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PRS Makeover: Blasphemy or Alchemy?

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PRS Makeover: Blasphemy or Alchemy?

The PRS was originally outfitted with Standard Treble and Standard Bass pickups, and a 1-piece MannMade brass bridge.

About four years ago, a good friend of mine—a collector of art and firearms—called to ask if I’d ever heard of a “Pairs” guitar. From time to time, this friend reaches out if he runs across a guitar in one of the many obscure auction sites he frequents. Naturally, I was puzzled. As a lifelong guitar enthusiast, how could I have missed these rare—and apparently valuable—Pairs guitars?

To help me understand what he was talking about, he directed me to an auction website where, amongst lots of old furniture and artwork, there was a listing for a “PRS Guitar (autographed).”

After breathing a sigh of relief that there wasn’t some obscurely amazing brand of guitars I’d somehow been oblivious to all these years, I had to chuckle at my friend’s innocence.

But wait—it gets funnier.

I clicked the link and up popped a series of pictures of a beat-up 1989 PRS CE as bright and gaudy as Thomas Magnum’s Ferrari—only after it’d been tagged by a bunch of Sharpie-wielding ’80s artists, including Julian Lennon, the Vixen vixens, the guys from House of Lords, Henry Lee Summer, and the ax-wielders of Molly Hatchet. Needless to say, the more affordable bolt-on model bedecked with celebrity autographs of yesteryear wasn’t quite a rare find of the sort dreamt about by your average guitar collector. But under the scribbles and blinding red finish I could still see that there was a (hopefully) nice vintage PRS guitar looking for a new home.


The CE after the “off the frame” customization.

I’ve always appreciated older PRSes, because they remind me of my early guitar-playing days, when PRS hit the scene with its innovative, Gibson-meets- Fender hybrid design. Nostalgia factor notwithstanding, I also had a soft spot for older PRS instruments. Though I didn’t think of them as better or worse than current models, the fact that they’re from a very different period of the company’s history—way before it became the third-biggest player in the industry—intrigued me. And when no one placed the $750 minimum bid, how could I say no when I called and was offered the guitar for $600?

The Hour of Reckoning
When the guitar finally arrived, it was both better and worse than I had expected: Most of the time, getting the original case with a 24-year-old guitar is pretty cool. But opening the CE’s unleashed a stench indicating that, at some point, it had been used as a cat’s litter box. On top of that, the guitar had seen better days—the frets and nut were worn down, the tremolo was out of balance and missing its arm, the finish was worn off in spots, and the body had a bunch of dings and dents, probably from a bunch of Less Than Zero-type moments back in the day.

On the plus side, it was all-original. It still had the coveted Standard Treble Standard Bass humbuckers. It still had the 1-piece MannMade tremolo bridge. It still had Phase I “winged” tuners with the D- and G-string units that share a mounting screw. And it still had the 24-fret, Indian-rosewood-topped maple neck with the shorter neck heel. Typical of well-played guitars, it had a wonderful, broken-in feel and a balanced, snappy acoustic tone, thanks to its aged alder body. Despite needing some TLC, the guitar was very resonant and comfortable to play, weighing in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces. Plugged in, the guitar sounded really nice, too, though signal-cutout and grounding issues made it clear the electronics needed some help.

Having assessed the pros and cons of my new find, I faced a big dilemma: Should I stay grounded in PRS history and keep the guitar in its original condition or keep the best of the old and upgrade the stuff that could be better? Certain PRS enthusiasts would say this early CE represents the company’s “golden era” and that changing its original components would amount to blasphemy. Others take the position that PRS has pretty much only gotten better over the years and that current-production guitars incorporate decades of innovation and refinement.

Truth be told, I hadn’t kept up with the company’s major design and hardware changes over the last 10 years. I’ve always tended to believe that most well-established manufacturers’ truly groundbreaking ideas came out with the initial designs of flagship models. In my somewhat jaded view, subsequent “innovations” are more often than not spawned in the name of cost cutting or creating marketing buzzwords. Either way, such measures don’t usually improve the tone or playability of an instrument. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this way, either.

I did some research to help me with my decision and found the folks at PRS formally established the PRS Technical Center (PTC) in 2009 at the Stevensville, Maryland, factory to expand the capabilities of the in-house team tasked with providing warranty-fulfillment services. I reached out to Shawn Nuthall, who’s been with PRS for 11 years and is manager of the PTC, to learn more about the center. According to him, the PTC was formed at the direction of Paul Smith and in response to demand from PRS owners who wanted custom work. Staffed by a committed, seasoned team of five PRS employees whose average tenure with the company is 12 years, the PTC still provides owners of PRS guitars with warranty work, but it also fields requests for repairs, custom work, and restorations. The PTC also offers retrofits of older PRS guitars with the latest hardware and design updates found on current-production guitars. Shawn shared his position that current PRS guitars reflect the “golden era” for the company and that I should consider having the PTC team undertake a full “off the frame” restoration of my ’89 CE—a bold proposition to prove out a bold claim.


LEFT: The autographs from members of Vixen, Molly Hatchet, and other ’80s bands ... MIDDLE: ... even spilled over to the rear of the CE. RIGHT: The guitar also came with its original PRS Phase I “winged tuners.”

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