The Korean-made EXP is a lovely looking guitar with its gorgeous quilted-maple top and matching symmetrical headstock—which is trimmed in gold paint, and bears a distinctive notch at the tip. The fancy woods are only thin veneers, but they certainly make the EXP look like it ought to cost a lot more than it does. Price not withstanding, the construction of this guitar is exemplary. The bindings on the top and neck are flawless, the hardware is super solid, and the high-gloss polyurethane finish is smooth as glass. I like the reddish-colored vintage-style knobs, which nicely complement the top, and the controls are arranged so that the bridge-pickup Volume knob is closest to the bridge—a placement that allows you to do pinky swells with the greatest of ease. The wiring is neatly arranged in the nickel-paint-shielded compartment, and the output jack is secured with a large metal mounting plate.
The satin-finished frets are evenly set and well shaped and trimmed, and the fretboard inlays are cleanly set with no trace of excess glue. The nut looks quite blocky, but it’s accurately slotted to provide minimal string clearance over the first fret with zero buzz. Now, if only its ends were blended in better and the sharp corners removed.
The EXP’s neck (which appears to be comprised of three pieces on this particular instrument) is fairly wide and flat, with a medium profile and a rather broad back. If you’re used to “C” or “V” shape necks, the EXP’s more “U” profile may take some getting used to. Nonetheless, with its low action and light strings, this guitar plays quite well, and its intonation is such that you can grab a chord in just about any position without worrying about sour notes.
Acoustically, the EXP offers the kind of balance and sustain you’d expect from a pro-grade guitar. I found myself picking it up a lot when practicing some jazz standards, because it just sounded cool in a quiet setting. Plugged into a couple of our standard test amps (a ’64 Fender Super Reverb and a mid-’70s 50-watt Marshall), the EXP displayed its happening sonic qualities across the board in very clean to very overdriven configurations. Its strong bottom end is paired with a crisp set of highs, and the midrange focus really asserts itself when you bang it hard with some grind dialed in. You can turn down the Volume controls without losing highs, and the Tone control is well voiced for eliciting darker tones that retain plenty of detail. The pickups have the familiar push of vintage Gibson humbuckers—they’re gutsy enough to drive an old Marshall into full-tilt boogie—and the twin Volume controls allow you to milk a lot of subtle colors when in dual-pickup mode.
Overall, the EXP is an excellent choice for anyone who wants a sharp-looking humbucker guitar, and whether your style hits on blues, rock, country, or fusion, you’ll find it to be a very accommodating choice. This is an honest guitar for a fair price, and it’s very much in keeping with the quality and real-world gig worthiness that has made Peavey such a hugely successful company.
Okay, so you have a few extra bucks in your wallet and want the best Peavey has to offer. A savvy salesperson should immediately guide you to the USA Custom, a handcrafted guitar that features a one-piece neck and body, and a carved maple top that’s offered in AAAAA quilted flame, or one of several custom colors (such as the white-with-gold-trim of our review sample).
The USA Custom feels light and balanced, and it has an rich, classy look that’s enhanced by its gold-plated hardware, nifty exposed pickup “covers,” natural maple fretboard edges (with green abalone dots), and ultra-clean bridge set into a very tight-fitting rout (the EXP’s setup is similar, but not so precise). A smaller, better-finished nut, carved recesses under each control, and a contoured back further distinguish this model from its offshore companion.
One thing that diminishes the USA Custom’s high-grade vibe, however, is the rippliness that occurs in some areas of the top and edges. It may be just a fluke of this particular instrument, but it would appear the sanding process wasn’t complete before the final finishing took place. (Editor in Chief Michael Molenda reports that the USA Custom models displayed at the recent Summer NAMM show were cosmetically flawless.)
The USA Custom plays extremely well, though again, some players used to more curvaceous necks may have to adjust to its relatively flatter back. The setup, however, is absolutely superb. The action is low and amazingly buzz-free, and the sense of in-tuneness as you romp about the neck is very satisfying. Chords ring out clearly and single-note lines sound meaty and supple. Through the same Fender and Marshall amps, the USA Custom sounded a tad brighter than the EXP, delivering a little more sustain and midrange effervescence in trade for a bit less bottom than the EXP churns out.
You can’t split the pickup coils (ditto for the EXP), so you’re always dealing with full-humbucker tones. But the USA’s top-end chime is such that I can’t imagine anyone bumming because they can’t get enough bridge pickup bite from this guitar. The 24-fret configuration may not be ideal for those who use the neck pickup a lot (it would be cool if these guitars were also available with 22 frets), but if having those two extra frets is more important, then you’ll definitely appreciate how reachable they are courtesy of the angled heel and perfectly placed bevel in the cutaway (yet another attribute that’s MIA on the EXP).
For an American-made guitar with this much boutique attitude, the USA Custom is a square deal. It plays and sounds great, and it can certainly hold its own in the vibe department with many of the higher-priced models available today. A mahogany-top version of the USA Custom is also available for $1,599 retail. We received one too late to be included in this review, but it’s worth noting that this guitar was cosmetically perfect.
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