The Paul Reed Smith SC 58: First Impressions

If like me, you've kicked the tires on PRS for years but been reluctant to take the plunge, a new era has arrived.

My first encounter with a PRS was back in 1988. I was rummaging around in a guitar shop when I ran into a Standard for something like $700.  I didn’t get that guitar because I was just $675 short of the asking price (undergraduate days) and, honestly, the sound was lacking compared to my other guitars (Gibson and Fender back then).  For the last 20+ years I have admired PRS guitars: the build quality, the innovations, the artistic touches (e.g., the beautiful bird inlays), etc., but the sound always left me disappointed: linear, clinical, etc.

My sonic point of reference (on humbucker-equipped guitars) has always been the Les Paul. I owned one in the 80s and through part of the 90s and, later, I had a Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion that sounded pretty good.  Between jobs I ended up selling just about everything I had and those Gibson guitars were part of the slaughter. I always planned on getting another Les Paul someday but the steady demise of their quality control combined with the plain old weirdness of the firm today (the head cheese must have graduated from the Kim Il Jong Management Academy) made me rethink that plan.  What’s a guy to do?

Get my free postmodern shred technique book and go to infinity and beyond! 

I started considering PRS again but, still, the sound was not what I liked and many of their most appealing models (the 245 had the sound) were built with the one-piece bridge and tailpiece unit -- suspect to anybody who wants precise intonation control over each string -- or had vibrato bridges. 

How to land that Les Paul vibe but with the PRS build-quality and staying within the production line price spectrum? Patience was the plan. At the end of 2010 (my guitar was one of the first, completed on 23 December) the new SC 58 models began rolling out and, I’m here to tell you, brother, PRS hit a grand slam.

The idea with this PRS: an evolved and refined Les Paul. A lot of folks swear that the new SC ‘nails it’ whereas some swear it is even better than the ‘real deal’ while others say it ‘comes close.’ Gibson purists merely point out that it is not a Gibson. I have no idea if the SC 58 sounds ‘just like’ a real '58 Les Paul (the last time I plugged in and played a bunch of vintage Gibson stuff from the late 50s and 60s was around 1991), but, on a side note (pun intended), there is a scene in It Might Get Loud where Jimmy Page is playing his old Les Paul and my immediate reaction was that it sounded absolutely identical to my SC58. They hit the jackpot with these 57/08 pickups, no doubt about it.

All the midrange grind you’d want is on tap; there’s plentiful mid-focus for lead lines; the bottom is substantial, beefy, and growly without being muddy; the top is thick, edgy, and sweet. In short, the SC 58 just nails the enigmatic ‘It’ and gushes with harmonic complexity. Back off the volume pot and the 58 sweetens even more. These pickups are great for extracting the most from variations in your palm muting and picking techniques: it is very easy to get a very wide array of sounds and textures you might not be accustomed to from your current twin humbucker guitar. Individual notes are very ‘three dimensional’ (as if you can see ‘around’ the string) and chord notes blend beautifully. 

This SC sounds terrific through my Bogner Shiva, Swart AST Pro, Vox AC15, Boogie, Fender, and through various digital modeling units. It even makes the worst amp in history, the Line6 Spider IV practice amp, sound good and inveterate knob tweakers will be rewarded with a wide spectrum of beautiful sounds.

One thing I missed from my Gibson days was the separate volume and tone pots for each pickup and the ability to blend a touch of the neck transducer with the bridge pickup fully on. There are a million tones in this guitar, each useful and pleasant. All kinds of descriptors pop up as you work through your picking techniques, twist knobs, and plug into different amps: liquid, focus, searing, thick, velvety, sweet, glassy, chunky, clang, chime, bloom, grind, spicy, growl, woody, and so on. Everything you want from a guitar with twin hummers is here.

A recent issue of the Fretboard Journal described old PAF pickups like this: "PAFs were originally designed by Seth Lover to be like hum-free P-90s in punch and delivery....There is a mind-altering clarity in these old pickups -- a sweet, organic vibe with a top end that is rounded off pleasantly. They explode with an effusive three-dimensional sparkle but somehow don't spike, all while steadfastly remaining musical. The chords offer a whole different, richly exquisite palette when compared to what we hear offered in modern pickups. Then there is the distinct rope-like snap and boom of the lower strings..." (No. 20: 110). This would be a fairly accurate description of the 57/08 pickups in the SC. The top end has a velvet-like feel to it -- bright and clear but no spikes -- but you can extract some bite and edge when leaning into them. Tons of girth without muddiness.

Out of the case the intonation was, without fear of exaggeration, the best I have ever experienced on any guitar. Barre chords from one end of the neck to the other ring sweet and true better than anything I’ve heard. The 24.5” scale length seems to bond the individual notes of a chord together in a way other guitars do not. And single notes sustain ‘for days’ all over the fretboard. The only guitar I own that sustains better is a Parker that features a neck sheathed in a carbon-glass exoskeleton.

I was definitely worried about the new ‘pattern’ neck carve. Supposedly, the new profile represents a retro wide/fat carve as found on early, hand-made (“pre-factory”) models. How does it compare to the old wide-fat necks? Same nut width and neck depth but less shoulder. Hanging your thumb over the neck is no problem; all is good. String spacing at the bridge is perfect (a bit more F-spaced than ToM) and the 10” radius is comfortable for both chording and single-note lines up and down the length the of the fretboard. I always felt slightly cramped when playing on a guitar with a Gibson-style TOM bridge so the PRS specifications are a very welcome improvement. Also, the fretwork is great – medium jumbos perfectly shaped (none of the absurd square frets and cheesy binding nibs found on Gibsons).

The ‘Artist’ grade curly maple top (a step above the famous ’10 Top’) is 3-D and deep depending on how the light hits it and the one-piece mahogany body and neck are what you would expect from PRS in this price bracket. The fretboard is luscious and the mother of pearl and paua birds (against the dark rosewood) seem at times virtually holographic the way they reflect light, as if they were levitating above the wood. Stunning! The new V12 finish lacks the gummy tack of nitro and it feels fantastic but it does smell a little odd -- for a while, anyway....over time that disappeared.  

Of course, the hardware is all overbuilt – like getting some kind of ‘military grade’ guitar. The two-piece bridge and tailpiece are milled and the brass saddles are what PRS describes as triple-weight. The locking tuners are smooth and precise, and other metallic odds and ends have been perfectly machined from high-grade materials. No skimping anywhere. Sturdy.

Last but not least is the ├╝ber groovy paisley case – in marketing terms we might say that the case alone is a ‘premium experience.’ Really nice and even better than I expected.

That’s the SC 58 in a nutshell: even better than you imagine or expect.  I dropped a lot of money on this guitar (about $1400 more than I had spent on any previous instrument) but, seriously, at this moment it seems like it’s worth every penny. If the price seems unreasonable keep in mind that you’d spend at least $1000 more for a Gibson that fits, roughly, the same category but would not be built as well or play as well (though it might very well sound as good or better depending upon your psychology). By the way, I bought this SC from Willcutt Guitars in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the premier PRS dealers in the nation.  If you ask for a lower price they'll knock a considerable amount off even their advertised discount price (better deals than the big mail order guys like Musicians Fiend and better than any of the prices I've seen on Ebay). The guitar lists for $6437 with a discount price of $3836 but street price at Willcutt is better. If you have your heart set on a particular finish then you'll probably be waiting a good long time for a used SC 58 but if you're patient you'll, presumably, be able to save a bundle later on.

If you want that vintage humbucker ‘mojo’ but desire ridiculously good build quality, fanatical attention to detail, top shelf components, premier woods, a recognizable logo, and are willing to pay for it, then the SC 58 is a serious contender. And the issue of logo is not irrelevant. Gibson used to build iconic guitars but the company has gone so far off the deep end (environmental irresponsibility, illegal manufacturing practices, quality control problems, and anti-labor/anti-worker hostility) that I would never want to own another Gibson, support that company in any way, or be burdened by the stigma of playing one.

There is room for improvement: I've been preaching the virtues of stainless steel frets for ten years and it would be good to see PRS offer these as options (actually, I think you can order a guitar with SS frets for an up-charge but I'm not positive). I would also like to see a compound radius fretboard. I think Ken Parker got it about right (10” at the nut and 13” at the top of the neck). However, as it is, the SC 58 is, in my opinion, almost impossible to beat if you want an improved Les Paul.

These are, again, first impressions. Over the next few months I’ll be recording a lot with it and I’ll update the review once the ‘honeymoon’ comes to an end – hopefully I’ll still be as enthusiastic if not more so.  Stay tuned.

UPDATE -- June 24, 2013. I can't believe it's been more than two years since I bought my SC58 and they're already out of production! The slow economic recovery non-recovery meant the demise of a killer guitar with too many Artist-grade features and binding. Was price the only factor? Well, PRS followed up rather quickly with a cheaper version (the stripped thing) and there has been a trend for  more austere (cheaper) appointments and the 58 is fairly imperialistic in appointments. However, it may have been that PRS simply strayed too far from its niche and into a market (LP alternatives) that was saturated to begin with, especially during an economic downturn that has hurt sales of high end guitars across the board. Or, perhaps, Gibson filed a cease and desist and PRS had no fight left in them. Anyway, I thought I'd just let you know how things have been going between me and the 58: never better. This is the first guitar I've owned since 1981 that I have played nearly every day I've owned it. Most of my other guitars (apart from my parts-Tele) have been sitting in a closet for more than two years and I'm considering selling them all during the winter to fund another PRS (maybe a 408 or a CU22 this time). I'm happy I got my 58 while the gettin' was good.