I see it every year – the mad Christmas rush of youngsters and their parents jamming up Guitar Center to make the first monumental purchasing step in their rockstar careers: buying their first axe.
There are usually pre-packed sets rigged up for just this occasion. Ibanez, Fender, Dean, and a host of others bundle a low grade electric with a small amp and accessories, all for about $200.
Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with starter guitars–my wife has fiercely held on to her sunburst Fender Squire from the early 90s despite the pleadings of our sound tech—and it’s a great way for parents to test the waters with their excitable juveniles without breaking the bank. The problem begins when the 30-year-old is still riding with training wheels, so to speak.
While it is definitely true that the guitar does not make the guitarist, there are lessons to be learned about tone and sound quality that can only be learned on more advanced instruments. And definitely a recording or performing artist needs good sound going into mix. The problem is, that while there is no shortage of guitar “unicorns” out there, not many are willing to take the leap from $200 to $2000.
Everyone has their Dream Guitar (though if you acquire it, a new Dream Guitar will emerge). It is usually hung up high somewhere, glistening on a guitar store Hercules wall-mount. You take it down every once in awhile, hook it up, and are amazed at the fact that this beautiful beast can actually make your limited skills sound kind of impressive.
Then you put it back because your rockstar career has not taken off to the point where you can invest in such finery…in fact, on your salary, you probably shouldn’t even be in the store in the first place.
For a long time, the guitar world has hungered for a mid-range model series which delivered both quality and affordability. Enter the Paul Reed Smith Custom SE Series. The Custom SE Series is not exactly new, but it continues to make notable advances providing quality (and beautiful) instruments in a mid-level price range. Rumor has it that Carlos Santana was behind this. A longtime poster child for PRS, Santana wanted models that anyone could afford to play. So they got them made in Korea and bang, $600 bucks off.
The PRS Custom SE Series runs between around $540 and $700. The prices fluctuate throughout the year and depending on the model, but $650 is a good buy. For example, my wife is the doting owner of a PRS Custom SE Semihollowbody (much to my sound tech’s delight). She got it two years ago for $650 and it is a world of difference. The quality of the instrument is nothing short of amazing and for under $1000, I have not seen anything else that can match it.
Since then, we have adopted a slightly cosmetically damaged PRS Custom SE Paul Allender–not used but marked down…steal! We have also picked up a used PRS Custom SE 22 for about $300. Best. Buy. Ever. If you find a Custom SE on sale used, pick it up and give it a play. They really are tremendous. We may never be Santana-worthy, but for our moderate skills, the sound is just addicting. Great construction, quality pickups, beautiful bodies, and PRS production make this series stand out as not only a cut above the rest, but really the only game in town for the semi-serious guitarist.