#CoffeeAndKlon 29: Why The Eyes Don’t Have It

#CoffeeAndKlon is my occasional Sunday magazine-style series, where I talk about whatever’s on my mind about guitars, gear, music and yes, sometimes my love of both coffee and the Klon pedal.

I can’t wait to get back into guitar stores when it is safe to do so once again. Why? Let me try to explain …

Prettiest Isn’t Always The Best

This post was inspired by a recent tweet from Guitar Guitar:

In case you can’t see the tweet, it shows two 35th Anniversary Edition PRS Custom 24 bodies. One guitar is a gorgeous black/gold burst (black rim, very quickly fading to a golden orange centre), and the other is a beautiful dark cherry burst (dark cherry red rim, fading to a translucent / purple centre). Either would look absolutely stunning hanging from the wall or in the hands of someone who’ll play them.

And it asks a question: which one do you prefer?

This got me thinking about my PRS Custom 24, which I’ve named “Ragnar”. Ragnar is right up there in the top-2 of best-sounding Core-line Custom 24’s I’ve personally ever played. But you wouldn’t know it to look at it. In fact, because of the way it looks, I bet you wouldn’t even try it in the first place.

No Beauty Contest Winner, Our Ragnar

Once you get into PRS’s Core range – and especially upwards into Artist Pack, Wood Library and Private Stock – PRS make art. These guitars aren’t just exceptional instruments to work with, they’re all exceptional eye candy to look at too.

Well, nearly all. Amongst PRS guitars, Ragnar is a bit unusual. Let’s not beat about the bush here. By PRS standards, Ragnar is a bit of an ugly guitar.

For a start, it isn’t a burst like either of the two guitars in that tweet. Ragnar got its name from how the top is this off-pink/purple colour that looks like it has been soaked in the blood of its enemies. It’s translucent, with the flame of the maple top largely highlighted by a darker shade of the same off-pink/purple colour. Only, there’s a couple of spots where the flame top is highlighted by grey instead. The grey isn’t distributed symmetrically or evenly. It’s just there in patches, like an undercoat stain that didn’t take the top-coat well.

Then, there’s the maple top itself. How can I put this? It’s more like the kind of maple top that Gibson used to get grief for, back in the Henry J era. It doesn’t look particularly book-matched, and that isn’t helped by one of those grey areas ending abruptly at the join behind the bridge. When I move around the guitar, I can’t see much movement in the flame. If there’s any 3D aspect to this flame, it’s really difficult to see.

There’s no two ways about it: put Ragnar up against those two beauties from that Guitar Guitar tweet, and it would come in last. Heck, it wouldn’t even get into a beauty contest with them in the first place.

When you’re paying PRS prices for a guitar, that’s important. They’re very expensive guitars, and for that amount of money, we all want our money’s worth. Here, PRS have made a rod for their own back, because they consistently make, market and showcase beautiful looking guitars. The odd-looking ones like Ragnar … you’re not going to choose one like that when shopping online.

Heck, I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t even get the chance to. In 2021, I wouldn’t be surprised if a shop took one look at a PRS that looks like this and sent it straight back. And I’d be surprised if PRS shipped out a guitar looking like this in the first place.

I for one am glad that they did.

Thing is – and this is the point of today’s #CoffeeAndKlon – looks aren’t everything. There’s two things you can’t tell from a photograph. To me, they’re far more important than looks. And they’re the reason why I chose Ragnar – very much the ugly duckling – out of a room full of beautiful PRS guitars.

What Does It Sound Like?

Thanks to Jez (he’s a bit of a legend here in the UK PRS world) and his support of my local guitar shop AStrings.co.uk, I’ve been fortunate enough to play quite a few PRS guitars – and have quality time with them too.

(Seriously, when it’s safe to do so again, if Jez is putting on a PRS evening at your local guitar shop, go to that event. It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to buy any of the guitars, go anyway. Jez is always extremely generous in encouraging everyone to play any of the guitars he brings.)

The thing you need to know about PRS Custom 24’s: when it comes to sound, they’re the polar opposite of Gibson Les Pauls. With a Les Paul, it’s the good ones that have a unique voice, and it’s the “bad” (as in boring) ones that all sound the same.

It’s not like that with PRS.

PRS make guitars that sound remarkably consistent within the same range. In my experience, take (say) half a dozen Custom 24s from the Core range, and it’s really rare to find one that sounds significantly distinctive from its siblings. And even if you could tell in a quiet room, you probably won’t hear it in a noisy environment or in a mix.

(Heck, I have a memory of someone doing a video comparing two Custom 24s that were made years apart, and they sounded very similar. Wish I could find it, so that I could link it here for you!)

My ugly duckling Ragnar is one of those rare guitars. Not just in my opinion either.

I bought Ragnar at one of Jez’s events. It was late night opening at the shop, he’d brought down a van full of PRS guitars for punters like me to try and buy, and there were plenty of other guitar brands competing for sales too. In a crowded, busy, noisy shop, Ragnar stood out sonically. It stood out to me, and it stood out to my friends when I asked their opinion too.

A photograph wouldn’t have told me any of that. It’s just not possible. I had to be there to discover it for myself.

The other thing that a photography can’t tell you about a guitar? What it feels like to play. And, sadly, I think that’s more important for PRS guitars than it is for other brands that I’m interested in.

What Does The Neck Feel like?

My mate Andrew, who owns and runs my local guitar shop AStrings, always says that it’s the neck that sells a guitar. I suspect he’s not wrong.

With PRS, it’s the neck that’s been the deal-maker or the deal-breaker for me every single time. Not the price. Not the looks. Not the tone. The neck.

Something else you need to know about PRS necks: the finish they use on their gloss necks can be very sticky. My (probably wrong!) understanding is that it’s absolutely fine for most people, but for some people it reacts to the oils in our skin and becomes very sticky.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those people. And man, it’s frustrating. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous a guitar looks or how great it sounds. If I can’t physically play the damn thing, I can’t buy it, because I know it won’t get played.

Sadly, I can’t offer you a comparison with anything else here. I’m sure there must be other brands out there with sticky neck finishes. I just haven’t played one myself. I’m not talking grabby necks here. The lacquer really feels like it’s softening / melting to the touch, even if it actually isn’t.

This is another area where Ragnar is very unusual for a PRS, in my experience. It has a gloss neck where the finish has set hard. The back of the neck is as smooth as glass, with absolutely zero stickiness anywhere. I can play Ragnar for hours at a time, and the neck finish doesn’t soften up at all.

Even for a hack like me, it’s a wonderful neck to play.

(PRS also had a 3-year period from 2017 to 2019 where they introduced a significant number of guitars with satin or natural wood finish necks. They’re also an excellent option if, like me, you find PRS gloss necks too sticky to play. At the time of writing, I don’t know if PRS are still doing non-gloss necks in decent numbers. There’s been a lot of disruption to supply since NAMM 2020.)

The Limits of Window Shopping

There’s one last thing to point out: I was able to learn how Ragnar was different because I was able to try it in a shop full of other PRS guitars. Being able to compare guitars then and there is important.

This works for any brand. It’s not a PRS thing. I’d say that Fender’s pretty similar too on this. And I’ve written about how important it is for Gibson Les Pauls many times before over the years.

The question is: is it important for you? Most people aren’t after a great guitar, they’re just after a good one.

In this day and age, there are few objectively-bad guitars on the market. Any reputable shop will have checked a guitar over before sending it out to you, to make sure you’re not getting a guitar with manufacturing defects or that’s been damaged by the delivery courier. Whatever you order online, it’s going to be pretty typical for that make and model.

And, it has to be said: many of the guitars I’ve been fortunate enough to own were available because other people preferred a different guitar instead. It’s not always down to personal taste, either.

You might not realise it, but you have to learn to hear some of these differences. Our hearing – and especially what our brain makes of it – is a learned skill. Here, I’ve been lucky. My wife has exceptional hearing, and she spent years going round guitar shops with me training me on some of these differences. We couldn’t have done that if we’d been limited to just shopping online.

Not everyone’s that lucky.

The obvious example to talk about is the Les Paul. Les Paul forums are full of people who insist that your average Henry J-era factory-line Les Paul sounds identical to a Custom Shop Les Paul. Why? Because they can’t hear the difference. To them, in their experience, they are identical.

What’s the point I’m trying to make here?

I’m not trying to put you off shopping online. Right now, it’s the only option we all have, and no guitar gear is worth risking your health or the health of your loved ones. Not. Worth. It.

When it’s safe to do so once again, I’m going back to exploring every damn guitar shop that I can get to in person. It isn’t just fun, it’s been a critical part of my education about what works for me.

Because that’s what it’s all about: my music. I’m not chasing someone else’s style, or sound. I’m trying to discover my own.

Final Thoughts

Music is an art of self-expression. It’s personal. The instrument you play is part of that art. It’s part of you, and your identity as a musician. It’s also personal. And it’s often subjective.

It doesn’t matter how good you are; whether you’re a hobbyist hack like me, or a successful professional, or an acclaimed virtuoso. Doesn’t matter. You’re the first element in the signal chain, and your instrument is next. How you connect with it affects how you express yourself.

It’s also a matter of taste. It evolves over time.

For the first twenty-odd years of playing guitar, I avoided Les Pauls like the plague. They weren’t for me. For the last decade, despite its flaws (especially compared to a PRS), my Les Paul has been the guitar I reach for the most.

But it took time for me to learn what I wanted – heck, what I needed – from a Les Paul. And a hell of a lot of that time went on playing Les Pauls anywhere I could find them, in shops north, south, east and west.

That’s why, when it’s safe to do so, I can’t wait to get back out there and see what’s waiting for me on the wall in a guitar shop somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.