Review: PRS USA (Core) Custom 24 with TCI and Nitro (2020)
With Nitro and TCI Pickup updates, PRS’s flagship may just be the one guitar to rule them all
PRICE: New from $3700 As tested: $5000 (Artist Package)
· ‘Perfect’ Build Quality and Resonant, Beautiful Woods
· Well Balanced Pickups and useful sound combinations working across genres
· Modern Playability and ergonomic design
· New ‘Nitro’ finishes and TCI Pickups from 2020 onwards are a major upgrade over previous years
· As with all core PRS’s, absolute price-point requires begging the wife/husband/local bank
· Only Pattern Thin neck shape from 2021 onwards, which may be too thin for traditional players
MINISTRY OF GUITAR TIP: 2020 may be the sweet spot where you can get the Nitro and TCI upgrades with the option of the goldilocks Pattern Regular neck. From 2021, PRS defaulted to Pattern Thin. There are several around so grab them while you can
INTRODUCTION AND MODEL HISTORY
The PRS Custom 24 needs little introduction. Launched in 1985 as just the Custom, it has turned into a modern legend combining the best attributes of Fenders and Gibsons into one package, coupled with an attention to detail and build quality few makers can match. Largely due to the Custom 24’s success, PRS has turned into one of the Guitar world’s big 3 and a number of PRS models have spawned based on the Custom 24s platform, whether it be the 22 fret Custom 22, thicker bodied McCarty or even the propriety pickup models like the Paul’s guitar. So what is the Custom 24 formula and what led it to become such a success.
The intent of the Custom 24 was, simplistically put, to split the difference between a Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster, taking best bits of both. It begins with the scale length which at 25inch is right in between Gibson’s 24.75inches and Fender’s 25.5. PRS also employs Gibson’s tried and true set neck method and the formula of a maple cap on top of a mahogany body (This can be changed on certain Wood Library and Private stock runs) but takes from Fender the idea of a Tremolo, however modified and improved to PRS’s spec (We are now in Phase III of PRS trems, each iteration improved over the previous). The 3 a side headstock may appear similar to Gibson but PRS solves typical Gibson tuning issues with a less steep headstock angle and their proprietary nut material. and
finally for the body design itself, in spirit, Paul had wanted to combine the Stratocaster and the Les Paul junior but ended up after much iteration with the now iconic PRS shape with a very prominent Violin carve.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2020
The Custom 24’s formula which has allowed it to effortlessly straddle genres and appeal to modern and vintage enthusiasts alike has been a big part of its success. Paul has gently updated the Custom 24 over the years and 2020 brought one of the biggest updates.
1) TCI: Across the range, PRS incorporated the TCI process to tune their pickups, something they learnt while developing the John Mayer Silver Sky. TCI stands for tuned capacitance inductance, which allows PRS to tune the sounds of the pickups to an exacting tolerance. We’ll talk about how this works when we talk about sounds.
2) Nitro over cellulose (CAB Finish): PRS has interestingly been one of the holdouts against Nitro finish, not being a big fan of the lack of its durability and maintaining their poly coats were thin enough to provide the same benefits of nitro. However for 2020 they have developed something of a best of both worlds where they mix nitrocellulose laquer with plexiglass as base quote and spray nitro over it. It’s not ‘traditional’ nitro which is reserved for the Private stock and DGT models, but it’s essentially a nitro-ish base quote with a top quote of nitrocellulose laquer, in Paul Reed Smith’s own words.
WHAT'S IN THE CASE
The Custom 24 is a premium guitar and comes with a very premium case overflowing with the proverbial candy. The case is covered in black leatherette and feels as resoundingly solid as you would expect. One thing I particularly like about PRS USA cases is that the latches feel very high quality and close and open with a resounding sound. No looseness and cheapness here. The interior of the case is appropriately plush as well, with velveting soft touch material and perfectly designed headstock support.
The case comes with a little compartment which is used to store the case candy and can be secured and closed very easily with three strap buttons.
In terms of the case candy, you have the standard PRS hangtag with some guitar details, an envelope containing a key for the case, tremolo arm, standard PRS truss rod wrench, a PRS sticker, an owner's manual, a PRS sticker and a couple of brochures for PRS itself. Given this was a 2020 guitar, it also had a 35th anniversary tag.
SPECS AND BUILD QUALITY
Opening the case, you are greeted with a smell that has non been typical of PRS’s, the sweet vanilla of nitro. Every guitar smells different but Nitro guitars smell the best and different manufacturer’s nitro smell different. Gibson has always had a soft spot for me in that respect but I am happy to say the 2020 core Nitro smells every bit as good and in fact reminds me of the nitro smell on my Private stocks. This already makes a massive positive impression before I even pick up the guitar.
Beyond the smell, I wouldn’t say that the Nitro looks any different from the poly before. PRS’s strive for a dipped in glass look and our guitar in Purple Black Burst (the exact opposite of Charcoal Purple Burst) is a stunning example because of the tight Artist graded maple top. For your own purchase decision, note that all core PRS’s get beautiful tops, graded at 3 levels (Regular, 10 top and Artist) but curly maple varies greatly so always insist on as many photos of the guitar as you can.
Exceptional Artist top with a tight grain and Purple Charcoal Burst finish on this piece
The flamed maple top on Core PRS's is traditionally 2 pieces of book-matched maple and of significant thickness in order to enable the violin carve. This is most exemplified when you look at the join with the mahogany body and see the maximum thickness. Also of note is another trademark PRS touch of the natural binding, which is finished perfectly with a consistent outline between the painted and natural wood
The flamed maple top is of significant thickness and the natural binding makes for a spectacular effect
The body is made of mahogany as is standard on Custom 24s. The Custom (24 and 22) bodies are about 48mm thick, in contrast to the thicker McCarty (52mm) and use relatively light-weight woods, leading to a very comfortable weight and well balanced guitar. Our guitar weighs in at 7.5lbs and balances perfectly to no neck heaviness. The tightly grained mahogany is a good visual match for the maple on the top front as well as on and the natural finish makes it gel well with the natural maple of the neck, but do note that depending on the colour and wood combination, your Custom 24 could have a natural, transparent or solid finished back. If there is any criticism to be had, and we are clutching at straws here, it's the fact that brushed plastic is used for the backplates instead of wood which would have been much more cohesive, and is an option on Private Stock. However the fit and finish of the plastic backplates is perfect and difficult to criticize otherwise.
The neck and fretboard on the test model are flamed maple as well, a Artist pack difference, as you would normally get mahogany and rosewood respectively. Another Artist pack upgrade is that the trademark PRS birds are made of abalone, which go well with the flamed maple. The quality and the grain of the maple is flawless and worthy of custom shop offerings of any other guitar maker on the planet.
Flamed Maple and Abalone birds make for a spectacular effect
This is about as Spectacular as a guitar gets
The neck profile is Pattern Regular which is what I refer to as PRS's 'goldilocks neck', a shape anyone can get along with. Pattern Thin, which is the other option on the Custom 24, gets into shredder territory whereas Pattern (an Option on the Custom 22 and standard on the McCarty) is very definitely vintage inspired. Pattern Regular is a neck anyone can get along with, but sadly for 2021, these have been discontinued, so unless you favour thinner necks, pre 2021 Custom 24s will be right for you.
Coming to Hardware, this is another PRS strength. The Phase III locking tuners are amongst the best in the business, both visually as well operationally, being a doddle to change strings on, more reliable than a 80s Mercedes and looking as intricate as anything the Swiss watch makers have put out. There are PRS models which offer Vintage style tuners but thank God the Custom 24 is not one of them
Hybrid Hardware (Gold parts intermingled with Nickel) is, in the words of a wise man, da bomb
The Headstock, that screams Desire and Luxury
The bridge is another part of the Custom 24 extravaganza. This is now in its third iteration and the easy way to think of it is as the ultimate improvement on the Strat bridge. This means individually adjustable saddles, tuning stability to give Floyd Roses a run for their money and in Hybrid form (Gold and silver mixed pieces, like the guitar here), it's yet another piece of eye candy.
Time to give the Swiss Watch makers a run for their money
If I have one criticism, and this is not just for the bridge, but all pieces of nickel hardware on guitar, it is that they do get tarnished over time. I have a Custom 22 that I bought new in 2015 and 6 years later, the nickel has gone from silver to a dark grey. PRS nickel parts seem to age (visually) more rapidly than a corresponding Gibson whose silver or chrome bridge can remain shiny for years. This has no effect on the playability and visually I do know of folks (including myself) who prefer the duller grey look. But this is something you should be aware of, as a buyer of a new expensive guitar. Does this affect resale value? Yes and no. In general PRS's do not hold their values as much as Gibson (no other brand of guitar does. Again just something to know), but the darkened hardware is part of the used PRS package.
Coming to electronics, the Custom 24 has evolved over the years. Starting from a controversial 5 way rotary blade, today's Custom 24 has a relatively simple and conventional 2 Humbucker layout with a 5 way switch and a master volume and tone. The 5 voices are brilliantly judged to provide the maximum flexibility, and I will talk the little about this when you go to the sounds. They are
Position 1: Bridge Humbucker (the balls out position)
Position 2: Bridge Humbucker + Neck Single Coil in Parallel (for those about to funk)
Position 3: Bridge Humbucker + Neck Humbucker in series (for the Slash wannabes)
Position 4: Neck single coil + Bridge single coil in Parallel (near but not quite Mayer)
Position 5: Neck Humbucker (If you want to ape the Les Paul)
The two humbuckers are 85/15 TCIs. Let's get into the terminilogy.
85 stands for the year the guitar's sound is trying to evoke, in this case , 1985, the year PRS guitars were launched and Paul was trying to get back to the sound of his early production PRSs. 15 stands for the year these came out, aka 2015.
And TCI (Tuned Capacitance Inductance) stands for the new proprietary process PRS has developed which tunes the pickups to each instrument and is part of the slew of changes for 2020.
Visually, these look identically to regular 85/15s (standard on the Custom 24 since 2015) and are uncovered, with the usual trademark PRS square bobbins. Output wise, these are mid output Humckers, with neck coming in 7.83 ohm DC resistance, and the bridge at 8.64.
The TCI 85/15 pickups are the hero here, the clearest full sized humbuckers I have ever heard. You could criticize them for being neutral , not quite as full as a Les Paul in position 5, not quite as quacky as a Strat in Position 2, but you would be missing the point.
The Custom 24's tonal range, and ultimately objective, is to be the one guitar that you need for any situation. The basic tonal character of the guitar itself is of clarity and perfectly judged frequencies, which can be a wonderful base to manipulate in any direction (Gibson, Fender or your invention) and it's voices are judged to cover as much ground as possible. This is not the one guitar with a million voices like the Modern Eagle V or a 513, but rather it has all the essential prime colours, while the other two have different shades of prime for ultimate tweaking.
I go through the sounds with a clean tone and distortion in the video on my channel here.
I think of this's guitars tonal range as all that you could possibly need live (no matter what the situation) and even the studio (though there is some argument for further tweaking here). You could cover Master of Puppets, then jump into Yellow Ledbetter and ease things off with Stioll Got the Blues , and no one in your audience, even the anal guitarists, would think that it sounded inauthentic.
The question is, is the TCI technology/technique overhyped and is there a significant difference vs. a non TCI pickup. I have compared this guitar to a few other comparable PRS guitars in my collection (a 2019 non TCI Custom 22 Piezo, a 2017 CE24 Reclaimed and in one master stroke, the OG, my 1986 Custom 24)
My thoughts were that this 2020 Custom 24 was definitely the clearest of the four. It was most similar to the non TCI Custom 22 piezo (I am talking bridge here because the neck would be different due to the position difference between 22 and 24 frets), but it was slightly, lol more tuned (maybe this is psychosomatic confirmation bias at play but I did feel this). The CE24 reclaimed sounded totally different, no surprise given the different construction, and I have to tell you it sounded nothing like the 1986 Custom 24. So if the 85/15s are trying to evoke the PRS sound of old, well, I'm not buying into that story. Which sounded better , the 1986 or the 2020? That's a video that is coming soon :)
So who is the Custom 24 for? Should you get one? And should you specifically get from post 2020, basically shelling out extra dollars given the guitar price inflation recently vs. a used 2000s or 2010s Custom 24.
The answer to the first question, is that the Custom 24 is the ultimate one guitar. If you plan to have one guitar or even one premium guitar to keep and want to get maximum utility out of it, you simply cannot go wrong with a Custom 24. If you have always been attracted to PRS guitars and can't figure out which PRS to buy, get a Custom 24. It's the guitar optimized for function, hiding in 'a piece of art' clothing (that was terrible sentence structure but necessary). You will never actually 'need' more guitar than a Custom 24. That is just fact. Anything more than a Custom 24 is just fancy sauce.
My personal use for the Custom 24 is as a gigging guitar with my band. While I am lucky enough to have literally four dozen instruments at home, the Custom 24 is the guitar I take to band practice. Why? Because it covers all the tonal ground efficiently. It stays in tune. It looks amazing. It is easier to play than Candy Crush Revolution. With the guitar like the Custom 24, the guitar practically disappears leaving you to concentrate on the music, playing the part correctly and enjoying the experience.
I will say that the Custom 24 is not my studio tool though, but only because I have that Les Paul with the sweeter neck sound, or that EMG for the tight chugging and so on and so forth. But it easily could be. It's just that I am spoilt.
After that verbose answer, the second question. Are the CAB (Nitro over Cellulose ) finish and TCI pickups worth the extra bucks? I'll answer the question cryptically. If you want a 'new' guitar, for sure, these are an improvement that make the Custom 24's case stronger than ever, vs. competitors like Suhr or Gibson or whatever else strikes your fancy. Is it worth paying significantly more than a used Custom 24, just for TCI and CAB. Umm, I am not convinced though I have to say, everytime I smell the nitro and the case, I do start self rationalizing.
Ultimately the answer will be up to you. All I can tell you is that you can do no wrong with a Custom 24. It's like a Volkswagen Golf. If the Volkswagen Golf was a Ferrari.
Some Beautiful Shots to end with