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The Guitar Price to Quality Ratio

Guitar Build QualityGuitar Gear RetailGuitar Price to Quality RatioGuitar QualityGuitar Quality AssuranceGuitarsPaul Reed SmithPRSPRS SES-Style and Double-Cut GuitarsStudent Edition+-
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As you good readers will know - I already have a full-fat American PRS CE to my name, and I recently acquired a Korean-made Mark Holcomb Signature PRS SE for my Birthday. The PRS SE has a slightly longer scale length (25.5" vs 25"), and a hard-tail tray-style bridge rather than the CE’s classic tremolo, but otherwise the guitars are quite superficially similar.


There’s no question these are both beautifully-made instruments, but there are several subtle differences seasoned guitar buyers will be well aware of. The CE has a solid figured Maple cap, while the SE has a plain Maple cap, topped by a 1mm figured veneer. As Figured Maple is more expensive - this is a saving of between £20 and £50 for the manufacturer. In terms of tone and sonic impact, the important factor is the solid maple cap, whether it is figured or not does not impact significantly on the overall sound quality.


There are some things PRS does really well, but there are a few other areas on the SE which to my mind are poorly conceived. Chapman Guitars which are made in the same factory as the PRS SEs (Korea’s World Musical Instrument Co.) and retail at a similar price point come ready-fitted with Locking Tuners which are an essential requirement for tuning fidelity - i.e. keeping the guitar in tune. Chapmans also come fitted as standard with Schaller-compatible strap lock buttons.


When I bought my PRS CE I made 4 changes - two cosmetic, and strap lock buttons and USA-made bridge. For the SE I made 4 changes too. The SE ships with non-locking tuners which means basically that you spend way too much time re-tuning your guitar over and over. In this day and age, all guitars really should come with locking tuners - I bought the excellent Schaller M6 locking tuners from in black, and for a princely sum of around £100 - somewhat pricey yes, but so worth it. In the process of changing the tuners I also upgraded the strings to proper American PRS ones - and yes, they feel and play quite differently - a simple change to better strings too can have a surprisingly significant impact.


The first change I had actually made was fitting the guitar with Schaller strap lock buttons - which, I agree with Chapman, should be a factory-fitted standard. The final change was that I felt there was a little too much writing on the Headstock, as is sometimes the case with Signature Models - so I used very fine sandpaper - 7000 grit, to remove the PRS logo from the truss rod cover - making it all a little more subtle and understated. The other writing is under the lacquer, so is more complicated to remove - it does not shout out so much any more.


There are 3 more areas on the SE which come under scrutiny - the fit and finish is not quite up to the level of the CE, there was some very slight roughness to the top of the binding - where it has been rippled a little when it was shaved down, I smoothed this down with fine sandpaper myself; also rather inexplicably one of the bridge saddles is in regular chrome, while the other 5 are in black chrome? (kind of sloppy but quirky too - so I’ll leave it). Next, the truss rod cover is not quite as snug fitting as on the CE - to fix this would require more work than I’m prepared to do (chisels, re-lacquering etc.), and it’s very cosmetic and not at all noticeable unless you really really look very closely for it. Finally, the SE electronics are very obviously lower quality compared with the CE. This includes both Volume and Tone Pots (potentiometers), and the blade switch. You can quickly appraise this both by how these components feel - switches should be super crisp and precise, and the pots should be consistently smooth, and not too loose, and should have a beautifully contoured fade - meaning the volume and tone can come in very gradually and smoothly - cheaper pots don’t have the same smooth feel or transitions. On the SE, the volume pot feels slightly better quality and has slightly more resistance than the tone pot, but does not come quite close enough to the obviously superior pots on the American-made CE. Inferior electronics - including capacitors, are a subtractive element and can diminish the final output sound of a guitar - so they are significant.


This is actually one area that Chapman guitars also come into criticism for - the use of lower quality electronics. Otherwise Chapman do an amazing job of offering fantastically made and appointed guitars at great prices. The Chapman ML1 RS Rob Scallon 6 String Signature Guitar which I also have my eye on retails for just £649 - an amazing guitar at a great price. I paid £799 for the PRS SE Holcomb, to which you can add £107 for the Schaller M6 Locking Tuners (black), £15 for Schaller Strap Locks (black), and £8 for PRS 10-46 Strings - meaning a total of circa £930. I fitted 10-46 rather than 10-52s as I already had some spare, will most likely be swapping these for D’Addario strings of the proper gauge next, or possibly Elixirs. (My guitar in its upgraded state can be seen in the picture above)


My PRS CE was more than twice the price of the SE - at £1,729, plus American-made bridge at £275, plus black PRS pickup rings at £27, plus black PRS switch tip at £6, plus £15 Schaller Strap Locks - a grand total of £2,052. It’s a known quantity that you pay more for USA-made instruments and components, and my PRS CE really is a beautiful instrument that now needs nothing more doing to it. There are several amazing qualities about the Holcomb SE too - the fact that it has proper full-fat Seymour Duncan Alpha and Omega Signature Holcomb Pickups (Worth £300 alone), the look and general overall feel of it, including the lovely ebony fretboard and smooth satin set-neck.


For the PRS SE to reach perfection, ideally the electronics would need to be swapped out at some stage. With the sometimes tiny price differentials at this level, it is difficult to comprehend why the manufacturers don’t include slightly better quality as standard or at least offer as option. I feel that since lower cost guitars are so often upgraded, manufacturers should make it easier to switch out the obviously inferior components. I am quite confident in doing guitar setups now, including truss rod adjustments - as I actually had to do with the SE - which arrived with very slightly bowed neck, and very loose, totally out-of-tune strings - I really don’t understand why guitar shops don’t do a quick check before they ship. However confident I am, I am not really up to the task of switching electronics - the connectors there should ideally be more plug-and-play - so anyone can improve the quality of their guitar...


Quality of Components


Much like buying garments - the cheaper you go, the less quality and less 100% true the material part makeup is (e.g. 50% cotton | 50% acrylic vs 100% cotton) - quality pickups have 100% pure copper wire windings, cheap alternatives can have less than 50%. You often hear the use of the phrase ’pot metal’ which means that instead of building a solid steel, nickel or brass bridge or similar components, they will be made of say 50% steel, and then a mix of whatever other metals were cheaply available at the time - this has significant impact on tone and longevity of course. Metal components can also be made in molds / cast or properly CNC machined to size - so it’s not just the quality of the core material, but how it is handled and worked too.


Same goes for things like Fret Wire - the strongest / most durable being 100% solid stainless steel, lesser materials will compromise sound, wear down quicker and need to be replaced much more frequently. A high quality build guitar with the best components can last a lifetime, lesser quality ones may need refurbishment after a few years.


Quality of components has 4 significant impacts on a guitar:

  • Playing Precision - Things like Bridge Material and Nut Material affect pitch and tuning stability too, and tone and volume settings obviously impact on playability - hitting the right notes and getting the absolutely correct tone every time is not a given on a cheaper instrument
  • Tone - Cheaper woods, fixtures and strings can all compromise the sound and playability of the instrument - including things like resonance and sustain
  • Tuning Fidelity - I’ve already mentioned the definite need for locking tuners, but the bridge is critical too, as is the nut - all three can impact on tuning stability
  • Longevity / Durability - All wearable parts - pots and switches, fret wires, nuts and strings last longer and play better for longer if they are of a certain quality - buy too cheap, and you will have to replace parts all too often

Full Check List


These are the various points I check off when I consider a guitar - in particular for price and quality:



  • Bridge - A hard-tail bridge gives you better tone and better sustain, but certain genres and types of playing style demand the use of a tremolo - Wudtone has some very clever solutions for tremolo bridges with enhanced contact points and near-hard-tail tone. Bridge material is critical for ringing tone and sustain - usually either solid steel, nickel or brass, or combinations thereof - be wary of cheap asian-made ’pot metal’ alternatives which can make the sound more brittle and thinner / more hollow. You also need to consider tuning stability, how well the bridge holds intonation, and how easy it is to adjust it
  • Fit and Finish - Look for smoothness of finish, seamlessness of joints, solidness of fittings and fixtures, precision in paintwork / lacquer - no streaks or smears or bleed of paint onto components where it should not be - e.g. bindings. Most modern guitars are finished with the equivalent of car lacquers - poly / acrylic - which provide excellent scratch protection but can chip on hard impact - Nitrocellulose is considered very bad for the environment, and already banned in California, but is still the main choice in particular for satin finishes
  • Fretboard / Frets - Run your fingers along the fret edges - a first sign of quality is totally seamlessly smooth, rounded fret edges - fret type and quality also impacts on tone and longevity. I also tend to stick with Rosewood or Ebony for fretboards (darker woods), as Maple tends to show up dirt / fingerprints / marks far too easily - you can get stained and toasted maples which compensate for this to a degree
  • Neck - I can’t stand glossy lacquered necks which can get sticky when you perspire, for me they have to be silky-smooth Satin or Oiled - typically Maple or Rosewood - which limits which PRS Guitars in particular work for me
  • Nut Material - Annoyingly not listed in most guitar specs, even though a significant influence of tone and tuning stability, something I may switch out later on my SE if I ever find out what that nut is made of - Graph Tech make excellent aftermarket alternatives
  • Pickups - A vital component of sound - fortunately both my guitars have amazing Pickups - the CE has full USA 85/15s and as reported, the SE has original Seymour Duncan Signature Holcomb Alpha and Omega - there are lots of amazing aftermarket alternatives, including the big 3 - DiMarzio, EMG and Seymour Duncan, but also loads more boutique / hand-wound pickups from - Bare Knuckle, Bartolini, Benedetti, Creamery, Crel, Fishman, Gemini, Harmonic Design, House of Tone, Kinman, Klein, Lace, Lindy Fralin, Lollar, Lundgren, LR Baggs, Monty’s, Oil City, Railhammer, Tornade, Wiggins, Wizard, Wolfetone - all the major guitar manufacturers also make several of their key pickups available (Dean, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Ibanez, PRS etc.), and there are even more boutiquey individual makers like Alan Hamel (RIP), Fred Stuart, John Suhr, and Ron Ellis etc. etc...
  • Pots - Goldilocks-like - not to loose or too stiff, with a very smooth and even action - both rotation and transition -wise
  • Switches - Look for crisp precise action, slightly looser action switches are invariably lower quality and don’t last as long
  • Strap Locks - Another essential for me - to keep your guitar safe and secure and free from potential damage - I love and highly recommend the Schaller ones
  • Strings - Good strings make a significant difference - longevity, fluidity, tone, bend etc. cheaper strings can have a ’brittle’ quality - I love PRS strings, there are several great aftermarket alternative - including the big 3 - D’Addario, Elixir, and Ernie Ball
  • Tuners / Machine Heads - Locking Tuners are really a must have and should be fitted standard on every guitar - I thoroughly recommend Schaller - superb German engineering - the Schaller M6 3+3s are a direct replacement for the OEM Tuners on PRS SEs
  • Woods - Certain woods are more expensive, wood density determines the weight of a guitar, and brightness or richness of tone - know what you’re getting for the price - some manufacturers totally overcharge for more highly regarded tone woods - particularly the various figured and spalted ones...

The Key Price Points


As mentioned previously, you can get a pretty amazing Chapman ML1 RS for £649 (the lowest cost of the ones currently in my sights) and very decent PRS SEs for around the same £700 to £800 mark. You should be able to get something pretty decent between £350 and £700 too - but be aware of compromises and limitations. My SE in its current form, and the aforementioned Chapman both use ’Alpha’ -type brand pots - which you can buy literally for just a few pounds - well under the £5 mark, sometimes half that. Specifying better quality pots, switches and capacitors is not going to add hugely to the final bill, so it’s somewhat mystifying why manufacturers deliberately settle for unnecessarily low spec’d components.


Note that there is also a degree here of ’Range Enforcement’ - PRS deliberately limits the availability of certain components to certain ranges to artificially enforce a price distinction. And while Chapman for instance include Locking Tuners and Strap Locks, PRS SEs for whatever reason do not. As I said previously, if manufacturers are going to deliberately include cheaper components there should be an easier way to switching them out - which does not involve wiring diagrams, electronic engineering skills and soldering. Part of me is disappointed that this is so endemic - Chapman prides itself on being for the people - would be great if they could make their instruments more easily upgradeable - if they are not going to fit sufficiently quality electronic components.


Here follow what I consider the 7 main tiers of guitar pricing - I generally think you can get an amazing quality guitar for under / around £2,000 - like my PRS CE. If you want a proper custom-made guitar to your own specifications you are typically talking £4,000+ up to around £10,000 - no guitar really needs to cost more than £10,000 unless it’s embedded with gems and other precious materials, and everything is originally sourced, hand-cut, hand-wound and entirely hand-made, assembled and finished by elves:

  • <£350: For a kid who wants to start playing guitar, but may not be fully seriously invested yet
  • £350 - £700: Pretty decent quality of guitar with excellent playability, but some compromises and limitations
  • £700 - £1,000: A damn fine mass-market guitar (Korea/Indonesia/Mexican), possibly only lacking in the electronics department
  • £1,000 - £2,000: Excellent quality USA / Japan-made instrument, with all-quality parts
  • £2,000 - £4,000: Excellent quality USA-made instrument, with all-quality parts and including several custom / rare options - particularly on woods, finishes and pickups
  • £4,000 - £10,000: The realm of the proper ’Custom / Bespoke’ guitar - exactly as specified by you
  • >£10,000: Guitars as art really, too expensive to be properly viable instruments - more meant for museum and mantlepiece display, investment or heirlooms rather than on-the-road gigging and jamming - there are some ridiculously priced Gibsons on Reverb going for as much as £487,000 - also a beautiful PRS Private Stock Ltd Edn DGT Semi-Hollow going for just under £10,000 - similarly the John Mayer Super Eagle which sits a couple of grand higher - I guess if money is no object...



Don’t forget that you can go it alone too - learn to be a Luthier at Crimson Guitars in Dorset, and build your own instrument from scratch - to your own specifications - you can buy in the exact woods and parts you want - the only limitation may be in the quality of paint finish, as no one quite does that like PRS can - at least not yet ... I may well head to Crimson in the next few years or so - when I fully know what I would want to make. Be aware that lots can be done with machines these days - you can design your guitar with 3D CAD, and a CNC machine will cut body materials and neck to within mms of final dimensions - just sufficient for you to hand-sand and smooth down. There are already great machines for radiusing fretboards and the like - meaning that this type of guitar manufacture is becoming more and more the realm of computer manufacture - meaning most of the manual work is just hand assembly and finishing.

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Stefan Karlsson
Stefan Karlsson
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