Paul Reed Smith SE Custom Guitar

Don’t let the Paul Reed Smith logo on the headstock convince you that this guitar is out of your price range, too good for a beginner or novice guitarist, or for Santanaphiles only. It merely takes flipping over that headstock to know this surely ain’t Carlos Santana’s PRS. A message on the back reveals it’s “built by World Musical Instrument Co., Ltd., Korea under exclusive license for PRS Guitars.”

The SE Custom Hollowbody is simply part of PRS’ ongoing series of budget-friendly, Korean-built guitars. These axes can’t compete with the ones in the company’s revered catalog of American-made masterpieces. And they aren’t meant to. Stack an SE up against another entry-level ax in the $400-600 range, like an Epiphone Les Paul, and then you have a fair fight. The SE Custom lists for $798.

It seems as more and more guitars come out of Korea (and China, too), the Far East factories continue to shed any reputation for half-assed craftsmanship and chintzy build quality. This semi-hollow SE Custom could convert a throng of skeptics-it’s as sturdy a guitar as I’ve ever met, and the construction is virtually seamless.

The mahogany body measures 13 inches across the lower bout and has a hollow chamber with a sleek cat’s-eye soundhole. Not surprisingly for a budget guitar, the flamed maple top is just a veneer with a lesser quality maple underneath. But the veneer sure looks expensive, and the moon inlays in the rosewood fingerboard are a subtle decorative touch that rounds out an overall classy appearance. The rest of the neck is mahogany that elegantly meets the body in a neck-thru joint that looks and feels rock solid.

In fact, the neck is more than solid. It’s a 22-fret beast-a good stretch wider than my SG-trained hands are used to holding. I’ll never enjoy wide necks but for those who do, this one’s an easy neck to move around on. The profile is slim and the finish is slick, yielding a highly playable instrument, although it took a set of 11-gauge strings to maximize the guitar’s potential. The 10-gauge strings I regularly use didn’t do it for me on this one. A heavier set led to a more expressive resistance that really let me rip into leads, and get chunkier-sounding lower-register triads and rounder walking bass lines. To my surprise the guitar didn’t end up feeling cumbersome with the 11s. In fact, it played with about the same ease as with the 10s. The clever people at PRS gave the cutaway a generously beveled edge that allows for great, natural-feeling access to the upper frets.

Semi-hollow construction tends to add a bit of boom to the sound of any guitar, and, sure enough, I always found myself rolling off the bass in my amp’s EQ section to find a balanced sound with this guitar. I noticed right away that the two humbuckers onboard the SE Custom deliver a fairly neutral-toned sound. No surprises, for better or for worse. I especially enjoyed throwing the toggle to the neck pickup position, rolling the tone knob back about a quarter of the way and adding just a bit of distorted gain in the amp. That was a nice recipe for smooth and smoldering leads; if I needed more edge I could always switch to the bridge pickup and crank up the tone. It’s really a non-threatening ax, tone-wise. Still, like a well-trained schnauzer, it’ll deliver a bit of snarl when you need it.

But what’s up with dual-pickup guitars that have only one volume and one tone control? Why not a tone and volume for both pickups? Is it a cost-cutting measure? I’d gladly pay for the two “missing” knobs in order to get the wealth of tones squandered with this guitar’s barebones electronics setup. Am I in the right here? Or have I been spoiled by that old, 1960s Harmony Rocket I keep in the closet-three pickups, each with its own volume and tone control? I like to have more control.

Then again, that Harmony Rocket doesn’t play one-tenth as well as this Custom SE. And the PRS hardware is so nice that my eyes would bug out if it went out of tune from sitting in the car for a couple of hours. That Harmony, with its wretched intonation and positively medieval tuning machines, is a sick joke by comparison. Considering that in its day the Rocket was sold to budding and hobbyist six-stringers-as is this Custom SE-PRS proves that budget guitars have come a heck of a long way since 1960-whatever.