Unboxing a PE Exotic today is still a rewarding experience. The construction of the guitar itself is remarkably close to Nobuaki Hayashi’s original design, even if the materials and appointments have changed a bit over time. In recent years we've seen PE versions like the Elite and the Inspire at around the £200 mark, but the Exotic is a return to higher-end guitar building. So what makes it worth five times as much?
Actually, this guitar played a trick on me. Having pulled it out of its cardboard coffin and played it for a while, I thought I'd got my hands on the best £400 guitar I'd ever played. Why? Well anything worth more than that usually gets shipped in a hard case! When I found out the price, the guitar made more sense – but the cheapskate penny-pinching corner-cutting solution of not fronting up with a decent case certainly didn't. Pay a grand for a guitar and not even get a gig bag? Pull the other one...Enough said. The PE exotic is beautifully made from really excellent materials. The body is the classic maple/mahogany sandwich and in keeping with this year's must-have look we're talking about a spalted top.
But the fine black tracery of the decay lines and subtle colour changes seen here add a fractal-like geometry that intrigues the eye with added levels of detail, while the abalone binding and neck inlays bring out a subtle green hint in the wood that's very appealing and unusual. The three-piece mahogany back is of a lighter shade than average and a well-designed deep ribcage chamfer makes the instrument feel like a bespoke suit: this guitar fits. The body is chambered to reduce the weight but not to the same degree as some Heritages or the new Les Paul Standard so there is nothing noticeably hollow about the acoustic sound.
The PE Exotic's neck appears to be made from a single piece of maple (Aria construction is more normally three-piece) and while this is an indicator of higher material values I'm a bit surprised to find the headstock scarf jointed on between first and second frets. With many makers this is usually a cost-cutting exercise in production and a characteristic of lower-end instruments, but there's nothing technically wrong with it – it saves timber and may even strengthen the neck.
Early top-end PE's had ebony fingerboards but the more humble rosewood here is of the highest quality. The finishing standard is excellent, and not everybody likes the glassy hardness of ebony, anyway. It's a superb playing surface, and the medium gauge frets are beautifully dressed. Overall the set up is easy playing and very fast. Not too many test guitars turn up fitted with .009"-.038" gauge strings; any failing in the tone department is likely to be shown up by the lack of string mass and tension, so the fact that this guitar sounds excellent when played unplugged is testament to the quality of the materials.
The neck profile is slim and very comfortable. Recent trends toward more chunky vintage-style necks may leave this feeling a little skinny; however, not being a gent with particularly big hands, I'm more than happy. The patented Aria 'heel-less' neck/body joint is a design classic, and the way it disappears into the body is dead neat. It means that getting all the way up to the 22nd fret is a piece of cake. Combine this with the, Gibson style 24.75" scale length and you have one of the easiest-playing guitars I’ve ever spent time with.
All the hardware is highly desirable. The Grover machines have tasty ebony buttons (or is it ebonite?) and the strings through body design with a standard tune-o-matic has long since replaced Aria’s Super Tunable/Quick Hook design. The benefits include enhanced body resonance, and this guitar certainly zings.
Pickup-wise there's been a bit of last-minute revision which, I'm glad to say, errs on the side of quality and variety rather than simply high output. The bridge pickup is a powerful, Seymour Duncan SH4 JB designed to give forward mids without sacrificing top end clarity, and the neck unit is a , which has a much lower output and is softer toned. This is apparently Seymour's own personal favourite combination. These are wired up to a master tone and volume controls and a three-way selector – no mini toggles or push-pull pots for coil taps here.