Not only did he get to interview Neal Schon twice for this issue, but we also gave Stuart Bull a 'special operations' task - to review the new for 2013 PRS NS-14 Neal Schon signature guitar. It's tough at the top!
Normally when the job of reviewing gear comes around I will stealthily disappear to the toilet, or if I do get caught in the review job's cross hairs I'll bellow out the famous quote from the garbage men Simpson's episode "Can't Someone Else Do It!?" but as the air filled my lungs in preparation for the royal passing of the buck I realised that what I was being asked to review was the Paul Reed Smith NS-14 - the signature model of no other than Mr Neal Schon. I saw and briefly held this guitar at the NAMM show 2013 when I interviewed Mr Schon. I'd been intrigued by this guitar for several reasons: one Neal is a player I admire very much as he has a foot in two guitar camps, the first being blistering chops and the second being beautiful melodic solos. Secondly, it's a semi acoustic guitar, with 57/08 pickups which I like very much, and one other interesting point is the Floyd Rose tremolo. Lastly we have to mention it's a PRS so it's going to have been put together with relentless attention to detail!
The first thing you can't help noticing is the sheer beauty of this instrument. This is a commonplace with PRS Guitars, it's true, but the F-hole and the charcoal burst carved maple top make this model a real looker, even by PRS standards. I first picked up the guitar a couple of days before the review was due to be filmed and immediately found myself really enjoying playing it. The neck is a little chunkier than the regular "wide thin" Paul Reed Smith necks that I'm used to playing but I did not find this a problem at all. The neck fell into my hand very nicely and the radius provided a stress free string bending environment that left me feeling like I'd been playing the guitar for years.
Let's take a look at the guitar from head to toe. Visually, the carved maple top, finished in charcoal burst, is very pleasing to the eye and the F-hole provides a touch of extra class to the look. The first functional thing that might be of interest is the locking machine heads as, of course, we have a locking nut as part of the Floyd Rose system. I don't know if the PRS Phase 111 Locking tuners provide any extra tuning stability but they do provide a quicker turnaround for a broken string. As you will know if you have used these tuners, you pop the string through, cut off the unwanted excess and "boom" you're done. Changing a string with a Floyd Rose system can be painful enough, so any extra help is greatly appreciated!
Next we have a very exotic looking headstock finished with a wonderful rosewood veneer, accompanied by the inlaid Paul Reed Smith signature. The neck is mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard that feels very comfortable, the PRS bird inlays are showing their elegance as per usual. The frets are something of importance to me as a player, especially when bending strings and performing vibrato. I would place these frets in the medium jumbo zone, not quite as big as say a Dunlop 6100 but certainly bigger than the frets on a PRS Regular Custom 22. As I mentioned before, the neck is a bit deeper than a wide thin neck but none the less playable, it's important to remember that this is the Neal Schon signature model, so the man himself is calling the shots.
Control wise, we have one tone and one volume knob plus a three way pickup selector. For me this delivers no-nonsense sound selection perfect for the live player, so even if one of these guitars does end up next to your dentist's coffee table you can be confident with the knowledge it can be taken out and played at any time and you won't have consult NASA if you want to play a Blues solo using a combination of front and back pickups with the tone knob rolled back a tad.
Now we come to possibly the most controversial part of the guitar... the Floyd Rose Tremolo, I have heard people say that putting a "Floyd" on a PRS is sacrilege etc, so I would like to weigh in with my opinion. Having the Floyd Rose does provide a virtually tuning train crash-free ride and I don't believe it detracts from the look in any way. If you are used to the picking hand position when using a Floyd, it can be difficult changing to something else and if that is on your main guitar then it makes sense to have it.
Now I would like to offer a sonic reason for the Floyd. To me sometimes semi-acoustic guitars can be a bit "boomy" on the bottom end, a Floyd Rose tightens up the bottom end nicely. I haven't heard this guitar without the Floyd Rose so this part of the review will have to remain a theory of mine. Finally one more shout out to the Floyd! The adding of this tremolo proves unequivocally that this guitar is a true signature model born to be played and not to sit next to a surgeon's saxophone (although I'm sure it would look very nice there).
Now we come to for me the most important question, what does this thing sound like ? As you'd expect, this guitar sounds killer! It has an open, airy sound but is also very focused with the lead tones cutting through the monitors with precision. The 57/08 pickups are fabulous and if you don't already know, they are wired on the original Gibson machines used for the classic PAF Models that were manufactured in the '50s. These pickups are perfectly balanced in tone with each frequency precisely in line with the next. The treble pickup has the Rock growl while still maintaining a smoothness associated with a player such as Mr Schon, while the middle position has a cool Blues tone that will be an instant favourite with electric Blues players. The front pickup position is extra to me, as often this selection can be dull and muddy. In this instance, a clean clear tone is present alongside the warmth you expect from a front pickup sound. As you'll hear in my video review, the guitar sounds great with clean tones and if this was the one guitar you to took to a gig covering a range of styles you would be able to cover everything - even a nice 'Jazz Box' tone can be acquired using the front pickup with the tone rolled back.
There's no point pretending that this is anything other than a very expensive, albeit beautifully made, guitar that very few of us will be able to afford. But its high price shouldn't count against it. We always wrangle a bit on the GI team at the 'how many points do we give this one?' stage, especially with really highly priced instruments. But I look at it this way, it's a fabulous guitar that costs what it does because of what has gone into it and if you can afford it and want it, go for it! And you can see where the money has been spent here - on great hardware, materials and craftsmanship. It's a very versatile guitar that is for real players - not just for the infamous 'doctors and dentists' market.