From sefstra–(at)–ol.com Thu Aug 29 17:11:57 CDT 1996
Article: 111188 of alt.guitar
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From: sefstra–(at)–ol.com (SEFSTRAT)
Newsgroups: alt.guitar
Subject: REVIEW: 1996 PRS Swamp Ash Special
Date: 29 Aug 1996 17:04:41 -0400
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REVIEW: Paul Reed Smith Swamp Ash Special

OK, I promised a review. But first: this review expresses only my own
opinion, and does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of any animal,
vegetable, mineral, or person in their right mind. Use this disclaimer
only for its intended purpose, any other use or misuse will void this
disclaimer; this disclaimer is not colorfast, if used with other
disclaimers color may wash off onto other disclaimers, staining them, and
permanently tinting other disclaimers with which this disclaimer has
contact; other restrictions may apply.

There. So no flames, ok?

===============================

GUITAR: 1996 Paul Reed Smith Swamp Ash Special. List price: $1980.00.

HARDWARE: Chrome stop tailpiece, chrome PRS locking tuners (chrome, with
black “wing” pieces on the PRS locking tuners). Transluscent gold knobs
for tone and volume, white cover on three-way toggle switch. The
electronic compartment cover on the back of the body is black, as is the
truss rod cover, located on the headstock. The stop tailpiece is one
piece, and has the expected screws for height adjustment. The tailpiece
also has two allen screws (wrench supplied) that, when turned, enable you
to angle the stop tailpiece, adjusting intonation. The intonation on this
instrument was dead perfect from the factory, so I have not adjusted this.
The usual PRS slippery teflon-type black nut is appropriately cut. The
guitar came strung with D’Addario .09s.

WOODS/FINISH: Swamp ash body, maple neck, maple fingerboard. Clear poly
finish; no paint. The swamp ash body is highly figured, and is very
blonde in color; it almost perfectly matches the highly figured maple
neck, fingerboard and headstock. The back of the neck is so figured that
it is tiger-striped. Very pretty. I’d love a coffee table like
this…..but I digress. The fingerboard is actually a separate piece, and
is not just a part of the neck that was cut flat and fretted, like on some
other guitars with maple fingerboards. The figuring of the maple is
evident even on the fingerboard. Dot markers within the fingerboard are
in the usual positions, are abalone, and have colors in them; some of them
almost look like oil on water. Side dot markers are white and somewhat
hard to see against the very light-colored wood, in normal room light.

NECK: The neck is a 22-fret, 25-inch scale bolt-on, more toward the
wide/fat PRS necks than toward the wide/thins, but not as thick as the
wide/fat necks I have played. If a wide/thin is a 1 on the thickness
scale and a wide/fat is a 10, this is about a 7. Much more of a round
neck than a v-shaped one. I have big hands, and the proportions are
welcome. Frets are perfectly dressed and well-polished; they’re the usual
beefy PRS type. Neck pocket fit is good, but a touch less tight than my
PRS CE bolt-on. There is a slight amount of relief in the setup from the
factory; I like this, but if you like a dead flat fingerboard, you’ll want
to turn the truss rod a touch. The back of the neck is done in light
poly; it feels like laquer, and is substantially identical in feel to the
finish on the PRS CE and EG necks…in other words, it’s not painted, like
the Custom, Artist, etc. Good; I dislike painted necks; when I sweat, I
stick to ’em. I generally do not like maple fingerboards, because so many
of them are laquered or coated with poly to the point where they feel
sticky to me. This one isn’t; the fingerboard feels fast and smooth, and
the finish isn’t sticky at all. It’s one of the few maple fingerboards
I’ve liked.

MISCELLANEOUS: This guitar is visually stunning, in an ‘au natural’ kind
of way. I’ve seen pictures of the other finishes, and I did not like the
way many of them looked with the maple neck…therefore, I wanted the
natural. It just so happens that the natural swamp ash is almost exactly
the color of the maple in the neck and headstock, so the effect is akin to
a very, very blonde, highly figured woman—er, guitar. The instrument is
light in weight…significantly lighter than my PRS CE or my Strat Ultra.
The finish is, in usual PRS style, impeccable; no checking, rough spots or
ripples anywhere that I could find. The body is arched on top, carved and
shaped in the manner of a PRS Custom or CE.

ELECTRONICS/PICKUPS:
Neck: PRS “McCarty” humbucker, with silver/chrome cover and creme bezel.
Middle: Seymour Duncan “vintage rails”.
Bridge: PRS “McCarty” humbucker, with silver/chrome cover and creme bezel.

There’s a Les Paul-style three-way toggle switch instead of the
now-familiar PRS rotary switch; this three-way switch is located in the
same place as the rotary switch is on, say, a PRS CE or Custom. The
three-way toggle is a definite improvement over the PRS rotary switch,
which I have on my CE, and while I understand the electronic reasons for
the rotary, I have never learned to love it.
Other controls include volume and tone, in the usual PRS places. The
volume control, as with most PRS guitars, is unusually linear for a
passive electronics setup. The tone control is a push-pull pot, and is
also quite linear. Here are the pickup selections:

TONE POT IN DOWN POSITION: It’s a Les Paul, as follows:

Neck switch position—-PRS McCarty neck-position pickup.
This position is fat, fat, fat and creamy…the pickup is very well
matched to the guitar. The amount of bass is huge (if you are primarily a
strat player you won’t believe it), but the sound retains pretty good
definition and a sweet top end. Clean, it’s REAL sweet and
pretty-sounding. At high gain, it kicks, but is unusually smooth, with
just the right amount of midrange. They’ve really improved the old Dragon
pickups, which I disliked, because I thought that they sounded wimpy and
thin. This McCarty pickup is a different animal. If you roll off the
treble and kick it at high gain, you can clone the Guess Who’s “No Time”
lead. With the tone open, it’s a hell of a blues lead pickup….the best
neck tone, to date, in any guitar I have ever owned.

Middle switch position–both McCarty pickups, together.
What can I say…a classic Les Paul sound, but smoother. The “dual”
sound I tend to think of when I hear a good Les Paul. Bottom thump and
top snap, at the same time. Almost a doubled sound, at the right amp
setting (you hear this in Lynard Skynard’s “That Smell”, in parts of the
solo licks. You know what I mean).

Bridge switch position–PRS McCarty bridge-position pickup.
This is a big improvement over the Les Paul sound. Exactly the same
McCarty pickup as in the neck of this guitar, but, of course, lots more
top in the tone, because it’s placed in the bridge position. It remains
thick and full, even with the increased treble. There’s enough top to cut
through any band, but it’s a bit bassier than a Les Paul freak might be
used to. If you’re looking for razor-sharp lead sounds, this bridge
‘bucker is not your kinda toy. I personally favor it; it cuts without
getting rude. It’s much more uptown-sounding and less snarly than the HFS
pickup in my PRS CE…but if I was playing primarily metal or really hard
rock, I probably would want something nastier-sounding here.

TONE POT IN UP POSITION: it’s a strat, kinda sorta:

Neck switch position—-coil splits the neck-position McCarty, and gives
you the
neckmost coil of that pickup in
combination with the
Seymour Duncan.
This sounds like the “between the neck and middle” position of a
strat. The electronics are not actually out of phase, but they have that
same quacky, semi-cancelled sound. A credible imitation…much better
than the PRS CE or Custom’s attempt at this sound, almost certainly due to
the Duncan pickup.

Middle switch position–neckmost coil of neck McCarty plus Seymour Duncan
plus full
bridge McCarty.
This is an odd and very complex sound; there are FOUR coils active in
this position. Played clean and fingerpicked, it sounds almost like some
acoustic-electrics I’ve heard. It’s kind of like the “neck plus bridge”
position on a telecaster, but with a slightly phased sound, at the same
time. Different. It’s hard for me to describe it any better than this,
because I’ve never heard anything quite like it anywhere else. At high
gain, it’s a mellow-sounding tone, but with a snap in the attack; clean,
it’s almost not there, and it IS there, all at the same time. It kind of
reminds me of nylon strings, at times, in the attack, when played clean.
This position sounds even more unique chorused. I’m not wild about this
sound, and I don’t see that I’ll have a lot of use for it…perhaps I’d
use it for certain rhythm work where I want to stay well in the
background. A somewhat unfortunate tone, and my least favorite sound on
the guitar.

Bridge switch position–Seymour Duncan plus bridge McCarty
Interestingly, this is VERY stratlike—and it doesn’t even coil
split the bridge McCarty, but instead, simply combines it with the Seymour
Duncan middle pickup. Clean, you can NAIL the quacky guitar intro to
“Free Ride”. At high gain, it sounds remarkably like a lead strat
sound…lots of snap and top end….I’d use this position for Dire Straits
stuff, for instance. Chorused and clean, you can get a bit razorlike with
this. A little compression, played dead clean, and yeeeee-hah! Country!

GENERALLY:

Playing this guitar is a treat, if you like slightly thicker necks.
If you’re a lover of, say, the Ibanez JEM neck, and that’s the shape for
you, you’ll hate this guitar. You also won’t like it if you’re primarily
a shredder or a tap-style player; the neck simply isn’t thin. In
addition, metal and very hard rock players will probably find the pickups
to favor the bass and lower midrange frequencies more than they would
like. Blues, rock, fusion and jazz players, this one’s for you. It could
also cover country duties adequately, although would probably not be the
country player’s primary instrument of choice, for reasons outlined below.

The guitar has a very classic feel…like an old Les Paul, a
thicker-necked strat, or an old Hagstrom. Partly due to the neck, and
partly due to the superb construction and stop-tailpiece design, the
sustain on this instrument is almost unreal. The guys at band rehersal
were knocked out by that; we actually would pluck a note and all listen
while it took forever to die. With a dab of overdrive, it almost feels
like you’re using a compressor to get that sustain. It feels POWERFUL.
With some instruments, I sometimes feel like I’m pushing to get the sound
I want out of the guitar. Not with this; it’s effortless.

In addition, the punch of this guitar in humbucker mode is quite
good. Hitting a loud clean full barre chord almost feels like slamming on
a piano. Really satisfying. The single-coil settings are, predictably,
less punchy and more snappy…but the humbucker mode’s middle and bridge
settings, played clean and loud with the tone control wide open, can
really be in your face, when you want it. You will immeasureably piss off
your keyboard player as you gleefully step all over him.

I thought that this guitar would be significantly brighter than my
CE. It isn’t. It’s thick and smoky in the humbucking positions, and
although it’s reasonably snappy in the single-coil positions, it’s not
thin or really bright. It is a VERY toneful instrument; the guys in the
band liked it when I did the intro to “Free Ride”, cloning the phaseoid
strat sound on the record, and then immediately went into “Black Magic
Woman”, nailing the Gibsonesque neck solo tone there. Real extremes of
tone are available in this guitar. Because I play in a cover band, this
is ideal for me; your mileage may vary.

One really annoying niggle: there’s no way to get the Seymour Duncan
“vintage rails” pickup alone, unless you start messing with the guitar. I
guess you could wire a push-pull volume control, but then you’d lose the
wonderful PRS linear volume control that’s there; the aftermarket
push-pulls tend to be real audio taper beasts…in addition, it would be
less than convenient to use TWO push-pull pots AND the pickup selector
switch. I’d gladly sacrifice that odd middle position in the ‘tone pot
up’ mode in order to get the vintage rails, alone…but alas, such is not
possible with these switches or this configuration.

ON THE GIG:

I play in a cover band. There are 5 pieces: drums, keys, bass, and 2
guitars. For a few things we go to 2 keyboards and one guitar. Three
lead singers, lots of harmonies. Between these instruments and the
monitor system (used only for vocals), there’s a lot of sound onstage:
four monitors, five 12-inch guitar speakers (he uses four, I use one!), a
15-inch keyboard speaker with horn, an acoustic drum kit (with rototoms,
cymbals and other assorted stuff), and two 15-inch bass cabinets. We do
endeavor to keep the levels reasonably sane, though. EVERYTHING goes
through the PA. This is the envoironment in which I hear my guitar on the
gig.

I’ve played two gigs with this guitar, one on Friday night in a
good-sized club, the other the next night, in a little bar. I got to play
it in a number of musical contexts, at different volumes. The first
night, in the larger club, I played through a Shure “Guitarist” wireless
system into an ART ECC effects unit, going out through a Marshall JCM900
1×12 Dual Reverb amp (older model, with EL34s). The second night I used
the same rig, but substituted a Matchless Lightning (another 1×12 combo)
for the Marshall. Each night, the amp was miked through the PA with a
Shure SM57.

Most importantly, I remembered to move my belt buckle to the left,
away from the back of the guitar, before I started to play each night.
I’ll forget eventually; I always do…

The Friday night gig:

On the gig, the neck pickup solo tone is HUGE; about ten feet wide.
We did the Blues’ Brothers’ “Sweet Home Chicago”; we use the song as a
vehicle to introduce the band, and everyone takes 16 bars. I used the neck
McCarty for the solo, with a bit of overdrive, going for the “hot” blues
sound. The bass player looked at me and grinned; the tone was like a
blanket. REAL fat and punchy. It had enough top to get through the band,
too. For a couple of the slower ballads, I used the same pickup position
clean, with a decent amount of chorus; the sound was huge and lush. The
neck position is really the stunning tone on this guitar.

I rolled the bass response of the Marshall combo off to about
10:00…unheard of for me; I usually run it at about 2:00. Bottom end to
spare, here.

The other pickup selector positions, in which I played both solo and
rhythm, clean and distorted sounds, lacked nothing….they were mostly
what I expected (see above). Note that the ‘tone pot up’ ‘single coil’
selections are lower in volume that the ‘tone pot down’ ‘Les Paul’
positions…something to remember when you set patch levels (if you use a
processor) receiver output levels (if you use wireless) and amp volume.

I’m glad I waited to complete this review until I’d gigged with the
guitar, because some of my initial impressions changed. That odd “tone
pot up, middle toggle position”–the one with 4 coils active that did not
excite me–well, I USED it! Amazing how things sound different in
context, isn’t it? For the licks in “Life in the Fast Lane”, I used the
Les Paul type “both humbuckers on” position…but for the distorted
rhythms, while the verses were being sung, I wanted something that laid
down a nice pad, but wasn’t in the forefront so much. Bingo–from that
“both humbuckers on” position, pull up on the tone pot, and you’re at that
“odd” position. I found that it was perfect for fairly distorted rhythm,
where you wanted to recede from the forefront of the mix. Who knew?!
Still, I only used this position for that limited purpose, and it could
have been acheived by simply turning down, too. It remains an annoying
aspect of an otherwise almost perfect instrument. There’s always
something…

I used the stratlike “between the neck and middle” (neckmost coil of
McCarty plus the Seymour Duncan) position much less than I expected I
would, and a lot less than I use it with my strat, because it was quite
bassy…but I used the “in between middle and bridge” (Seymour Duncan plus
bridge McCarty) position a lot for the stratlike stuff, and it worked very
well. More snap and top end than at home, probably due to the increased
gig volumes and the bigger amps.

The lightness of the instrument was welcome; no shoulder aches at the
end of the night. Tired as I am after a gig, I did not want to put this
thing down.

I did have to remind myself that this was a 22-fret neck; my PRS CE is
24 frets, and I landed in the wrong place a couple of times…fortunately,
only the bass player noticed, and laughed at me throughout most of the
first verse of “You can leave your hat on”.

An interesting note: those side dot markers that are a bit hard to
see in normal room lighting seem to stand out well under stage lighting.
I have no idea why.

Oh, yes. On the Friday night gig, two people asked about the guitar,
commenting on its blonde wood. One was a guitarist, who offered to buy
it.

The Saturday night gig:

This guitar is capable of generating so much low end that even a
Matchless Lightning, an amp not known for low-end response, sounded
girthy. As last night, I rolled the bass level well below where I usually
would leave it. I love this guitar through the Matchless; you can really
“hear” the pickups. Different pickup selections yielded an almost amazing
variety of sounds, and you could hear them a lot more clearly through the
Matchless. Again, that neck position is really the diamond.

Somewhat predictably, I liked the stratlike positions more through
the Matchless than I did through the Marshall the previous night; the
definition of the Matchless is simply superior, and the top-end snap of
the guitar is more pronounced, especially in the ‘single coil’ modes. I
used the “between the neck and middle” (neckmost coil of McCarty plus the
Seymour Duncan) more, as a result; it seemed a lot more defined. The
low-end thump of the Marshall is, of course, superior. This is less of an
issue with this guitar than with, say, a strat, because this guitar has
plenty of bass response.

This guitar is quite versatile; I got about any tone I wanted with it,
except a telecaster “clean, clear and deep” sound; that one is not really
there in this axe. The single-coil imitations are decidedly more
stratlike. Country players, take note.

The thing is just easy to play. I’ve had versatile guitars before; I
still own a couple that cover many bases. The special thing about this
particular instrument is that the basic tone was not sacrificed in the
name of flexibility.

I’ve found a new ‘main’ guitar. And I never thought that ANYTHING would
take that status away from my PRS CE bolt-on.

Steve

SEFSTRA–(at)–OL.com

 

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