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PRS Guitars - 6 of the Best

GuitarsPaul Reed SmithPRSS-Style and Double-Cut Guitars+-
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To most guitar buyers there are 3 essential classic guitar types that most try to own one of each within their lifetime. These 3 classics are of course a Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul - all have different shapes, headstocks, tonal profiles and different feel - and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Together these 3 guitar tropes have influenced all others and been the bedrock of rock’n’roll since the late 1950’s. These guitars hold their value the best, and are typically the first point of call for most budding guitarists. The vast majority of recognised ’Guitar Legends’ are known for using one or more of these classic types at some point in their career - these are the origins and benchmarks of the rock genre. And most guitar-makers and luthiers have their own particular take on each.

Ultimate Build Quality and Reliability

You may already have gathered (via various posts) that I am a huge Paul Reed Smith fan, and am generally more a fan of modern guitars than vintage - all for good reasons (tuning stability, signal-to-noise ratio, ease of maintenance etc.). While I love the sound of the classic Strat, Tele and Les Paul, I have several issues with each of those instruments in terms of consistency of build quality, tuning fidelity and overall attention to detail.


For Les Pauls this is at its most extreme, as you typically need to try 10 quality Les Pauls to find a single decent example to take home. Even then you are left with Tuning and other build and component quality issues. For the Fender guitars this is far less extreme, but there is still quite a variance within model types for overall consistency in quality of build.


You may not like the look or sound of Paul Reed Smith's guitars, but you cannot argue that he maintains the best quality standards for his factory's output. In terms of consistent high quality at that price - and I am looking at the S2, CE and Silver Sky models in particular (sort of £1,500 - £2,500) - there is no one else quite at that level. Suhr is generally of exceptional quality, but is really more of a boutique brand, and has a much lesser volume of output - and when comparing like-for-like at the lower end, Suhr guitars are also more expensive.


So the vast majority tend to agree that of the current big 3 guitar manufacturers - PRS has the best overall and most consistent quality of output. It's innovations too - like its tremolo bridge, tuning keys, nut material and headstock shape and string pull raise its guitars functionally above those with vintage appointments.

Guitars for all occasions

When the Silver Sky came out, I actually really liked it, already being a fan of the PRS headstock shape etc. I wasn't sure why Paul made quite so many concessions to the Fender original influences - i.e. top-mounted jack, Fender-style bridge saddles etc. I have always preferred more modern and more ergonomic appointments, so I did not quite understand the need to sort of figuratively retrofit the guitar with old-fashioned appointments (newly made) like those two mentioned and the rectangular Kluson style backs of the tuners? All those elements kind of annoyed me a little, as I am a modernist at heart - and want the benefits the newer innovations bring - so some of these details to me were really just for the sake of looking more like a Fender than having any technical or tonal merit or benefit. That said, in each instance where more traditional appointments were used Paul and his team found some way to innovate and improve on the originals.


For a Strat / S-style guitar though, the Silver Sky build quality is flawless - I like the fact that we have the tuning-fidelity of the improved headstock, and that the attention of detail has been far and above that which anyone else would bother to put into a signature guitar of this nature. Compared to the original '63 and '64 Strats, I still feel their pickups sound slightly warmer and more lively, while the newer PRS ones sound somewhat more neutral - but still convey that overall Strat-like bright sparkling tonality. I would likely though consider swapping those PRS 635JM pickups for some more modern noiseless ones with a little more warmth and dynamics. But if I were in the market for an actual S-type guitar - then this one would be first on my list.


So when the Silver Sky came out, I was thinking - is there a PRS equivalent for all the key types of guitar, and what are essentially PRS's own 'classic' models. In doing my research I came to the conclusion that the following 6 models would best represent PRS - at least from my perspective, and I will attempt to explain why I have chosen as I have:

The Strat / S-Type = PRS Silver Sky 635JM - £2,299

The Strat / S-Type = PRS Silver Sky 635JM - £2,299

When you acquire a PRS - you can pretty much buy it sight unseen - I don't necessarily recommend that approach, it's just that the build quality is so good and so consistent that you can pretty much take it for granted that you are getting a 'good one'!


The John Mayer Signature Silver Sky is very much based on his favourite vintage 1963 and 1964 Strats - with the key benchmarks taken from those two - neck and fretboard measurements, scale length and pickup tone. It's a little bit reverse engineering, but also improvement and innovation all the while.


Knowing how the PRS factory works, and having seen the 'making of' videos, I have no doubts about the credentials of these guitars - yes they are sort of Strat knock-offs, but they are honed and improved versions of those - totally re-engineered pretty much from scratch over a 2 and a half year period.


Obviously they are tailored very much to the requirements of a single player, but I feel that with judicious selection of pickups - or even try the ones that come fitted - you will end up with a very high quality output regardless. Looks-wise this guitar is Marmite for many - I'm a PRS fan though and I really like it - bar those niggles I mentioned in the intro.


Considering everything that's gone into it, I feel £2,300 is a fair price for a USA-made instrument of this nature & quality - everything has been custom made for this instrument, including the metallic shades of paint. I like the Tungsten grey one pictured - oh and I would probably have preferred matching headstock rather than natural wood - which is another direct 'take' from the original Fenders.

The Tele / T-Type (ish) = PRS S2 Studio Ltd Ed. - £1,429

The Tele / T-Type (ish) = PRS S2 Studio Ltd Ed. - £1,429

So the new HSS S2 line Studio (still USA-made) - looks nothing like a Tele, yet with is bridge humbucker taken from the Starla, and 2 Type-D Single Coils in middle and neck positions it puts you right in the ballpark of Tele-style tones. It does this via the Push-Pull Tone Dial - which gives you Coil-tap / Single Coil function on the humbucker, and with the smart position 3 of the blade switch you can pair the coil-split humbucker with the single-coil at the neck for super spanky bright T-style tones!


This was one of my favourite guitars from this years's Winter NAMM, and it is most definitely on the shopping list - in the black version. Note that it is currently a limited edition - so you might have to get your skates on, I feel these may be quite popular.

The Les Paul / LP-Type = McCarty 594 Doublecut - £3,299

The Les Paul / LP-Type = McCarty 594 Doublecut - £3,299

Everyone knows by now that the PRS Ted McCcarty guitars with 594mm scale length are Paul's approximations of the Les Paul style - with significant influence and input by that great former CEO of Gibson and one of Paul's key mentors.


I have often considered getting a singlecut guitar, but my preference has always been for the doublecut shape - I naturally reach out and grab my guitars by their upper horns - which are missing on singlecut and T-style guitars. Where I am right now, I would want the LP-style sound in the body shape that I have a preference for - hence and therefore I would go for the Doublecut McCarty over the more LP-shaped version!


An alternative here is the Dave Grissom DG signature PRS - which does not have the 4 dials and upper horn pickup selector, but has similar deep and rich tonality from its pickups.



The Classic PRS = PRS Santana Retro - £3,399

The Classic PRS = PRS Santana Retro - £3,399

I'm a huge fan of Carlos Santana's silky smooth and searing tones - and for those naysayers who claim PRS has no core tone of its own - then this is the one you are looking for! No PRS overview is complete without going back to the roots of the company - and this was Paul's first big win - way back before PRS was properly established.


The headstock is slightly different, but I like it just as much, sometimes even more than the now regular one, and you can already see the curves that formed the notable wizard series and then the classic Custom PRS which has sort of become the company's mainstay, although not necessarily for me. The Signature Santana has 2 equal shorter horns - and overall a more symmetric feel - along with the classic mother of pearl inlay strip separating the two halves of the maple top.


It does not benefit from coil-tap / split but nevertheless has a versatile beautifully rich and smooth tone - which is instantly recognisable. Funnily enough, Carlos Santana was one of the key influences that drew me to PRS, although his current impact on our feckless youth is somewhat open to debate.

The Versatile PRS = PRS Classic Electric CE - £1,999

The Versatile PRS = PRS Classic Electric CE - £1,999

This is my main guitar, and my first PRS - a Whale Blue Smoke Burst edition with some updated hardware - including USA-made bridge. It was the first bolt-on neck guitar in several years, and benefits from a mix of rich mahogany and more sparkly maple - which means that overall it has a brighter tone than comparable PRS set-neck models.


The idea of these guitars is a sort of best of both worlds - relatively bright coil-tapped / split Single Coil tones, with relatively richly harmonic deeper Humbucker tones - more within the ball park of a Les Paul-style guitar. In fact this guitar sits pretty much squarely in between the two - it's not as deep and rich as a Les Paul, and not quite as sparkly as a Strat - it does not really have that Strat twang, but the 58/15 pickups are clear and articulate, and a fantastic set all of their own.


I think you can tweak and tune your tone to a large degree, and what is incomparable here is the feel and the dynamics of the guitar - it just feels amazing do play and responds really well to anything you throw at it.


I am delighted that I chose this as my comeback guitar as such and would recommend to all.


I would say that I hunted out the specific top I have, the burst and the patterning are beautifully symmetric and even for this type of guitar - I've seen lots of tops - particularly on the Satin CE models which I really did not rate (patchy!). While mine is one of the better ones - obviously not quite in 'Ten Top' territory though - they reserve those for guitars that cost twice the price of this one.

The All-Round Tone Machine = PRS 513 Five-Thirteen - c£3,750+ new

The All-Round Tone Machine = PRS 513 Five-Thirteen - c£3,750+ new

This has long been my most desired PRS - its 'Swiss Army Knife' guitar - featuring 5 specialised Single Coil Pickups - with the standard 5-way blade, but then extra 3-way mode switch which switches between Heavy Humbucking, Clear Humbucking and Single Coil.


Until the recent Silver Sky, this guitar was the closest that PRS got to those genuinely sparkly single-coil tones. And it has a significantly greater tonal range than my main PRS CE. The 513 - Five-Thirteen moniker comes from thirteen sounds from 5 pickups - which can be variously deployed in paired humbucker modes or single coil modes.


This particular guitar was discontinued last year. It will no doubt rise again in the future - there are still some few and far between examples in retails channels, and a fair number of second-hand ones.


They come in a variety of finishes with a huge difference in top quality - figured, quilted and otherwise. I've seen a fairly decent second-hand charcoal version - almost blueish really, but going for £3,449 which is a touch high as far as I'm concerned. I don't feel my guitar playing justifies such a great instrument yet, I will stick with the lower-cost PRS models - CE and S2's etc until I deem myself good enough.

Final Thoughts

Lots will question why I did not pick the most commonly sold USA model - the PRS Custom. Which actually to most intents and purposes is fairly similar to my CE - it has a slightly thicker more curved / more carved body with a few more detail touches, and a set-neck design rather than the bolt-on neck design of my version.


Via Push-Pull Coil Tap I have a 6 mode selection versus the 5 of the Core Custom. The more expensive model has all USA parts, which mine actually does now also - but I had to do some swap-outs for that. The Custom probably has a slightly richer and darker tonal profile overall - while the CE has more sparkle - as befits its bolt-on neck.


So I would rather have a CE over a Custom, and if I really wanted the full-carved Custom body style - I would prefer it in its 513 iteration with the added tonal flexibility. I guess those would be the main bones of contention.


Of course if you have tonnes of money you can commission a totally and fully properly custom - nay 'Private Stock' guitar which can be any combination of PRS Guitar you want - so say a 513 with a Santana Headstock and dual mother of pearl inlay strips - of course with leaping Orcas in place of the ubiquitous birds - and a really watery aquamarine quilted top - yours for £10K+!

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Stefan Karlsson
Stefan Karlsson
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