Soundgarden’s legendary guitar slinger is honored with a versatile signature model that’s fit for paisley sounds as well as molten metal.
Happily spans Black Sabbath and Beatles tones. Cool phase switch. Fast playability.
Pickups could use just a bit more air and dimension.
Guild Polara Kim Thayil
Though I’ve never owned one, I’ve always thought the Guild S-100 Polara was super cool. Its riff on the Gibson SG profile—a little offset at the waist with asymmetric horns—always seemed a bit cheeky and appealed to my ’60s Fender sensibilities. Plus, it had that slick, slanted Guild tailpiece (and sometimes an even cooler Guild/Hagstrom vibrato) and those beautiful Guild HB-1 pickups. These elements appealed greatly to a contrarian kid like me.
Used S-100s were a great deal for a long time and attracted other guitarists with less cash and unconventional leanings—among them Pavement’s Steve Malkmus and revered homebrew psychedelicist Bobb Trimble. But none are more famously associated with the S-100 than Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil. Soundgarden’s rise in the 1990s probably had more than a little to do with the model’s reintroduction in the same decade. And were it not for Guild changing hands a few times in recent years, a signature version honoring Thayil probably would have come much sooner. At last, though, the Polara Kim Thayil is here—in a very limited run of 30 (very expensive) USA-built instruments, and the more readily available $899 Indonesia-built version reviewed here. It’s a solid, versatile guitar that readily speaks in voices other than de-tuned heaviness.
Fast Motor Finger
I’ve heard a few folks, including my colleague Zach Wish (who filmed our First Look video for this model) describe this Polara’s mahogany neck as “chunky.” Admittedly, that term leaves room for interpretation, but I think of chunky in terms of early 1950s Telecasters and Les Pauls. And though it can feel a bit wide at the shoulder—the source of chunky perceptions, perhaps—the Thayil Polara’s neck (which Guild calls a “vintage soft U”) is actually quite slim. In fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Gibson’s Slim Taper neck, which is actually a little thicker and less squared at the shoulder around frets 1 through 3. The Guild neck shares the same satisfying sense of grip as the slim taper shape up around the 12th fret, though, and on the whole it feels fast and made for ripping. Like the SG, the Polara’s neck also practically begs the player to indulge in Townshend-ian, neck-bending vibrato moves, though there is inevitably a little penalty to pay in terms of tuning stability if you get too enthused. The fretboard radius is a slightly-flatter-than-Gibson 12.5”, and big bends feel effortless right up to the 22nd fret, which, by the way, feels very accessible in spite of what looks like a very sturdy and substantial heel joint. The rosewood fretboard is a lovely piece of lumber, with subtle, pretty, undulating grain that is a nice organic contrast to the pearloid block inlay and the ivory-colored ABS binding.
”The 3-position bias switch can completely recast the sound, feel, and response of a given modulation setting as well as change the interactive dynamics of the controls.“
I’m not a big fan of gold hardware (at least until the plating wears down and takes on a warm glow). But here, against the gloss black polyurethane finish sprayed over the solid mahogany body, it actually looks quite subtle. The Grover Rotomatic 14:1 ratio tuners are, as always, an attractive, substantial-feeling addition to the hardware and feel smooth and accurate. There aren’t too many tuning machines I like more. Signature model signifiers, incidentally, are also subdued and classy—just a few bits of Soundgarden symbology on the truss rod cover and the pickup controls backplate.
More Than Mass
Kim Thayil is rightly associated with de-tuned Sabbath/Melvins chord thuggery. And his namesake Polara dishes such tones pretty effortlessly. Hook it up to a Sovtek Big Muff and drop-D riffs take on an almost comic sense of swagger. But thick chord tones are not the whole ball of wax. The alnico 2 bridge pickup (rated at 7.10k ohms of resistance) exhibits excellent string-to-string volume balance that lends it punch, but also makes it a great vehicle for jangly sounds. At times you can hear hints of a Rickenbacker Hi-Gain’s tight, ringing voice and it can be brilliantly bright. The alnico 2 neck pickup (rated at 7k ohms) is smooth and thick but retains a bit of the bridge pickup’s jangly personality. The combined voice is often the most satisfying of the three. Together, the pickups sound bright with just enough bass ballast to let a very balanced, widescreen overtone picture shine through. And like the bridge pickup setting, the two combined humbuckers sometimes surprise with how readily they pull in the direction of the Beatles rather than Black Sabbath. Cooler still, you can use the small toggle just forward of the treble volume control to put the two pickups out of phase. Depending on your pick attack and musical context, you can coax tones ranging from filtered, Jerry Garcia-with-wah snap-and-quack to Telecaster sting. The out-of-phase setting rules with fuzz, too—transforming that same Sovtek Big Muff into its super-focused and punkier mid-’60s alter ego. There is one quirk to the out-of-phase setting: Volume attenuation on either pickup can quickly turn those snarling sounds to less massive versions of the in-phase settings. Still, the ability to so totally transform the instrument’s voice with the flick of a little toggle is an endlessly fun source of flexibility.
Though the pickups yield many lovely sounds, there is a little midrange emphasis and haze around the edges that can make them sound a touch boxy, less airy, and a little less explosive compared to pickups like the alnico 5 ’60s Burstbuckers in the Gibson SG I kept at hand for comparison. But for pickups in an $899 instrument, they are lively and have ample personality.
When you listen to the first few Soundgarden records, you hear a lot of punchy, midrange-y tones that remind you that Kim Thayil (who, among other things, had an interest in jangly Paisley Underground bands) is about more than thick, mega-massive, woofer-busting hugeness. Fittingly, his signature Polara similarly reminds you that there is more to the mahogany-solidbody-and-humbuckers formula than rock writ large. The Thayil Polara is just as happy playing the part of George Harrison’s or Peter Buck’s guitar as it is slinging slabs of leaden grunge. It’s a great value for that multifacetedness.
Guild Polara Kim Thayil Signature Demo | First Look
This cheaper version of John Mayer’s signature S-style update plays and sounds like a million bucks.
A truly exceptional S-style instrument in the vintage tradition, with superb tones and playability, an improved cutaway, and a bridge-pickup-dedicated tone pot.
PRS SE Silver Sky
Budget renditions of established-model guitars used to make me skeptical. There was often a hitch: rough frets, pickups that were let-downs, funky pots, etc. But over the past decade-plus, the quality of guitars built in Asia by the major brands has continued to improve. PRS’s lower-priced version of their John Mayer signature model, the SE Silver Sky, is a premier example.
Apples to More Affordable Apples
The original PRS John Mayer Silver Sky arrived in 2018 sporting three of the company’s Mayer-co-designed 635JMR single-coils, all voiced the same for even tone. Its C-shaped maple neck—with maple or rosewood fretboard—vintage-style 7 1/4"-radius, bone nut, alder body (with gracefully slanted lower cutaway for easy high-fret access), 6-point tremolo bridge, and locking tuners make it a thoughtful take on Fender’s stalwart early-’60s Strats. And it quickly earned a rep as an exceptionally comfortable and great sounding instrument. At $2,459, it is also an expensive one.
But damned if the PRS SE Silver Sky doesn’t sound and feel like a clone at about a third of the price. The only substantial differences I could find were a poplar versus alder body, an artificial bone nut, a China-manufactured 2-point tremolo bridge, vintage-style tuners, 635JMS pickups (with the S indicating their Indonesian origin), and a slightly flatter 8 1/2" fretboard radius that makes string bending a cinch. The original Silver Sky’s secret weapon is also intact: The lower tone dial controls the bridge pickup. Fender’s Stratocaster provides no tone control for the bridge pickup. That means that when the sound in position 1 gets ice-picky, there’s no recourse besides dialing back your guitar volume (which in vintage circuits also cuts highs), your amp, or switching pickups. Not so here. If not for the distinctive PRS headstock and the diving-bird inlays, it would be easy to mistake this guitar for a very well-built Strat. And the SE Silver Sky is, indeed, priced the same as Fender’s Player Stratocaster.
Ready, Steady, Go!
Our test guitar emerged from its sturdy gigbag in beguiling stone blue—a PRS shade that recalls a cross between Fender’s seafoam green and daphne blue. The SE Silver Sky also comes in dragonfruit, moon white, and evergreen shades. Thanks to a careful medium-low action setup, it was ready to go from the moment I popped in the tremolo arm. The 22 smoothly finished medium-jumbo frets felt inviting and comfortable. They beg for string bending and really digging in, and there is no string buzz. I’ve encountered the same perfect playability on the necks of other PRS instruments I’ve played, so I expected nothing less.
In all 5 pickup settings and with all three amps, the Silver Sky kicked my ol’ dependable Strat’s ass.
The back of the neck has a satin finish for easy mobility. The bridge has individual saddles, of course, and four springs, to help with intonation and tuning stability. The 3-knob control set is laid out like that of a standard S-style, but the input jack’s plate is slightly arched, to make plugging in a little easier.
Playing the Light Fantastic
I have a ’73 Stratocaster with a nice, traditional voice I use as a template for evaluating S-style guitars. The poplar-body PRS SE Silver Sky weighs 7 1/2 pounds, compared to my ash Strat’s 8 1/2. I A/B’d both guitars plugged into a Carr Vincent, a ’64 Supro Tremo-Verb, and a ’72 Marshall Super Lead. I was bummed, though, because in all 5 pickup settings and with all three amps, the Silver Sky kicked my ol’ dependable Strat’s ass. Playing campfire chords and some chord-and-lick riffs, the PRS neck felt faster and more comfortable than my old friend’s, and while I managed to knock the Silver Sky out of tune a bit by bending strings hard while using the whammy bar, it was more stable than my Strat. The vibrato, by the way, has just enough resistance to require a bit of practice, but you can negotiate lovely surfy and textural bends.
Just for fun, I tuned the Silver Sky to open G and open D for some old-school fingerpicking with slide. It was a blast to really dig into the strings and snap the notes—listening to them sustain and fade with buttery, lingering beauty, holding high notes that sang with sustain from a Tone Bender clone, and adding shiver from the tremolo arm’s sway. And while I don’t typically spend a lot of time on the highest frets, the slanted cutaway in the treble horn makes it easier to play radical, over-the-pickups slide.
As great as the playability is, the 635JMS pickups are the Silver Sky’s stars. Compared with my Strat’s 20-year-old Seymour Duncans, they were bolder, more articulate, and responsive in every position, yielding fatter lows, more ringing highs, and mids to die for. And the volume and tone pots were wide ranging. In the 2 and 4 slots, the typical S-style quack and tubular sound qualities are well defined, the center setting is lush, and being able to easily dial back the brightness in the bridge pickup is a gift, yielding tones that cut without drawing blood from the eardrums. The Silver Sky’s well-sculpted sounds also work beautifully with modulation, fuzz, and overdrive pedals. It was a pleasure listening to its already transporting voice with long analog and digital delays.
The PRS SE Silver Sky is a pro instrument with a very competitive $849 price. It’s ready for the stage or studio, with a weight made for multiple-set nights, a fretboard that begs to be played, super-responsive controls, and definitively S-style tones. If you’re already an S-style fan or looking to add that voice to your palette, you should try the SE Silver Sky. It could be love.
PRS SE Silver Sky John Mayer Signature Demo | First Look
Shredding on a hardtail? This Schecter will show you the light.
Gorgeous, unusual tonewoods. Versatile pickups and switching. Fast, comfortable playability.
A case or gig bag would be nice at this price.
Schecter Sun Valley Super Shredder Exotic Hardtail Black Limba
David Schecter started Schecter Guitar Research in 1976. In the beginning, the company did repairs and sold parts in their Van Nuys, California, shop (much like their contemporaries, Charvel). But Schecter quickly developed a solid reputation among SoCal players and started selling complete guitars in 1979.
Not coincidentally, Schecter Guitar’s rise to prominence aligned with the acsent of L.A.’s ’80s metal scene. And their Sun Valley Super Shredder guitars, originally released in 2017, offer a nostalgic ride back to when the super strat ruled the world. Since its inception, the Sun Valley Super Shredder product line has evolved consistently, even embracing unusual features like a Sustaniac pickup. More recently Schecter introduced the Korea-built Exotic version of the line, which is primarily distinguished by more unusual tonewoods, like zircote and black limba, with the latter featured on our review guitar. But it also introduced features like a Hipshot Ibby HM hardtail bridge. That might seem like heresy to shredders accustomed to dive bombing with a Floyd Rose, but as our review instrument revealed, the hardtail bridge, black limba tonewood, and Schecter’s excellent Sunset Strip and Pasadena humbuckers add up to a wealth of very cool tones that effortlessly span styles.
- Mic Centered 1" Away — Dirty Bridge to Neck
- Mic Centered 1" Away — Clean Bridge to Neck
- Mic Centered 1" Away at 45-Degree Angle — Clean Bridge to Neck
- Mic Centered 1" Away at 45-Degree Angle — Dirty Bridge to Neck
- Mic Right of Center 1" Away — Dirty Bridge to Dirty
- Mic Right of Center 1" Away — Clean Bridge to Neck
Picking Things Up
Guitar customization is so common these days that many guitarists rush to switch out the stock pickups on relatively affordable guitars like the Sun Valley. The Sun Valley Super Shredder Exotic Hardtail Black Limba’s pickups, which include a USA Sunset Strip in the bridge and a USA Pasadena in the neck, however, are fantastic. And unless you are looking for a very specific tonality, it’s difficult to imagine a good reason for abandoning them. The alnico 5 Pasadena measures 8.4k ohms and has a vintage PAF vibe, while the ceramic 8 Sunset Strip is hotter, at 12.6k ohms. Interestingly, the Schecter pickups sell for around $129 apiece, so they’re far from outsourced cheapo components. In fact, they’re more expensive than many Duncans or DiMarzios.
The SVSS EHBL has a simple control layout with one volume control and one tone knob. But the 5-way pickup selector switch deviates in cool ways from the traditional Stratocaster-style 5-position setup. You can select bridge humbucker, bridge and neck in split-coil configuration, bridge and neck in humbucking mode, neck humbucker with coils in parallel, and standard neck humbucker. It’s a very versatile setup that makes the most of the pickups’ already considerable potential.
Fancy Lumber and Flat Fretboards
The SVSS EHBL’s build quality is impeccable. But the guitar is also a feast for the eyes. Rather than a typical mahogany or alder body, the SVSS EHBL's black limba is an attractively grained hardwood that shares many tonal characteristics with mahogany. The neck is made from wenge (another uncommon wood in electric solidbody circles), bolstered with carbon fiber reinforcement rods and a 2-way truss rod, and shaped into a thin C profile that gets slightly thicker as you move up the neck (from 20 mm at the 1st fret to 22 mm at the 12th).
The ebony fretboard’s 12–16" compound radius is perfect for fast fretting and deep bends and features cool cosmetic touches in the form of offset aluminum circle inlays and glow-in-the-dark side dots that contrast nicely with the dark sheen of the fretboard and add a touch of subtle elegance. The guitar’s playability is further enhanced by 24 stainless steel jumbo frets and a nicely contoured heel that facilitates easy access to the highest frets. A Graph Tech XL Black Tusq nut and Schecter 18:1 locking tuners anchor the strings at the headstock.
The neck humbucker in parallel-coil configuration has a quasi-P-90 vibe.
As shipped, the Schecter’s action was a little higher than I like. The truss rod spoke wheel is situated in the space between the neck and body, and adjustments are a breeze. Having 24-frets on a super-flat fretboard is, of course, an invitation to work the upper registers with abandon. Happily, I could bend fearlessly on the highest strings at the 24th fret area without fretting out.
Super Shredding Sounds
With amps set for high gain, the Schecter’s bridge pickup has an unmistakable vintage metal vibe with an aggressive edge. It’s got a slight scoop in the mids, which, to my ear, contributes extra picking definition. It’s also very open sounding, which makes it a killer for heavy rhythm parts. The neck pickup has a very appealing warm and round tonality. And with the tone rolled back it’s beautiful for sustain-heavy solos.
The split- and parallel-coil sounds add a lot of tone and performance possibilities. The second pickup position, which combines the bridge and neck pickups as single-coils, has a very Strat-like quality without the hum, while the fourth pickup position, with the neck humbucker in parallel-coil configuration, has a quasi P-90 vibe. I loved playing semi-dirty, octave-driven, funk-rock riffs in this position.
The lower volume of the split- and parallel-coil settings can also be the catalyst for dramatic musical moments. I enjoyed starting solos in position 2 and flicking to the bridge pickup for a boost, which feels a lot more organic than stepping on a boost pedal to get that last climactic push.
In Schecter’s Sun Valley Super Shredder line, the Exotic Hardtail Black Limba model is an outlier of sorts. It eschews metal elements like Floyd Rose double-locking tremolos and EMG active pickups, which are fixtures elsewhere in the series. But these omissions actually make the SVSS EHBL more versatile in many respects, and between its inviting playability and the classy-to-raging tone range of its pickups, the Super Shredder is at home in just about any style of music.