Among PRS’s product releases for 2013, the most notable perhaps are a guitar and a piggyback head/cabinet setup that are simply called Paul’s Guitar and Paul’s Amp. Smith’s dedication to tone, playability, and aesthetics make these new machines valued additions to the PRS product line, and the personalized touches in both reflect his deep understanding of how to create highly refined music making tools for some of the most discriminating players on the planet.
Basically a production version of the Private Stock model that Smith has played for years, Paul’s Guitar ($3,813 street) features “brushstroke” inlays and a Dirty maple top that has a sumptuous weaving of black and gold highlights in its majestic figuring. The mahogany set neck sports an ultra-comfortable Pattern shape, and the PRS Stoptail bridge has small inserts of brass in the saddle points. The Phase III locking tuners also look trick with their exposed gears.
Where this guitar differs most, however, is in its proprietary Narrow 408 exposed-coil pickups, which are unique in their ability to not only buck hum when switched to single-coil mode, but also maintain the same output as when both coils are active. The “narrow” part seems to bring some added clarity to the mix, and while these pickups offer excellent low and mid response, they may especially appeal to those who want a slightly leaner tone than PAF-style ’buckers provide. I could hear the difference when comparing Paul’s Guitar to a PRS SC 58 equipped with 57/08 humbuckers, yet putting Paul’s Guitar into split mode on either or both pickups doesn’t thin out the tone quite as much as when splitting coils on most standard humbuckers. Instead of the sound becoming noticeably thinner and weaker, it’s more like you activated a clarifying switch; the tones stay humbucker punchy, but with an enhanced set of upper mids and highs that sounds great on chords and low-string melodic excursions.
Two mini-toggles located between the Volume and Tone knobs allow you to put either or both pickups in split-coil mode, which expands the options compared to the more conventional method of splitting the pickups’ coils simultaneously by pulling the Tone knob. I really dug the sound when splitting just the neck pickup, as the enhanced clarity in the lower range blended superbly well with the tight, bright, meaty response of the bridge unit. When using both pickups together, the sounds were imbued with an openness and dimensionality that is often missing from the dual humbucker lexicon.
Paul’s Guitar also excels in the playability department. The neck feels excellent, fingers glide easily on the polished frets, and the intonation is sweet and musical in all positions. The ergonomic qualities of PRS guitars come into play too, as Paul’s Guitar balances superbly and feels very nimble despite its weight of just under 8 lbs. Bottom line: As with many of the finer things in life, you get what you pay for, and Paul’s Guitar would certainly be an excellent choice for anyone shopping in the premium market.
It was fortunate to be able to pair Paul’s Guitar with his custom tweaked amp ($2,899 street), as this combination probably best presents Smith’s vision of tonal nirvana—at least as seen from a stagerig perspective. Zen-like in its simplicity, Paul’s Amp has one input jack, a three-knob tone stack (Bass, Mid, Treble), a Presence control, a Master Volume, and a Clean/Dirty switch. The 50-watt, EL34-powered head has no half-power or class switching, nor does it have an effects loop, line out, or any footswitchable functions. There are, however, bias test points and an external bias adjust on the back panel, as well as five output jacks for connecting to various speaker loads.
A glass-epoxy circuit board populated with hand-soldered components is housed within the aluminum chassis, and the pots, jacks, switches, and tube sockets are all mounted either directly to the chassis or the separate aluminum top panel. A lot of hand wiring is involved in the connections between the various components, and the layout looks rugged and easy to service.
Paul’s Amp is very sensitive and responsive to control settings and player input, and there’s not a lot to decode here: Pick the mode you wish to operate in —Clean or Dirty—adjust the controls as needed, and get on with it. The Volume control is a key figure, and so many textures are summoned as you sweep the knob that it’s easy to forget there are five more controls to play with. Paul’s Amp truly represents Smith and designer Doug Sewell’s vision for an amp that can roam freely in “American” and “British” territory depending largely on how high it’s turned up.
Tested though a matching PRS Pine 8Ω 2x12 cabinet ($699 street), Paul’s Amp quickly revealed its stealthy capabilities: Keep the Volume control around 9 o’ clock and crank up the Master, and you’ve got clear, buoyant tones with “blackface” written all over them. Advance the Volume knob toward halfway and now it’s the grindier, greasier, and more compressed sounds associated with vintage tweed Fenders and JTM series Marshalls. From here on the distortion becomes intense as Paul’s Amp accelerates at Ferrari speed from JCM 800-style crunch into shredapproved sustain. And this is all in the Clean mode! In fact, if this amp only had a Clean mode it would still have enough range to cover everything from jazz to blues to hard rock and classic metal—all with a set of tones that are warm, complex, and well balanced.
Switching to Dirty mode ratchets up the gain considerably to satisfy the need for extreme levels of sustain, but the highs also sound raspier in this mode and the distortion takes on a more fuzzlike character. If you’re shooting for aggro metal or rock, Drive mode could be your ticket though, and again, it’s hard to not be impressed by how dynamically responsive Paul’s Amp remains. Even when pouring out gobs of sustain, the tones clean up obediently when you roll back on your guitar’s volume—all of which bodes well for players who love to romp with a searing lead tone and prefer not to think about hitting a footswitch when it’s time to play some rhythm.
As an amp that aims to do it all with one channel, two modes, and six knobs, Paul’s Amp largely succeeds. Among its praiseworthy qualities is how adaptable it is to different players and styles, and how touch-sensitive it is. In some ways it reminds me of how Ken Fischer’s disarmingly simple Trainwreck amps could seemingly go anywhere you pointed them. There’s definitely something to be a said of the less-is-more ethos when it comes to amp design, and Paul’s Amp certainly embraces that quality in a package that has abundant power for the stage and looks sweet too.