The look is unconventional, but the vintage Stratocaster tones are dead accurate.
John Mayer is passionate about his early-’60s Fender Stratocasters. So it’s no shocker that his new PRS signature model is basically a vintage-flavored S-style filtered through Paul Reed Smith’s aesthetic. The result is a beautifully made instrument that authentically nails the feel and tones of a pre-CBS Strat, while benefiting from a number of modest yet meaningful refinements.
Now, there’s no ignoring the elephant on the headstock. The first thing you’re likely to notice is the juxtaposition of two familiar silhouettes: PRS’s pointy 3-and-3 headstock, and the iconic S-style body profile (in slightly modified form). For some this will be an inspired marriage of two great brands. Others will regard it as something Victor Frankenstein might have created had he studied lutherie instead of medicine. Feel free to debate this controversy amongst yourselves. But there’s nothing controversial about the sound and playability of this immaculately crafted guitar.
Spirit of ’63
Silver Sky’s creators clearly invested much time studying the nuances of Kennedy-era Stratocasters. I’ve owned an original ’63 for 30-some years, so I was able to make side-by-side comparisons.
The two guitars aren’t sonic twins—though neither are any two Strats from that built-by-hand era. But Silver Sky more than holds it own against the older instrument. It’s got a similarly complex and airy high end—one of the key qualities that separates great vintage Fenders from so many latter-day Strats and pseudo-Strats.
The PRS 635JM pickups sound glorious. Sure, the bridge pickup is laser-bright, but it’s got a lovely sense of headroom that prevents it from sounding nasty. The neck pickup is warm and fat, but never woolly. The combined settings have that signature “hollowness,” but they’re not excessively phase-cancelled. Sonic nooks and crannies aerate all the pickup settings, creating idiosyncratic spectral peaks and dips that add character and interest. There’s no shortage of shimmer and sustain.
That complexity pays dividends when you apply overdrive and fuzz. Even with intense distortion, notes have harmonic nuance and decisive attack transients. It takes concerted effort to produce mushy tones.
A 55-Year-Old Feel
The Silver Sky’s feel is also period accurate. The frets are shorter and narrower than those on most modern guitars, yet bending notes and shaping them with vibrato is perfectly easy. The relatively rounded 7.5" fretboard radius adds to the retro feel. The wiring is traditional, with a 5-position pickup selector, one volume knob, and two tone controls.
The tremolo arm doesn’t screw into place like a vintage unit (it employs a small set-screw), yet it behaves like one. At Mayer’s request, the bridge is set up flush against the body, permitting no up-pull, though of course you can adjust to taste. And speaking of setup: Silver Sky played wonderfully right out of the case, with accurate intonation and low yet buzz-free action.
Workmanship on this new PRS is impeccable from headstock to endpin. The neck is carved from a fine piece of maple with beautiful figuration. The neck joint is as tight as they come. The bone nut was carved with exquisite precision. The eye-catching silvery finish is perfect. (PRS calls the color tungsten. The model also comes in onyx black, horizon red, and frost white.) The plastic tuner buttons have a matte silver hue that matches the body finish. These lock-from-the-top tuners improve on the original Fender design.
There are other smart updates as well. The lower cutaway is beveled on the top side of the body, providing more knuckle room when fretting way up at the neck-body junction. The pickguard hardware, pickup covers, knobs, and jack plate are all gently rounded, minimizing the potential “ouch” factor. (My old Stratocaster has drawn much blood over the years.) The pickup-selector knob is paddle-shaped relative to a vintage Stratocaster’s more conical knob, making it slightly easier to flick in a hurry. Meanwhile, despite the Silver Sky’s traditional neck profile, it has a dual-action truss rod that’s accessible at the headstock. The bridge design is essentially classic Stratocaster, though it uses harder, pointier screws. Pearloid flying bird inlays adorn the rosewood fretboard—a signature PRS design.
Despite its departures from vintage design, Silver Sky captures the sounds of an early-’60s Stratocaster as well as any modern instrument I’ve encountered. In fact, it sounds better than some originals. The materials and workmanship are remarkable, even in this over-$2k price range. If you seek a vintage-style Strat that looks as authentic as it sounds, this probably won’t be your pick. But if you can hang with hybrid looks and intelligently modernized features, the Silver Sky presents an impressively made, superb-sounding alternative.
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