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PRS Starla Review

The Starla is a winning departure for PRS.

Download Example 1
Neck/Both/Bridge, then sing coil Neck/Both/Bridge
Download Example 2
Both pickups, double coil
Recorded in Sound Studio on a MacBook Pro using Digidesign Mbox (SM57; MXL 990)
In decades to come, these last few are likely to seem like something of a burgeoning for PRS. Maybe it’s the fact that Paul Reed Smith’s outfit—which has built an impeccable reputation by pursuing a decidedly focused vision of what an electric guitar can be, and created guitars that undoubtedly constitute a category all their own—seems to have decided in recent years to  begin branching out in every direction at once. How they have managed to do this without losing track of what makes PRS such a strong and unique brand is a little mysterious.

Whatever it is, guitarists who have never owned one, but who have known for a long time about their stunning beauty, their superb playability, out-of-sight craftsmanship, the laundry list of special touches and refinements, and the attention to detail each one receives, are taking notice of the recent escalation and may be starting to rethink some things. Some (like me) are realizing that they are indeed jonesing for a PRS guitar that seems specially designed to bring them into the fold.

Such a guitar was the Mira. When it appeared in 2007, it hit all the right buttons the moment you saw it. Now, following on that success, PRS has introduced the Starla, Mira’s exuberant little sister. If the Starla began with the idea of a singlecut Mira, it certainly didn’t stop there. This guitar, which was unveiled in late 2008, offers a number of new features that depart not only from our ideas about what PRS is up to, but from the Mira as well.

The Starla’s retro style goes further afield than anything I expected to see, and it seems to be taking a good deal of its inspiration from golden-era guitars of the fifties and sixties; in particular, the influence of Gretsch solidbodies is tangible, but Starla remains clearly a Paul Reed Smith guitar, even from across the room. Getting up close and personal seals it. Rather than boasting one of the eye-catching ten-tops that makes other PRS guitars the envy of every instrument in the room, the Starla goes for a more understated seduction. With its mirror-smooth finish, old school slab-style mahogany body, sleek bevels, rosewood fretboard, the Bigsby tailpiece and the elaborate pickguard shape, the Starla is all class in a stripped-down, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll frame. Specific appointments, though, like the hardware, Grover Tune-O-Matic bridge, proprietary Alnico pickup magnets, and coil splitting feature bring the guitar up to date.

That instantly recognizable headstock and the trademark bird inlays, when registered against this particular body style and appointments, make the instrument seem like an uneasy creation, as if maybe someone had put a PRS neck on a different guitar. Not everyone around here who’s seen it has been crazy about it, but the slightly-at-odds-with-itself look of the whole instrument appeals to me: it is and it isn’t a PRS guitar. I could go on and on about the build quality and the care that obviously went into its construction, but in this case all that seems somewhat unnecessary. Everyone knows PRS is not going to let a dog out the door.

The neck is what PRS calls a wide-fat neck; however, the large amount of neck handwork leads to slight variations in the feel of these necks. It’s a nice chunk of wood, more like the fifties rounded Les Paul neck than the slimmer Gretsches and Fenders, and supremely playable—but another unforeseen surprise that give the Starla a distinctiveness all its own. The Bigsby B5 tailpiece is another must-have for any retro-inspired design, and is the first on any PRS model, but the tuning stability is just not there. I really love the way it looks on this guitar, and I’m certainly using it (maybe even overusing it). I can accept the need for regular retuning as part of the territory, though part of me was hoping PRS had found a way around this long-standing problem…

Some of the players around here suggested that more traditional dot pattern inlays would be a better fit, and they might be right, but personally I’ve always been fond of the signature birds, and I’m too stuck on their newer open look not to want them. The vintage K-style pegs are also a necessary touch for a vintage-oriented design.

The Starla’s pickups are also new to the PRS catalogue, and for me they’re the real secret to this guitar’s seductiveness. Knaggs has said that they were inspired by the old FilterTrons. Those pickups captured the ears of a generation, and are still admired for their characteristic brightness, which the Starla’s version has plenty of—and they’re a perfect complement to the warm depth of the all mahogany body. This type of pickup is perhaps even more regarded among tone hounds for their singular balance, which is where the Starla’s pickups really shine. The one at the neck has the bluesy warmth and more prominent low end, while the one at the bridge cuts a sharper figure that still sings, and shows off the solid quality of the guitar’s construction. Neither of them, though, ever gets too fat or too thin.

The ringing clarity of the pair working in combination contains the recipe for rich, articulate cleans, but they’ll also get mean enough—thick and muscular—if you want it that way, without getting too explosive. That makes them just right for the kind of work players enticed by the Starla are likely to put it to. This guitar into an AC30 is truly a rig to be reckoned with. The added bonus here is the coil splitter, which is a feature I’ve always liked, but on a lot of the guitars I’ve played this feature is more promise than product, tone-wise. Not so here: the single-coil setting has all of the balance but more of the characteristic crispness of singles. Both pickups retain the smooth, even lows on this setting, and are unusually quiet, even with the AC30.

I had to get pretty nitpicky to find a fault; even then I didn’t come up with much: the bell-style knobs, while not unusual are perhaps not the perfect shape for a pull-knob coil splitter if you want to switch on the fly—sweaty hands have to tendency to slip off before getting a good grip, sometimes requiring another try to get the knob up. Other than that, the crew at PRS has done a mighty good thing here, producing a guitar that is not standard fare. It may not appeal as deeply to their core enthusiasts as the instruments they are renowned for. If that means PRS is no longer going to fit in the box so many players have become used to putting them in, so much the better. That might take some getting used to, but they deserve a great deal of credit for taking this kind of leap.

Buy if...
you're got mad respect for PRS, but haven't yet found the style that's perfect for you.
Skip if...
you're saving your pennies for Modern Eagle II.

MSRP $2480 - PRS -