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This article was originally published in issue #40
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If you are seriously into guitar then you will be familiar with Alex Lifeson and his work with Rush and you will also be familiar with PRS Guitars. Lifeson has been a PRS player for some years and is one of the relative few who also play the company's exquisitely expensive private Stock Angelus acoustics. These are so highly priced that few can aspire to owning one but Lifeson and PRS have decided to offer at least a taste of the experience by marketing this Korean-made Thinline version at a far more affordable price. This, let it be said, is quite an ask! An Angelus is a very expensive guitar and this isn't - well, not very. So let's see how it gets on.
Pulling the PRS from its good quality hard case, it's an immediately attractive cutaway guitar, regardless of the signature on the headstock. The natural finish, complemented by the dark rosewood fingerboard and bridge, make this look a very classy looking instrument. Carrying over unique appointments from the original Alex Lifeson Private Stock Angelus, this SE however features a thinner body, by some margin. According to PRS, this 'Thinline' version is exactly what Alex Lifeson specified and what that means in practical terms is that the body depth has been reduced to 3 7/8”, which is quite a notable reduction on the deep bodied acoustics we're all used to. It does, as you would expect, have some influence on the guitar's sound but not as much as you might imagine.
The finishing standard on our sample was excellent, as always seems to be the case with PRS instruments. Check inside and the X-Brace/Classical Hybrid design, which follows the pattern used on the original, looks immaculate. PRS SE tuners are fitted and are as solid to use as you'd hope, adorning a beautiful mahogany headstock, again adding to the overall quality look of the instrument. The mahogany neck is a very comfortable C shape that fits the hand well, feeling much like an electric guitar's neck, which is a good thing if you are coming from that background. The 25.35” scale neck bears 20 frets, all seated and finished nicely, with an easy going action. Our sample was set up nice and low to make barre chords and lead playing easy, but not so low as to introduce fretbuzz or intonation issues. This model also features “Birds in Flight” inlays which is also a nice touch.
The cutaway gave good access to the higher frets although, as is quite common on guitars of this type, the strap fixing gets in the way as it’s fixed onto the neck joint. The thinline body, meanwhile, is a comfortable shape - not big enough to put off acoustic new comers, and not too small that you experience a huge loss of volume and depth. Having a solid spruce top with laminated dao back and sides (dao is aka Pacific walnut - Ed) yields a certain tone, offering a midrange heavy voice suitable for Blues type playing, and ringing chord work. The mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard combination adds some depth, making this a very versatile guitar, yielding plenty of dynamic range and warmth right across the tonal spectrum. You might assume that the thinner body means you sacrifice volume and tone but, contrary to some other opinions I've heard, I can't say I was bothered by this. Plenty of volume can be achieved once you start to dig in and this is not hindered by the 'Thinline' shape.
The electrics on the SE are courtesy of an undersaddle pickup, with volume and tone controls accessible via the soundhole. This means there is no built-in tuner, nor the familiar three band EQ you often find on amplified acoustics these days. In fact, at a glance you would be forgiven for not realising it's an electro-acoustic at all. I've played a fair few guitars with the controls inside the soundhole and have come to some firm conclusions about the arrangement. Yes, it looks neat and tidy, but making adjustments whilst playing is pretty tricky. There is no doubting that the undersaddle pickup on this PRS is of a high quality, there was hardly any tone loss when plugged in or issues with feedback, and the controls worked fine - they are just fiddly to use. It, of course, looks better than having a big pre-amp on top of the guitar but I'm just not sure how easy the soundhole set-up would be to live with long term before you started taking a jigsaw to it!
The PRS Alex Lifeson SE is not only a great signature model guitar, it's a good all-round acoustic guitar, that even players who aren't Rush fans shouldn’t rule it out. Our sample was as well made as you would hope any PRS would be and was very playable. There are some questions to be asked, however. The first is that the use of laminated wood for the back and sides seems a bit borderline on a guitar of this price. As we have said before in the Quiet Room, there is nothing particularly wrong with laminates and used properly they can be very good indeed. They are also very consistent in performance. However, they tend to be used for cheapness and laminated dao wood is an unusual choice. This is a very hotly contested area of the market place and while having Alex Lifeson's endorsement is going to give this PRS extra clout with Rush fans, others might discount that factor and if you do, judged against some of the competition in its price range, it might not appeal quite so much to the purist acoustic player. Then again, it is very playable, so you get the feeling that Rock players who are primarily into electrics would like this one very much indeed.
Finally, yes I find the soundhole controls a little fiddly but eventually I would learn to live with it, or maybe I'm the only one that has an issue with them anyway? On the whole a great sounding acoustic plugged in or not, it comes with a nice case and is well worth auditioning.