Has molded brass Bridge pieces; I didn't realize this until the chrome plating began to wear away a bit in spots after the first fifteen years. It did take a month or so to break in to perfection, but it's been rock-solid ever since. I can dive-bomb to my heart's content and stay in perfect tune. And the feel is perfect. // 10
Sound: Soundwise, it's extremely versatile, a genuine chameleon. My own material has varied widely over the intervening decades, tending primarily towards heavy underground, and hard edge. These pickups scream and snarl, they do thonk-and-chirp better than any others, and combined with the extended low end of a Rectifier preamp they deliver a chunk that'd knock the breath out of Godzilla.
One band involved a good deal of harmonic sustain and feedback, where the guitar showed a sweeter, musical, almost vocal side to its heaviness that far outshines the maple topped axes- no shrieking unless it was desired, infinite sustain on the fundamental notes when I wanted, or turning just a little towards the amp, sweet feedback- it has this uncanny knack for picking out the perfect harmonic every time, as if it's listening to the chords you're playing over. This seems almost supernatural at times, and I honestly believe that the lighter mahogany body resonating to the music as I play is part of that magic. Quite literally a longstanding dream come true for the Sustainiac and the backfeed fiend in me.
I've also done a lot of blues and quite a few studio gigs that called for a broad palette of tones other than the high gain ones. For blues, the extra output gives lots of dynamic headroom so I can set my rig for clean sound when playing gently, yet push it over the edge into grit simply by picking a little harder, no knob adjustment necessary. Or I'll set up a moderately grainy tone with the guitar's volume backed off just a bit, and goose it into the sweetest overdrive by opening it up that last notch.
Amazingly responsive and articulate- no other guitar has ever felt so sensitive to the touch of my fingers. None have even come close.
The one defining, shining quality of this particular axe that's held true across all musical styles is that amazing response to subtleties, even feelings; it's as if the instrument is pulling emotion out of my hands and then pushing it out to the tubes glowing in my amps. Wild electrons flowing. It's no exaggeration to say that if I play angry, it sounds mad. If I play happy, it rejoices. If I play sad, it mourns. And if I play sweet, it can sound like it's dripping honey. At the same settings on the same amp. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't just me. Friends and observers have confirmed this, and over the years audience members have sometimes responded visibly with real tears, real laughter. Or real blood.
Back to practical commentary: I have to say that the volume knob interacts beautifully with the pickups, rounding off the high end a bit when you roll it back to about eight, and then giving a very smooth controllable taper down after that without affecting the treble response any more than that first bit. Very precise control over the pickups' output, and hence over the amp's drive. All three of the controls are pretty much ideal at their functions.
The sweet switch acts almost like a vintage/modern control, but it goes deeper than that: interestingly, the Switch interacts tonally with the volume control in very different ways at different settings of the pickup selector; this may be due to variances in impedance, since the 5-way is using various combinations of the four individual coils. I can't be sure, but I think one or two of the five variations might involve series wiring rather than the more typical parallel and/or single coil configurations. Whatever the reason, the sweet Switch has become a valued function over the years, far more useful than I ever expected in the beginning when I was missing my old-fashioned one dimensional tone control. And it for sure multiplies the tones available from the already super-versatile pickup selector.
This 5-way also excels, giving much more versatility than the basic 5-ways I'd been used to (mostly on Strats) and worlds beyond the tired old Gibson three-way mantra of one, the other, or both. To my ear, it gives access to the best of both worlds, singlecoil and humbucker. And even when serving up single-coil type tones, it isn't particularly noisy, though perhaps a bit more so than in the straight humbucker settings. Does the PRS do everything a Strat or Tele can do? No, of course not. Ditto for a Les Paul. But between the Stellar pickups, that great 5-way, and the unique sweet switch, given the right amps this guitar is just mindblowingly versatile. It can do woody and warm. It can do sweet and singing. It can do HOT & massive. It can howl and it can growl (apologies to Dr Seuss) and it can scream, and it can shimmer, and it can bite, and it can sparkle and spank and snarl and twang. And if you want more than that, you're gonna need at least a couple of different axes...
I'm told Paul Reed Smith originally conceived his design as something that was a cross between a Gibson and a Fender. The body shape is kinda halfway between, even the scale length (and hence the string tension) being in between Fender and Gibson specs. And I say he succeeded wonderfully, a near-perfect crossbreed that has one foot planted firmly in each world.
Amps etc: For the first five years an early Boogie Mark II, which Randy Smith made for me back in the 70s when he was still working in the shed behind his house, and a Marshall 4x12 cab. For FX originally was using a floor multipedal (Ibanez UE300) with a venerable 70s MXR Delay II, but soon wound up happy for many years with a Hughes & Kettner Cream Machine (dual tube distortion unit) and a Rocktron Intellifex (multi FX which still contains my favorite chorus of all time). In the 90s I finally retired the Boogie head (after over 1200 gigs) and switched to a Mesa Triaxis preamp, a real-life shapeshifter (it literally switches the order of its internal components around when it changes to different modes) and IMO the perfect partner for such a versatile guitar.
I've often said that the PRS and Triaxis were both life-changing experiences for me, the two true loves of my musical life. And to this day the vital synergy between them is the mainstay of my sound and my inspiration.
Other inhabitants of my little rack now include:
- a couple of Boss half-rack units (RCL-10 compressor and ROD-20 distortion)
- a weird Zoom half-rack multieffect (the 9030, which I use mostly for oddball soundscapes and sci-fi effects like ring mod and sample & hold)
- a Rocktron Replifex, ideal complement to the Intellifex, that has some stompbox type FX along with good EQ & delays, plus a great rotsry simulator
- and a Boogie 20:20 power amp- Vintage amp heart with just enough Boogie muscle for my present needs
- speaker cab is still Marshall, but I let go my old Anvil-encased
workhorse 4x12 a couple of years ago in favor of a newer 2x12 (model 1936, with Standard G12-70s) that's less battle-scarred and much easier to move around.
I will say that if my sound today were still centered around supermassive tone I'd go back up to a 4x12 (maybe a Boogie Rectifier cab) and a bigger power amp, probably a 50:50. But for now I'm quite happy with the Vintage warmth of the 20:20. I can still go monster when recording; it's just a bit on the creamy side at full stage volume. // 10
Action, Fit & Finish: The PRS came from the factory very well set up. There were no flaws or blemishes at all, and as I said above, the quality of the wood is incredible. Grain in the neck and the fingerboard are dead straight, and I have never had any problem with warping, bowing, or (God forbid) twisting. (Finish is opaque, and remains that way, but after almost 24 years the texture of the underlying wood is slightly visible and I can see grain lines if I hold it at just the right angle to a bright light- that's how I can tell the grain's straight throughout the neck). Now that I think of it, the paint has held up very well over the years- my Les Paul from the early 80s is worn down to bare wood at the small spot where my forearm rubs against the top edge of the body, and the PRS shows no wear at the same spot. It could just be that my arm's at a slightly different angle, but the PRS finish still looks great after all this time, despite a few minor dings, courtesy of many many gigs. No problems from years of smoke (back when clubs and concerts were very smoky places) and any number of drips and splashes involving beer, sweat, mixed drinks, blood, springwater, and whatever else might fly around onstage sometimes. // 10
Reliability & Durability: I raised the action slightly early on because I pick harder than most players; this adjustment also added a bit to the guitar's already-exceptional sustain. After raising the action I had to adjust the D and G string pole screws on both pickups just a little to preserve balance across the strings.
Hardware has held up very well over the years, though as I said some brass is showing in spots on the Bridge saddles. It has extra large buttons for the strap, and has never come loose while I was playing. Simpler and better than the straplocks I used to need.
Unlike other guitars, I have hardly ever broken strings on this axe. I do change strings regularly- every ten hours of performance or studio time because I sweat when I'm playing and my perspiration is fairly corrosive, so I'm also careful to wipe the strings clean after every set. One more reason the plating's going on those Bridge pieces (But don't misunderstand, it's not a big thing and wouldn't be visible from a couple feet away even if my hand weren't over that spot.)
BTW, for many of my own bands over the years I've tuned a bit low (A:435) because of a study on microtonal pitch variations done in the UK shortly after WWII. After experimenting with minute changes to A:440, it was found that 435 is a more fortuitous pitch: audiences experienced a deeper emotional response to the music, and dancers found they were less fatigued after long practice sessions at this pitch. Had a hard time finding a tuner that could be set to 435 Hz though. Plus, I had to retune for studio gigs, sometimes needing to readjust the intonation too. But it was worth the extra time & effort.
I never experimented with tunings lower than that on this guitar.
One small downside to the tension-balanced knife-edge Bridge design: if you do break a string while performing, the tuning across the board goes south in a big way, there can be absolutely no thought of finishing-the-song-out-then-changing-axes. You need to Switch immediately. So I always have a backup axe at gigs. But in all this time I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually needed it. And, because of the brilliant simplicity of the tuners and absence of any extra locking hardware, replacing a string is a matter of mere seconds. If it weren't for the need to tune-stretch-tune the new string, you could do it almost as fast as switching guitars.
I check the intonation regularly but the guitar has seldom needed adjustment in this area (except when tuning back up to 440Hz, and seldom enough even then) or at the truss rod. All these years down the road its neck is still perfectly flat and straight, though the frets are showing some wear, which is only to be expected after many hundreds of hours (got to be well over a thousand by now) of playing time. I dread the day that I'll have to have them dressed because I'm afraid it may change the magical feel of my all-time favorite guitar. // 10
Overall Impression: Overall, this guitar suits me better than any I've ever owned, and I've owned many, many instruments since I began playing seriously around 1970. I keep one nice lived-in Les Paul and a couple of Strats around, plus a half dozen acoustics. And while I do occasionally get in a certain mood to pull one out, the PRS has been the one great guitar of a life spent in music. Since the day I brought it home it has been my primary guitar for gigs and recordings, and as I've said, for heavy music it gives me everything I could possibly want, and it's got such a broad variety of voices that I've found it ideally suited to virtually any style I've needed to inhabit. Perhaps if my main thing were traditional jazz I'd choose something different, a big ol' hollowbody with a tone control... But short of that the PRS has been everything I've needed for everything I've tried it on.
Beautiful to the eyes. Brilliantly designed and impeccably built. Ideal neck geometry. Great tuners and nut, great Bridge and tremolo.
Supernatural pickups. Singing sustain. Rich harmonic structure. Massive when necessary, delicate when desired, articulate and emotional all the time.
Unbelievably versatile, tonewise. 5-postioned across two tonal universes, effortlessly bridging the gulf between worlds. A true chameleon that's perfect for my mercurial Nature and eclectic musical tastes.
The perfect feel under my fingertips. Responsive like nothing I've ever known. Incredible synergy with the front end of my Triaxis. Infinite inspiration there.
Have I mentioned that I'm head over heels for this thing? I fell in love the first time I plugged it in, and it hasn't faded- if anything it's deepened over the years.
I could not ask for more in a guitar. // 10