Hello fellow guitar lovers, today I have a special blog that kind of popped into my lap when TWO PRS guitars arrived at my shop for pickup upgrades; one was an older Korean made guitar (MIK) and the other a newer Indonesian made instrument (MII). This, folks, provided exactly the opportunity for the direct comparison that myself and so many others out there have been waiting for. So, is the lore true, are the Korean guitars superior to the Indonesian guitars? Let's take a close look at THAT!
First, a bit of history.
South Korea has a long history of producing quality instruments, including both stringed instruments and pianos. The Samick factories, for example, have been producing VERY high quality pianos longer than I've been alive. All through the 1980's and 90's, the factories in Korea quietly flew under the radar producing an enormous percentage of the world's acoustic, electric, and bass guitars for nearly every US brand. Basically, when the Japanese workforce grew too expensive to profitably manufacture "budget" guitars like Epiphone and Squire, production was moved to Korea. But in case you've been living under a rock and haven't noticed, Korea has now moved up the manufacturing food chain and has a workforce paid as handsomely as their Japanese counterparts, think LG, Hyundai or Kia. For a little more back story, feel free to read this blog. Otherwise, let's move on.
So where does a lowly instrument manufacturer go to find workers when you are in a country flush with high-paid automobile and electronics manufacturing jobs? In the case of the Korean instrument makers, the solution was simple: the neighboring island nation of Indonesia. For reference, Samick's "new" plant in Indonesia is about as close to it's Korean plant as Fender's Corona California plant is to it's Mexican facility. In fact, the Indonesian plants are generally set-up, workers trained, and overseen by the same individuals that ran the Korean plants. Easy-peasy, right?
Okay, let's roll! The mere fact that Korea is now seen as a top-shelf manufacturing center, and Indonesia is not, has led more than a few folks to conclude that the MIK instruments are superior to the MII counterparts. The hottest debates in this arena circle around the PRS SE line of guitars. Let's look at the EXACT differences, using a MIK SE Custom 22 and a MII SE Custom 24 that happen to be on my bench simultaneously.
Bodies: Beautiful then ... even more beautiful now!
The MIK is on the left, a beautiful ACTUAL tiger maple top, on the classic PRS shape. The Indo guitar on the right, with a beautiful exotic top, and some more pronounced contours and binding.
The MIK head-stock almost appears cheap and utilitarian compared to the newer Indonesian design, complete with the Paul Reed Smith signature logo and pronounced binding. Here, the MII is the clear winner. BTW, the tuners are EXACTLY the same, and I apologize for having the (identical) truss-rod cover off the MII guitar when this photo was taken :-)
Oh the contours!
No doubt, the enhanced contours of the newer MII guitars (top) feels, and looks, superior to the MIK counterparts (bottom). Depending on the eye of the observer, the larger, plastic binding could be seen as either a plus or a negative compared to the smaller maple binding on the MIK guitar.
Fingerboards: There is a CLEAR winner!
The bound finger board of the newer MII guitar on the right, with it's beautifully rolled ends and "birds in flight" inlay makes the MIK guitar look downright dowdy. In the early days of the PRS SE line, it seamed that Paul was being very careful to NOT have the SE line too comparable to his US made line; the birds, for instance, were quite rare on the SE models, as of today (2020) these higher-end appointments are quite common on the SE line.
How about the feel? Hands-down, the Indonesian neck feels way better.
Bridge and Tremolo block: No change!
This has always been a perfectly marvelous sounding and performing trem bridge, so I'm so very glad to see no change here!
Truss Rod: Truss rod adjustment: Again, no change!
And again, so glad to see it! The Gibson style a double-action rod with an actual exposed nut for adjustment is a welcome site compared to the recessed and easily stripped hex nuts found on so many other guitars. Now, if they would just make those nuts the same SIZE as Gibby so we could use the same darn wrenches...
Controls: Big changes ... still WEIRD!
What the heck is up with PRS designs for control locations????? Does ANYONE actually LIKE these bizarre locations? With the MIK Custom 22/24 the pickup selector switch was so far out of the way you might be half way through your solo before you finally managed to whack the thing into the neck position, and the tone nob was ALSO well into the nether-regions ... but ... On the Indonesian guitars it's the TONE knob that is literally too darn far away for ANYONE to use it. The switch to a Tele-style 3-way blade switch in a MUCH more convenient location is a downright beautiful thing, but as we'll see in a moment, the switch itself is quite inferior to the Gibson style switch on the MIK guitars.
Electronics, some notable changes ... still meh!
So, as many of you reading this will already know, I'm somewhat well-known for the PRS upgrade pickups I make, and I've had dozens of US and SE PRS guitars on my bench for pickup upgrades, which often also include electronics upgrades on the SE models. Check my pickups out here.
Here's what HAS NOT changed with the switch from Korea to Indonesia:
The pickups: they appear to be unchanged, and they still suck (Sorry Paul). I have an enormous amount of respect for Paul Reed Smith, and I hate to talk ill of any aspect of his beautiful guitar designs ... But seriously, the pickups are the weak link in all PRS guitars; US and imports alike. However, in the case of the SE models, they really do just plain stink. The one category of players who might find the pickups perfectly fine are the metal-only players; these pickups are heavily potted and can play with enormous gain and not feedback or sound flubby. But, if you are a player with even a slightly matured ear for tone, you will find the pickups to be sterile, clinical, lifeless, and somehow lacking in both top-end sparkle as well as a rewarding and full bottom.
The Pots:I personally really LIKE Alpha brand pots, so I like seeing 500K audio-taper Alpha pots in both guitars!
The tone cap: still a cheap, but moderately acceptable modern film type capacitor.
The "Bright" cap: Uggggg!!! This is the last resort for a dull, dead set of pickups, and does not fix the problem, just makes the pickups more shrill and ugly sounding. When upgrading to my, or any other quality pickups, PLEASE remove this!
And what HAS changed:
The two big differences are this: The blade switch on the newer guitars; I actually prefer this type of switch, but THESE are the cheapo switches that I've seen go bad early in life on hundreds of Chinese guitars ... so, I'd say the higher quality Gibson style switch on the MIK is the superior switch.
The tone-pot now pulls-out on the Indonesian guitars to split both pickups into single-coil mode. But in THIS case, that's most certainly NOT a usable feature as the pickups sound phenomenally weak and thin in single coil mode. Ugg. Again, see my upgrade pickups for something that actually sounds GREAT in single-coil mode.
And so, my friends, we come to the end of our journey. I hope you've gained some useful insight. See ya next week!