by Eric Kirkland
If you've drooled over Paul Reed Smith guitars but couldn't justify forking out the cash, take heart: the Korean-built Santana SE and single-cut Tremonti SE put the PRS name in your hands for less than $800 each. Based on two of the company's famous signature models, these guitars boast solid construction and tones worthy of the company name. More than affordable options, they serve as important additions to the PRS catalog.
A true ambassador of music and peace, Carlos Santana is one of the few extraordinary musicians that have garnered the overwhelming respect and admiration of both fans and peers. Since Santana has played PRS guitars exclusively for more than a decade, his name has become synonymous with the Maryland luthier's masterpieces. This guitar-a lower-cost addition to the Santana line-bears little resemblance to Santana's $4,000 custom guitars, but it's a viable, articulate instrument in its own right.
The lightweight all-mahogany body is cut from the traditional PRS mold, which provides a forearm contour in place of a carved top and a three-ply pickguard that follows the lines of the body, volume knob and pickup rings. The 22-fret set-in mahogany neck is fully bound, has a 10-inch radius and a 25-inch scale, and features a rosewood board with SE pearloid inlays. While the neck's wide-fat carve is a bit chunky for big stretches, it should make Gibson and PRS McCarty fans feel right at home. The Santana SE's hardware includes a stop-tail bridge-also available with a tremolo-sealed nonlocking tuners and T-style strap buttons. The two humbuckers are mated to a three-way toggle selector with controls for master volume and tone. The Santana SE also comes with one of the best gig bags ever offered with any guitar. Made of heavy-duty cordura, it's embroidered with the PRS logo and is generously padded and formed to provide better support and protection than the common sandwich design.
I tested the new Santana SE with a Cardas Golden Chord guitar cable and my Papercone Tone Tubby-loaded Mesa Maverick. Thanks to the bright cable and the SE's lightweight body, the clean tones of the neck pickup were smooth and somewhat hollow. Switching over to the bridge pickup and kicking up the Mesa's Class A lead channel yielded defined chords and refined presence-just what you'd expect from a Santana guitar. With its neck, toggle-switching abilities, body shape and tuners, this guitar reminded me of a baby McCarty with a Santana vibe. However you view it, the well-built Santana SE has tone to spare.
During the past several years, Creed's Mark Tremonti has treated us to an array of catchy riffs and rich power chords. His signature PRS is considered by many to be the perfect marriage of Les Paul and PRS ideals, and this SE version is no different. The single-cut carved mahogany body is fully bound and loaded with two slightly hot pickups, a top-mounted three-way toggle and separate volume and tone controls for each pickup.
The 25-inch-scale one-piece mahogany neck is bound to match the body and topped by a 10-inch-radius rosewood board with dot inlays. The 22 medium frets make for easy play and produce accurate intonation, while the neck's set-in construction ensures long sustain and hearty tones. Although I'm not partial to wide-fat necks, the Tremonti SE's has a mild V that lies nicely in the center of the palm. Rounding out the hardware are sealed nonlocking tuners, a stop-tail bridge and positive T-style strap buttons. The supplied cordura gig bag is embossed with the PRS logo and, like the Santana SE's bag, sets the standard for all soft cases.
The Tremonti SE is all about crunch and a big sonic footprint. Whether the guitar is played in the lead or rhythm position, it delivers a wide harmonic spectrum that easily fills the room. Pushing through barre and open chords with my 5150 half stack created controlled soft crunch tones that mated well with the bright distortion. While the Tremonti SE's mahogany body soaks the sound with dark warmth, leads remain pleasant and well defined; this is no shredder's guitar but rather a modern tool for today's big rock sounds and players. With awesome playability and ripping drive, the Tremonti SE is a fantastic tonal alternative to the maple-capped standard Tremonti model. And, at this amazing price, it may be the best rock guitar value ever offered.