PRS Tony McManus Private Stock Review

Posted by Teja Gerken

Without a doubt, Paul Reed Smith (PRS) is one of the world’s top makers of high-end electric guitars. Founded in 1985, the company made its mark combining elements of traditional Fender and Gibson electric models to create an original design, but the first PRS acoustic guitars didn’t appear until 2008. Working with luthier Steve Fischer, the company created two base models, the Angelus and Tonare Grand (see June 2009 review), built in a dedicated manufacturing facility within its Stevensville, Maryland, factory. Having attracted the attention of several high-profile players, PRS recently introduced two signature model acoustic guitars in its Private Stock line, one for English folk and roots fingerstylist Martin Simpson and another for Celtic fingerstyle star Tony McManus.

Cocobolo, European Spruce, and Abalone

The Tony McManus signature model we received for review features incredibly beautiful cocobolo back and sides (with a gorgeous sapwood center) and a generous amount of abalone in the top’s purfling, rosette, and fingerboard bird inlays. Based on the standard Angelus, the McManus has a 15.5-inch wide body with a Venetian cutaway, and the cocobolo is matched with a superstraight-grained European spruce top that displays a few hints of bearclaw. The ebony used for the guitar’s fingerboard and bridge is pitch black, and the one-piece mahogany neck (with stacked heel) displays a beautiful grain pattern.

The instrument includes several construction details that diverge from the vintage flattop-inspired norm, the most unusual of which is a top bracing pattern that combines a scalloped X-pattern with the fan-bracing found in many Spanish-style classical guitars. Rather than using a traditional pair of tone bars, PRS chose a quartet of braces that radiate symmetrically into the lower bout area from the bridge plate. Like all PRS acoustics, the neck is nonadjustable, but a high-modulus, carbon-fiber rod provides stability and a preset amount of neck relief. The guitar’s medium-size frets are installed flawlessly, and the 5/32-inch-thick bone saddle allows for greater intonation compensation than the more common 1/8-inch saddles. The guitar’s craftsmanship is impeccably clean inside and out, and the general fit and finish of every component is just beautiful.

Supreme Sustain

Weighing a little more than four pounds, this is a heavy flattop, which is not unusual for a cocobolo instrument, and PRS’s onboard 18-volt preamp, which includes two nine-volt batteries, adds to the weight. This significant mass pays off, however, in some of the most amazing sustain I’ve heard in an acoustic instrument; individual notes just keep on ringing, staying musical until the last bit rings out. The guitar’s quick response to a soft touch clearly assists in this regard, and once I awoke from the dreamlike state induced by noodling on long single-note lines, I marveled at how great the guitar sounded playing ballads like the Irish traditional “The Pretty Girl Milking a Cow” or John Coltrane’s classic jazz composition “Naima.”

Since Tony McManus is a double threat, excelling at both fingerstyle and flatpicking, I pulled out my heavy Wegen flatpick and tried out the guitar with a bit of Irish backup while jamming with a fiddle player. Many guitars that offer excellent response to a soft touch quickly reach the limits of their dynamic range when played with a little force, but not so the PRS, which delivered significant volume while staying focused and rich with overtones. Combining these qualities is a challenge for any luthier, and the team at PRS has succeeded admirably.

While the McManus model can easily stand comparisons with anything in the upper league of contemporary flattops, like most guitars, it does have some weaknesses that will affect some players more than others. Playing the guitar in a variety of keys throughout its range, I noticed a wolf-tone-like resonance that seemed to slightly damp the F# notes on the fourth and sixth strings, leading to a tonal imbalance during certain passages. But it’s possible that this idiosyncrasy will go away once the guitar (which was brand new at the time of our review) opens up with age. I also found that the medium-height factory action produced a bit of buzz on the second string, especially when I tuned the guitar to D A D G A D, and it became even more pronounced when I tuned the same string down to G. As this occurred with open and fretted notes, a bit more neck relief would probably remove the buzzing, but with no adjustable truss rod, this would be difficult to resolve.

Sensitive Pickup

The electronics package in the PRS Tony McManus consists of a McIntyre Feather pickup mounted to the guitar’s bridge plate, a proprietary 18-volt preamp, and a volume control inside the top edge of the soundhole. Played through an AER Compact 60 amp in my medium-size, hardwood-floor living room, the pickup reproduced the guitar’s tone with stunning microphone-like detail at low volumes, but at higher volumes it began to sound tubby and feedback-prone, especially around the F# frequency I’d noticed playing the guitar acoustically. I was able to remedy this with a bit of EQ, courtesy of an L.R. Baggs Venue, but doing so made some of the tonal accuracy disappear. I had a similar experience playing the guitar through the PA at a small, somewhat noisy club, where I needed to use a notch filter (from a Fishman Pro EQ Platinum) to get the volume up to performance level without feedback. I did get to hear a similar PRS guitar played through a great PA with a dedicated engineer, and in that context, the tone was excellent and the volume adequate. It’s not unusual for soundboard transducers to need a full-range sound system and judicious EQ to sound their best, so ultimately the success of PRS’s system will depend on where the guitar is played.

Using the system to record directly to Pro Tools produced a nice representation of the guitar’s acoustic sound, and it could definitely be used to make pleasing-sounding home recordings.

High-Performance Machine

The PRS Tony McManus signature model guitar easily lives up to the expectations raised by the renowned player and luthier who give it its name. But as with any high-performance piece of gear, it is a specialized instrument. The guitar’s sustain, tonal complexity, and amplified sound in a low-volume or controlled environment are superb, and whether you can afford it or not, it’s the stuff fingerstyle dreams are made of.

SPECS: Solid European spruce top. Solid cocobolo back and sides. Mahogany neck. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. Dovetail neck-joint. Hybrid scalloped-X and fan bracing. 25.25-inch scale. 13/4-inch nut width. 27/32-inch string spacing at saddle. Nitrocellulose finish. Keith Robson tuners. PRS pickup system. D’Addario light-gauge strings. Made in USA.

PRICE: $10,500 list.

MAKER: Paul Reed Smith Guitars: (410) 643-9970; prsguitars.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar July 2011

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