While PRS Guitars is coming to the end of its 31st year of producing industry-defining, top-notch production guitars, the SE ('Student Edition') range is only half that age, originally appearing after much deliberation in 2001.
Back then, the much less established company worried whether a cheaper 'offshore' line would devalue and reduce sales of its USA models. It needn't have worried: over the years the SE range has become much more than a copy of the USA line, not least with a diverse range of signature models and SE-specific models.
But some have decried the SEs as the 'poor man's PRS', and to an extent that's true. But with top-quality Korean build and USA-conceived parts and pickups, the SEs remain affordable, highly giggable working guitars.
Now, with 2017 around the corner, PRS has done a bit of a refresh with, for the first time, a Paul Reed Smith signature headstock logo over a vastly reduced SE motif, and various updates that make them, on paper at least, better than ever.
As ever, the SE models give the player some of the PRS experience in the general feel and look of the instruments.
It took a while for the Custom 24 – PRS's original and still best-selling vision – to make it into the SE line, appearing in 2009, four years after the first flat-fronted 22-fret Custom had entered the range.
Like the recently-reviewed Santana model, aside from the cosmetic logo change, we also have a pickup change. Instead of the quite generic 'SE' humbuckers, we now have Korean-made versions of PRS's latest date-series humbuckers, the 85/15s. They look like conventional uncovered 'buckers, unlike the USA versions with their rectangular bobbins, and despite their different specs, they look identical to those on the Santana.
Of course, the guitar's shape, conceived after the Santana shape, is well known as the PRS outline with its longer upper horn, less pinched waist and squarer, more Fender-like base. Where the Santana is virtually natural all over, the Tobacco Sunburst finish here has a well-applied dark 'burst to its top (with natural edge 'binding', of course), while the back, sides, neck back and headstock have a deep brown, slightly translucent colour.
The L-shaped rear control cavity is just as tidy, although along with the treble bleed cap we also get the partial tap circuit on the pull/push tone control. This means that instead of switching off one coil entirely, like a standard coil split, some of that dumped coil – approximately 10 per cent (neck), 16 per cent (bridge) – remains in circuit.
This adds a little thickness and volume to the split sound and, in theory, a little hum-cancellation, too. It's a simple but effective change here that's been a feature of the USA guitars for some years now, and we believe it's the first time it's been used on an SE.
Aside from its very slightly 'long neck' strapped-on feel, compared with a Strat, for example, the 24-fret Custom remains one of the most comfortable feel-at-home guitars money can buy. The volume control falls under your fingers, and the pickup switch and tone lie in the arc of your hand.
The vibrato might not have the locking tuners of the USA models, but with the usual string stretching you can't ask for more, and there's a crisp, clear ring to the unplugged resonance coupled with the sort of neck feel and setup that disappears – you just get on and play.
Of course, we'd like to say that we can't hear any difference between our reference 2016 USA McCarty and this SE Custom, but that would be a fib.
Initially, the Custom seems a little under-powered until we notice the pickup heights are much lower than the quite closely placed 58/15s on our McCarty. Evening those up makes a real difference and we close the gap a little.
This new Custom certainly retains the chameleon-like character of the USA model and there's a relaxed midrange that doesn't dominate: gritty rhythm tones falling easily into a classic rock genre, while the neck sounds fluty, expressive and definitely in the PAF-alike ballpark. The coil-splits sound a little thinner than those on the USA model. If you want more diversity, this could be a good thing.
Conversely, they sound a little thin with a little more edge and brittleness, especially on cleaner amp tones. Comparisons aside, this is one of the best-sounding SEs we've played, especially after tweaking those pickup heights and installing some heavier strings.
As ever, the SE models give the player some of the PRS experience in the general feel and look of the instruments, a hugely careful build and sounds that go a long way to emulating those loftily priced Core models. Yes, they feel more generic, but we can't remember playing a bad one over the past 15 or so years.
The new SE Custom is case in point: it's a lot of guitar for the player who needs a wide palette of sounds. Also, the Korean versions of the 85/15 pickups nail a more classic humbucking sound compared with the older, mid-focused PRS sounds. Bundle in that superb vibrato, the lively resonance and easy playability, and it has to be money well spent.